UK approves use of 2nd COVID-19 vaccine with easier storage


LONDON — Britain on Wednesday became the first country to authorize an easy-to-handle COVID-19 vaccine whose developers hope it will become the “vaccine for the world.” The approval and a shift in policy that will speed up rollout of the vaccine in the U.K. comes as a surge in infections threatens to swamp British hospitals.

The Department of Health said it had accepted a recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to authorize emergency use of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca.

“The rollout will start on Jan. 4 and will really accelerate into the first few weeks of next year,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told told Sky News. Britain has bought 100 million doses of the vaccine.

AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot told BBC Radio 4 the company could start shipping the first doses of the vaccine Wednesday or Thursday “and the vaccination will start next week and we will get to 1 million — and beyond that — a week, very rapidly.”

Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.K. have already received a different vaccine, made by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and German firm BioNTech.

Soriot said it was “an important day for millions of people in the U.K. who will get access to this new vaccine. It has been shown to be effective, well-tolerated, simple to administer and is supplied by AstraZeneca at no profit.”

But in a change of approach, the British government said that with the AstraZeneca vaccine it would prioritize giving as many people as possible a single dose, which is believed to give a large measure of protection against the virus. It said people at the highest risk would get priority, and everyone would get a second jab within 12 weeks of the first.

The new strategy comes against a backdrop of soaring infections in the U.K. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has surpassed the first peak of the outbreak in the spring, with authorities blaming a new, more transmissible variant of the virus, first identified in southeast England, for the spike.

Oxford University’s Dr. Andrew Pollard, one of the leaders of the development team, offered hope the newly approved vaccine will help.

Partial results from studies in almost 24,000 people in Britain, Brazil and South Africa suggest the shots are safe and about 70% effective for preventing illness from coronavirus infection.

That’s not as good as some other vaccine candidates, but Soriot recently told the Sunday Times newspaper that he was confident the vaccine would prove as effective as its rivals.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be relied on in many countries because of its low cost, availability and ease of use. It can be kept in refrigerators rather than the ultra-cold storage some other vaccines require. The company has said it will sell it for $2.50 a dose and plans to make up to 3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

“We have a vaccine for the world,” said Pollard.

Researchers claim the vaccine protected against disease in 62% of those given two full doses and in 90% of those initially given a half dose because of a manufacturing error. However, the second group included only 2,741 people — too few to be conclusive.

Questions also remain about how well the vaccine protects older people. Only 12% of study participants were over 55 and they were enrolled later, so there hasn’t been enough time to see whether they develop infections at a lower rate than those not given the vaccine.

Researchers also were criticized for lack of information in September, when studies were suspended because a participant suffered a serious illness. AstraZeneca initially declined to provide further details due to patient confidentiality.

Ultimately, the trials resumed after regulators reviewed safety data and decided it was safe to continue. Published partial results show no hospitalizations or severe disease among those who received the vaccine. A separate study testing the AstraZeneca vaccine in the U.S. also is underway.

The vaccine will become the second COVID-19 vaccine in use in Britain. On Dec. 2, regulators gave emergency authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Having another vaccine available means that more people can get protection, said Sarah Gilbert, an Oxford scientist involved in the AstraZeneca project. It takes a different approach than the Pfizer-BioNTech one or another developed in the United States from Moderna Inc.

The ultra-cold storage those other vaccines need is “very impractical” in developing countries, said Dr. Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, chair of policy and communications for Britain’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine. It means the AstraZeneca one “may reach more parts of the world than the Pfizer one,” he said.

Britain’s action likely means the World Health Organization will soon clear the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in a global effort to help poor countries, called COVAX. The initiative, led by WHO and the vaccines alliance GAVI, has secured access to at least 100 million doses of the vaccine, with options and other deals to buy more. But none can be distributed until green-lighted by WHO.

The U.N. health agency does not licence or regulate vaccines itself, but typically evaluates vaccines once they have been approved by an agency such as the U.K. regulator or the European Medicines Agency. WHO experts conduct their own evaluation of whether or not the risks of a vaccine outweigh its benefits and then make a recommendation for the shots to be “pre-qualified” so they can be bought by donors for developing countries.

Most coronavirus vaccines to be used in poorer countries likely will be made by the Serum Institute of India, which has been contracted by AstraZeneca to make 1 billion doses. In June, the pharmaceutical company announced that the Serum Institute would produce 400 million doses by the end of 2020 but as of early December, only about 50 million doses had been manufactured after production was halted several times.

In addition to the Serum Institute, AstraZeneca also has deals with vaccine makers in Brazil, South Africa and China to make the Oxford-developed vaccine for use in developing countries.

