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India kicks off massive Covid-19 vaccination drive on Saturday, Jan. 16



Bangalore Airport workers transfer carton boxes containing vials of Covishield vaccine developed by the Serum Institute of India in Bangalore, India, Jan. 12, 2021.

Stringer | Xinhua | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — India is gearing up for one of the largest mass vaccination exercises in the world starting Saturday.

The South Asian country plans to inoculate some 300 million people, or more than 20% of its 1.3 billion population, against Covid-19 in the first phase of the exercise.

Indian airlines have started delivering the first doses of vaccines to Delhi and other major cities, including Kolkata, Ahmedabad and tech hub Bengaluru, tweeted Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri earlier this week.

Priority for the shots will be given to health-care and other frontline workers — an estimated 30 million people. That would be followed by those above 50 years of age and other younger, high-risk individuals.

The rollout will involve close collaboration between the central government and states.

India has also developed a digital portal called Co-WIN Vaccine Delivery Management System. It will provide real-time information on “vaccine stocks, their storage temperature and individualized tracking of beneficiaries,” according to the health ministry.

India has a long history of immunization campaigns … and will rely on this expertise to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

“India’s expertise in vaccine manufacturing and experience with mass immunization campaigns has prepared it well for ‘phase 1’ vaccinations set to begin this weekend,” Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at Eurasia Group, wrote in a report this week.

“India has a long history of immunization campaigns, including its Universal Immunization Program that inoculates 55 million a year, and will rely on this expertise to distribute coronavirus vaccines,” he added.

Emergency approval

India’s drug regulator has approved the restricted use of two coronavirus vaccines in emergency situations, both of which are being delivered to the various inoculation centers ahead of Saturday.

One of them is a vaccine developed by British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which is being manufactured domestically by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and is known locally as Covishield.

Another vaccine, called Covaxin, was developed domestically by India’s Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research. It was granted emergency use authorization as clinical trials continue.

The approval of Covaxin was reportedly criticized by some as the regulator gave the green light shortly after asking Bharat Biotech for more analysis.

India’s health secretary on Tuesday said the Indian government has signed procurement agreements for 11 million doses of Covishield at 200 Indian rupees ($2.74) per dose and 5.5 million doses of Covaxin at an average cost of 206 rupees per shot, which is likely to be cheaper than what they will cost in the private market.

Several other candidates, including a second domestically developed vaccine by Zydus Cadila, are undergoing clinical trials.

Potential risks

India currently has more than 10.5 million reported coronavirus cases, second only to the United States. More than 151,000 people have died from Covid-19 in India, according to Johns Hopkins University data. But daily reported figures show the number of active infection cases are declining.

South Asia’s largest country is also the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer and is said to produce about 60% of all vaccines sold globally.

As such, India’s production of Covid vaccines is expected to play a major role in global immunization drives against the disease.

Eurasia Group’s Bery said that despite the government’s optimism, two important risks may potentially slow the rollout of the vaccination campaign.

“First, vaccine production capacity will be limited even in best-case scenarios,” he said, adding that if the local vaccine-makers cannot produce the 600 million doses required to inoculate the initial 300 million people, then “India’s immunization timeline — and its export of vaccines to other countries — could be significantly delayed.”

The second risk is that India’s vaccine campaign will rely heavily on state governments “whose capacities and expertise vary widely,” Bery said. “Effective coordination will be needed between the central and state governments, something that has not been (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s strong point.”

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The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s plan: levelling down, not up | Boris Johnson




Today’s Conservative party is the opposite of what it pretends to be. Boris Johnson’s great crusade, he claimed, was to level up Britain. Coronavirus affects everyone, but not equally. Wealthier folk can shrug off the economic shock; the poor cannot. The best way to help those at the very bottom of society is to give them money directly. Whether it’s to feed hungry children or to ensure hundreds of thousands don’t slip into poverty by not cutting benefits from their current level, Mr Johnson seems unwilling to stump up the cash.

Yet the government seems unconcerned about losing £26bn because companies can’t pay back the Covid loans that the state guaranteed. It is puzzling that ministers cannot find a fraction of that for the poor. What is at stake is a conservative principle of personal responsibility: it is up to parents to feed their children and to get the cash to run their lives. Clinging to such ideas in the teeth of a pandemic appears foolish. But Mr Johnson’s skill in politics has been to reconcile apparently irreconcilable ideas.

The prime minister’s political concern is to entrench an economic doctrine even while it drags society under. His policies and instincts remain impeccably Thatcherite, but Mr Johnson knows that policies based on such ideas no longer possess any genuinely popular support. That is why he cloaks them in the flag of Brexit. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the current home secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that “single market” red tape cost the UK £125bn a year. Now, freed from the cage of EU membership, Mr Johnson has tasked his chancellor not with helping the poor, but to find the billions hiding in the paid holidays for workers, employment protections against the “Uberisation” of jobs and consumer rights against corporate bad actors. It was in the City where many saw in Brexit a way to escape EU regulations that had capped their worst excesses. Monopolists are also in for a bonanza: the day after Mr Johnson won the election was the busiest day of trading in UK shares for more than two years, with banks, housebuilders and utilities among the biggest winners.

