How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans

People queue outside a make-shift COVID-19 vaccination and testing center erected at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli,  Libya, on on July 24, 2021. (AFP)
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People queue outside a make-shift COVID-19 vaccination and testing center erected at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya, on on July 24, 2021. (AFP)
How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)f
The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
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Updated 05 August 2021

How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans

How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans
  • Several MENA countries have experienced an explosion of infections linked to the highly transmissible strain
  • Travel restrictions had to be reimposed once the severity of the threat posed by the spread of delta became clear

DUBAI: Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with low rates of vaccination against COVID-19 have been experiencing an explosion of new cases and fatalities linked to the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.

Worldwide, the variant has been detected in at least 132 countries, prompting new waves of infection, the resumption of travel restrictions, and mounting concern over the availability and effectiveness of vaccines.

In the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region, the variant has been found in more than a dozen countries including Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet reported any cases, it has reimposed a raft of travel curbs in additions to bans and penalties for violators.

Also known by its scientific name B.1.617.2, the delta variant of the coronavirus was first detected in the Indian state of Maharashtra in October but was only labeled a variant of concern by the WHO on May 11.

Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the infectious hazards management unit at the WHO’s Middle East and eastern Mediterranean regional office in Cairo, told Arab News: “It was very easy for delta to spread throughout the region due to the many migrant workers from South Asia living in the Gulf and North Africa.”

The strain, itself the product of multiple mutations, is thought to be 60 percent more infectious than the alpha (or Kent) variant, an earlier mutation that emerged in southern England in November, and as contagious as chickenpox.

According to a confidential CDC document, picked up by US media in late July, delta is more transmissible than the common cold, the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox, Ebola, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), has a longer transmission window than the original strain, and may make older people more ill — even those fully vaccinated.

US health officials said people infected with the delta variant could carry up to 1,000 times more virus in their nasal passages than other strains, resulting in higher transmissibility. The WHO predicted there could be at least 200 million new cases worldwide in a matter of weeks.

In many countries, including the UK, the delta variant has now become the dominant strain. In Israel, which has a very high rate of vaccination, delta makes up 90 percent of new infections.

What is perhaps most alarming for health professionals is the number of young people, many of them unvaccinated, who are becoming seriously ill with the variant.

Earlier iterations of the virus were considered more harmful to older demographics and people with underlying health conditions, groups that governments have tended to prioritize in vaccination drives.

Although it appears to cause more severe symptoms than its forerunners, there was currently not enough data to suggest delta was any more deadly.

More encouraging was the data on the effectiveness of vaccines. A study by Public Health England found that the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against hospitalization after one dose and 96 percent effective after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 71 percent effective after one dose and 92 percent effective after two.

On Sunday, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that New York-based Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech “have tweaked their mRNA vaccine to target the delta variant and will begin testing it on humans” this month.

The global market for COVID-19 vaccines, valued at $70 billion this year, could grow bigger as scientists debate whether people will need booster shots for the delta variant.

Owing to the slow rollout of vaccines in large parts of the developing world, there is limited protection for their populations against COVID-19.

In MENA countries, outbreaks of the delta variant of the coronavirus are adding to the pressure on hospitals, life-saving equipment, and even mortuaries.

Tunisia has been gripped by social unrest, attributable to a mix of political dysfunction, stretched healthcare systems, and mounting economic hardship.

In Iran, a country which has vaccinated just 3 percent of its population, around 35,000 new infections and 357 deaths were recorded on July 27 alone.

In conflict-ridden areas of the Middle East, namely Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, where immunization rates remain low, the surge in delta cases poses a serious challenge to already ailing health systems and fragile government structures.

Abubakar said: “We are extremely concerned about what will happen when the delta variant spreads to emergency countries like Syria and Yemen. Delta will reach all countries in the region. The WHO is trying to work with nations to prepare for the worst, like having more ICU (intensive care unit) beds, oxygen, vaccines, and amplifying our social messaging.

