End of Merkel era begins as German CDU picks new party leader
Germany's Christian Democrats elect a new chairman on Saturday, aiming to unite their conservative party behind a new leader who they hope can succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor when she steps down after federal elections in September. Centrist Armin Laschet, arch-conservative Friedrich Merz and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen are vying for the CDU leadership.
Nathan Lyon strikes for Australia in 100th Test to dismiss India’s Rohit Sharma
Cricket|Asia|: Dubai: It was a century to remember for Nathan Lyon as the Australia spinner struck in his 100th Test to claim the vital wicket of Rohit Sharma during the decisive fourth Test against India in Brisbane at the Gabba. Lyon was in the thick of action, dismissing dangerous India opener Sharma in his third over on Saturday after playing a late cameo with the bat for Australia. India were 62-2 at tea on day two of the series-deciding match in reply to Australia’s 369. Heavy rain during the break soaked the outfield and, after two pitch inspections, umpires called off play without a ball being bowled in the evening session. Racism in sport reflects the festering wound in society Depleted India fight back after Labuschagne drives the hosts Bumrah out of fourth Test as India fast bowlers rested from training Nathan Lyon: Siraj has set new standard to call out racist abuse India’s injury-depleted attack did exceptionally well to dismiss Australia by lunch on the second day, with Thangarasu Natarajan (3-78) and Washington Sundar (3-89) each taking three wickets on debut and Shardul Thakur returning 3-94. Pat Cummins took the first wicket for Australia with his second ball of the match, with Shubman Gill (7) fending forward and edging to second slip, where Steve Smith took a sharp chance. Opener Sharma (44) and No. 3 Cheteshwar Pujara combined to move the total from 11 to 60 and were starting to get on top of the Australian pace bowlers before Lyon struck. Sharma tried to take on the veteran off-spinner but miscued and skied a catch into the outfield to Mitchell Starc, who ran in from long-on and took a sliding catch. Pujara was 8 not out from 49 deliveries and India’s stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane was on 2 at the interval as clouds loomed over the Gabba. They didn’t return to the field, and play is scheduled to start a half-hour early on Sunday. The series is tied 1-1 and India need only a draw to retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy. But the inexperienced Indian bowling attack kept the tourists in the contest despite missing pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah and leading spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. Australia resumed Saturday at 274-5 and the innings was steadily building in a 98-run partnership between skipper Tim Paine (50) and all-rounder Cameron Green (47) until India snared three wickets for four runs in 14 deliveries to slump to 315-8. Thakur got the big breakthrough, when Paine chased an outswinger and was caught at second slip by Sharma. Sundar bowled Green out in the next over with an off-break delivery that turned the other way, straightened and beat the edge. When Thakur trapped Cummins lbw with a full ball hitting around ankle height, the Australians were in danger of an embarrassing batting collapse. But a 39-run ninth-wicket stand between Lyon and Starc staved that off and helped Australia pass the 350 mark before Sundar struck again close to lunch. Lyon, whose cameo innings grew in confidence when he pulled Thakur behind square for a boundary and drove the next ball straight down the ground for another four, was dismissed for 24 from 22 deliveries when he attempted a sweep to a straight ball from Sundar that rattled his stumps. Starc finished unbeaten on 20 when fellow paceman Hazlewood was out for 11. The first session followed a similar rhythm to the opening day, when Australian batsmen made starts but didn’t go on with it. Marnus Labuschagne (108) shared partnerships of 70 with Steve Smith (36) and 113 with Matthew Wade (45) to build the innings after Australia won the toss, batted and slipped early to 17-2. The Australians added 37 on Saturday before India hit back. India’s pace attack, led by Mohammed Siraj in his third test, performed admirably despite dealing with yet another injury. Navdeep Saini left the field on Friday with a ball remaining in his eighth over because of a groin strain and wasn’t able to bowl on Saturday morning.
