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COVID-19: EU must be united over Russian, Chinese vaccines, says French minister Beaune

Europe|: Paris: The solidarity of the European Union would be impacted if countries in the bloc chose Chinese or Russian COVID-19 vaccines which have not yet been approved, French European Affairs minister Clement Beaune said on Friday. “If they went to choose the Chinese and/or Russian vaccine, I think it would be quite serious,” Beaune told RTL radio. “It would pose a problem in terms of our solidarity, and it also poses a health risk problem, because the Russian vaccine is not yet authorised in Europe. A demand for approval has been made but it is not yet authorised in Europe, and no demand has even been made yet for the Chinese vaccine,” added Beaune. Already approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has already been approved or is being assessed for approval in three states in the EU bloc’s eastern wing - Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic - as delays hamper vaccination programmes across the EU. The EU’s drugs regulator has begun reviewing the Russian shot for possible approval. Polish President Andrzej Duda has also talked with Chinese leader Xi Jinping about buying the Chinese COVID-19 shot, his aide told state-run news agency PAP on Monday, although Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said on Wednesday he did not currently recommend the vaccine due to insufficient data. The European Commission said on Thursday that there were no talks under way about buying Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

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Fresh bloodshed in Myanmar as UN set to meet on crisis

Asia|: Yangon: A protester was shot dead in Myanmar on Friday, in the latest round of bloodletting at anti-coup demonstrations as the UN Security Council prepared to meet on the escalating crisis. Despite an increasingly brutal crackdown by the military authorities that has seen more than 50 people killed, protesters took to the streets again in towns around the country to denounce the February 1 coup. The violence has brought condemnation from around the world, with the UN rights chief demanding the junta "stop murdering and jailing protesters", and the Security Council is set to discuss the crisis later Friday. But despite the mounting international pressure, the generals have shown no signs of heeding calls for restraint. Engineers protest In Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, hundreds of engineers took to the streets crying "Free our leader" in reference to ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, detained by the military since the first night of the coup. A 26-year-old man helping at barriers set up in the city to slow security forces died after being shot in the neck, medical officials told AFP. The killing follows the deadliest day of the crackdown so far on Wednesday, when the UN said at least 38 people were killed as graphic images showed security forces firing into crowds and bloodied bodies dragged away. 'System breakdown' There were also protests Friday in the central town of Bago and the San Chaung district of the commercial capital Yangon - a hotspot for rallies - where groups of demonstrators sang a song of defiance. Meanwhile in the country's north, a number of people have crossed the border into India in a bid to escape the crackdown. Indian police said nine people had crossed the 1,600-kilometre frontier - three of whom were police officers who had refused to take part in putting down protests. The junta has sought to stop news of the crackdown getting out, choking the internet and banning Facebook, the most popular social media platform in the country. But live video feeds and recorded footage are leaking out daily, and on Friday the junta suffered its own internet ban as YouTube shut off a number of military-run channels. Friday also saw many parts of the country hit by power cuts, though it was not clear that this was a deliberate measure in a country where infrastructure is sometimes unreliable. Multiple government agencies attributed the outage to a "system breakdown". Mounting pressure Last month's coup brought a crashing halt to a decade-long experiment with democracy in Myanmar, which was previously under military rule for nearly five decades. The country's generals have historically had few qualms about brutally suppressing dissent, crushing major protest movements in 1988 and 2007. As in the past, the international community has in the last few weeks sought to cajole and shame the junta into moderation, slapping on sanctions and calling out abuses. The US has tightened export controls on Myanmar, putting the country in the same category as adversaries Russia and China and limited the transfer of any equipment with military uses. Boris Johnson, prime minister of Myanmar's former colonial ruler Britain, said Thursday he was "horrified" by the escalation in violence. London has also hit six senior junta officials - including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing - with sanctions. Call for global arms embargo The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights situation in Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, has called for a "global arms embargo" on the country as well as an International Criminal Court probe into alleged atrocities. In New York, there was a fresh twist in the saga of Myanmar's representative to the UN. The newly appointed ambassador resigned, saying his predecessor - sacked by the junta after dramatically condemning their seizure of power in a speech to the UN General Assembly - was still the legitimate envoy. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won November elections by a landslide, but the military insisted the polls were rigged as a justification for seizing power.

