New Zealand’s Delta outbreak spreads outside Auckland

A normally busy road is deserted during a lockdown to curb the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak in Auckland, New Zealand. (REUTERS/File Photo)
A normally busy road is deserted during a lockdown to curb the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak in Auckland, New Zealand. (REUTERS/File Photo)
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Updated 03 October 2021

New Zealand’s Delta outbreak spreads outside Auckland

New Zealand’s Delta outbreak spreads outside Auckland
  • PM Ardern: Government will decide on Monday whether Auckland’s 1.7 million residents will remain sealed off from the rest of New Zealand

WELLINGTON: New Zealand’s Delta variant outbreak spread beyond the largest city of Auckland, prompting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday to put additional regions into a snap lockdown.
There were 32 new coronavirus cases on Sunday in Auckland, which has been in lockdown since mid-August, and two cases in the Waikato region, some 147 kilometers (91 miles) south of Auckland. Ardern said parts of the region will go into a five-day lockdown.
She added that the government will decide on Monday whether Auckland’s 1.7 million residents will remain sealed off from the rest of New Zealand.
Ardern enforced what was meant to be a “short and sharp” nationwide lockdown in mid-August in response to the Auckland outbreak, which now stands at 1,328 cases.
But while the rest of the country has largely returned to normal life, the North Island city has remained in lockdown.
“We are doing everything that we can to keep cases confined to Auckland, and managing them there,” Ardern said.
While New Zealand was among just a handful of countries to bring COVID-19 cases down to zero last year and largely stayed virus-free until the latest outbreak in August, difficulties in quashing the Delta variant have put Ardern’s elimination strategy in question.
Amid mounting pressure, Ardern has said her strategy was never to have zero cases, but to aggressively stamp out the virus.
She has said strict lockdowns can end if 90 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, contrasting with the current 46 percent.
Full vaccination will become a requirement for non-New Zealand citizens arriving in the country from Nov. 1, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Sunday.
Air New Zealand said on Sunday it will require passengers on its international flights to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We have a different approach to COVID within our sights, and in our hands,” Ardern said on Sunday.
“So as we all look ahead and think about summer, and the plans we are making, make the first step a vaccine. It is the thing that will make those summer plans possible.” (Reporting by Praveen Meenon in Wellington; Writing by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Daniel Wallis)


Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains

Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains
Updated 01 December 2021

Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains

Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains
  • Rail travel to and from the main train station has been suspended, according to rail operator Deutsche Bahn

BERLIN: An old aircraft bomb exploded at a bridge near Munich’s busy main train station on Wednesday, injuring three people, police said on Twitter.
The explosion happened during construction work, police said.
Due to the explosion, rail travel to and from the main train station has been suspended, according to rail operator Deutsche Bahn.


Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
Updated 01 December 2021

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
  • BioNTech/Pfizer, will have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time

BRUSSELS: The EU’s main Covid vaccine provider, BioNTech/Pfizer, will have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.
She said she had spoken with the German-US joint venture about the issue the day before, and they said “they are able to accelerate — in other words children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13.”


Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few
Updated 01 December 2021

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few
  • Long lines for getting vaccines have returned to Portugal and Spain
  • Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region have reopened mass vaccination venues for jabs

