Freedom of navigation operations, reassuring—Taiwan president

Committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea | USS Theodore Roosevelt

Speaking in Taipei, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said US ships and aircraft carrying out a “freedom of navigation operations is reassuring. This demonstrates the clear U.S. attitude towards challenges to the security status quo in the Indo-Pacific region.” 

“We are committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea that all nations enjoy under international law,” Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, said in a statement.

According to Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “The US has been committed to the idea of freedom of the seas and nowhere is that under greater threat than in the South China Sea.”

A few days after a United States warship sailed near Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed South China Sea, two US carrier groups conduct joint exercises in the disputed waters in the South China Sea Tuesday—the USS Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group,  two US supercarriers of the Nimitz class. 

Beijing criticizes the U.S. “show of force” as not conducive to regional peace and stability.

The USS capabilities

  • USS Nimitz (CVN-68) is a supercarrier of the United States Navy, and the lead ship of her class. One of the largest warships in the world, she was laid down, launched, and commissioned as CVAN-68, “aircraft carrier, attack, nuclear powered”, but she was later redesignated as CVN-68, “aircraft carrier, multi-mission, nuclear-powered”, on 30 June 1975, as part of a fleet-wide realignment that year.
  • USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is the fourth Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered, aircraft carrier in the United States Navy. She is named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States and a proponent of naval power.
  • USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer currently in the service of the United States Navy. She is part of the Destroyer Squadron 15 within the Seventh Fleet, and has her homeport at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, Japan.

The multitude of exercises of both the supercarrier groups is “aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities,” the US Navy said. The event also marks the first dual-carrier operations in the busy waterway since July 2020.

Committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea | USS Nimitz
Nimitz is part of Carrier Strike Group Eleven (CSG-11) with Carrier Air Wing Seventeen (CVW-17) embarked, with Nimitz as the flagship of the strike group and the home of the commander of Destroyer Squadron 23. (Photo by the US Navy)

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “China will continue to take necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security and work with countries in the region to firmly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Earlier, China condemned the sailing of the destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands in what the United States calls freedom of navigation operation—the first such mission by the US Navy since President Joe Biden took office.

Committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea | USS John Mc Caine
USS John S. McCain patrolling the South China Sea. (Photo by the US Navy)

Last month, the US military said Chinese military flights over the South China Sea fit a pattern of destabilizing and aggressive behavior but posed no threat to a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group in the region.

The United States has contested China’s extensive territorial claims in the region, accusing it of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate neighbors such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, who have claims that overlap with China’s in the resource-rich area.

China has been infuriated by repeated US sailings near the islands it occupies and controls in the South China Sea. China says it has irrefutable sovereignty and has accused the United States of deliberately stoking tension.

China has also been angered by US warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait, including one last week, also the first such operation under the Biden administration.

Featured image:  The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean 25 January 2020 on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier)

UK, South African, Brazilian: each COVID variant explained and what they mean for the pandemic

CoViD-19 variants and what they mean

Kirsty Short, The University of Queensland

Australia has recently seen SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) escape several times from hotel quarantine, including in Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne.

These incidents have been particularly concerning because they involved people infected with “variants” of the virus.

But what exactly are these variants, and how concerned should we be?

What’s a variant?

Viruses can’t replicate and spread on their own. They need a host, and they need to hijack the cells of the host to replicate. When they replicate in a host, they face the challenge of duplicating their genetic material. For many viruses, this isn’t an exact process and their offspring often contain errors — meaning they’re not exact copies of the original virus.

These errors are referred to as mutations, and viruses with these mutations are called variants. Often, these mutations don’t affect the biological properties of the virus. That is, they don’t have any effect on how the virus replicates or causes disease.

Some mutations can impair the virus’s ability to replicate and/or transmit. Variants with such mutations are quickly lost from the viral population.

Occasionally, however, variants emerge with an advantageous mutation, one that means it’s better at replicating, transmitting, and/or evading our immune system. These variants have a selective advantage (in biological terms, they are “fitter” than other variants) and may rapidly become the dominant viral strain.