NBA: Antetokounmpo propels Milwaukee Bucks over Dallas Mavericks
Sport|Americas|: Los Angeles: Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 31 points and had nine rebounds to power the Milwaukee Bucks to a 112-109 victory over Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks in a battle between the two early front-runners for NBA Most Valuable Player honours. Two-time MVP winner Antetokounmpo hit 14-of-21 shots from the floor and Khris Middleton finished with 25 points for the host Bucks, who have won seven of their last eight games. NBA champions LA Lakers lose opener to Clippers, Nets rout Warriors NBA: Boston Celtics legend KC Jones dies NBA round-up: Nets prevail in Boston, Clippers and Lakers claim victory India’s first NBA player Satnam Singh Bhamara banned for two years for doping Doncic shot 12-of-24 from the floor for a team-high 28 points after coming off a 34-point performance in a win over Charlotte two nights earlier. “We showed him bodies. He wasn’t able to step back. We made him pass the ball,” Antetokounmpo said of Doncic. After Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez missed a free throw with one second left, Doncic launched a desperation two-handed three-point attempt at the buzzer but it hit the backboard and bounced harmlessly away to give Milwaukee the win. “We just stayed with it,” said Middleton. “They did a good job rebounding off the glass and made some tough shots but we just stayed with it.” Middleton drained a pair of clutch three-pointers late in the fourth quarter. He also had eight rebounds and six assists. The former second-round draft pick was traded to the Bucks in 2013 from Detroit. “Each year is about getting better and finding ways to make my teammates better. That is what they do for me,” said Middleton, who recently donated $100,000 to the employees at Fiserv Forum who lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Jrue Holiday had 16 points and Lopez added 11 points and 11 rebounds for the Bucks, who overcame Antetokounmpo’s one-for-10 shooting from the free throw line. Doncic also had 13 assists and Tim Hardaway added 22 points for the Mavericks, who had their four-game winning streak snapped. “We played bad,” said Doncic. “But we had a chance to go up and we hung in there.” Antetokounmpo against Doncic wasn’t the only marquee matchup on a night when the league had to postpone three games because of a series of coronavirus outbreaks. Four time NBA champion LeBron James took on former first overall draft pick Zion Williamson and after the slow start the host Lakers rolled to a 112-95 win over the Pelicans. James had 21 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, Anthony Davis finished with 17 points and a half dozen Lakers finished in double figure scoring. Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each with 16 points, Germany’s Dennis Schroder with 12 and Kyle Kuzma with 11 as the first place Los Angeles won their fifth game in a row. New players “We are playing good basketball right now and we want to continue that,” said James. “We are implementing five new guys into our rotation that weren’t part of our team last year.” Williamson, who returned after a one-game absence due to health protocols, had 21 points and 12 rebounds and Brandon Ingram scored 20 points for the Pelicans, who lost their fifth straight. Also, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 33 points and Mike Muscala hit a pair of three-pointers in overtime to lift the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 127-125 win over the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls led by as many as 22 points in the first half before the Thunder rallied to tie it up in the final seconds. Muscala’s three-pointers and Chicago’s poor overtime shooting allowed Oklahoma City to win for the first time in six home games this season. Elsewhere, Kawhi Leonard delivered 27 points and six assists as the Los Angeles Clippers cruised to a 138-100 win over the Sacramento Kings.
PM Narendra Modi launches India's vaccination drive against COVID-19
India|: New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday said that India's coronavirus drive is based on humanitarian and very important principles and also laid emphasis on maintaining social distancing and the use of masks. Speaking at the launch of the nationwide vaccination drive against the novel coronavirus via video conferencing, PM Modi said: "India's coronavirus drive is based on humanitarian and very important principles. Those who need the vaccine the most will get the dose first. Those who are at high risk will get the vaccine shot at first. Doctors, nurses, sanitation staff at hospitals, medical and para-medical staff are the most deserving to get the vaccine dose first." "Everyone was asking as to when the vaccine will be available. It is available now. It has been made available in very little time. I extend my wishes to the citizens," he added. Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually launches pan-India rollout of COVID-19 vaccination drive, in New Delhi, on January 16, 2021. Image Credit: PTI The Prime Minister also lauded scientists who were involved in the vaccine research. "Today, scientists and those who are involved in vaccine research, deserve special praise. They have been involved in making the vaccine against Corona for the past several months. It usually takes years to make a vaccine. But in such a short time, not one, two Made in India vaccines are ready. Work is underway on some other vaccines as well," he said. "I would like to remind you again that it is very important to have two doses of the corona vaccine. Between the first and second doses, a gap of about one month will be there. Only two weeks after the second dose, your body will develop the necessary immunity against the corona," he added. "I request you not to make the mistake of taking off the mask and not maintaining social distancing," he further said. PM Modi said that a vaccination drive on such a massive scale has never been conducted in history. "There are over 100 countries with less than 3 crore population and India is administering vaccination to 3 crore people in the first phase only. In the second phase, we have to take this number to 30 crores," he added. Billed as the world's largest vaccination program, covering the entire length and breadth of the country, the drive aims to first inoculate millions of its healthcare and frontline workers and reach an estimated 3 crore people by the end of its first phase. A total of 3006 session sites across all states and union territories was virtually connected during the launch. Around 100 beneficiaries will be vaccinated at each session site on the inaugural day, the union health ministry has said. In the first phase government and private sector health care workers, including Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) workers, will receive the vaccine. The drive will be held daily from 9 am to 5 pm, except on the days earmarked for routine immunisation programmes. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan on Friday termed the country's vaccination drive as the "beginning of the end of Covid-19." He also urged people to trust the indigenously manufactured vaccine, saying the government has given emergency use approval after proper scientific scrutiny. In the next phases of the vaccination drive, people aged over 50, and those who are below 50 years but have serious health conditions or co-morbidities will be vaccinated, according to the health ministry. Dry-runs at vaccination centres across the country have been held with lakhs of healthcare staff across districts being trained. The drugs regulatory body of India has currently approved two vaccines. Pune-based Serum Institute of India has developed the Covishield vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University while the Covaxin has been developed by Hyderabad's Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Medical Council of research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology. The vaccination programme in the country will use Co-WIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Work), an online digital platform developed by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which will facilitate real-time information of vaccine stocks, storage temperature and individualized tracking of beneficiaries for COVID-19 vaccine. This digital platform will assist programme managers across all levels while conducting vaccination sessions. A dedicated 24x7 call centre - 1075 - has also been established for addressing the queries related to Covid-19 pandemic, vaccine rollout and the Co-WIN software. The full initial procurement amount of 1.65 crore doses of Covishield and Covaxin vaccines against Covid-19 have been allocated to all States/UTs in the proportion of Health Care Workers database, Union Health Ministry stated. India reported 15,158 new COVID-19 cases, 16,977 discharges and 175 deaths in the last 24 hours, as per the Union Health Ministry's data on Saturday. The cumulative caseload in the country reached 1,05,42,841 including 2,11,033 active infections and 1,01,79715 recoveries. The death toll has climbed to 1,52,093. Most of the states have received the first batch of coronavirus vaccine doses including Delhi which has received 2,74,000 vaccine doses, followed by Maharashtra receiving over 9 lakh doses and Andhra Pradesh around with 4.7 lakh doses.
Tennis: COVID-19 cases on Australian Open flight forces players into quarantine
Tennis|Asia|: Melbourne: Two coronavirus infections were reported on Saturday on a flight to the Australian Open, forcing two weeks of strict hotel quarantine for all the tennis players and entourage on board. The positive cases were recorded after the charter flight from Los Angeles landed in Melbourne for the tennis Grand Slam. Health officials in Victoria state, where Melbourne is the capital, said an aircrew member and Australian Open participant who is not a player had been transferred to a health hotel following positive test results for the new coronavirus. Aryna Sabalenka sees off Veronika Kudermetova for Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Open crown Australian Open: Rafa Nadal, Dominic Thiem suffer coaching setbacks Qualifiers in Dubai: Errani joins Juvan and Minnen for Australian Open Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open: Shuko and Ena double up for UAE title “The passengers who have been designated close contacts will be unable to access training and will undertake a standard 14-day quarantine period,” a representative for COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria said. In quarantine, players must train indoors, instead of being allowed out for five hours training per day, part of conditions that allowed the event to go ahead. “Unfortunately we have been informed by the health authorities that two people on your flight AR7493 from LAX that arrived at 5.15am on Friday 15 January have returned positive COVID-19 PCR tests on arrival in Melbourne,” said a message posted on Instagram by Mexico’s Santiago Gonzalez, who is ranked 48 on the doubles circuit. “From having 5 hours of training in a bubble to this ... (strict quarantine x 15 days). I will be showing you my workouts x Instagram (inside the room),” Uruguayan world No. 68 Pablo Cuevas said on Twitter. Australia has agreed to accept about 1,200 players, officials and staff on 15 flights for the major sporting event that is due to begin next month. Tennis officials were not immediately able to comment. Other players cited by local media as likely to be on the flight included Tennys Sandgren, who was granted special permission to travel from Los Angeles late last week after testing positive for the new coronavirus, which he had previously had, and world 13 doubles player Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. Scottish former world No. 1 Andy Murray revealed he tested positive for COVID-19 last week but said he was in good health and still hoped to compete. American Madison Keys pulled out last week after she tested positive. AUSTRALIAN CASES The inbound infections came as Australia recorded a single locally acquired case, and as states began to relax travel bans on signs an outbreak in the northern state of Queensland has been contained. The case, in western Sydney, is thought to be linked a known cluster in New South Wales, the most populous state, health officials said. Australia has halved the number of returning travellers that it will accept, to lower the risk of highly infectious strains seeping into the community, as occurred at a site in Queensland two weeks ago. Australia has been one of the world’s most successful nations in managing the coronavirus spread, with about 28,700 infections and 909 deaths.