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Ivory Coast opposition eyes comeback in Saturday’s legislative election

Africa|: Adzope: Opposition parties led by two former presidents will try to shake the grip of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara in a parliamentary election on Saturday, five months after a presidential vote that led to deadly unrest. Former President Henri Konan Bedie’s Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) and former President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) both boycotted the presidential election last year, which Ouattara won in a landslide. Eighty-five people died in violence around that election, although the situation has since cooled. A faction of FPI loyal to Gbagbo and PDCI are now fielding a joint list of candidates against Ouattara’s Rally of Houphou”.Otists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). With no reliable public opinions polls available, their prospects are difficult to forecast. Clear control of parliament would strengthen Ouattara’s hand to pursue an agenda based on attracting foreign investment and cutting red tape during his third term, while the vote could be decisive for the opposition to show it remains relevant. “Their credibility is at stake because in the event of defeat, the opposition will be reduced to nothing, and risk dividing further, and this can only benefit the party in power,” said Ousmane Zina, a political analyst. Other opposition figures, such as former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan who leads another FPI faction, are also standing, outside the main joint list. The PDCI, which dominated politics in Ivory Coast from the 1940s until Bedie was overthrown as president in 1999, backed Ouattara for years but split with him in 2018. Civil war Gbagbo’s FPI faction will be fielding candidates for the first time since 2011, when Gbagbo was sent to The Hague to face war crimes charges after a brief civil war sparked by his refusal to concede an election defeat to Ouattara. Gbagbo, acquitted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2019, is expected to return to the country soon. “For us, this legislative election must be the beginning of the reconquest of power, and the return of the opposition to power,” said Gbagbo’s 50-year old son Michel, a candidate. Patrick Achi, Ouattara’s chief of staff, told a campaign meeting in the southeast of the country that the election was vital. “It must confirm the presidential election victory and give President Ouattara the parliamentary majority he needs to carry out his economic and social policies during this term.”

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COVID-19 origin probe debate heats up

Asia|: Washington: The controversy over the investigation organised by the World Health Organisation and China about the origins of COVID-19 heated up as a group of scientists called for an independent probe to consider all hypotheses and nail down whether the virus came from an animal. A group of more than 20 signatories said in an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal that the existing mission isn't independent enough and demanded a new probe to consider all possibilities over the origin. Half of the joint team are Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited, they said. The criticism comes as the mission considers delaying an interim report, which was expected soon. The investigators may instead publish that summary statement on the same day as the full report, a WHO spokesman said. The organisation expects to have clearer ideas on future studies and missions needed around key hypotheses once it has received the full report and will discuss the next steps with member states, he said. Speculation rejected Last month, the mission rejected speculation that the coronavirus could have leaked from a lab and said instead that it may have jumped to humans through an animal host or frozen wildlife products. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later said the United Nations agency hasn't ruled out any hypotheses. The WHO has faced criticism since the outbreak of the pandemic that it's been too deferential to China. Former US President Donald Trump advanced the theory that the virus might have escaped from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first detected. The mission followed months of negotiation with China. Stung by criticism that they initially covered up the extent of the crisis, Chinese state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus didn't start in the country, but was brought in. The scientists who signed the open letter included the lab scenario among the possibilities. Signatories include Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics Inc., which develops treatments for breast cancer and COVID-19, while Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, co-organised the letter. None of the signatories were members of the WHO-backed mission. China reaction China's foreign ministry said Friday in response to a question about the open letter that there had been top Chinese experts on the WHO team that went to Wuhan to look into the virus's origins, and that China hoped other nations could cooperate on similar inquiries. "This open letter by the scientists you talked about, whether they are making suggestions out of professional attitude or they're politicising the issue and making the presumption of guilt, I believe they know this very clearly," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily briefing in Beijing.