There’s some concern we’re seeing a growing number of variants with advantageous mutations, contributing to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a look at the main three variants you might’ve heard about in the media.


The ‘UK variant’ — B.1.1.7

This variant was first detected in the United Kingdom towards the end of 2020. It has a large number of mutations, many of which involve the virus’ spike protein, which helps the virus invade human cells.

It has spread rapidly throughout the UK since it emerged, and to at least 70 other countries, including Australia.

The fact it has spread so rapidly, and quickly replaced other circulating variants, suggests it has some sort of selective advantage over other variants.

After examining the evidence surrounding the new variant, the UK New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) concluded it “had moderate confidence” the variant is substantially more infectious than other variants.

This may be the result of one of the mutations in the spike protein of the variant — a mutation called “N501Y”. One preprint manuscript, uploaded last month and yet to be peer reviewed, found N501Y is associated with increased binding of the virus to a receptor found on the surface on many of our cells, called “ACE2”. This could mean the variant is even more efficient at entering our cells.

Although initially the variant wasn’t associated with more severe COVID symptoms, more recent data have led NERVTAG to conclude there’s “a realistic possibility” that infection with the variant “is associated with an increased risk of death” compared with non B.1.1.7 viruses.

However, the group acknowledged there are limitations of the available data, and this remains an evolving situation.


The ‘South African variant’ — B.1.351

This variant was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in October 2020. Since then it has been found in more than 30 countries.

Similar to the UK variant, it quickly outcompeted other SARS-CoV-2 variants in South Africa. It now accounts for more than 90% of SARS-CoV-2 samples in South Africa that undergo genetic sequencing.

Like the UK variant, it also has the N501Y mutation in the spike protein, meaning it’s more efficient at gaining access to our cells to replicate. This may help to explain its rapid spread.

It also contains several other concerning mutations. Two of these, called “E484K” and “K417N”, are bad news for our immune system. They can reduce how well our antibodies bind to the virus (though this is also based on preprint data awaiting peer review).

But there’s no evidence yet to suggest the South African variant is more deadly than the original variants.


The ‘Brazilian variant’ — P.1

This variant was first detected in Japan in a group of Brazilian travelers in January 2021.

It’s now highly prevalent in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, and has been detected in countries including South Korea and the United States.

Like the South African variant, the Brazilian variant has the spike protein mutations N501Y, E484K and K417N (as well as numerous other mutations).

While there’s no evidence this variant causes more severe disease, there’s concern it has facilitated a wave of reinfections in Manaus, the largest city in Amazonas, which was thought to have reached “herd immunity” in October last year.


What does this mean for vaccines?

Major vaccine developers are testing the efficacy of their vaccines against these and other variants. Generally, the currently licensed vaccines protect relatively well against the UK variant.

But recent phase 2/3 data from both Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggest reduced protection against the South African variant. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine group also released data over the weekend suggesting its vaccine offers only minimal protection against mild-moderate disease caused by this variant.

However, it’s important to recognize reduced protection doesn’t mean no protection at all, and that data are still emerging.

What’s more, numerous vaccine manufacturers are now investigating whether tweaks to the vaccines can improve their performance against the emerging variants.

The take-home message is that variants will emerge, and we need to closely monitor their spread. However, there’s every indication we’ll be able to adapt our vaccine strategies to protect against these and future variants.The Conversation

Kirsty Short, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A quiet take-over of a paradise island

Little Paradise lost

China Bloom Pty Ltd in April 2019 entered into a 99-year lease agreement with the Queensland Government and life for 40 or so residents in this little paradise was never the same again. It was a quiet takeover—nobody was aware of—of a paradise island.

The island of Keswick lies in the southern half of the Whitsunday Islands, 34 km north-east of the Queensland City of Mackay. At the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, it is declared a national park. It is part of the Cumberland Islands, 70 in all,  that lay protected inside the waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.