MADRID: Juan Esteban Mariño, a healthy 29-year-old, has been part of the rare cohort in Spain who have resisted health authorities’ strong recommendations to get their vaccine shots.
His position only changed when he planned an end-of-the-year holiday in Portugal, where authorities are cracking down on unvaccinated visitors as they confront a surge of infections and try to limit the spread of the omicron variant.
“I needed to get the jab to leave the country and return without any inconveniences,” Mariño said Wednesday at a large vaccination center in Madrid as he pressed sterile gauze against his left arm and rolled down his sleeve.
“With the new variant and restrictions complicating life, getting the vaccine has become unavoidable,” he added.
Long lines for getting vaccines have returned to Portugal and Spain, two neighboring European Union nations that, despite having inoculation figures that are the envy of the world, are stepping up efforts to close the gap on the few residents still unvaccinated. Both nations have reported cases of the omicron variant.
People at the Wizink Center, a large concert hall turned into a “vaccine-drome” in the Spanish capital of Madrid, give an array of reasons why they didn’t get their shots sooner. In addition, many people over 60 were lining up for booster shots, which authorities want to extend soon to younger groups.
But, like Mariño, many say that proving they are either vaccinated or have recovered recently from COVID-19 is becoming compulsory in many places that had resisted the health passes until now.
Iris Reichen, a 61-year-old German-Spanish interpreter, said she was compelled to get her first shot by reports about the fast-spreading omicron variant, whose possible impact is still being considered by health experts, and because her social life had suffered.
“Friends no longer invite the nonvaccinated to their private dinners,” she said.
A recent survey by Spain’s polling institute, CIS, showed that about a third of the 1.6 million adults who remain unvaccinated in Spain were still planning to get their shots. But nearly 3 percent of those polled — the equivalent of 1 million people if the figure was extrapolated to the country’s total population — were planning to avoid it.
The poll, which CIS conducted last month before some Spanish regions introduced mandatory COVID-19 passes, showed that the resistance was across the political spectrum but more prevalent among the middle-class with higher education.
In an internal report leaked Wednesday, a panel of experts advising Spanish health authorities warned against the “false security” that the health certificates can give in a country where nearly 90 percent of those eligible for a vaccine already got their shots. The experts insisted that mask-wearing, which is mandatory in enclosed spaces and a common sight in the streets of Spain, and other social-distancing measures are still more effective against contagion.
Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region have reopened mass vaccination venues for jabs and are allowing people to get walk-in appointments after announcing that the health certificates will be needed to enjoy everything from a meal in a restaurant to a concert.
Catalan Public Health Secretary Carmen Cabezas said that “both first shots and second shots are increasing” and that over the past week alone, authorities had seen an 81 percent increase in first vaccine doses given out compared to the previous week.
In some instances, police had to be summoned to help disperse crowds forming long after the vaccination centers’ scheduled closing hours.
Long lines formed also in Lisbon, where Portugal’s largest vaccination center to date opened for the first time on Wednesday as authorities tried to encourage the 2 percent of the population who are not vaccinated yet — Europe’s lowest rate— and speed up giving out booster shots.
Despite the country’s excellent vaccination record, cases have been rising nonstop over the past two months, although hospitalizations are far away from the worrying levels seen in previous surges. An outbreak of the omicron strain among members of a professional soccer club in Lisbon and a medical worker who had contact with them has also added to concerns.
Starting Wednesday, Portuguese authorities were tightening passenger entry requirements and mandated masks indoors as the country entered a “state of calamity.” The crisis declaration, Portugal’s second this year, is one step below a state of emergency and gives the government the authority to impose stricter measures without parliamentary approval.
Masks now are required in enclosed public spaces, and individuals must show proof of vaccination, having recovered from COVID-19 or a negative virus tests to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels. Nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes and sports venues also require tests from visitors and patrons, including vaccinated ones.
“With the test, we feel more comfortable. We don’t leave the club thinking, ‘Do I have COVID or not?’” Sara Lopes, a 21-year-old shop worker, said at a Lisbon nightclub as the new requirements took effect at midnight.
“It’s a bit of a hassle to have to make appointment after appointment at the pharmacy, but it’s fine,” she said.


Countries agree to negotiate WHO pandemic accord

Countries agree to negotiate WHO pandemic accord
Updated 01 December 2021

Countries agree to negotiate WHO pandemic accord

Countries agree to negotiate WHO pandemic accord
  • The process will present its final outcome to WHO member states in 2024
  • “The adoption of this decision is cause for celebration and cause for hope that we all need,” WHO’s chief said