———

Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. AP medical writer Maria Cheng in Toronto and AP correspondent Jill Lawless in London contributed reporting.



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Canberrans are breathing easier this summer but are we prepared for another season of choking bushfire smoke?


A year on from Canberra recording the world’s worst air pollution for several days in a row, the ACT’s Health Minister says the city is better placed to deal with a bushfire smoke disaster, but admits “we haven’t significantly improved”.

Canberra was kept indoors by 35 days of hazardous air quality last summer, and its systems struggled to cope.

There were 166 ‘smoke-related’ presentations to the emergency department, babies took their first breath in smoky delivery rooms and researchers concluded 31 people in the ACT likely died from the effects of bushfire smoke.

Alarmed by the public health crisis, the ACT Government agreed to develop a smoke and air quality strategy before this bushfire season — but that plan was made in a world without COVID-19.

If last year’s disasters were to repeat themselves this summer, Canberra would have little recourse but to endure it again.

Canberra wheezed through several days as the most polluted city in the world last summer.(ABC News: Jordan Hayne)

Air conditioning and filtration upgrades at the Canberra Hospital have been installed, and the Government has committed to nationally consistent air quality levels with matching health advice and a trial of low-cost mobile monitoring stations.

But ANU cardiologist and clinical lecturer Dr Arnagretta Hunter argues what is missing is imagination in preparing for a warmer, dryer future.

“[We should be] imagining what sort of events we might be up against over the next couple of years — the next 5, 10 or 20 years,” Dr Hunter said.

“That is what I’d like to see the ACT Government come up with: a really strong policy direction on adaptation for extreme weather events that we know we’ll see with increasing frequency in the next couple of years.”

A woman wearing glasses stands in front of a painting of an object under a microscope.
Dr Arnagretta Hunter says the ACT has another year or two to prepare for the next smoky bushfire season.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements called it “strategic imagination”.

It also declared the “unprecedented is now our future” and “unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared”.

Dr Hunter recalls having hundreds of conversations in the lead up to the 2019-20 bushfire season around the drought, towns running out of water and dealing with extreme heat.

Health Minister says several steps remain to prepare for next bad season

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith has reassured people it was “unlikely” this summer would be like last year, though she said the Government needs a better plan for more frequent extreme weather events.

“We are better placed but we haven’t significantly improved our placement so my advice would be really think about the lessons that you learnt personally last summer, keep an eye on the information that is available,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

She defended the Government not delivering on its commitment to have a whole of government air quality strategy before this summer.

An upgrade of Canberra Hospital’s air conditioning systems was among the changes made this year after it was blamed for drawing smoke into the building rather than filtering it out.

$9.2million was spent improving the main chiller and upgrading HEPA filters that can capture the miniscule PM2.5 particles in smoke — though they don’t exist through all of the hospital.

Canberra Health Services (CHS) points to the simple step of closing doors and windows as part of its planning, along with relying on portable air purifiers which were used towards the end of last summer.

“We’re confident that through the steps that we’ve taken that we will have a better situation this year and indeed in future years, but it’s a constantly evolving thing,” the hospital’s head of infrastructure Colm Mooney said.

Dozens of pipes and tubes weave in and out between each other in an underground basement.
$9.2 million has been spent upgrading the Canberra Hospital’s main chiller to be better able to handle a future smoky bushfire season.(ABC News: Andy Kennedy)

Ms Stephen-Smith acknowledged the limitations of the Canberra Hospital buildings and said any lessons learned will be applied in its expansion project.

“We are talking about an older building,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Asthma sufferer Ryan Harris spent two weeks in Canberra Hospital’s intensive care unit last summer before going home on the advice of his specialist, because air quality inside the wards was so poor.

He said that he saw no air purifiers “at all” during his admission.

“If I’m in again over this summer and there is smoke I’d definitely like to see one in my room or at least on the ward,” Mr Harris said.

A young man holds a ventolin inhaler and spacer.
Asthma patient Ryan Harris left The Canberra Hospital emergency department after his doctor said he would be safer at home.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

Mr Harris welcomed improvements to the Canberra Hospital but said HEPA filters should be through the whole air conditioning system.

He also called for more air quality monitoring stations in the ACT and for the readings with accompanying advice to be more accessible.

“There’s also a lot of people that either don’t know how to use smartphones or apps or even know how to use a website properly.

“So some form of sending alerts out via text message for those vulnerable people I think would be critical for some asthmatics,” he said.

New South Wales uses automated air quality alerts, via SMS or emails, which the ACT Health Minister said she was “really interested” in following.

A new smoke index is ready, but won’t help people find clean air

The ACT is in the process of adopting nationally consistent air quality categories that reflect hourly readings and come with general health advice, as well as recommended actions for both sensitive groups and the general public.

