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Ukraine rebels free Swedish hostage; Obama seeks unity against Russia

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Ukraine rebels free Swedish hostage; Obama seeks unity against Russia
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine freed a Swedish observer on Sunday, but said they had no plans to release seven other European monitors they have been holding for three days.

On the eve of an expected announcement of a mild tightening of Western sanctions against a targeted list of Russians, U.S. President Barack Obama called for the United States and Europe to join forces to impose stronger measures to restrain Moscow.

In Donetsk, where pro-Russian rebels have proclaimed an independent “people’s republic”, armed fighters seized the headquarters of regional television and ordered it to start broadcasting a Russian state TV channel.

Washington and Brussels are expected, possibly as early as Monday, to add new people and firms close to Russian President Vladimir Putin to a small list of those hit by punitive measures. But they have yet to reach a consensus on imposing wider sanctions that would hurt Russia’s economy more generally.

Speaking during a visit to Malaysia, Obama said the impact of any decision over wider sanctions would depend on whether the United States and its allies could find a unified position.

“We’re going to be in a stronger position to deter Mr. Putin when he sees that the world is unified and the United States and Europe is unified rather than this is just a U.S.-Russian conflict,” Obama told reporters.

The stand-off over Ukraine, an ex-Soviet republic of about 45 million people, has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War.

After Ukrainians overthrew a pro-Russian president, Putin overturned decades of international diplomacy last month by announcing the right to use military force on his neighbour’s territory. He has seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and massed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier.

Heavily armed pro-Russian gunmen have seized buildings in towns and cities across eastern Ukraine. Kiev and its Western allies say the uprising is directed by Russian agents. Moscow denies it is involved and says the uprising is a spontaneous reaction to oppression of Russian speakers by Kiev.

An international agreement reached this month calls on rebels to vacate occupied buildings, but Obama said Russia had not “lifted a finger” to push its allies to comply.

“In fact, there’s strong evidence that they’ve been encouraging the activities in eastern and southern Ukraine.”

PRISONERS

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent unarmed monitors to try to encourage compliance with the peace deal. The pro-Russian rebels seized eight European monitors three days ago and have been holding them at their most heavily-fortified redoubt in the town of Slaviansk.

One of them was permitted to leave on Sunday after OSCE negotiators arrived to discuss their release. The freed man got into an OSCE-marked car and drove away. A separatist spokeswoman said the prisoner, a Swede, had been let go on medical grounds, but there were no plans to free the rest.

The captives were shown to reporters on Sunday and said they were in good health.

“We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries,” Colonel Axel Schneider told reporters as armed men in camouflage fatigues and balaclavas looked on. “We wish from the bottom of our hearts to go back to our nations as soon and as quickly as possible.”

The observers, from Germany, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic as well as Sweden, were accused by their captors of spying for NATO and using the OSCE mission as a cover.

The OSCE, a European security body, includes Russia as well as NATO members, and its main Ukraine mission was approved by Moscow, although the Europeans held in Slaviansk were on a separate OSCE-authorised mission that did not require Russia’s consent. Western countries say Russia should do more to prevail upon their pro-Russian captors to free the men.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the rebel leader who has declared himself mayor of Slaviansk, has described them as prisoners of war and said the separatists were prepared to exchange them for fellow rebels in Ukrainian custody.

Washington is more hawkish on further sanctions than some of its European allies, which has caused a degree of impatience among some U.S. officials. Many European countries are worried about the risks of imposing tougher sanctions: the EU has more than 10 times as much trade with Russia as the United States and imports about a quarter of its natural gas from Russia.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in coming days there would be “an expansion of existing sanctions, measures against individuals or entities in Russia”.

RUSSIA! RUSSIA!

At the Donetsk television headquarters, about 400 pro-Russian demonstrators chanted “Russia! Russia!” and “Referendum!” – a call for a vote like one in Crimea that preceded its annexation by Russia last month. Four separatists in masks controlled access at the entrance, and more masked gunmen in camouflage fatigues could be seen inside.

Oleg Dzholos, the station’s director, who came outside to speak to reporters, said the people who seized the building had ordered him to change the programming.

“They used force to push back the gates,” he said. “There were no threats. There were not many of my people. What can a few people do? The leaders of this movement just gave me an ultimatum that one of the Russian channels has to be broadcast.”

Ponomaryov, the rebel leader in Slaviansk, said his men had captured three officers with Ukraine’s state security service who, he said, had been mounting an operation against separatists in the nearby town of Horlivka.

The Russian television station Rossiya 24 showed footage it said was of a colonel, a major and a captain. They were shown seated, with their hands behind their backs, blindfolded, and wearing no trousers. At least two had bruises on their faces.

Ukraine’s State Security Service said the three had been part of a unit which went to Horlivka to arrest a suspect in the murder of Volodymyr Rybak, a pro-Kiev councillor whose body was found last week in a river near Slaviansk.

