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India backs AstraZeneca shot despite South Africa halt

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NEW DELHI: India said on Tuesday it had no concerns over the efficacy of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine despite South Africa putting it on hold, and ordered 10 million more doses of the shot for its own huge immunisation campaign.

South Africa delayed use of the vaccine after researchers found it offered minimal protection against mild-to-moderate COVID-19 disease caused by the country’s dominant coronavirus variant.

India, with the highest number of infections after the United States, has yet to detect the South African variant and will continue to use the vaccine in an inoculation drive that has covered 6.3 million front-line workers since Jan. 16.

“Our vaccination programme is robust and valid, and I assure you that we are going ahead with it, not worried at the moment,” Vinod Kumar Paul, a top Indian vaccine official, told a news conference.

“We will intensify our surveillance and we will be watching other developments in due course.”

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker, has licenced the vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University and markets it as COVISHIELD for low-and middle-income countries.

India has ordered 10 million more doses of COVISHIELD on top of 11 million supplied earlier, an SII spokesman told Reuters on Tuesday. SII has agreed to sell at least 100 million doses to the government at a discounted price of 200 rupees ($2.74) each, though the government says firm orders will be staggered based on its needs, and also on vaccine shelf-life.

COVISHIELD is about 72% effective, based on late-stage trials done abroad, India’s drug regulator says.

The country is also using the COVAXIN shot developed at home by Bharat Biotech with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research. Bharat Biotech has supplied 5.5 million doses to the government and is selling 4.5 million more, a company spokeswoman told Reuters.

The government wants to cover 300 million people by August, reaching the elderly and those with existing conditions by March.

India has reported 10.85 million infections and more than 155,000 deaths – though cases have fallen sharply since September.

Paul said Johnson & Johnson could manufacture its shot in India. He also said many more vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik V, Cadila Healthcare’s ZyCov-D and a Novavax product, were in the queue.

“India is fortunate to have two great made-in-India vaccines, and as many as six-seven vaccines in the pipeline and perhaps many more,” he said, days after Pfizer Inc pulled an application seeking emergency-use authorisation in the country.

The U.S. company had declined to immediately do a small local safety study for its shot and produce it in India, unlike the other vaccine developers. New Delhi, meanwhile, is aggressively pushing the SII and Bharat Biotech vaccines abroad as part of a diplomatic campaign to recoup ground lost to China.

Bharat Biotech told Reuters it could export its vaccine to Brazil and the United Arab Emirates this week, a major success for the shot approved at home for emergency use without efficacy data from a late-stage trial.

The company expects results from an ongoing trial involving 25,800 participants in India only by March, though the country’s drug regulator has called the vaccine safe and effective amid criticism from doctors and health experts. A study on 26 participants has found COVAXIN effective against the UK strain of the coronavirus.

Bharat Biotech has also applied to conduct a Phase III trial for COVAXIN in Brazil, which plans to import 8 million doses in February and another 12 million in March.

Bharat Biotech has also sought emergency use authorisation in the Philippines. REUTERS

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Odisha government claims no loss of life in Similipal forest fire

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Bhubaneswar (Odisha) [India], March 4 (ANI): The Odisha government on Wednesday has claimed that there was no loss of life in the Similipal National Park fire, which has been raging for around a week and continues to rage the forest area, according to Chief Minister’s Office (CMO).
The statement came after Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reviewed the fire situation at Similipal National Park a day after Union Environment, forest and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar sought a report on the devastating fire at the Park, one of the major biospheres in the country.
According to CMO’s official release, at a high-level meeting with senior government officials, CM Patnaik instructed officials to be vigilant and take all precautionary measures to combat the forest fire.
The Chief Minister said that “Shimlipal is not only a treasure trove of Odisha or India but also an invaluable asset of the whole world, CMO said in a release.
Additional Chief Secretary Department of Forests and Environment, Dr Mona Sharma informed that the blaze has been brought under control.
Sharma said that no casualties were reported so far and standard operating procedures have been issued to control the fire and no major trees have been damaged.
She also informed that the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Wildlife is monitoring the situation and preventive steps at the Spot.
Earlier on Tuesday Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has tweeted that “Distressed to learn about the forest fires raging in Simlipal Tiger Reserve from social media platforms. Request the urgent attention of Union Minister for Environment & Forest, Prakash Javadekar and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on this alarming situation at one of the most important biosphere reserves of the country.”
Later Union Minister Prakash Javadekar informed through a tweet that “he orders officers to take immediate action to report the issue.” (ANI)

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SC to hear petitions by women Army officers over permanent commission

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New Delhi [India], March 4 (ANI): The Supreme Court on Thursday will hear a batch of petitions on a plea by women officers in the Indian Army who had approached the Apex Court over non-implementation of its order to grant them a permanent commission.
The petitions demand direction that contempt proceedings be initiated against those who had allegedly failed in their duty to comply with the apex court’s earlier judgement.
The top court earlier ordered that the permanent commission will apply to all women officers in the Indian Army in service, irrespective of their years of service. It also ordered that after the judgement of Delhi High Court, Centre should grant permanent commission to women officers.
Last year, the SC had ordered the Central government to grant Permanent Commission (PC) to them in the Army’s non-combat support units on par with their male counterparts.
A bench of the Apex Court, headed by Justice Dr D Y Chandrahud, and also comprising Justice M R Shah, earlier fixed the matter for a final hearing to February 24.
One such petition was filed by one woman officer, through her lawyer, Chitrangda Rastravara and Advocate on Record (AOR) Archana Pathak Dave, before the Supreme Court seeking its immediate direction to implement its earlier order.
The Army, however, claimed that out of 615 women officers, there are 422 who are eligible and found fit for PC in the Army. But in reality, only 277 out of 422 have been granted PC and the remaining number i.e. 145 are those officers who are either non-optees or whose result is withheld due to medical and administrative reasons, 193 officers have been denied PC, Chitrangda said.
According to her petition, this figure of 422 is a figure only for good optics and does not truly portray the actual number. Thus, finding those officers who are non-optees fit for PC and denying the same to optees smacks of gross arbitrariness. (ANI)