It would be a change from the 24-hour rolling figures used much of last summer, that did not always reflect the true air quality outside.

“People were crying out for information last summer, everyone became an instant expert on the numbers, but they don’t necessarily tell you that much.,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“It doesn’t tell you how you need to respond.”

New nationally consistent categories have been developed as a recommendation of the bushfire Royal Commission.

It also suggested the use of “smoke plans” which include the identification of “clean air locations” for people seeking shelter — such as libraries, shopping centres or schools with tightly sealed windows and appropriate air conditioning fitted with HEPA filters.

“Unfortunately that is something that we should start to build into our urban infrastructure,” Dr Arnagretta Hunter said.

“Particularly thinking about our vulnerable population — so our health infrastructure our education infrastructure and our community infrastructure — that provides a safe space for much hotter temperatures and for air pollution events,” she said.

Dr Hunter argued it should be considered as part of the ACT’s smoke and air quality strategy which she hoped was a priority in the next year.

“We’ve probably got another year or two to put the plans in place,” Dr Hunter said.

“Some time in the next couple of decades … we’ll face those environmental factors that led to the summer we had last year.”



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Facebook adds carts to WhatsApp to make shopping easier – TechCrunch


WhatsApp said on Tuesday it is adding a new shopping feature to its app as the Facebook -owned instant messaging service looks to court more merchants and invite a larger portion of its 2 billion userbase to shop.

The instant messaging platform, where business accounts already process messages from more than 175 million people, said it is adding carts to WhatsApp around the world ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Carts are aimed at making it easier for consumers to buy multiple items from a business, and for merchants to keep better track of order inquiries and manage requests. WhatsApp said it is adding the new feature after early positive response from some businesses who tested it recently.

On WhatsApp, users will now see the option to add items to the cart. When done, users will be able to send the order request as a message to the business. WhatsApp said carts are going live for users across the globe today. (You can read the complete how-to flow here.)

In recent months, WhatsApp has added a number of features to supercharge the commerce experience on its app. It has unveiled QR codes, a dedicated shopping button, and the ability to share catalog links in chats. The platform is also offering free storage to merchants to host their business’s messages.

For WhatsApp, success with commerce is crucial. Despite its gigantic reach, it currently makes little to no money. The messaging app is available to users at no charge and also remains free of ads. But it stands to become a viable challenger to giants like Amazon and Walmart in at least emerging markets like India where e-commerce is still at a nascent phase.

In India, which happens to be WhatsApp’s biggest market by users, several businesses have kickstarted their journey on the Facebook-owned app. On Tuesday, DealShare, an Indian e-commerce startup, said it had raised $21 million in a new financing round. DealShare began its life on WhatsApp.

But one big element that remains missing from WhatsApp’s shopping experience is support for payments. As of today, when a user places an order with a business on WhatsApp, both parties are left on their own to figure out how money will exchange hands.

WhatsApp hasn’t had much luck with adding payments to its app so far. It was only recently that India permitted WhatsApp to roll out payments on its app to a larger subset of users. Brazil is the other market where WhatsApp rolled out payments this year, though the South American nation took no time in suspending the new service. Perhaps, Libra is the answer?



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Small changes you can make to help make the lives of autistic people easier


Having a casual conversation can be the most stressful part of some people’s day. Sheree Somers knows what this feels like and she has some advice for us all to make things better.

The world is an incredibly overwhelming and confusing place for me. Even though I always feel like I am trying my hardest to cope, I still struggle.

I didn’t find out that I was autistic until after high school. When I was finally diagnosed, everything about my life finally made sense.

I feel like many of my challenges aren’t because there is something wrong with me, but because the world was not built for autistic people.

When I look back at my life, one of the things that has helped me most is when other people respect, understand and adapt to my differences.

As about 1 in 100 Australians is autistic, there is a chance that you will meet someone who is, even if you don’t know someone right now.

I have seen lots of campaigns telling other people what autism is, but I have found very little information about what the general public can do to help make the world a friendlier place for autistic people.

I can’t speak for all autistic people, but I can share my own ideas for what would be useful for me and hope that they resonate with others.

How to try and avoid sensory overload

Many autistic people have sensory differences and trouble processing sensory information. What might be normal for one person might be painful for an autistic person.

Some people might be oversensitive to certain things, others might under sensitive. For example, I find sound incredibly overwhelming and spicy food painful.

A cartoon panel showing a birthday party situation with one person wearing sunglasses inside.
Is that person being rude or is there something else going on that could explain their behaviour?(ABC: Claire Mosley)

Many autistic people have trouble filtering out background information, such as a ticking clock when someone is talking.

