World News

Scientists begin tests on two possible vaccines

Scientists in Australia have begun testing two potential coronavirus vaccines in “milestone” lab trials.

The vaccines, made by Oxford University and US company Inovio Pharmaceutical, have been cleared for animal testing by the World Health Organization.

Australia’s national science agency will assess if the vaccines work, and if they would be safe for humans.

The first human trial took place in the US last month, but skipped a stage of animal testing.

There are several other vaccine developments occurring around the world at the moment at extraordinary speed.

But Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) says its tests will be the first comprehensive pre-clinical trials of the vaccines to use an animal model.

Researchers said the speed and level of global co-operation that led to this stage had been unprecedented.

“Normally it takes about one-to-two years to get to this point and we’ve in fact shortened that to a period of a couple of months,” Dr Rob Grenfell from the CSIRO told reporters on Thursday.

How will it work?

In the past few days, the CSIRO team has inserted vaccine samples into ferrets – small, furry mammals which have been proven to contract the coronavirus in the same way humans do.

Sars-CoV-2 is the virus which causes the disease Covid-19. There are at least 20 vaccines in development around the world.

The CSIRO is testing two options selected by a global consortium overseeing most of this research, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

One option, developed by the University of Oxford, is a vector vaccine. It uses a “defective” virus to introduce the proteins of the coronavirus to the immune system and induce a response.

“But they’re not able to replicate… so there’s no possibility of becoming ill through this particular vaccine,” said Prof Trevor Drew, director of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Victoria, where the testing is being carried out.

He described the other vaccine – from Inovio – as “rather different but nonetheless exciting”.

It is designed to encode certain proteins of the coronavirus to the immune system, prompting the body’s cells to generate those proteins before the immune system reacts to them.

“It’s very important to take a multi-pronged approach to this,” said Prof Drew. “It gives us the best chance of success.”

How soon could we get results?

The first results from the animal tests could be revealed as early as June, the scientists said.

If successful, the vaccines could then be moved into clinical trials that could be conducted at labs elsewhere.

At that point, the race to get the medicine into the general market could be accelerated, but experts warn it would still involve a minimum 18-month timeline to meet regulatory tests and standards.

The Oxford University vaccine, for example, is also being tested by another lab on a separate animal to comply with US regulations.

“All of the [vaccine] candidates actually have a multitude of other companies and organisations involved because no single organisation can actually produce a vaccine,” said Dr Grenfell.

But he said he was “optimistic” about the work, given the level of global collaboration.

“This is a true collaboration across academic, public, and also private sectors to in fact actually achieve success at this point,” he said.

Reporting by the BBC’s Frances Mao

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World News

Direct talks on Taliban prisoner swap begin

Afghanistan has begun its first face-to-face talks with the Taliban on exchanging thousands of prisoners.

Details of the initial meeting in Kabul emerged on Wednesday, ahead of a planned second day of talks, as Afghans observed tight restrictions on movement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under a US-Taliban deal, the government will free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants will release 1,000.

The talks took place against a backdrop of continuing violence in the country.

Authorities blamed the Taliban for an explosion in the southern province of Helmand on Wednesday that killed eight civilians, including several children.

How much progress has been made in talks?

The prisoner swap had been due to take place in early March, as part of a US-Taliban deal signed on 29 February, but there have been a series of setbacks. Until Wednesday, the two sides had only met by video conference.

With talks due to resume for a second day on Wednesday, Afghanistan’s Office of the National Security Council said that progress had only been made so far “on technical matters”.

The talks were overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the focus was on the release of security force and national defence captives as well as Taliban prisoners, the ICRC said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the meetings did not amount to negotiations, telling AFP: “There will be no political talks there”. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo called the beginning of the talks “good news”.

How big is Afghanistan’s coronavirus problem?

Afghanistan has recorded almost 200 cases of Covid-19, largely in the west of the country in Herat province. Four people have died. Testing is not widespread in the country.

Restrictions have been placed on movement both in Herat and Kabul province in an attempt to stem the spread of the outbreak. There have been reports of panic buying and shortages of essential goods.

The Taliban had been due to send a large team to the Kabul talks, but in the end sent a three-man delegation because of the virus outbreak. A spokesman for the militant group said the trio would monitor the prisoner release process and take the necessary technical measures.

Though US troops began withdrawing last month under the terms of the deal with the Taliban, movement on the prisoner swap has been slow because of disagreements between President Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival Abdullah Abdullah.

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Congress closing in on nearly $2 trillion coronvavirus aid package – The Denver Post

WASHINGTON — Congressional and White House officials say a deal appears to be at hand Tuesday on a nearly $2 trillion measure aimed at easing the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, said agreement appeared close. “I don’t see any issue that can’t be overcome within the next few hours,” Schumer said. “Last night I thought we were on the five-yard line. Now we’re on the two.”