“No country is immune from delta. We cannot afford for other countries in the region to go through what Tunisia is going through right now,” he added.

FASTFACTS

Delta was labeled a variant of concern by WHO on May 11.

Most new cases in eastern Mediterranean are delta variant.

Variant is especially transmissible among the unvaccinated.

Delta may be 60% more infectious than alpha variant.

Surge poses serious challenge to MENA health systems.

Best protection is to receive two doses of the vaccine.

In Lebanon, for instance, a rise in COVID-19 cases would place an even greater burden on a cash-strapped country already blighted by electricity and fuel shortages.

Pierre Abi Hanna, head of the infectious disease division at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, told Arab News: “The numbers in Lebanon are increasing exponentially, and the majority of coronavirus cases circulating in Lebanon, from the samples taken, are from the delta strain.

“Over the last few weeks, we have also seen an increase in the number of hospitalized patients, all of whom are unvaccinated, as well as a small increase in the number of patients in ICU as well as those requiring mechanical ventilation.”

Patients were being hospitalized because they could not take oxygen at home due to Lebanon’s electricity shortages. Those hospitalized had tended to be younger than before and mostly unvaccinated.

“Some of them have received one shot, but the majority have received none. We are now seeing a higher number of cases in the younger population, aged 20 to 49. In the last three days, we have had an increase in the number of people needing ICU beds,” Abi Hanna said.

On a brighter side of the battle, GCC countries have coped well with the delta wave thanks to high rates of vaccination, high levels of compliance with public health measures, and timely travel restrictions.

At the end of June, the UAE announced it was suspending flights from India after recording its first cases of the delta variant. Emirati authorities said the strain now accounted for around one-third of all new infections in the country.

Although it has not recorded any cases of its own, Saudi Arabia unveiled a raft of new measures on July 3 — including a ban on travel to and from the UAE, the world’s top international-transport hub.

Saudi citizens who visit countries on its red list – the UAE, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Lebanon, and Turkey – now face a three-year travel ban either directly or indirectly through states on the green list.




GCC countries have coped well with the delta wave  largely because of high rates of vaccination and high levels of compliance with public health measures. (AFP)

In addition to urging its citizens to continue wearing face masks and maintaining a safe social distance in public places, the Kingdom stressed that the best protection against the delta variant was to receive a second dose of vaccine.

Dr. Wail Bajhmoum, an infectious disease consultant and head of the internal medicine department at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, told Arab News: “Citizens should have the vaccines which have been provided by the government and the Ministry of Health free of charge and have been available for everyone in more than 587 centers all over the Kingdom.

“Researchers have shown that two doses of the vaccine will provide very good immunity against all variants of coronavirus, including delta.”

The UAE, which has implemented one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, has issued a delta-detecting PCR test to help isolate the new outbreak. Cases rose at the end of June to more than 2,000 per day, contributing to a daily average of 10 deaths – the country’s highest toll in a single day since March, according to Reuter’s COVID-19 tracker.

The UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority said the increase in deaths was due to the spread of the alpha, beta, and delta variants. Since then, cases have fallen, with 1,536 recorded infections and two deaths on July 27.

“Some countries are better prepared than others. Delta was confirmed earlier in the Gulf countries, but they have a better system in place to handle the variant. This helped limit the spread of the variant, supplemented by the high vaccination rate in Gulf countries.

“We have found that the impact of delta on Gulf countries is low compared with countries with low vaccination rates, notably Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq,” Abubakar added.

The delta variant is only one of several mutations since the coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 — and it will not be the final iteration.

