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EU drug regulator: still unclear if COVID-19 shots need tweaking for Omicron
21 December 2021, 4:42 PM

The European Union’s drug regulator is prepared for the possibility that COVID-19 vaccines may be tweaked to fight the new Omicron variant although there is no evidence yet that it will be necessary, the agency’s chief said on Tuesday.

“There is no answer whether we will need to adapt vaccines,” European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) executive director Emer Cook said in a media briefing.

She said the agency needs more data on vaccine efficacy, the variant’s transmissibility and the severity of disease it causes.

Cook said did not think the world would still be in a pandemic a year ago when the agency gave the regulatory greenlight for the vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech , the first in the region.

The European Union has the capacity to make 300 million doses of vaccines per month as drugmakers have ramped up output to meet growing demand for its 450 million population, she said.

Travel ban on southern Africa ‘inefficient’ but EU states oppose lifting: Top official
21 December 2021, 3:41 PM

Brussels is pushing to lift an “inefficient” travel ban on southern African states over the Omicron variant, but European Union nations are reluctant to drop it, the EU’s commissioner for justice Didier Reynders told Reuters on Tuesday.

Late in November, EU states agreed to impose travel curbs on seven southern African countries after they reported several cases of the Omicron variant.

Reynders said the ban had become inefficient because the EU had other tools, including quarantines and tests, to manage the flow of travellers from countries with several Omicron cases.

In addition to that, the spread of the variant to many other countries in the world, including EU states, further weakened the rationale for that measure.

But EU states remained reluctant to lift the ban, he said, noting that a new request by the Commission made at a meeting of EU experts on Monday had been rejected by EU governments.

“We will continue to push not only for diplomatic reasons, but also because is becoming inefficient. We have other tools,” he said, citing “huge pressure” from South Africa to remove the ban.

Reynders also said the European Commission was not in favour of measures adopted by seven EU governments that require vaccinated travellers from other EU nations to present a negative test, even if they have a valid COVID-19 certificate.

He added the measures appeared to be partly justified by fears over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, but that the executive Commission was still assessing whether they were proportionate and necessary.

“We prefer to use for the free movement in Europe only the certificate without additional measures,” he said.

Despite this partial setback, the EU certificate was increasingly used across the world.

“It’s becoming a global standard,” Reynders said.

He added that more than 30 countries across the world were using the EU’s travel pass, in addition to the 27 EU states, and over 80 more were also asking to use it.

South Africa focused on beating India despite off-field woes
21 December 2021, 2:31 PM

Test captain Dean Elgar says he will not let the allegations of racist conduct that have come to light at Cricket South Africa in recent months become an excuse for failure as his side prepare to host India in a three-match series from Sunday.

Director of cricket Graeme Smith, who denies the claims, and national team coach Mark Boucher were among a number of CSA employees implicated in “tentative findings” made by the Social Justice and Nation Building Ombudsman into alleged past discrimination.

CSA confirmed on Tuesday they would investigate the conduct of everyone implicated in the report, though only once the series with India has concluded.

“What happens off the field for me is irrelevant now,” Elgar told reporters on Tuesday. “As a playing unit we have been through such crappy times (amid the COVID-19 pandemic) that we have formulated such a good bond within our group.

“We must be mindful that if things are bad off the field, we can’t use that as a cop-out for us. We are a professional team and professional players.”

Elgar appeared to give his backing to Boucher after former test spinner Paul Adams said he had been called a “brown shit” in a South Africa team song during his time in the side, including by former wicket-keeper Boucher, who has since apologised.

“From the player’s point of view, we back our coaches and management,” Elgar said.

“They put in so much work that goes unnoticed, and it gets watered down by the media. I know what they do behind the scenes. It is not nice to see our coaches get lambasted for things.”

South Africa have, meanwhile, revealed they will be without fast bowler Anrich Nortje for the series after he failed to sufficiently recover from injury. They will not be calling up a replacement.

Qatar targets $10 billion of investments in US ports: Sources
21 December 2021, 1:34 PM

Qatar plans to invest at least $10 billion in US ports and has approached international banks for financing help, three finance sources say, in an infrastructure spree that reflects the Gulf country’s deepening ties with Washington.

The Middle East and Western sources familiar with the matter said Doha was targeting investments in ports around the US East Coast which were expected to be developed in phases, adding that the plan was at a preliminary stage.

The country’s sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investment Authority and the Qatar Government Communication Office both declined to comment.

“The Qataris have been preparing for almost a year to test the waters with U.S. port investments,” said Michael Frodl, a US-based adviser on projects including maritime security, commerce and infrastructure, who is familiar with Qatar’s strategy.

“We think that a shrewd investor with the $10 billion the Qataris desire to put into American port infrastructure would likely look at the underserved East Coast first and foremost. The West Coast is getting all the U.S. government and private investment attention, while the East Coast is long overdue for improvements.”

Frodl said ports with easy access to highways and rail lines would be a priority.

“We’d be looking at aging medium-sized ports south of Boston and north of Jacksonville,” he added.

A Middle East-based source said the investments would be backed by debt, which would be linked to the port assets, adding that Qatar was in early discussions with banks to look for a structuring adviser.

The banks being approached included Morgan Stanley, HSBC and Credit Suisse, two of the sources said.

Morgan Stanley, HSBC and Credit Suisse declined to comment.

In November Congress approved US President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which port and industry sources say includes $5.22 billion of federal funding for port specific programmes, falling short of the tens of billions of dollars estimated to be needed for investment in creaking infrastructure.

US transport secretary Pete Buttigieg told an online news briefing with the Port of Los Angeles on Nov. 16 that while Washington was delivering a “historic level of funding” to improve ports, “it can’t all be from federal grants”.

“We’re going to have to keep working with local, state and private partners in order to make sure that we have the kinds of resources that are needed,” Buttigieg said.

There are around 360 ports in the United States, according to the US Coast Guard.

The Middle East-based source said Qatar could look to target three port projects.

A fourth finance source separately confirmed Qatar’s investment plans in the United States.

Qatar currently has minimal holdings in overseas ports. However, last year the state’s commercial ports operator, QTerminals, purchased the Turkish port of Akdeniz and entered into an agreement to develop the Black Sea port of Olvia in Ukraine.

STRONGER TIES

Relations between the United States and Qatar have deepened after the small, wealthy Gulf monarchy forged close ties with the Taliban, playing a key role in the talks that led to the 2020 deal for the US troop pullout from Afghanistan this year.

Washington and Doha signed an accord in November for Qatar to represent U.S. diplomatic interests in Afghanistan.

“Qatari interest in investing in US infrastructure dates back to at least 2016,” Frodl said.

“Things would have been more advanced if it was not for the previous Trump administration, which was closely aligned with the Saudis.”

UK Brexit minister Frost resigns: Mail on Sunday
18 December 2021, 10:01 PM

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost has resigned over the “political direction” of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, the Mail on Sunday newspaper reported.

“Lord Frost tendered his resignation a week ago – but was persuaded to stay until January,” the newspaper said on Twitter.

Frost, a supporter of Brexit, has led the attempts by London to re-open negotiations over the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

His reported departure would be the latest in a string of setbacks for Johnson who on Thursday saw his Conservative Party lose a stronghold electoral seat.

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