GENEVA: World Health Organization member states agreed Wednesday to start building a new international accord on how to handle future pandemics and ensure there can be no repeat of Covid-19.
The economic turmoil and millions of lives lost during the coronavirus crisis triggered calls for new international defenses strong enough to prevent a future such disaster.
At a special meeting in Geneva, the 194 WHO member states unanimously adopted a resolution launching the negotiating and drafting process for a new international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.
The process will present its final outcome to WHO member states in 2024.
“The adoption of this decision is cause for celebration and cause for hope that we all need,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in closing the three-day gathering.
“Of course, there is still a long road ahead. There are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain. But you have proven to each other and the world that differences can be overcome and common ground can be found.”
The three-day meeting of the World Health Assembly — the WHO’s decision-making body comprising all 194 member states — was an unprecedented special session on considering a new accord on pandemics.
It came with the world nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic and shaken by the emergence of the newly-discovered Omicron variant of concern, deemed by the WHO to pose a “very high” global risk.
“I have one simple request for all member states, and that is: end this pandemic,” Tedros said in his closing speech.
“Just in the past week, this virus has demonstrated that it will not simply disappear. How many more lives and livelihoods it takes is up to us.
“Ending the pandemic is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice.”
Countries agreed to establish an intergovernmental negotiating body “to draft and negotiate a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”
The body’s first meeting must be no later than March 1 next year to elect two co-chairs and four vice-chairs.
A progress report will be presented at the regular World Health Assembly annual gathering in 2023, with the final outcome presented for consideration at the 2024 WHA.
As Tedros hinted, despite Wednesday’s agreement, differences remain between countries on how far they are prepared to go in terms of legally-binding commitments on issues like equitable vaccine distribution, knowledge-sharing, financing, oversight structures and powers to investigate outbreaks.
The United States, notably, is lukewarm on locking into a treaty.
China — where the first Covid-19 cases were detected — voiced willingness to negotiate an agreement, without specifying whether it should be binding, adding that the process should avoid “stigmatization.”
In a statement, Washington said it wanted to “strengthen the international legal framework” to “make the global health system stronger and more responsive.”
The European Union, much warmer on a treaty, said Wednesday’s decision would make history.
“We need a game change in our global health architecture, so that the international community can respond to future pandemics collectively, effectively and immediately,” Lotte Knudsen, the EU’s ambassador in Geneva, said in a statement.
“The situation and our citizens demand it.”
Britain’s ambassador Simon Manley said there was “no better response” to Omicron than the WHA’s move toward strengthening the legal framework underpinning the collective response to pandemics.
The adopted resolution acknowledged the need to address the “development and distribution of, and unhindered, timely and equitable access to, medical countermeasures such as vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.”
Jaouad Mahjour, the WHO assistant director-general for emergency preparedness, said the decision showed a strong commitment to “ensure that a crisis like this never happens again.”

 


China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
Updated 01 December 2021

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
  • A number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri

BEIJING: China on Wednesday urged its citizens to leave three provinces in eastern Congo as violence intensifies in the mineral-rich region.
A posting from the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa on the WeChat online messaging said a number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri, where several anti-government rebel groups have a presence.
It said Chinese residing in the three provinces should provide their personal details by Dec. 10 and make plans to leave for safer parts of Congo. Those in the districts of Bunia, Djugu, Beni, Rutshuru, Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga should leave immediately, it said, adding that any who do not do so “will have to bear the consequences themselves.”
“We ask that all Chinese citizens and Chinese-invested businesses in Congo please pay close attention to local conditions, increase their safety awareness and emergency preparedness, and avoid unnecessary outside travel,” the embassy said.
No details of the incidents were given, although the embassy last month reported five Chinese citizens were abducted from a mining operation in South Kivu, which borders Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
It warned a the time that the security situation in the area was “extremely complex and grim” and that there was little possibility of sending help in the event of an attack or kidnapping.
No details were given about those kidnapped, who they worked for or who was suspected of taking them.
Several armed groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR, the Mai-Mai and the M23 regularly vie for control of eastern Congo’s natural resources.
Despite the danger, Chinese businesses have moved into Congo and other unstable African states in a quest for cobalt and other rare minerals and resources. Chinese workers have also been subject to kidnappings and attacks in Pakistan and other countries with active insurgencies.
Security was a key topic at a meeting Monday in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on Monday, between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Congolese counterpart Christophe Lutundula, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
China’s government and ruling Communist Party “attach great importance to the safety and security of Chinese enterprises and Chinese nationals overseas and the Chinese side has been extremely concerned with the recent serious crimes of kidnappings and killings of its citizens in the DRC,” Wang said, using the acronym for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wang urged Congo to secure the release of those kidnapped and create a “safe, secure and stable environment for bilateral cooperation.”
Xinhua quoted Lutundula as saying Congo would take “forceful measures” to investigate the crimes, free the hostages, punish the culprits severely and safeguard national security and restore stability to the country’s east.
Earlier this week, Uganda said it launched joint air and artillery strikes with Congolese forces against camps of the extremist Allied Democratic Forces rebel group in eastern Congo.
The ADF was established in the early 1990s in Uganda and later driven out by the Ugandan military into eastern Congo, where many rebel groups are able to operate because the central government has limited control there.
At least four civilians were killed less than two weeks ago in Uganda’s capital when suicide bombers detonated their explosives at two locations.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were carried out by Ugandans. Ugandan authorities blamed the ADF, which has been allied with the Daesh group since 2019.