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Covid-19 vaccine CEOs say 3rd dose may be needed along with annual jabs

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Covid-19 vaccine CEOs say 3rd dose may be needed along with annual jabs | Thaiger
Stock photo of Pfizer vaccine via Flickr

The CEO for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines says it is likely that people will need a 3rd dose of the vaccine and to receive it annually. Albert Bourla, told CNBC, that the booster, or 3rd dose, will be needed less than a year after being fully vaccinated.

“A likely scenario is that there will be likely a need for a 3rd dose, somewhere between 6 and 12 months and then from there, there will be an annual revaccination, but all of that needs to be confirmed. And again, the variants will play a key role. It is extremely important to suppress the pool of people that can be susceptible to the virus.”

Bourla’s comment echoes that of Johnson & Johnson’s CEO when he stated in February, that people may need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 annually, just like seasonal flu shots. Both statements reflect the fact that since the vaccine is new, and testing periods are shorter than most vaccines in the past, researchers are still unclear about how long the vaccine will protect against the virus.

Pfizer says that its Covid-19 vaccine was more than 91% effective at protecting against the coronavirus and more than 95% effective against severe diseases up to 6 months after the 2nd dose. Moderna’s vaccine, which uses technology similar to Pfizer’s, was also shown to be highly effective at 6 months.

Just yesterday, the Biden administration’s Covid response chief science officer, David Kessler, noted that new Covid variants could “challenge” the effectiveness of the shots.

“We don’t know everything at this moment. We are studying the durability of the antibody response. It seems strong but there is some waning of that and no doubt the variants challenge … they make these vaccines work harder. So I think for planning purposes, planning purposes only, I think we should expect that we may have to boost.”

Late last month, the National Institute of Health started testing a new Covid vaccine from Moderna in addition to the one it already has, designed to protect against a problematic variant first found in South Africa. The variant is similar to that of the UK one that has recently made landfall in Thailand.

Recent findings, by The Lancet, however, have stated that the UK variant, known as B117, has a higher reproductive rate than other strains, and it’s more transmissible. However, it refuted earlier reports that the strain is more severe. Meanwhile, Thailand’s health minister is confirming his commitment to making AstraZeneca the nation’s chosen vaccine.

SOURCE: CNBC

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Economy

China grows 18.3%, the only major economy to grow in 2020

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China grows 18.3%, the only major economy to grow in 2020 | Thaiger
PHOTO: China - the second largest economy, and only major economy to grow last year.

China’s economy set a record for growth in Q1, 2021, marking an 18.3% jump in year-on-year figures, the biggest quarterly growth in almost 30 years. China only started publishing growth statistics in 1992, and this drastic increase is the fastest growth recorded since then.

The figures, however impressive, are mainly due to what is called a “low base effect” where the change from a low starting point translates into big percentage statistics. Because of the devastating economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Q1 2020 figures were dismal, allowing the big gain over the last year.

Quarter to quarter, the last 3 months saw only a 0.6% growth, but in the last quarter of 2020 China recorded an economic boom of 6.5% according to the Chinese government. Still, the figures are admirable, as China was the only major economy in the world to achieve growth in 2020. Most of the planet struggled to contain global Covid-19 outbreaks, crippling economies across the globe. But China, now the second-largest economy in the world, managed a 2.3% overall expansion. Even Chinese officials called the impressive statistics “better than we had expected.”

China has been growing in terms of imports and exports as well, with exports expanding nearly 31% and imports up 38% by price over last years.

SOURCE: CNN

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Denmark becomes first country in Europe to ditch AstraZeneca vaccine

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Denmark becomes first country in Europe to ditch AstraZeneca vaccine | Thaiger
PHOTO: Flickr

Denmark has announced that it is abandoning the AstraZeneca vaccine, the first European country to do so, amid concerns about very rare but serious blood clots. The rollout of the vaccine has run into problems in several countries, with its use either temporarily suspended or restricted to older age groups.

When concerns first arose over the vaccine’s rare side-effects, Denmark was the first country in Europe to suspend its use. In Thailand, use of the vaccine was suspended last month, before officials judged it safe to proceed, with Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul going on to confirm it would become the Kingdom’s primary Covid-19 vaccine.

Both the European drugs regulator and the World Health Organisation are standing by the jab, saying the benefits outweigh the risks. However, health officials in Denmark have now decided to ditch it for good.

“Denmark’s vaccination campaign will go ahead without the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Denmark has reported 2 cases of thrombosis (blood clotting) linked to administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine, one of which proved fatal. The blood clot incidents arose after 140,000 people had received the jab. The Bangkok Post reports that 8% of Denmark’s 5.8 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated and 17% have received their first dose.

The country plans to continue its rollout using the Modern and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Officials say they are confident that the availability of other jabs, coupled with the fact that Covid-19 is relatively under control in Denmark, means the country’s mass inoculation can continue without issue.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has released a statement acknowledging the decision taken by Danish health authorities.

“We recognise and respect the decision taken by the Danish Health Authority. Implementation and rollout of the vaccine programme is a matter for each country to decide, based on local conditions. We will continue to collaborate with the regulators and local authorities to provide all available data to inform their decisions.”

SOURCE: Euro News | Bangkok Post

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