“It is not the last variant that we will see. We have to be prepared for new variants as well,” Abubakar said.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


East Libya forces say 2 helicopters crashed, killing 2

East Libya forces say 2 helicopters crashed, killing 2
Updated 32 sec ago

East Libya forces say 2 helicopters crashed, killing 2

East Libya forces say 2 helicopters crashed, killing 2
  • The self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces said the helicopters collided in the air over the village of Msus
  • The crash came as they have been battling Chadian fighters in Libya’s southern areas on the border with Chad
CAIRO: Forces loyal to a powerful Libyan commander said two military planes crashed on Sunday over a village in eastern Libya, killing at least two officers.
The self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, said the helicopters collided in the air over the village of Msus, 130 kilometers (81 miles) southeast of the city of Benghazi.
A two-officer crew, including Brig. Gen. Bouzied Al-Barrasi, was killed in the crash, while the second helicopter crew survived, the forces said in a brief statement. It did not give the cause of the crash and said the helicopters were on a military mission.
Mohammad Younes Menfi, head of Libya’s Presidential Council, mourned the two officers.
Haftar’s forces control eastern and most of southern Libya. The crash came as they have been battling Chadian fighters in Libya’s southern areas on the border with Chad.
The clashes erupted last week and could further destabilize the wider Sahel region, after Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno was killed in April in battels between his government and Chadian rebels.

Erdogan to meet Greek Kyriakos Mitsotakis next week

Erdogan to meet Greek Kyriakos Mitsotakis next week
Updated 20 September 2021

Erdogan to meet Greek Kyriakos Mitsotakis next week

Erdogan to meet Greek Kyriakos Mitsotakis next week
  • Regional rivals have been at odds over a host of maritime issues in the Mediterranean and migration

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that he would meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York.

The NATO members and regional rivals have been at odds over a host of maritime issues in the Mediterranean and migration.
Mitsotakis said on Friday that Turkey was an important partner in tackling any new migration challenge to Europe and needed support.
Speaking at a news conference before departing for New York, Erdogan said Turkey, which hosts some 4 million refugees — most of whom are Syrians — was “suffering the biggest burden and the heaviest downsides” of migration, adding that Turkey would take the necessary steps if its counterparts did not.
The Turkey’s president also said his country was ready for talks with Armenia but added Yerevan needed to take steps toward opening a controversial transport link through its territory.
Armenia and Turkey never established diplomatic relations and their shared border has been closed since the 1990s.
The ties have deteriorated due to Turkey’s support for its regional ally Azerbaijan, which fought with Armenia last year for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
But earlier this month, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Yerevan was prepared to hold discussions on repairing relations with Ankara.
“If he (Pashinyan) would like to meet with Tayyip Erdogan, then certain steps should be taken,” Erdogan said.
He was referring to the creation of a transit corridor that would have to go through Armenia to connect Azerbaijan to its Nakchivan enclave that borders Turkey and Iran.
“We are not closed to talks (with Armenia), we will hold the talks,” Erdogan said.
“I hope that not a negative but a positive approach will prevail there,” he said. “God willing, the problem between Azerbaijan and Armenia will be overcome with the opening of the corridors.”


Morocco’s Justice and Development Party decries ‘violations’ at polls

Abdellatif Ouahbi, president of Morocco's Authenticity and Modernity party (C), gives a speech after his party came in second in parliamentary and local elections, in Rabat on September 9, 2021. (AFP)
Abdellatif Ouahbi, president of Morocco's Authenticity and Modernity party (C), gives a speech after his party came in second in parliamentary and local elections, in Rabat on September 9, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 20 September 2021

Morocco’s Justice and Development Party decries ‘violations’ at polls

Abdellatif Ouahbi, president of Morocco's Authenticity and Modernity party (C), gives a speech after his party came in second in parliamentary and local elections, in Rabat on September 9, 2021. (AFP)
  • Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has named businessman Aziz Akhannouch to lead a new government after his National Rally of Independents, considered close to the palace, thrashed the Justice and Development Party, winning 102 seats

RABAT: Morocco’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, which was thrashed at last week’s elections, on Sunday denounced “violations and irregularities” at the polls.
The party had headed Morocco’s governing coalition for a decade but saw its support collapse at the Sept. 8 vote, dropping from 125 of parliament’s 395 seats to just 13.
Local elections held the same day confirmed the party’s crushing defeat.
The party “denounces the violations and irregularities” at the polls, including “massive use of money,” “manipulation of reports” and “names crossed off the electoral lists or appearing twice,” it said in a statement following Saturday’s extraordinary session of the party’s national council.
These “forms of electoral corruption ... led to the announcement of results that do not reflect the substance of the political map and the free will of the voters,” the statement added.
Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit has said the voting process took “under normal circumstances” apart from isolated incidents.