Trouble in paradise

Before the year 2019 even ended, there had been many reports on a number of developments that took place in this ‘little paradise’. First, as China Bloom acquired the head lease over all the residential and commercial precincts, making residents who had been living on the island before the 99-year deal instant sublessees. 

Also, since taking over the lease, the developer has clashed with residents over issues involving the building of a boat ramp without council approval, flattening a shoreline where turtles are known to nest, and the company warding off tourists with ‘keep out’ signs. Island residents also say they can’t go back to their homes.

Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science said it found no evidence of permanent damage to turtle habitat or nests during inspections between May and July this year of 2020.

“I just don’t think they want Australians on the island,” former island resident Julie Willis told the news program “A Current Affair.” “I think that they want to have this island solely for the use of the Chinese tourism market.”


“Keep Out!” signs warded off tourists

“There have been no tourists since September last year,” former resident Rayna Asbury told the news program. Most of Keswick Island is a national park, which is open to the public, but residents believe the ‘Keep Out’ signs have warded off tourists.

Real estate agent and resident Karen Cooke said property prices had plummeted in recent years, and access to the island had become too difficult because the airstrip was now off-limits to private and commercial planes.

The Chinese developer prohibited residents from renting their homes on Airbnb. The residents say it has ruined tourism and blocked them from entering the island from air, land, and sea.


Responsible for a resolution

The Queensland Department of Resources told the Aussie news program it hoped that any issues between the island’s residents and China Bloom can be resolved. It is responsible for working with both the head lessee China Bloom and sublessees to ensure all relevant activities are in accordance with the terms of the lease. In particular, the lease makes China Bloom the island developer responsible for “the upgrade of the island’s roads, boat ramps, jetties, and marine infrastructure.

The majority of the issues raised by a small number of sublessees do not fall under the terms of the lease and are a commercial matter between them and the head lessee to resolve.” the department said.

There has been tension between Australia and China, over an image showing an Australian soldier killing an Afghan child that was shared on social media by a Chinese official. China refused to apologize for the photo, which the Australian government called fake.

Workspaces in Metro Manila to grow 12.5% in 2021

Office spaces in Metro Manila to rise

With work-from-home the highlighted reality, Metro Manila workspaces are expected to increase to 12.5 percent this year. It will be the highest since 2003, as Philippine offshore gaming operations (POGOs) vacate offices and outsourcing firms streamline office space requirements, says a real estate services firm based in the country.

In its quarterly research for the office sector released yesterday, Colliers International Philippines expects a rise to about 886,200 square meters (sqm) new office space in Metro Manila and projects net take-up of 354,500 sqm to result in a vacancy of 12.5 percent this year, up from 9.1 percent last year.

“Our projected vacancy in 2021 is likely to be the highest since the 13.8 percent recorded in 2003,” Colliers said. The projection is based on POGOs leaving offices. Colliers revealed that no POGO transactions were recorded for the third consecutive quarter in the fourth quarter.


TRO to make firms reconsider moving out

The Supreme Court ruling imposes a temporary restraining order on the five percent franchise tax on gross gaming revenues from POGOs. It is expected to make these firms reconsider moving out of the country. However, Colliers said, the lack of Chinese manpower caused by travel restrictions would still be an issue.

Outsourcing firms streamlining office space requirements also affect office space demand, apart from POGOs vacating office spaces, Colliers said. 

Doms Andaya, director for office services tenant representation at Colliers’ said in a briefing many occupiers are currently on 60 to 80 percent work-from-home arrangements, with minimal impact on productivity.

“They are in the midst of studying prototyping doing work from home at 20 to 50 percent permanently moving forward even post-COVID-19. That is the same magnitude to impact office leasing,” he said.


Space lessors optimistic on vaccine rollout and efficiency

Despite this, he said Colliers sees positive developments that would enable office leasing to bounce back such as the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the passage of the proposed Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill which will reduce the corporate income tax rate and introduce changes to the incentives system, easing of travel restrictions, recovery of other economies, sustained growth of business process outsourcing (BPO) subsegments and the recovery of the POGOs, with the possible nullification of the tax levied on the industry.