Signal app goes down amid peak user traffic
Media|World|Business|: New Delhi: The users of highly-encrypted Signal app faced trouble sending messages and the company said on Saturday that it was still working to bring additional capacity online to handle peak traffic levels. The problem started late Friday and the company first acknowledged it may be due to technical difficulties. Signal allows for secure and encrypted video, voice and text communication, but users were unable to send any messages. "We have been adding new servers and extra capacity at a record pace every single day this week nonstop, but today exceeded even our most optimistic projections. Millions upon millions of new users are sending a message that privacy matters. We appreciate your patience," it said in a series of tweets. As WhatsApp started sending notifications to its users asking them to either accept its new policy or see their accounts removed from February 8, it came as a blessing in disguise for its rivals as Signal as it saw a massive flow of new users. The rush led to extra burden on Signal servers. Read more WhatsApp delays data sharing change after backlash Is Signal better, safer than WhatsApp? Signal App: The best messenger for privacy How WhatsApp lost the trust of its users in India, its largest market Mobile numbers of WhatsApp on Web users found on Google Search WhatsApp answers questions about February 8 update, says it doesn't share private information with Facebook "We are making progress towards getting the service back online. Privacy is our top priority, but adding capacity is a close second right now," it said. "We are still working as quickly as possible to bring additional capacity online to handle peak traffic levels". The encrypted messaging service has climbed to the top spot in the free apps category of the App Store in multiple countries, including India.
World migration down 30 per cent due to pandemic: UN
World|: United Nations: The coronavirus pandemic has slowed global migration by nearly 30 per cent, with around two million fewer migrants between 2019 and 2020, according to a UN report released on Friday. Some 281 million people were living outside their country of origin in 2020. The report, entitled "International Migration 2020," showed that two-thirds of registered migrants lived in just 20 countries, with the United States at the top of the list, with 51 million international migrants in 2020. Next came Germany with 16 million, Saudi Arabia with 13 million, Russia with 12 million and Britain with nine million. India topped the list of countries with the largest diasporas in 2020, with 18 million Indians living outside their country of birth. Other countries with a large transnational community include Mexico and Russia, each with 11 million, China with 10 million and Syria with eight million. In 2020, the largest number of international migrants resided in Europe, with a total of 87 million. Nearly half of international migrants resided in the region they came from, with Europe accounting for the largest share of intra-regional migration. Seventy percent of migrants born in Europe live in another European country.
Hunt for buried survivors after Indonesia quake
Asia|: Mamuju: Rescuers scrambled to find buried survivors Saturday after a powerful earthquake on Indonesia's Sulawesi island killed dozens, injured hundreds and left more feared trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. At least 45 people died after the 6.2-magnitude quake struck in the early hours of Friday, triggering panic among residents of the island, which was hit by a 2018 quake-tsunami disaster that killed thousands. Dozens of bodies have been hauled from beneath crumpled buildings in Mamuju, a city of about 110,000 in West Sulawesi province, while others were killed south of the area after the quake struck. Also read Indonesia earthquake: Patients trapped after hospital collapses Indonesia says data downloaded from flight recorder of downed Sriwijaya Air jet Indonesia starts mass COVID-19 vaccinations with president Joko Widodo "The latest data we have is 45" dead, said Arianto from the rescue agency in Mamuju, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. The toll was up from 42 on Friday evening. Authorities have not given a figure for the number of residents who could be trapped under levelled buildings, including a hospital that collapsed with more than a dozen patients and staff inside. At least one hotel had partially collapsed, while the regional governor's office also suffered extensive damage. About 15,000 residents have fled to temporary shelters and nearly 190 people were being treated for serious injuries, local authorities said. 'Heartfelt solidarity' The Pope said he was "saddened" to learn of the quake. "His Holiness Pope Francis expresses his heartfelt solidarity with all those affected by this natural disaster," the Vatican said in a statement. "He prays for the repose of the deceased, the healing of the injured and the consolation of all who grieve." Images from the scene Friday showed residents trying to flee Mamuju in cars and motorbikes as they drove past corrugated metal roofs and other building debris scattered on the roadside. But landslides triggered by heavy rains and the quake blocked the main access road out of the seaside city. The meteorological agency warned residents that the area could be hit by strong aftershocks and to avoid the beachfront in case of a tsunami. The city's airport had also been damaged, authorities said. The Indonesian Red Cross said it was rushing medical and relief supplies to the scene, with its teams working to help find trapped residents. Save the Children warned that the young were among the most at risk. "While the extent of the earthquake damage is still unclear, we know children are often the most vulnerable following disaster," it said. "It will be essential that children are prioritised in any response, as they may have witnessed the death of loved ones or become separated from their parents." The quake's epicentre was 36 kilometres (22 miles) south of Mamuju and it had a relatively shallow depth of 18 kilometres. Indonesia experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity due to its position on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where tectonic plates collide. In 2018, a 7.5-magnitude quake and a subsequent tsunami in Palu on Sulawesi left more than 4,300 people dead or missing. On December 26, 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra and triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including around 170,000 in Indonesia.