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ED violating model code of conduct by summoning KIIFB officials: Kerala CM

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Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) [India], March 4 (ANI): Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan accused Enforcement Directorate (ED) of summoning Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) officials and said it is violating the Model Code of Conduct.
In a letter written to the Chief Election Commissioner, the Chief Minister said that the ED summoned KIIFB officials as per the political interests of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Hence, it is violating the Model Code of Conduct.
“The EC should take action against the investigating agency for violating the code of conduct,” the Chief Minister said.
Nirmala Sitharaman’s remark on February 28 during a BJP Yatra is evidence of the political use of investigative agencies, the letter read.
Recently, Sitharaman accused the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government of giving all the budget money to KIIFB.
While Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac yesterday said that there was no violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) in an alleged case of external borrowings of KIIFB through Masala Bonds.
“There is absolutely no violation of FEMA as we have received No Objection Certificate (NOC) from Reserve Bank of India (RBI),” said Thomas Isaac while speaking to ANI.
Enforcement Directorate (ED) has registered a case against KIIFB for external borrowings through Masala Bonds without the permission of the union government.
Yesterday, ED sent a notice to KM Abraham, CEO of KIIFB and asked him to appear before its Kochi office on March 5. It also sent a notice to Deputy Managing Director Vikramjit Singh and asked him to appear before it on March 4.
KIIFB was constituted by the state government as a corporate body. In November 2020, it had initiated an investigation into the Masala bonds of the KIIFB, as per the sources.
Recently, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accused the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government of giving all the budget money to KIIFB. (ANI)

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Two new flag officers assume charge at Southern Naval Command

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Kochi (Kerala) [India], March 4 (ANI): Rear Admiral Antony George assumed charge as the new Chief of Staff of the Southern Naval Command and Rear Admiral Rajesh Dhankhar as the Chief Staff Officer (Training) of the SNC.

According to a defence release, both Flag Officers are alumni of the Indian Naval Academy and were commissioned into the Indian Navy on July 1, 1987 and July 1 1990 respectively.
Rear Admiral George is an “Anti Submarine Warfare” (ASW) specialist, who has served onboard frontline ASW ships and commanded the Missile Corvette INS Khanjar, as well as the Guided Missile Frigate INS Tarkash.
As a Flag Officer, he served as the first Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Staff Requirements) at Naval Headquarters after which he took over as the Chief Staff Officer (Training), SNC on February, 2020.
“Rear Admiral Rajesh Dhankhar is a specialist in Navigation and Direction and has served on frontline warships as Navigating Officer and Operations Officer. Rear Admiral George is a recipient of the Nao Sena Medal and the Vishisht Seva Medal,” said the release.
Rear Admiral Dhankhar is a recipient of Nau Sena Medal (Gallantry) for undertaking non-combatant evacuation of Indian and foreign personnel from Yemen as part of Operation Rahat in April 2015, it added. (ANI)

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No violation of Foreign Exchange Act at KIIFB, says Kerala Finance Minister

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Kochi (Kerala) [India], March 4 (ANI): Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac on Wednesday said that there was no violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) in alleged case of external borrowings of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) through Masala Bonds.
“There is absolutely no violation of FEMA as we have received No Objection Certificate (NOC) from Reserve Bank of India (RBI),” said Thomas Isaac while speaking to ANI.
The Finance Minister further said: “There is a guideline that authorizes any body corporate to seek their permission to borrow through Masala bonds. KIIFB is body corporate.”
Enforcement Directorate (ED) has registered a case against KIIFB for external borrowings through Masala Bonds without the permission of the union government.
Yesterday, ED sent a notice to KM Abraham, CEO of KIIFB and asked him to appear before its Kochi office on March 5. It also sent a notice to Deputy Managing Director Vikramjit Singh and asked him to appear before it on March 4.
KIIFB was constituted by the state government as a corporate body. In November 2020, it had initiated an investigation into the Masala bonds of the KIIFB, as per the sources.
Recently, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accused the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government of giving all the budget money to KIIFB. (ANI)

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Shimlipal Sanctuary fire brought under control, CM Patnaik asks officials to take preventive steps

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Bhubaneswar (Odisha) [India], March 4 (ANI): Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Friday held a review meeting with senior government officials and instructed them to take preventive measures after a fire raged in the Shimlipal Wildlife Sanctuary (STR) for days and has now been controlled.
Directing senior officials to take immediate preventive action Chief Minister said in a statement that “Shimlipal is not only a treasure trove of Odisha or India but also an invaluable asset of the whole world.
Informing the Chief Minister, Additional Chief Secretary Department of Forests and Environment, Dr Mona Sharma said that the blaze has been bought under control.
“No casualties were reported. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been issued to control the fire and no major trees have been damaged,” Sharma said, adding that the PCCF Wildlife is monitoring the situation and taking preventive steps at the spot.
Earlier on Tuesday Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan tweeted, “Distressed to learn about the forest fires raging in Simlipal Tiger Reserve from social media platforms. Request the urgent attention of Union Minister for Environment & Forest, Prakash Javadekar and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on this alarming situation at one of the most important biosphere reserves of the country.”
Later Union Minister Prakash Javadekar informed through a tweet that “he has ordered officers to take immediate action.” (ANI)

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