Colliers expects firms providing essential goods and services to drive office space absorption this year.

“We expect BPOs catering to essential sectors like telco, banking and finance, healthcare and game development to continue growing,” Andaya said.

With a glut in supply in the office market, he said Colliers expects rents, which dropped by an average of 17 percent last year, to continue to decline by 15 percent this year.


Alternative leasing models sought

Given the challenging market, Colliers recommends that landlords offer alternative leasing models to tenants to be flexible in a request for concessions, and to adjust construction pipelines to avoid further decline in rents.

“We expect vacancy rates to recede starting in second half 2022, given our projected rebound in office leasing and take-up from investors and end-users,” Colliers said.


Residential vacancy rate to rise

In terms of the residential sector, Colliers sees the vacancy rate rising to 16.9 percent this year, up from its forecast of 13.5 percent given new completions with an expected delivery of 10,600 units, higher than the 3,370 units in 2020.

Colliers said demand in the residential sector is expected to be driven by mid-income to luxury projects. To take advantage of opportunities, Colliers recommends that developers look at fringe areas for new projects and monitor attractive locations and price segments for pre-selling residential developments.


Industrial space demands up

As for the industrial segment, Colliers expects a more active take-up this year and next year with demand from the manufacturing sector particularly those engaged in the production of essential goods such as food, beverage, and pharmaceuticals. There is also growing demand for logistics and warehousing from the continued rise in e-commerce.

“The growth of the e-commerce sector has compelled retailers to firm up partnerships with logistics firms and warehouse developers. We expect developers to maximize opportunities by exploring flexible warehousing, converting vacant mall spaces into micro warehouses, and constructing more cold storage facilities,” Colliers said.

Government warns pork hoarders: Do not do it during the time of CoViD

Government warns pork hoarders

“Do not do it during the time of CoViD,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said. It is a warning from the Government after it formed its Economic Intelligence Task Force that, among its other tasks, will run after pork hoarders and price manipulators.

The Government warns pork hoarders that authorities can easily run after them as it holds a list of all cold storage facilities in the country. 

“The NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) can easily catch you. It only needs to look at cold storage facilities and check if there is the hoarding of supplies,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said at a press briefing on Tuesday.


National food security plan set

Malacañan also sets a food security summit through the agriculture department to address food supply issues and rising prices. No date has been set yet. The conference is set out to come up with a national food security plan.

“The food security summit likewise aims to discuss mitigation measures on current issues affecting the agriculture sector such as the upsurge in the prices of pork, drop in farm gate prices of palay, the onslaught of African swine flu (ASF), among others,” Roque said in a statement yesterday.


No shortage of price ceiling critics

Minority lawmakers Stella Quimbo and Arlene Brosas criticize the price ceiling on pork. “Imposing price ceilings on pork products in the midst of a shortage will only further dis-incentivize suppliers that are already struggling from the challenges imposed by recent calamities,” Quimbo argued.

“Enforcing a pork price ceiling when the glaring problem is the pork supply is pure hogwash. This will only cause further harm to hog raisers and sellers while the uncertainty of having enough supply remains,” Brosas said.


Metro supermarkets will keep supplying pork 

Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Benhur Abalos, meanwhile, says that Metro Manila supermarkets would continue supplying pork. 

“With the help of the private sector and the local government units, we can expect enough and consistent supply of pork products in the coming days,” Abalos said.


Balanga vendors appeal to the President

However, vendors from the Balanga City Public Market in Bataan appeal to President Rodrigo Duterte to lower the price of hogs in piggeries and not in public markets. Vendors complain that live weight from Tarlac suppliers is priced at ₱215-₱220 per kilo, the Government’s limit of ₱270 is too low for a profit margin.

“We will go bankrupt because of the many fees required. Our investment is already at ₱300. Prices must go down at the piggeries because wet markets really cannot sell at ₱270,” vendor spokesperson Marinel Palaypay said.