WhatsApp delays data sharing change after backlash
Media|World|Business|: San Francisco: WhatsApp on Friday postponed a data-sharing change as users concerned about privacy fled the Facebook-owned messaging service and flocked to rivals Telegram and Signal. The smartphone app, a huge hit across the world, canceled its February 8 deadline for accepting an update to its terms concerning sharing data with Facebook, saying it would use the pause to clear up misinformation around privacy and security. "We've heard from so many people how much confusion there is around our recent update," WhatsApp said in a blog post. "This update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook." It said it would instead "go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15." The update concerns how merchants using WhatsApp to chat with customers can share data with Facebook, which could use the information for targeted ads, according to the social network. "We can't see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook," WhatsApp said in an earlier blog post. "We don't keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling. We can't see your shared location and neither can Facebook." Location data along with message contents is encrypted end-to-end, according to WhatsApp. "We're giving businesses the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts," WhatsApp said in a post. "Whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you're saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook." Technology experts note that WhatsApp's new requirement of its users makes legally binding a policy that has been widely in use since 2016. Facebook aims to monetize WhatsApp by allowing businesses to contact clients via the platform, making it natural for the internet giant to centralize some data on its servers. Countries concerned The Turkish Competition Authority said it is opening an investigation and requiring WhatsApp to suspend the data sharing obligation on its users. Several Turkish state organizations - including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's media office - switched to Turkcell telecom's new messaging service BiP in response. The terms of service tweak also put WhatsApp in the crosshairs in Italy and India, where a petition has been filed in a Delhi court. WhatsApp's notice to users lacked clarity and its privacy implications need to be carefully evaluated, Italian data protection agency GPDP said in a post at its website. GPDP said it has shared its concerns with the European Data Protection Board and reserved the right to intervene in the matter. Facebook has come under increasing pressure from regulators as it tries to integrate its services. The EU fined the US social media giant 110 million euros (then $120 million) for providing incorrect and misleading information about its 2014 takeover of WhatsApp concerning the ability to link accounts between the services. Federal and state regulators in US have accused Facebook of using its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram to squelch competition and filed antitrust lawsuits last month that aim to force the company to divest them. Privacy paramount User privacy fears have been mounting, with Uber careful to stress that a change in app terms taking effect on January 18 has nothing to do with sharing data. Encrypted messaging app Telegram has seen user ranks surge on the heels of the WhatsApp service terms announcement, said its Russia-born founder Pavel Durov. "People no longer want to exchange their privacy for free services," Durov said without directly referring to the rival app. Encrypted messaging app Signal has also seen a huge surge in demand, helped by a tweeted recommendation by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. WhatsApp has sought to reassure worried users, even running full-page newspaper adverts in India, proclaiming that "respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA".