Having to take in so much information at once is incredibly exhausting and overwhelming. Just a few hours in a loud cafe means that I need to nap for a few hours.

Some things you can do to help autistic people include:

  • Turning down music or lights if you have been asked to, without criticising people for asking.
  • Allow people to wear headphones and sunglasses in contexts that might be considered rude, such as inside a shop or when talking to someone.
  • Don’t force people to do things they say no to, such as eating something extremely spicy or touching a texture they find overwhelming.
  • When planning an event, make sure there is somewhere quiet with low lighting, so people have somewhere to go if they become overwhelmed.
  • Use cleaning products and hand sanitiser with as little scent as possible.
  • Ask for permission before giving people physical contact such as shaking hands or hugging, and respect if people don’t want physical contact.

Tips for clear and easy communication

Autistic people may communicate differently. Some people have monotone voices, some people might only be able to speak in movie quotes or scripted sentences and some people may not be able to speak at all.

The way autistic people communicate isn’t wrong, it’s just different from other people.

A cartoon of a birthday party where one person is wearing sunglasses and the other is being accepting.
A cartoon of a birthday party where one person is wearing sunglasses and the other is being accepting.
If someone is acting differently to what you expect, ask them about it or just leave them be.(ABC: Claire Mosley)

For me, it feels like I am putting on a performance every time I talk with someone; I have the lines and actions all memorised but I don’t know how to go off script or improvise.

It takes a lot of my energy to remember social skills, like eye contact, as they don’t come naturally to me, and there are still some things I have no idea how to do.

Some ways you can help autistic people include:

  • Don’t force people to give you eye contact.
  • Allow people to fiddle or move around while they talk to you.
  • Ask people about how they communicate best, such as asking if phone, face to face, text or video call would be best.
  • Make sure instructions that you give people are clear and precise.
  • Allow people time to process what you have said. Even just giving people a minute to think if you ask them a question is useful.
  • Be patient with people if they use a different method to communicate such as writing or a communication device.
  • Explain metaphors or jokes if you think someone hasn’t understood.
  • Warn people of changes to plans as soon as possible, so they have time to process.
  • Explain rules and expectations that may be unspoken or not obvious if you think someone hasn’t understood.
  • Be respectful of the different ways people speak, such as being blunt or having a monotone voice.

You never know what someone might be struggling with unless you ask

If you are curious about autism, there are plenty of ways to learn more.

Autistic people are unique; there is so much more to us than the stereotype of a young, white boy who is a genius.

You can’t guess someone’s abilities just by looking at them. I may be able to verbally speak but I still struggle with some really basic things like remembering to drink water.

  • Learn from autistic people — there are plenty of blogs and social media accounts run by autistic people, sharing their experiences and world views.
  • Don’t assume someone’s abilities just by how they look or speak to you. If you are curious or confused, ask the person.
  • Try to ask everyone you deal with what their access requirements are. You never know what someone might be struggling with.

You don’t have to be an expert to help autistic people feel more comfortable around you. In fact, I find that people with less expertise but who are more willing to listen and learn help me best.

You don’t immediately have to start doing all these things, but even a few small things helps. Many of these suggestions aren’t just helpful for autistic people, they are also useful for the general public.

You might not fix all of someone’s problems, but you might make an autistic person’s day a tiny bit easier.

Listen to what other people have to say and respect their needs.

A little bit of respect goes a long way in making the world a more comfortable place for autistic people.

Sheree Somers is 22 and lives in Adelaide. When she isn’t studying science at university, she is busy crafting and writing.

ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disability.



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Pleasing no one – South Korea’s government is making it easier to get an abortion | Asia




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Q&A: The brothers making life easier for Aussie lads


This week we chat to Bill Ovenden, co-founder – alongside his brother,
Ed – of Queensland start-up The Lad Collective. Quitting their full-time jobs
and taking the brand to market during the COVID-19 crisis speaks, the brothers
have a firm belief in their product and their understanding of their target
market. They bootstrapped their vision with the aim of shaking up Australia’s bedding
market by helping young men take control of their bedrooms.

ISB: What was the motivation behind you establishing your own bedding
business?

BO: Ed and I endured the trials and tribulations of living in share
houses with mates who were grubby and lazy (ourselves included). For many
years, we battled to take control of the mundane tasks of routinely making the
bed, washing our sheets and being clean and hygienic across three key areas –
the bedroom, bathroom and laundry. We came to a realisation that we weren’t
alone, with many males between the ages of 18-35 lacking support in these
areas.

We realised that if sheets were redesigned in a way that made it easier
to make the bed and strip the sheets off the bed, then we would be more
inclined to do it, and so too would a large portion of other males out there. The
“messy bed, messy head” mentality rings true and with men striving to succeed,
small wins such as making the bed could lead to greater success in the long
term. Providing Aussie men with innovative and essential life products
delivered to their doorstep is at the forefront of our decision making.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting the enterprise
off the ground?