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Indian farmers plan major road blockade outside Delhi to mark 100th day of protests

India|: New Delhi: Indian farmers who have been protesting for months against deregulation of produce markets plan to block a major expressway outside New Delhi on Saturday, the 100th day of their campaign, they said. Tens of thousands have been camped outside Delhi since December, demanding the government repeal three farm laws that open up the country's agriculture markets to private companies, which the farmers say will make them vulnerable. Farmers from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh plan to stop all traffic on the six-lane Western Peripheral Expressway that forms a ring outside New Delhi for up to five hours, union leaders said on Friday. "We believe that after these 100 days, our movement will put a moral pressure on the government to accede to our demands, because the weather will also worsen," said Darshan Pal, spokesperson for the farmer unions' coalition Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), or United Farmers Front. "It will weaken the government, which will have to sit down with us to talk again." The government says the reforms will bring investment to the antiquated agriculture markets, and that new entrants would operate alongside government-regulated market yards, where farmers are assured of a minimum price for their produce. Several rounds of talks between the government and farm leaders have failed and the movement has gained widespread support, including from international celebrities. As the harvesting season begins this month, Pal said neighbours and friends back in the villages would help tend to farms while he and other farmers carry on the protests. The capital typically has harsh summers with temperatures rising up to 45 degree Celsius, but Pal said that won't hinder the movement. "The laws are like a death warrant to us," he said. "We are prepared for the long haul."

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COVID-19: Japan to extend Tokyo area state of emergency to March 21

Asia|: Tokyo: The Japanese government plans to extend a state of emergency to combat COVID-19 for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures until March 21, two weeks longer than originally scheduled, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Friday. Under the state of emergency, the government has requested restaurants and bars close by 8 p.m. and stop serving alcohol an hour earlier. People are also asked to stay home after 8 p.m.unless they have essential reasons to go out. Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, which make up 30% of the country’s population, sought the extension past the originally scheduled end date of March 7 as new coronavirus cases had not fallen enough to meet targets. Two weeks The government had an early-morning meeting with advisers and they approved the extension, Nishimura, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, told reporters.But the measure will put more burden on restaurants. “As long as the government asks us to endure for another two weeks, we will follow its instructions. But that would be a matter of life or death for us,” said Akira Koganezawa, vice president of the association for 55 restaurants that serve monjayaki - a pan-fried batter dish popular in Tokyo area. “Without enough subsidies, some restaurants would go out of business,” he said. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is scheduled to hold a news conference at 9:00 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) after the government officially decides the extension, according to his office. Fuji TV, citing an unnamed government official, reported on Friday that another extension until the end of March could not be ruled out. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is considering setting a criteria that new daily infections stay below 140 on a weekly average basis, to lift the state of emergency, the Nikkei reported. Tokyo’s daily new infection came in at 269 on average for the past week through March 4, according to Reuters calculations. Tame the spread The government is keen to tame the spread of the virus as preparations ramp up for the Tokyo Olympics with just 4-1/2 months until they kick off. Foreign athletes have been barred from entering Japan to train ahead of the Games during the state of emergency. It was not immediately clear if the ban would remain in place during the extension for the Tokyo region while the order has already been lifted for the rest of the country. The current curbs are narrower in scope than those imposed under an emergency in spring of last year when schools and non-essential businesses were mostly shuttered. Still, new case numbers are at a fraction of their peak in early January, when the state of emergency took effect. Tokyo reported 279 cases on Thursday, compared with a record high 2,520 on Jan. 7 Nationwide, Japan has recorded some 433,000 cases and 8,050 deaths from COVID-19 as of Wednesday.