Gene-mapping champion Iceland leads the way in COVID-19 sequencing
Europe|: Reykjavik: Iceland has genetically sequenced all its positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, an increasingly vital practice as worrying new strains emerge from Britain and South Africa. The World Health Organization on Friday urged all countries to ramp up genome sequencing to help combat the emerging variants. Scientists at the Icelandic biopharma group deCODE Genetics' laboratory in Reykjavik have worked relentlessly for the past 10 months, analysing each positive coronavirus test in Iceland at the request of the country's health authorities. The aim is to trace every case in order to prevent problematic ones from slipping through the net. "It takes us relatively short time to do the actual sequencing," explains the head of the lab, Olafur Thor Magnusson, adding that "about three hours" is all that is needed to determine the virus strain. Scientists at deCODE genetics are seen working in the laboratorium in Reykjavik, Iceland. Image Credit: AFP The entire process, from isolating the DNA to sequencing it, can take up to a day and a half, and has enabled Iceland to identify 463 separate variants - which scientists call haplotypes. Prior to sequencing, the DNA of each sample is first isolated, then purified using magnetic beads. The samples are then taken to a massive, bright room full of equipment, where a deafening sound emanates from small machines resembling scanners. The machines are gene sequencers which map the novel coronavirus genome. World leader Inside each machine is a black box called a "flow cell", a glass slide that contains the DNA molecules. This technology has played a large role in Iceland since the start of the pandemic. "The sequencing of samples is key to helping us follow the state and development of the epidemic," Health Minister Svandis Svavarsdottir told AFP. Authorities have used the sequencing information to decide on precise, targeted measures to curb the spread of the virus, she said. While the South African variant has not been detected in Iceland, 41 people have been identified as carriers of the British variant. All of them were stopped at the border - where PCR tests are conducted on travellers - effectively preventing the variant's transmission on the subarctic island. DNA identification also made it possible to establish a clear link between visitors of a pub in central Reykjavik and the majority of infections in a new wave in mid-September - leading authorities to close bars and nightclubs in the capital. Sequencing also identified a separate strain from two French tourists who tested positive on arrival in Iceland, and who were initially accused - mistakenly - of being the cause of the September surge. All of the around 6,000 COVID-19 cases reported in Iceland have been sequenced, making it the world leader in COVID sequencing. While several countries, such as Britain, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand, carry out high levels of sequencing, none of them come anywhere near Iceland's levels, although global statistics are incomplete. Child's play So why is Iceland so far ahead of the game? Gene mapping is deCODE's speciality. Founded in 1996, the company has carried out the largest ever genetic study of a population. For a 2015 study on cancer risk factors, it sequenced the entire genome of 2,500 Icelanders and studied the genetic profile of a third of the then-population of 330,000. Compared to that, sequencing COVID-19 samples is child's play. "It's very easy to sequence this viral genome: it's only 30,000 nucleotides, it's nothing," quips Kari Stefansson, the 71-year-old founder and chief executive of the company. By comparison, the human genome normally analysed in his labs consists of 3.4 billion pairs of nucleotides, or organic molecules, he adds. While Iceland's rigorous sequencing has been useful for tracking the spread of the virus, it has yet to lead to any major scientific discoveries for deCODE. "If there are differences between viruses with the various pattern mutations, they aren't very obvious. Not sufficiently obvious for us to pick it up," says Stefansson.
Joe Biden pledges major expansion of vaccination program
Americas|: Wilmington: President-elect Joe Biden pledged to put Americans 65 and older near the front of the line for coronavirus vaccines and to expand the number of vaccination sites to quickly make up for the Trump administration's bungled response. Biden vowed to use available supplies more efficiently and equitably to supercharge the effort to get shots into arms after President Donald Trump's promise to vaccinate 20 million people before Jan. 1 fell far short. "We'll manage the hell out of this operation," Biden said Friday, as he offered a sober assessment of the nation's ability to conquer the pandemic. Biden laid out his plan to speed up vaccinations by focusing on people who need them most at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have reached record levels. Raising the urgency of the vaccine effort was a warning Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the highly contagious variant of the novel coronavirus first seen in Britain will become the dominant strain in the United States within about two months. More than 23 million cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, have been reported nationwide as the country's death toll approaches 400,000. As of Friday, slightly more than 31 million vaccine doses have been distributed around the country, and at least 10.6 million people have been vaccinated, CDC figures show. Biden repeated a warning that the pandemic will worsen and that more Americans will die in coming months before the vaccine can be administered to enough people to turn the tide. "I'm convinced we can get it done, and this is a time to set big goals, to pursue them with courage and conviction, because the health of the nation is literally at stake," Biden said. Vaccines are one of the most critical aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to hobble the U.S. economy and keep children away from schools. Biden has pledged to administer 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. Biden also said Friday that he feels safe being inaugurated at the U.S. Capitol, where pro-Trump rioters overran police, ransacked the building and killed one officer on Jan. 6. Police fatally shot one woman and three other people died of causes described as medical during the melee. Biden's call for anyone 65 and older to get the vaccine goes beyond the current recommendations of the CDC, which had suggested that doses in the initial weeks