BO: A lack of experience as entrepreneurs. We knew that we had an amazing
opportunity, but we weren’t prepared for how quickly the messaging would gain
traction and resonate with our target audience. Having entered a new market by
leveraging a direct-to-consumer business model, we had to self-learn and find
like-minded mentors to guide us in running an E-commerce business.

Managing offshore production solely online has been a challenge,
especially without having the luxury to be physically present in another
country. The pandemic has also slowed the supply chain down. Being able to
confront these challenges and find a solution from retrospective thinking has
enabled us to mature as business owners.

ISB: Please tell us how we came up with your innovative, “out of
the box” marketing angle, and what you set out to achieve with it?

BO: The Lad Collective’s unconventional marketing strategy is devised to
accurately reflect our outgoing, Aussie larrikin personality. The process of
shopping for bed sheets – and all essential life products for that matter – shouldn’t
have to be boring, monotonous and riddled with confusing, technical jargon. We
inject humorous, light-hearted, yet informative content across multiple
platforms that bring life to an otherwise stagnant market. We are setting out
to break down the barriers for those who don’t know where and how to shop for
essential life products. Our marketing strategy is centred around a ‘what you
see, is what you get’ mentality.

ISB: How did you go about making a success of a launch during the
economically challenging environment a pandemic engenders?

BO: The launch was based purely on a hunch. People were spending more time
at home, in bed, connected to their smartphones, looking to maintain good
mental health, all the while becoming acquainted with the convenience and
safety of online shopping. We had found a silver lining. Our decision to design
our sheets locally and produce offshore enabled us to land on an affordable
price point that emphasised.

ISB: What is your vision for the venture in the next couple of years?

BO: Bedsheets are just the tip of the iceberg. In
the New Year, we will be unveiling a subscription economy centred around
delivering essential life products to the doorstep of the Australian man. We
have been working closely with a chemist and design team to create our TLC
branded male cosmetic range among various other essential products used in the
bedroom, bathroom and laundry.

ISB: And, finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on this
journey so far you’d share with other aspiring young entrepreneurs looking to
start their own business?

BO: Adopt a data-driven approach and survey the hell out of your target
customer. Make informed decisions based on the data you have collected and try
not to get side-tracked on ideas that don’t align with your underlying mission.
Don’t spend too much time trying to perfect your product. A “ready, fire and
aim” plan is key – to succeed you need sales and revenue. Rely on customer
feedback to make iterations on your product and be prepared to leave your ego
at the door.





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COVID-19: Moderna vaccine shown to be 94.5% effective and easier to store, according to interim analysis | World News


A US-developed vaccine has been shown to be 94.5% effective at protecting people from COVID-19, according to interim results.

Produced by Moderna, in collaboration with the US government’s “Operation Warp Speed”, the vaccine has also been shown to last for up to 30 days in household fridges and at room temperature for up to 12 hours.

It also remains stable at -20C, equal to most household or medical freezers, for up to six months.

This suggests it can be stored and transported much more easily than a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was last week announced to be 90% effective at protecting people from coronavirus.

Live COVID-19 updates from the UK and around the world

Image:
The Moderna vaccine – like Pfizer’s – uses technology known as mRNA

Following last week’s news, governments around the world – including the UK – had been scrambling to deal with the logistical challenge of deploying the Pfizer vaccine, which is required to be stored at much lower temperatures.

So far, the UK government has secured early access to six candidate vaccines – totalling more than 350 million doses – which includes the Pfizer vaccine but not the Moderna vaccine.

However, the UK government said it was in “advanced discussions” with Moderna to also ensure access to their vaccine.

A spokesperson said: “The news from Moderna appears to be good and represents another significant step towards finding an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

“As part of the ongoing work of the vaccines taskforce, the government is in advanced discussions with Moderna to ensure UK access to their vaccine as part of the wider UK portfolio.

“Moderna are currently scaling up their European supply chain which means these doses would become available in spring 2021 in the UK at the earliest.

“To date, the UK government has secured early access to 350 million vaccines doses through agreements with six separate vaccine developers.

“This includes 40m doses of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, which is based on the same platform as Moderna’s vaccine and if approved by the medicines regulator, is expected to begin delivery as early as December 2020.”

The US government have an agreement for 100 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, while the EU concluded “exploratory talks” with the company earlier this year that could result in it purchasing up to 160 million doses.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use technology known as mRNA, which introduces into the body a messenger sequence that contains the genetic instructions for the vaccinated person’s own cells to produce the antigens and generate an immune response.

Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, hailed “a pivotal moment” in the company’s development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

He said: “Since early January, we have chased this virus with the intent to protect as many people around the world as possible. All along, we have known that each day matters.

“This positive interim analysis from our Phase 3 study has given us the first clinical validation that our vaccine can prevent COVID-19 disease, including severe disease.”

Moderna lab
Image:
The US-based company hailed a ‘pivotal moment’ in the development of its vaccine

Responding to the interim analysis of the Moderna vaccine, Professor Trudie Lang, director of the Global Health Network at the University of Oxford, said: “It is very good news indeed to see another vaccine coming through with similar efficacy results as were reported last week from Pfizer.

“This is also an interim analysis, which means that there were enough cases within the vaccinated volunteers to give statistical significance and allow the team to break the blind to determine who had the active vaccine and who had placebo.

“Here they found that of 95 cases of COVID, 90 had received the placebo and five the active vaccine.

“These early results suggest that there was a representation across different age groups and diverse communities in the protected group.

“This is really encouraging and it further demonstrates that a vaccine for COVID is a real probability and that having more than one supplier should help assure better and more equitable global availability.

“This vaccine is also an mRNA vaccine, so many of the same questions remain as we have been discussing with the Pfizer vaccine and these will be looked at carefully by the regulators.”

Global stock markets – already buoyed by last week’s Pfizer vaccine announcement – raced higher again on the update from Moderna.

The FTSE 100 rose by nearly 2%, or more than 100 points, while there were similar gains for France’s Cac 40 and Italy’s MIB.

Markets have been recovering in recent weeks from an October dip caused by fears over the impact of a second wave of coronavirus infections and further lockdowns.

Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his hope that “those who really need it” might receive a COVID-19 vaccine “perhaps before Christmas”.

Speaking to Sky News’ Kay Burley, Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the roll-out of a vaccine as a “huge administrative challenge”.

“Even if that comes through as fast as it possibly could, the majority of people we’d expect to be vaccinating in the New Year even if we do manage to make progress this year,” he said.

“We are not there yet, we don’t yet have a vaccine signed off.”



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Stakeholders are optimistic of easier visa rules in the Biden administration but the question when will it happen


The last few years have been unpredictable for overseas business travellers, techies and students in the US. Apart from dealing with delivery deadlines or a job hunt, these people also had to keep an eye out for abrupt changes to visa rules that could make their plans go awry. “You could be in the middle of a project and suddenly find out that rules have changed on how long you can stay or work in the US,” says a Noida-based professional who had travelled to the US on a H1B visa.

One such shock was felt in June when the Trump administration temporarily halted access to several work-related and study visas. Apart from students and professionals, it disrupted the plans of dependents of these employees and several companies. The move was widely criticised. Sundar Pichai, Alphabet CEO, tweeted, “…Disappointed by today’s proclamation — we’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all.” Universities that get a lot of foreign students also cried foul.

Every year, Indians get a bulk of those US visas issued under four categories: H1B, issued to high skilled workers; H4, used by families of US-based employees; L visas for intracompany transfers, and J visas to study and work in the US.

The Trump administration had particularly targeted H1B visas and pushed companies to employ Americans instead. However, with the Joe Biden administration set to take charge in January, all stakeholders are hoping for more stability and liberalisation of rules that allow companies to employ foreigners.

seeking

The abrupt changes in visa rules foisted problems on companies. The pandemic added to the troubles by causing record unemployment in the US, which prompted tighter measures to control entry of foreign workers. Nasscom says the US has around 600,000 vacancies for computer software jobs but not enough skilled locals to fill those slots. Shivendra Singh, VP & head, global trade development, Nasscom, says, “In the last six months, there were a lot of measures to tighten rules on bringing foreign talent and preventing offshoring.”

All stakeholders, especially tech companies, are hopeful the Biden administration will remove the country-specific visa cap set by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Jennifer Minear, president, American Immigration Lawyers Association, says, “Those seeking entry to the US on employment-based visas under a Biden administration can expect a much more predictable and smooth adherence to the actual law and a common sense approach to adjudication of visas.”

The biggest gainer of such an environment would be Indian tech companies with a large focus on the US. Of the $147 billion business Indian IT services companies did in 2019-20, 62% came from the US. Nasscom says Indians availed 72% of the 85,000 H1B visas issued in 2019. Though use of H1B visas by top 7 Indian IT services companies — TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL, L&T Infotech, Tech Mahindra & Mindtree) — has reduced from about 17% in 2015 to 6% in 2019.

business-of-india

The MD & CEO of Tech Mahindra, CP Gurnani, Tech Mahindra, says, “The new administration’s stated policy towards H1B visa is constructive and looks to attract more talent to the US.” On the issue of allowing spouses to work (on H4 visas), Gurnani adds, “This will create a source of talent that can contribute to the US and the global economy. It will be a positive step for the Indian industry.”