Negotiators labored in the shadow of what McConnell called “the most serous threat to Americans’ health in over a century and quite likely the greatest risk to America’s jobs and prosperity that we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”

Schumer said a key provision in the emerging package would provide for four months of salary for workers furloughed because of the pandemic. “The federal government will pay your salary, your full salary,” he said, outlining aid that still is not final or approved by the full Senate. “For now, four months. We (Democrats) had asked for four months and four months looks like what we’re going to get when we come to this agreement.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders engaged in final negotiations after a tumultuous but productive day on Monday. While the two sides have resolved many issues in the sweeping package, some sticking points remained. A Senate vote could come later in the day.

Ravaged in recent days, stocks climbed as negotiators signaled a resolution was in sight.

At issue is an unprecedented economic rescue package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, and a $350 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. A point of contention has been $500 billion for guaranteed loans to larger industries.

The one-time rebates are about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four.

Hospitals could get up to $200 billion for the expected influx of sick patients, said Mnuchin.

Opening the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell combined optimism about the chances for a deal with frustration at the delays — and a sober view of the crisis at hand.

“The urgency and the gravity of this moment cannot be lost on anyone,” he said. On the negotiations, he said: “It’s taken a lot of noise and a lot of rhetoric to get us here.” Still, “we are very close. We are close to a bill that takes our bold Republican framework, integrates further ideas from both parties, and delivers huge progress.”

Earlier Tuesday, Trump urged swift action. “Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today,” he tweeted. “The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy.”

Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilization fund, and money for cash-strapped states. A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to an unprecedented $300 billion, including a late $25 billion White House request for a flexible disaster response fund.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the TARP bank rescue, officials said.

The sense of optimism extended to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who told CNBC: “I think there is real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours.” Only Monday, Pelosi introduced a massive Democratic measure with liberal priorities, drawing scorn from Republicans.

The long evening of shuttle negotiations came after a long day trying to close the deal. The package is a far-reaching effort to prop up the U.S. economy, help American households and bolster the health care system in the growing crisis. Senate passage would send the legislation to the House.

Tensions had flared Monday as Washington strained to respond to the worsening coronavirus outbreak, with Congress arguing over the huge rescue package and an impatient Trump musing openly about letting the 15-day shutdown expire March 30.

As the U.S. braces for an onslaught of sick Americans, and millions are forced indoors to avert a spike that risks overwhelming hospitals, the most ambitious federal intervention in modern times is testing whether Washington can act swiftly to deal with the pandemic on the home front.

Trump sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus’ march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the U.S. economy.

Even though Trump’s administration recommended Americans curtail activities starting a week ago, the president said: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

“Let’s go to work,” he said. “This country was not built to be shut down. This is not a county that was built for this.”

Trump said that he may soon allow parts of the nation’s economy, in regions less badly hit by the virus, to begin reopening, contradicting the advice of medical and public health experts across the country, if not the globe, to hunker down even more firmly.

Pelosi assailed Trump’s idea and fluctuating response to the crisis.

“He’s a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well-coordinated, science-based, government-wide response to this,” Pelosi said on a health care conference call Monday. “Thank God for the governors who are taking the lead in their state. Thank God for some of the people in the administration who speak truth to power.”

With a wary population watching and waiting, Washington labored under the size and scope of a rescue package — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Trump has balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

From his home, Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden criticized Trump for stopping short of using the full force of emergency federal authority .

“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president,” Biden said in an online address. “Well, start acting like one.”

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket and financial markets are eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the health-care crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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Sourcing & Methodology

Bev Banks contributed. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Hope Yen, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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World News

Sierra Leone overturns ban on pregnant schoolgirls

Sierra Leone has overturned a five-year law barring pregnant girls from going to school.

The ban was introduced in 2015 as schools reopened after the Ebola crisis, which saw a rise in pregnancies among school-age girls.

West Africa’s top court ruled in December that the girls were discriminated against and their human rights violated.

Teenage pregnancy is a huge issue in Sierra Leone.

The UN children’s agency Unicef in a 2015 report found that 40% of girls are married before their 18th birthday.

Several rights organisations sued the Sierra Leone government at the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court in May 2018.

The court ruled last year that the “discriminatory” policy had denied the girls their right to education.

Judges also criticised parallel learning centres that had been set up for the girls, saying it was “another form of discrimination” and ordered that they be abolished.

President Julius Maada Bio, who had come into office a month earlier, said in a statement after the December ruling that he was committed to “inclusion of every citizen” in his development plans.

There was an increase in underage pregnancy during the Ebola crisis, which left many girls vulnerable to sexual abuse and desperate for money.

Analysis: The stigma will continue

By Umaru Fofana, Freetown

Sierra Leone is a very traditional society. Many say much of the beliefs are misogynistic. It is a country where former President Ernest Bai Koroma refused to sign into law an abortion bill that was unanimously passed by parliament. Many activists say men are determining the future of women without regard to the women themselves.

Female genital mutilation is widespread, with an equally widespread resistance to stopping it by traditionalists. Any attempt to do so is resisted, with accusations of “foreign cultural interference”.

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015, the government closed all schools in order to halt the spread of the disease. Consequently, hundreds – some say thousands – of girls became pregnant. A 2010 policy of not allowing pregnant girls in school came to the fore. So the girls were shut out of school and not allowed to write their exams.

The policy received widespread public support and still does.