of an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign be reserved for health-care workers and residents and staffers at nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities. This week, however, Trump's top health officials and leaders of Operation Warp Speed, the administration's initiative to develop, manufacture and distribute coronavirus vaccines, suggested that vaccine access should be expanded to include people over 65. The Trump administration also said shots should be available to Americans of any age who have significant medical conditions that put them at great risk for serious illness or death if they become infected with the virus. Biden's plan does not go that far. And even for the older Americans, his plan cautions that it "won't mean that everyone in these groups will get vaccinated immediately, as supply is not where it needs to be. But it will mean that, as vaccines become available, they will reach more people who need them." And the plan says the incoming administration will look to an advisory committee that recommended vaccination priorities to the CDC to continue to hone its recommendation to make the vaccine program more equitable and effective. Biden also pledged that on his first day in office he would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up new, federally administered vaccination sites. "By the end of my first month," he said, "we'll have 100 of these centers," including in school gyms, sports stadiums and community centers, as well as a fleet of mobile clinics. Overall, the president-elect's plan lays out a more muscular federal role than the Trump administration's approach, which has relied heavily on each state to administer vaccines once the federal government ships them out. Many of the elements - such as seeking to expand the number of vaccination sites and setting up mobile vaccination clinics - were foreshadowed in a radio interview Biden gave last week and in an economic and health "relief plan" he issued Thursday, which contains a $20 billion request of Congress to pay for a stepped-up campaign of mass vaccination. The plan also calls for greater reliance on pharmacies to dispense shots. The president-elect said his administration "will immediately start a new effort" in collaboration with independent and chain pharmacies, so that people can make appointments nearby and arrive knowing they can get vaccine shots. It was not immediately clear how that initiative might extend beyond the Trump administration's recent announcement that it was accelerating a plan to distribute vaccines through retail pharmacies that could schedule appointments. Biden's plan envisions distributing a larger share of vaccines that have been manufactured so far to be used for the first dose in a two-shot regimen. The vaccine manufactured by Pfizer and the German biotech firm BioNTech calls for a second dose to be given 21 days later; the Moderna vaccine calls for a second dose 28 days later. Considerable disagreement has surrounded the question of how much vaccine should be held back to ensure that people can get their second shots on time. Biden's plan says that the "vast majority" will be distributed as soon as it has been manufactured and that a "small reserve" will be held back to compensate for unforeseen shortages or manufacturing delays. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, said that Biden's plans to increase the administering of vaccines were good but that the incoming administration faces another problem: "supply." "We don't have enough vaccine," he said. "We are not going to be able to do it just with mRNA vaccines," the technology used by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which have received emergency authorization from regulators. "We are going to have to accelerate the timetable for the other types of vaccines." Also Friday, Biden named David Kessler, a close adviser to him on the coronavirus crisis, to help lead the incoming administration's efforts to accelerate the manufacturing, distribution and administering of coronavirus vaccines, the Biden transition team announced Friday morning. Kessler, who was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, will take over the role played by Moncef Slaoui, who has been the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's public-private initiative to hasten the manufacture and distribution of vaccines to curb the pandemic. Kessler's new role was first reported by the New York Times. Beginning last March during the presidential campaign, Kessler, a pediatrician and lawyer, briefed Biden on the pandemic several times a week. Kessler is one of eight people the transition announced early Friday will work on the government's coronavirus response in various capacities. Among them, Andy Slavitt will become a senior adviser to Jeff Zients, the Biden White House's coronavirus response coordinator. Slavitt was an acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama. Since then, he has formed a health think tank and advocacy organization and has been an outspoken critic of Trump-era health policies, especially regarding the Affordable Care Act. Biden also announced that Francis Collins will continue in his role as director of the National Institutes of Health.
COVID-19: India preps for one of the world's largest inoculation drives
India|: India on Friday was preparing to launch one of the most ambitious and complex nationwide campaigns in its history: the rollout of coronavirus vaccines to 1.3 billion people, an undertaking that will stretch from the perilous reaches of the Himalayas to the dense jungles of the country's southern tip. The toughest part might be persuading doubters like Shankar Patil to roll up their sleeves. Patil, a 27-year-old state police academy applicant, lives in Pune, the city central to India's vaccine rollout, which is set to begin on Saturday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is staking his pride on India's ability to manufacture enough inexpensive shots to inoculate his country as well as much of the developing world. India aims to do nothing less than "protect humanity," Modi said at an online address to the Indian diaspora recently. Stretched out on an exercise mat along a row of pink Mexican lilacs at the top of Parvati, a hillock popular with early-morning joggers, Patil has questions. He and two friends, also aspiring police officers joining him to exercise, are skeptical about the country's vaccine approval process, which has been criticized by health experts for a lack of disclosure. "We believe in the government, but nobody should play with our health," said Patil. "If the vaccines