Like H1B, H4 visas were also targeted. Groups such as Saves Jobs America had claimed these impact local employment, a claim backed by the Trump administration but overruled by US courts in November 2019. Nevertheless, stable policies will help spouses and dependents of H1B holders get work. Minear of the American Immigration Lawyers Association says, “I think we will see a swift return to policies that are more in keeping with reality, encourage immigration, enhance the economy and create jobs, and not the other way round.”

Even US-based tech companies are backing a liberal policy. In September, 46 companies such as Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook initiated steps to block changes to H1B, arguing that these will reduce their ability to hire highly skilled workers in America. Streamlining green card, visas and overall immigration processes will make the US more appealing for tech workers.

Favourable immigration policies can have a direct impact on the bottom line of companies. Omkar Tanksale, senior research analyst, Axis Securities, says the tighter and unpredictable visa regime led to service providers engaging subcontractors in the US to complete projects. “Around 5% of the total project cost went to subcontractors, impacting margins. Now the expectation is that companies will be able to ramp up deals quickly and reduce subcontracting expenses.”

However, such a regime might raise the salary bill of employees. A policy document issued by the Biden campaign had said he would try to “establish a wage-based allocation process and establish enforcement mechanisms to ensure they are aligned with the labour market and not used to undermine wages”.

In October, the Trump administration had hiked by 40% the minimum salaries paid to doctors and others coming on H1B visas. This was also done to protect American jobs, by making it costly to hire foreigners.

Jignesh Thakkar, partner, global compliance solution leader, EY, says, “The number of visas could expand, the wage-based allocation is likely to stay which will increase the wage cost of IT companies in India.”

Minear anticipates that some of the policy memoranda governing USCIS (like all employment-based green card applicants be personally interviewed) will be reviewed and rejected by the new administration since “they were hugely inefficient and their only purpose was to cause frustration and delay.” But it won’t all happen on Day 1 of the new president assuming office.

Peter Bendor-Samuel, CEO of research firm Everest Group, says the situation might not change that easily. “It is highly likely that the US is moving into a period where immigration of all types, particularly the highskill categories, is made much easier. The administration of the rules and laws (on visas, immigration) can change much faster but the rules themselves will take some time to roll back.”

But the new administration will be able to at least revert extreme steps, says Anil Gupta, who writes on US-based immigration forum AM22Tech. In the last couple of years, some H1B approvals were given for short duration, making it difficult to plan time-consuming projects.

Steven Alonzo, government affairs and PAC manager, US India Political Action Committee, says, “Ending per country caps and expanding green card availability for all skilled workers is a stated goal of the new administration. But the final makeup of the Congress will be a factor in how much of his pro-immigration agenda he can implement.”

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Much like in any government, domestic interests, lobbies and unemployment rates will determine how much access the US can give to aspiring immigrants. Biden might rely on administrative changes, which can be implemented quickly, rather than change immigration laws which is a more long-drawn process.

The composition of the bicameral legislature can make it difficult for the Biden administration to change laws, says Bendor-Samuel. “Having said that, it is much more favourably disposed to immigration and the free flow of talent across borders, and so it will likely move to address the rules and the administration aspects.”

It would be safe to say immigrants can expect a patient hearing of cases and professionals can expect faster processing and quicker clearance of pending applications. But introducing new laws or changing rules could take longer. A concerted effort may start to show changes in around 18 months.

A Lesson: The Trump administration’s policies forced foreign students to look at non-US universities. The Biden administration is likely to introduce more student-friendly measures

The frequent change in US visa regulations in the past couple of years were unfavourable for students looking to enrol in colleges there. One of the main changes was in the optional practical training (OPT) scheme that allows students to work as they study, gain experience and earn to partly cover their expenses. This window was shortened from three to one year for students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics stream. “With reduced OPT and H1B visas becoming difficult, students were forced to look at other options,” says MD of College Core Education Urvashi Malik, who has been counseling for two decades students looking at an overseas education.

America is still the largest market for students. “But rules limiting work options for students have led to rising interest in Canadian and Australian universities,” says Mukul Singh Sarang, director of Pune-based The Scholars Higher Education Route.

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In 2010-11, the UK had withdrawn its post study work (PSW) programme — work permits for students — leading to a sharp drop in student population. PSW of two years was allowed when the UK felt Brexit pangs, leading to a rise in foreign students coming to British colleges. The students also bring foreign exchange.

Permits to work are a critical part in deciding the country to study in. For instance, between 2010 and 2016, the number of Indian students studying in Australia and Canada increased 125% and 240%, respectively, as compared with just 30% in the US, according to a note by MZM Legal, a Mumbai-based law firm.