SPEEDREAD

• Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit says the voting process took ‘under normal circumstances’ apart from isolated incidents.

• On voting day, the Islamists had alleged ‘serious irregularities,’ including ‘obscene cash handouts’ near polling stations and ‘confusion’ on some electoral rolls, with some voters finding they were not listed.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has named businessman Aziz Akhannouch to lead a new government after his National Rally of Independents, considered close to the palace, thrashed the Justice and Development Party, winning 102 seats.
On voting day, the Islamists had alleged “serious irregularities,” including “obscene cash handouts” near polling stations and “confusion” on some electoral rolls, with some voters finding they were not listed.
The National Rally of Independents has started coalition talks, but the Justice and Development Party has announced that it would switch to its “natural” position as the opposition.
The party “is at an important turning point,” outgoing secretary-general Saad-Eddine El-Othmani said Saturday at the party’s closed-door meeting.

 


Iranian oil fails to end Lebanon’s fuel wars

Lebanese police stand guard in front of the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP/File)
Lebanese police stand guard in front of the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP/File)
Updated 20 September 2021

Iranian oil fails to end Lebanon’s fuel wars

Lebanese police stand guard in front of the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP/File)
  • Lebanon has not asked for fuel from Iran, says PM Mikati
  • Maronite patriarch calls on government to end the smuggling of Iranian fuel from Syria

BEIRUT: Armed men opened fire at a gas station in the Bekaa valley on Sunday and threatened to kill the owner as Lebanon’s fuel wars continued to spiral out of control.

The incident in the town of Beit Chama came amid long queues at gas stations, frequent power cuts and a 20-liter canister of gasoline selling on the black market for 500,000 pounds ($327) when the official price is 180,000 pounds.

The fuel shortage has not been eased by the arrival last week of tanker trucks of diesel from Iran, smuggled across the border from Syria in a deal brokered by Hezbollah in breach of US sanctions. A third tanker is at sea on its way from Iran to the Syrian port of Baniyas.

Neither the arrival of Iraqi fuel to Electricité du Liban nor that of Iranian diesel has yielded positive results yet.

In his Sunday sermon, Maronite patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi denounced the smuggling of Iranian fuel from Syria. “The state cannot be built on practices or positions that contradict its entity and institutions,” he said.

Al-Rahi said the new government under Prime Minister Najib Mikati should “work as a united national team to stop the collapse and confront the continuous attack attempts against the state and its democratic system.”

“The state cannot be built on practices or positions that contradict its entity and institutions,” he said, adding that the recent entry of fuel tankers and the obstruction of the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion were “among such practices.”

Al-Rahi expressed the hope that the new government would “work as a united national team to stop the collapse and confront the continuous attack attempts against the state and its democratic system.”

He urged the government to “carry out reforms, mobilize the financial and economic cycle, solve the fuel and electricity crises, and close the smuggling crossings on the border.”
The state cannot be built on practices or
positions that contradict its entity and institutions.
Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch

Meanwhile, Mikati dismissed fears that Lebanon faced US penalties for breaching US sanctions by importing Iranian oil.

“The Lebanese government didn’t approve this … so I don’t believe it would be subject to sanctions,” Mikati told CNN on Saturday in response to a question about Hezbollah bringing Iranian fuel into Lebanon

“I am saddened by the lack of Lebanese sovereignty," he said.