To render irreversible a system that is at the height of its power but without wide appeal, the prime minister is using his powers of patronage to embed a “chumocracy” at the heart of government and allow Tory donors to be able to buy elections. The Conservatives want to increase the party limit on general election spending from the present £19.5m to about £33m, and abolish the electoral commission that oversees campaigning. The growing scandal of Covid contracts shows that there are unprecedented abuses of governance in this approach.

The rising inequality and unnecessary suffering produced by an unbalanced, financialised economy needs urgent attention and creative thinking. Since 2008, the Bank of England has created about £900bn of money through quantitative easing. For more than a decade, central banks have injected money into the economy without causing inflation. Why can they not print money and give it to the poor who are more likely to spend in a downturn than bankers are to lend? Unfortunately, Mr Johnson so far has little to fix Britain beyond doubling down on the economic orthodoxy that has broken society.

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Treasury minister downplays need for immediate tax rises | Politics




A Treasury minister has downplayed the need for immediate tax rises to tackle record levels of government borrowing caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jesse Norman said a rapid economic recovery from the worst recession for more than three centuries could help ministers avoid increasing the tax take in response to record borrowing levels.

Answering questions from the Commons Treasury committee amid mounting speculation that the March budget could be used to increase taxes, he told MPs: “It’s not absolutely obvious therefore that there may be any future need for consolidation, depending on the view you take of taxes.

“Of course we may end up with a somewhat delayed but nevertheless very pronounced bounce. There are features of the economy which would suggest that could be quite significant, if you look at the level of household savings, for example, and data like that.”

The comments follow weekend newspaper reports that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is preparing to raise taxes in the 3 March budget in order to bring down record levels of government borrowing. Sunak has warned that “hard choices” must be made to fix the public finances, and used his spending review in November to freeze public-sector pay and cut the overseas aid budget.

The UK’s budget deficit – the gap between spending and tax income – is on track to reach at least £394bn for the financial year ending in March, amid a rise in emergency spending during the crisis and collapse in tax receipts. The national debt – the sum total of every deficit – has risen to more than £2tn, equivalent to more than 100% of national output.

However, major tax increases might well provoke a swift Tory backlash. The chancellor has also been urged by leading economists to take advantage of record low borrowing costs and to steer clear of raising taxes or launching a renewed austerity drive to allow a sustainable economic recovery to take hold. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said £40bn in tax increases may be necessary in future to put the public finances back on a sustainable footing.

Downplaying the need for immediate action, Norman said the Treasury was still focusing on stabilising Britain’s economy amid elevated levels of Covid infections and tough government restrictions.

“We [need to] stabilise the economy and try to keep things moving forward before we can start thinking about the wider framework of policy. Although, as I’ve said, the chancellor does expect to think in terms of strong and sustainable public finances,” he said.

Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury committee, said: “I take away from this that it’s not a done deal that there will be tax rises. There are possibilities out there in terms of our recovery that might see us avoid what probably a lot of people are expecting. That remains to be seen.”

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New York Gov. Cuomo asks to buy directly from Pfizer




New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 15, 2020.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla Monday for the ability to buy Covid-19 vaccine doses directly from the company. But the company in a statement said the Department of Health and Human Services would need to approve such a model first.

The request comes after an alarmingly slow start to the national vaccine rollout, with the country millions of injections short of the Trump administration’s initial projections. As of Jan. 15, the U.S. had distributed more than 31 million doses and administered just over 12 million. Health officials had hoped to inject 20 million Americans by the end of 2020.

Cuomo, a Democrat, blamed the Trump administration for failing to send enough vaccine doses to his state. This week, he said, New York would receive 250,000 doses — 50,000 fewer than the week before.

In his letter to Bourla, Cuomo suggested Pfizer should be able to sell directly to his state, bypassing federal agencies, since Pfizer is “not bound by commitments that Moderna made as part of Operation Warp Speed.”

“The company’s decision to opt out of Operation Warp Speed, which the Biden administration plans to overhaul, puts it in a unique situation that could help us save lives right here in New York,” Cuomo wrote.

Pfizer said that model would first have to be cleared under the emergency use authorization granted by the Food and Drug Administration for the drug’s use.

The company said in a statement it “is open to collaborating with HHS on a distribution model that gives as many Americans as possible access to our vaccine as quickly as possible. However, before we can sell directly to State governments, HHS would need to approve that proposal based on the EUA granted to Pfizer by the FDA.”

Representatives for the HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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