Friday, December 11, 2020

Australia abandons UQ vaccine

The Morrison government has terminated a deal to buy more than 50 million doses of the University of Queensland’s potential Covid-19 vaccine after trial participants returned false positive HIV test results. UQ and biotech company CSL informed the federal government of the initial data on Monday, which was then referred to health authorities. Although the positives were in fact false and the health of the participants has not been put at risk, the clinical trials have been abandoned. The National Security Committee of Cabinet agreed to terminate the agreement on Thursday, fearing the revelation would damage the Australian public’s confidence in the COVID-19 vaccination program. A health official, not authorised to speak publicly, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the government scrambled in the aftermath to secure tens of millions more doses of alternate candidate vaccines, including from AstraZeneca.

The ABC has hit out at the Senate for forcing the release of a 2019 federal election coverage review, which found news reporting was impartial but panel shows needed more conservatives. A motion by the Coalition senator James McGrath passed in the Senate required the publication of the report on Thursday evening. The internally commissioned review by British journalist Kerry Blackburn found overall that the ABC was impartial, but a handful of episodes of The Drum and Insiders may have been evidence-based but featured “a substantial shortfall in positive reflection of the Coalition’s prospects, policies or performance compared to Labor.” ABC chair Ita Buttrose wrote to the president of the Senate, Scott Ryan, to express reservations about the use of the powers of the upper house to force publication of an internal report. It comes a week after the minister for communications, Paul Fletcher, wrote to Buttrose, to question the airing of a report on ABC’s Four Corners of alleged inappropriate conduct by two ministers.

Rio Tinto may have to pay up to $250 million in compensation to traditional owners over destruction of Juukan Gorge, according to National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe. Compensation was one of seven recommendations of an interim report by a parliamentary committee. Fortescue Metals Group was among the resources sector representatives to push back against a proposed moratorium on permissions for land-users to impact heritage sites under WA law, arguing it would not be a “feasible or practical solution”. Superannuation fund HESTA, which holds shares in Rio Tinto, backed halting all operations on existing Section 18 permits unless it could be verified that they had obtained consent from traditional owners.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will today meet with state and territory leaders in the first in-person meeting of the National Cabinet since the body was formed at the start of the pandemic. Victoria and the ACT are expected to use the meeting to press for a plan to bring international students back to Australian universities. The meeting will also cover plans for the vaccine rollout and each state’s progress on reopening. The only leader to call in remotely will be Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan, whose state’s health advice does not allow him to share space with South Australians due to the recent Covid-19 outbreak in Adelaide. South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said McGowan should “explain his logic” given there have been no new cases in SA for 12 days.

Lebanese judge Fadi Sawan has charged caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three ex-ministers with criminal neglect over the Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people in August. The four were accused Thursday of criminal neglect “that led to the death and harm of hundreds of people”. Sawan is set to question Diab and the ex-ministers next week. Diab’s government, which stepped down in the wake of the blast, has acknowledged receiving prior warnings about the dangers posed by the storage of explosive material.

Morrison gears up for a summer brawl
Just as parliament was wrapping up for the year, the government introduced radical and controversial proposed changes to worker’s rights. The new legislation looks set to dominate the political agenda in the new year. Today, Paul Bongiorno on how the political battlelines are being drawn.

“Farhad Rahmati is waiting for retribution. Every time the Iranian refugee speaks out about being forcibly transferred between detention facilities in Australia, which usually occurs in handcuffs and without warning, he is transferred again. Rahmati knows that speaking to The Saturday Paper will likely trigger another punitive transfer. But he is determined to take that risk.”

“Let me be clear: pop music is not finished as an art form, not yet. But as each ageing pop figurehead passes away, what has become obvious is that the modernity expressed through and partly made possible by 20th century pop will not return – cannot return, if we are to inhabit a future that is better than a living hell. Today’s pop youth, both musicians and audiences, are marginalised by pop’s own displacement as the reigning site of consumer identity construction, and by the fact that the form was birthed in an era that is gone.”

“Artists Amrita Hepi and Jason Phu do extremely well at the quiz, even though the one question in Arita’s expert category nearly trips her up. We never find out what Jason’s expert category might be, but he does know what colour Mickey Mouse’s shoes are and which part of the body tinnitus affects. He also thinks Nicholas Nickelby sounds like the name of an annoying person.”

“Scott Morrison has signalled Australia will not be granted a speaking slot at a climate ambition summit this weekend, despite telling parliament a week ago he would attend to to ‘correct mistruths’ about the government’s heavily criticised record on emissions reduction … Faced with the near certainty of a snub, the prime minister declared on Thursday whether or not he spoke at the summit was ‘not something that troubles me or concerns me one way or the other’.”

“This year’s UN Emissions Gap report says that, right now Australia is projected to fall short on what should be a very easy target. ‘That 26% reduction needs to be at least double that to be in the Paris Agreement pathway,’ says Dr Bill Hare, who's part of the Climate Action Tracker group of scientists who have rated Australia's plans as ‘insufficient’. ‘There's very little going on whether you’re talking about electric vehicles, motor vehicle standards, it's alone in the OECD in not having fuel efficiency standards, it has virtually nothing on energy efficiency, and virtually nothing on building efficiency. It is really an embarrassment actually.’”

“Under the bill, ASIO has confirmed it could access not only encrypted communications but also live-streamed data and messages being exchanged via offshore servers in real time … The new bill would give ASIO warrantless powers to plant surveillance devices, approved only by another ASIO officer. It lowers the age at which people can be questioned from 16 to 14 years – a move arising from the 2015 shooting murder by a 15-year-old boy of New South Wales Police accountant Curtis Cheng – and widens the scope to eject ‘disruptive’ lawyers.”

“Presented with an entire summer free of cruise ship noise due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wray, the lead researcher for BC Whales and the CEO of the nonprofit North Coast Cetacean Society, seized the moment to partner with her colleagues Paul Spong and Helena Symonds at OrcaLab to hear how whales communicate when the underwater landscape is free from the chugging, droning, and ear-splitting sounds of cruise ships.”

Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.