A source close to Mikati told Arab News on Sunday: “The state of Lebanon has not asked Iran for fuel. This position had been officially expressed and has not changed.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh commented on Mikati’s statements to CNN, saying on Sunday that sending Iranian fuel to Lebanon “happened according to a standard purchase process by Lebanese merchants. If the Lebanese government also wants to buy fuel from Iran, we would be happy to oblige.”

HIGHLIGHTS

 

• On Monday, PM Mikati’s government is expected to receive parliament’s vote of confidence with approximately 100 votes out of 128. It is expected that a vote of no confidence will be limited to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces bloc and several independent MPs.

• The Lebanese are still floundering with a series of never-ending crises, the foremost of which is the fuel crisis. Long queues at gas stations have remained the same, and the power rationing hours have not improved either.

On Monday, Mikati’s government is expected to receive parliament’s vote of confidence with approximately 100 votes out of 128. It is expected that a vote of no confidence will be limited to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces bloc and several independent MPs.

Politicians, meanwhile, were preoccupied with the repercussions of Halliburton winning a contract to explore oil and gas in the disputed maritime border area between Lebanon and Israel.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “take urgent and immediate action before the Security Council and the international community to verify the possibility of a new Israeli attack on Lebanese sovereignty and rights because any exploration contract with Halliburton or other companies in the disputed area undermines the framework agreement sponsored by the US and the UN.”

Lebanese-Israeli negotiations over the disputed area were held under US auspices and stopped in April after the Lebanese delegation insisted that negotiations start from Line 29 of the border, which enlarges the size of the disputed area to 2,290 km instead of 860 km.

This area was based on a map sent in 2011 to the UN, but Lebanon later considered this map to be based on wrong estimates, so it demanded an additional area of 1,430 square km, including parts of the Karish gas field, in which a Greek company works for Israel.

The current Lebanese proposal is known as Line 29, and Israel has accused Lebanon of obstructing negotiations by expanding the disputed area.


Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman
Updated 19 September 2021

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman
  • Meeting was “to increase coordination in the field of border security”: Hala Akhbar news site
  • Petra said Huneiti and Ayoub discussed border situation in southern Syria and fighting terrorism

AMMAN: Syria’s defense minister met Sunday with Jordan’s army chief in Amman after after Syrian troops captured several rebel-held areas near Jordan’s border, state media reported.
The Hala Akhbar news site, which is linked to Jordan’s military, reported that the meeting between Jordanian Gen. Yousef Huneiti and Syrian Gen. Ali Ayoub was “to increase coordination in the field of border security to serve the interests of the two brotherly countries.”
The recent push by Syrian troops in the country’s south is the biggest since government forces captured wide areas along the border in 2018, including the Nassib border crossing.
The crossing with Jordan was reopened in 2018, months after it fell under Syrian government control. Syrian rebels had seized the site in 2015, severing a lifeline for the government in Damascus and disrupting a major trade route linking Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
Ayoub’s visit came nearly two weeks after Syrian forces entered the rebel-held district of the volatile southern city of Daraa as part of a truce negotiated by Russia to end weeks of fighting. In the days that followed, Syrian troops captured rebel-held parts of several villages near Daraa.
The latest push by Syrian troops brings all parts of southern Syria under full government control.
Petra, Jordan’s state news agency, said Huneiti and Ayoub discussed border security, the situation in southern Syria, fighting terrorism and confronting narcotics smuggling.
Syrian state TV said the visit came at the invitation of Jordan’s army commander, adding that Ayoub was accompanied by top army officers. It said the talks focused on “fighting terrorism and border control.”
Jordan is a close Western ally and has long been seen as an island of stability in the turbulent Mideast. The kingdom hosts more than 650,000 Syrian refugees.
Earlier this month, ministers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt said after meeting in Amman that Egyptian natural gas should reach Lebanon through Jordan and Syria as soon as next month, after maintenance of pipelines and the review of a deal interrupted 10 years ago.