are truly safe, they should make the data public." Little data has been published yet from the early trials of one of the two vaccines being rolled out, and the manufacturer has not yet completed the important final trial even as the vaccine is being distributed. Doubts about transparency only add to the obstacles that officials will face when one of the world's largest inoculation programs begins. About 300,000 health care workers are set to take the vaccines on Saturday, then millions more health care and front-line workers by spring. Already, in addition to the logistical challenges, Indian officials must deal with a growing sense of complacency. After reaching a peak in the middle of September of more than 90,000 new cases per day, India's official infection rates have dropped sharply. Fatalities have fallen by about 30% in the last 14 days, according to a New York Times database. City streets are buzzing. Air and train travel have resumed. Social distancing and mask-wearing standards, already lax in many parts of India, have slipped further. That attitude alarms experts, who say the real infection rate is probably much worse than India's official numbers suggest. Doubts about the effectiveness of the vaccines are making the mission harder still. At least one state, Chhattisgarh, has refused to accept shipments of the vaccine that is still in its final trial. Experts have expressed wariness. Just days before the mass inoculation was set to begin, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, one of India's top virologists, was still weighing whether to receive a jab. Lack of confidence "It's really not a lack of confidence in the vaccine," Kang said. "It's a lack of confidence in a process that allowed the vaccine to move forward in such a way. If my taking the vaccine would convince other people to take the vaccine, I'd think that's not right." The rollouts come at a time when new virus variants are spreading alarm around the world. Modi is looking to two Pune-based powerhouses to fuel his national and global ambitions. The Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, is making the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has been approved for emergency use in Britain and India, where it is branded Covishield. The second is the National Institute of Virology, or NIV, which developed an indigenous vaccine called Covaxin with Bharat Biotech, a local pharmaceutical company that will make the doses. Covaxin, the vaccine still in trials, has been approved for emergency use in India, but neither its creators nor government officials have published data proving that it works. India's drug regulator initially said that Covaxin would be available as a backup option. But government officials have since said that both vaccines will be rolled out simultaneously, and recipients will not get to choose between the two. A group of doctors and public health watchdogs in India has called for an investigation into the ethics of Bharat Biotech's ongoing clinical trials and a halt to the trial in Bhopal after some participants in that city said they hadn't been informed that they were receiving a vaccine or a placebo. Bharat Biotech said it was complying with clinical trial guidelines. Both the company and the government have defended the safety of Covaxin, based on interim data from the first two phases of clinical trials, when the vaccine was administered to 800 participants. They said they would publish efficacy data after the ongoing final clinical trial concludes. Bharat Biotech says it is in talks with a Brazilian company about supplying doses to Brazil, and is looking for other potential export markets. The pressure on the Serum Institute and the NIV has been immense. The NIV was the first Indian institution to diagnose COVID-19, in a student who returned to India from the Chinese city of Wuhan. It was also first to isolate and grow a stock of the virus. As a result, it was receiving requests from scientists as well as curious citizens to test potential antidotes. "People started overwhelming us with candidate drugs, extracts, compounds which they believed had antibody properties," said Priya Abraham, the NIV's director. "That came with political pressure," Abraham said. "I've had ministers calling in." Abraham declined to comment on the questions surrounding Covaxin because she was so involved with its development, although she added it was "not at all a bad vaccine." Delivering vaccines at cost Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla must balance commitments to Modi's government, which has purchased only 11 million of the 100 million doses his company has promised it, with demand in the rest of the world. AstraZeneca and Oxford agreed to license the vaccine to Serum on a pledge that it would deliver it to the world's poorest people at cost. The Serum Institute recently applied for World Health Organization certification, which would allow it to start exporting doses it has sold to Covax, an international health group that has negotiated vaccine purchases for less wealthy countries, as soon as the end of January. The institute has promised Covax 200 million doses. Poonawalla, who aims to distribute a billion doses by the end of 2021, said national pride is at stake. "The way the world has looked at India now, it's been overwhelming because we were always ignored and thought about as backward, in many respects," Poonawalla said in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, his 40th birthday. "The world now has to recognize the capabilities of India to service the world and help the world, and that's exactly what we're doing," he said. Distribution of the vaccine to health centers began Tuesday in Pune, a city of about 3.1 million people southeast of Mumbai, and home of the Maratha warriors who battled the Mughal empire and ruled much of the subcontinent in the 18th century. A police officer performed a puja, a Hindu ceremony seeking divine blessings, on the front fender of a refrigerated truck carrying vaccine doses made by the Serum Institute. "May all be free from disease," read a label in Sanskrit and English slapped on every box of vials of COVID-19 vaccine passing through the company's wrought-iron gates. As many as 20 Indian government ministries, from railways and defense to civil aviation and education, are involved. The government is leaning on know-how from its mammoth, multiphase general elections exercise and its universal immunization program, which reaches more than 50 million infants and pregnant women annually.
International: “No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp,” the company said.