The USA was a destination for about one million foreign students in 2019, of which 200,000 were from India, contributing $8 billion to the economy. Zulfiquar Memon, MD of MZM Legal, says, “Over 70% students preferred the US for higher studies five years ago. It has declined to less than 50% now.”

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The pandemic has seen a rise in online learning, which has made students reevaluate the merits of expensive overseas education. “This makes it all the more important to have rules that help students,” adds Sarang.

Last year, the US planned to fix student visa terms to four years, with riders for extensions like “compelling academic reasons, documented medical illness or circumstances that were beyond the student’s control”.

Such provisions will make it difficult for postgraduate students planning to pursue a PhD.





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Finland to make changing social security number easier for hacking victims


THE FINNISH GOVERNMENT on Thursday unveiled a lengthy list of measures to support the victims of the data breach at Psychotherapy Centre Vastaamo.

The government revealed it is prepared to expand the possibilities of individuals to change their social security number in circumstances, such as the aftermath of a hacking, where it is deemed necessary to prevent the misuse of identifying information.

Sirpa Paatero (SDP), the Minister of Local Government, underlined in a press conference that the process will remain complicated and painstaking also after the proposed legislative change, according to Helsingin Sanomat.

“You have to keep in mind that changing the social security number is a pretty big thing for any individual,” she said, reminding that there is no way to enter the new number into all systems at once.

Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) said the Ministry of Justice will begin preparatory work on a bill that would require stronger identification for online services, including all types of consumer credit agreements. The requirement currently applies to, for example, payday loans but not to one-time credits or pay-later invoice solutions.

“It’s unfortunate that the social security number and other identifying information of an individual, such as name and address, make it possible to commit frauds. This applies also to business-to-consumer trade,” she said.

“If you buy, let’s say, a washing machine online, you can typically pay for it with credit in instalments. The Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority has received questions about these kinds of credits, about why more careful identification isn’t required in these situations. Although there are relatively few reports of wrongdoing in retail, we have to try limiting those possibilities.”

The government also revealed that companies using client and patient data repositories will be required to use Kanta, provider of digital services for the social and health care sector in Finland. Psychotherapy Centre Vastaamo, the database of which was infiltrated in a hacking in November 2018, was among the companies that had chosen not to use the voluntary services.

All third-party patient data systems, meanwhile, will be phased out in a bid to improve data security and protection.

“This is a major change. We’ve been talking about it for a decade and now this big reform can be carried out. And I’m very pleased that it will be,” commented Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Krista Kiuru (SDP).

The act is to enter into effect on 1 April 2021.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT



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State Of Origin 2020: ‘Easier being underdogs’


‘”I haven’t worried about their team [Queensland] at all, and the feeling I get is if we get it right and with the experience we have here, we’ll win. It’s as simple as that,” Fittler said before Tuesday’s captain’s run at NSW’s Sydney Olympic Park training base.

“Every time they train I feel more comfortable. But we haven’t had the more experienced team or been favourites in a long time.

The NSW Blues squad in training.Credit:Grant Trouville/NRL Images

“A lot of times in history when we’ve been in that situation, we haven’t handled it that well. This is a great opportunity.

“We spoke about it early. In history, we’ve never won more than three in a row but we’ve had eras where we’ve had better teams than Queensland for a long time. Time will tell.

“All Australians handle being the underdog, it’s easier being the underdog, it’s more challenging when you’re sitting on top … what a great test for them. I’m just aiming for a great performance tomorrow night.”

Fittler knows his team is superior to the one that won a second straight series last year. The addition of Luke Keary is a boost, Jack Wighton won the Dally M, Clint Gutherson and Junior Paulo have brought plenty of energy, and ”hopefully we can get a kick out to Toops [Daniel Tupou]”.

However, north of the border they continue to drop like flies. Bennett complained of further injuries on Tuesday to his outside backs.

One burning question for Fittler will be how he uses Cody Walker off the bench. He is still not entirely sure.

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“I listen to a lot of coaches talk about plans, you need a couple of plans, but you also need to be able to wing it,” he said.

“We have plans for different things if different people get tired or injured. You have to wing it. If something happens you haven’t planned for, it’s like, ‘hold on tight’.”

The Blues are chasing a third straight series triumph, and victory in Origin I would put them in the box seat to rap up the series in Sydney on Wednesday week.

With Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk keeping the borders closed to greater Sydney – and keeping the bulk of Blues fans out of Suncorp Stadium for Origin III on November 18 – NSWRL boss Dave Trodden told the Herald on the weekend it was only fitting they try and give the locals up north a ”dead rubber”.

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