Memunatu Margao, a shop attendant in central Freetown, expressed disappointment with the overturning of the ban: “I will not allow my daughter to sit in class with someone pregnant – that’s a very bad influence”.

Asked whether she would keep her daughter in school if she became pregnant, the mother of two said emphatically: “No! She will stay at home.”

But Education Minister David Moinina Sebgeh described it as a great day for the children of Sierra Leone, and said the policy shift “was based on evidence and consultation with a diverse task force consisting of religious leaders, heads of schools and civil society organizations”.

He said that “at a time of uncertainty, when schools are closing for what seems like an indefinite time for Covid-19, Sierra Leone is learning from its experience during the Ebola crisis”.

A new policy of inclusion would apply to “all learners”, while the government would also “engage communities to prevent teenage pregnancies”, he added.

But many here believe that while the official policy may have changed, the stigma against pregnant girls will continue, so the girls may be kept out of school for a different reason.

The issue of pregnant girls going to school is also a big issue on the other side of Africa, in Tanzania.

President John Magufuli has defended the policy of banning pregnant girls from school, saying young mothers would be distracted if they were allowed back in school.

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Coronavirus: Banks warn on wave of text message ‘smishing’ scams

The banking industry has warned of a surge in so-called “smishing” scams as criminals try to exploit the coronavirus pandemic.

UK Finance spoke up as the public is urged to be vigilant in the face of trickery via phones, the internet and even on the doorstep amid the lockdown to help keep people safe from COVID-19.

Smishing, UK Finance said, is when criminals use text messages impersonating other organisations in a bid to get personal and financial information or money.

Of particular concern, it said, was the growing use of a technique called “spoofing” which can make a message appear in a chain of texts alongside previous genuine messages.

The body said the texts often claim to be from government departments, banks or other trusted organisations, offering payments related to the coronavirus outbreak or claiming to be issuing fines.

Its statement read: “The banking industry continues to work closely with mobile network operators, government and other industry stakeholders to crack down on this type of fraud.

UK Finance is urging consumers to avoid clicking on any links contained within text messages, and to always log into their bank account to update their information or make any legitimate payments.

“Customers can report suspected spam text texts to their mobile network provider by forwarding them to 7726.”

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Airlines call on government to underwrite industry charges

Airlines have called on the government to underwrite hundreds of millions of pounds in regulatory and air traffic control charges as they seek to navigate through the escalating coronavirus crisis.

Sky News has obtained a letter sent on Wednesday by Airlines UK, the industry’s main lobbying group, to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, in which it calls again for a package of emergency support.

In the letter, Airlines UK urged the government to suspend – rather than defer – air passenger duty payments for six months following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It called for the waiving of air traffic control (ATC) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) charges for the whole of 2020, “with payments guaranteed by [the government] so National Air Traffic Services and the CAA can continue to be paid and function as critical enablers of the wider UK aviation landscape, both through the current crisis and then into the recovery phase”.

Airlines UK, whose members include British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic, also repeated a call for a moratorium on all litigated claims under EC261, the European law which requires airlines to refund passengers for cancelled flights.

“Carriers should also be permitted to issue vouchers instead of refunds and, should refunds be required, carriers should be permitted to defer payment until the crisis period is over and as defined by air traffic volumes, rather than time period,” the group said.

The letter from Airlines UK comes a day after Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, told British carriers that they could expect to engage in discussions with the government about “bespoke” aid “only as a last resort”.

Mr Sunak said airlines would need to exhaust the resources of their existing shareholders and financial stakeholders before the government would consider an injection of debt or equity.

Tim Alderslade, Airlines UK chief executive, said: “A million people work in UK aviation all over the country.

“It is one of the UK’s international assets, as the third largest globally behind only China and the US.

“We welcome that the Government will enter into negotiations with individual airlines, but we also want to work with them on policy actions that could be taken now which could also have a considerable impact.”

Mr Alderslade added that airlines welcomed Mr Sunak’s confirmation that the government would be prepared to enter talks with individual airlines about “bespoke support”.

The latest industry data suggests that aggregate passenger revenues will fall globally by $252bn as a result of the virus outbreak.

Markets with severe travel restrictions now cover 98% of global passenger revenues, Airlines UK said.

Mr Alderslade also urged Mr Shapps to provide more detail about the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme unveiled by Mr Sunak late last week.

“Please can we urge that further clarity is provided as soon as possible owing to the severe cash pressures that airlines are facing,” he wrote.

Mr Sunak’s comments held open the possibility that the government could take a stake in some British airlines, but underlined the remoteness of such a prospect.

The Treasury is keen for major airline shareholders such as easyJet’s Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson to inject further sums before they can turn to the government for more support.

Mr Sunak also hinted that the Treasury was close to unveiling a further credit facility for companies which do not have an investment grade credit rating.

“I have listened to feedback that suggests some companies including airlines are uncertain whether they can access this Facility – which is for companies rated as investment grade or equivalent,” he wrote.

“I am in discussions to resolve this uncertainty and further announcements will be made shortly.”

Sky News revealed last week that Rothschild, the investment bank, had been asked to advise ministers on a package of measures, and that one option could include direct taxpayer investments in airline shares.

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