South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
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South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor. (File/AFP)
South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
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FILE - People line up to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 27 November 2021

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
  • The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa complained Saturday that it is being “punished” for detecting a new Covid-19 variant Omicron which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern” and is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.
The decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world.
“Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa, but the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” it said.
Israel and Belgium announced after South Africa that they also had detected cases of Omicron.
Government insisted that South Africa’s “capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination program, backed up by a world-class scientific community should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.”
With more than 2.95 million cases and 89,783 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa by the pandemic.


Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1

Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1
Updated 5 sec ago

Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1

Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1
KARACHI: Police in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi clashed overnight with activists demanding the repeal of a law to limit powers of local mayors, killing one, officials said Thursday.
The violence erupted when police swung batons and fired tear gas to prevent rallygoers from marching toward government offices in the southern port city, drawing nationwide condemnation across the political spectrum.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, told reporters that party member Mohammad Aslam died at a hospital after being injured in the ensuing crush with police. Women and children were also among the dozens of injured.
MQM mainly represents ethnic MoHajjirs, who fled to Pakistan from India during 1947′s partition, and it dominates politics in Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province. It is an ally in the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Thousands are expected to attend the activist’s funeral on Thursday, and the MQM has called for another day of protests.

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border
Updated 17 min 1 sec ago

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border
  • Hundreds of Indians, mostly from the western states of Punjab and Gujarat, attempt to cross the US-Canada border each year

MUMBAI: Indian police have detained six people in a crackdown on illegal immigration after four Indians were found frozen to death near the border between the United States and Canada last week, officials said on Thursday.
Hundreds of Indians, mostly from the western states of Punjab and Gujarat, attempt to cross the US-Canada border each year, braving harsh weather conditions in search of a better life and job opportunities in the West.
Police in Gujarat said they identified the four, belonging to a single family, after law enforcement agencies on the border provided photographs of passports and other belongings.
“We are now trying to nab the human traffickers who managed to send this family and others abroad via illegal channels,” said police official A.K. Jhala in the state capital of Gandhinagar.
The six detained by police were running a travel and tourism company in the state, he added.
US authorities have charged a US man with human trafficking after the four — a man, woman, baby and teenager — were found dead in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a few yards north of the frontier with Minnesota.
They were among four families from the same village who had traveled to the border this month.
Officials said they got separated from the group of 18 people and were probably caught in a blizzard, resulting in a tragedy described as “mind-blowing” by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The situation came to light only when the group was intercepted by authorities and one of them was found to be carrying a backpack with baby supplies, although there was no infant among them.
“The nexus of human trafficking runs deep, often involving local politicians too,” said Jhala, adding that people even sell their land and homes to fund efforts to get to the United States or Canada.
A foreign ministry official in the Indian capital of New Delhi said authorities were coordinating with border officials in the United States and Canada to investigate the illegal immigration case.


North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border
Updated 52 min 12 sec ago

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border
  • The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighboring China

SEOUL: After spending two years in a strict lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea may finally be opening up — slowly. The reason could reflect a growing sense of recognition by the leadership that the nation badly needs to win outside economic relief.
The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighboring China. But it comes even as Pyongyang has staged several weapons tests, the latest being two suspected ballistic missiles on Thursday, and issued a veiled threat about resuming tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the American homeland.
The apparently divided message — opening the border, slightly, on one hand, while also militarily pressuring Washington over a prolonged freeze in nuclear negotiations — likely signals a realization that the pandemic has worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s crucial trade with its ally China shrank by about 80 percent in 2020 before plunging again by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021 as it sealed its borders.
The partial reopening of the border also raises questions about how North Korea plans to receive and administer vaccines following a yearlong delay in its immunization campaign.
“North Korea could end up being the planet’s last battlefield in the war against COVID-19. Even the poorest countries in Africa have received outside aid and vaccines or acquired immunity through infection, but North Korea is the only country in the world without a real plan,” said analyst Lim Soo-ho at Seoul’s Institute of National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s main spy agency.
Commercial satellite images indicate that the first North Korean freight train that crossed the Yalu River last week then returned from China and unloaded cargo at an airfield in the border town of Uiju, according to the North Korea-focused 38 North website. The airfield is believed to have been converted to disinfect imported supplies, which may include food and medicine.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said trade between the border towns will be maintained while pandemic controls stay in place. But South Korean officials say it isn’t immediately clear whether the North is fully reopening land trade with China, which is a major economic lifeline.
Some South Korean media have speculated North Korea may have temporarily reopened the railroad between Sinuiju and China’s Dandong just to receive food and essential goods meant as gifts for its people during important holidays, including the 80th birth anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s father next month, and the 110th birth anniversary in April of his grandfather who founded North Korea.
Many experts, however, say it’s more likely that the pandemic’s economic strain is forcing North Korea to explore a phased reopening of its borders that it could quickly close if greater risks emerge.
Following two years of extreme isolation and economic decay, Pyongyang’s leadership is looking for more sustainable ways to deal with a pandemic that could last years.
While North Korea has so far claimed zero virus infections, it also calls its antivirus campaign a matter of “national existence.” It has severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade, banned tourists and kicked out diplomats, and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot-on-sight any trespassers.
Pyongyang’s leadership knows that a major COVID-19 outbreak would be devastating because of North Korea’s poor health care system and may even fan social unrest when combined with its chronic food shortage, experts say.
South Korean officials have said that North Korea established disinfection zones in recent months at border towns and seaports. The World Health Organization said in October that the North had started receiving shipments of medical supplies transported by sea from China through its port of Nampo.
The pandemic is another difficulty for Kim, who gained little from his nuclear disarmament-for-aid diplomacy with former US President Donald Trump. Those talks imploded in 2019.
Kim in 2020 acknowledged that his previous economic plans weren’t working and opened 2021 by issuing a new development plan for the next five years.
But North Korea’s review of its 2021 economy during a December ruling party meeting indicated that the first year of the plan was disappointing, Lim said. A rare piece of tangible progress was a modest increase in food production, which rebounded from a 2020 marked by crop-killing storms and floods.
North Korea’s resumed trade with China will be driven by imports. Most of North Korea’s major export activities are blocked under international sanctions tightened since 2016 after Kim accelerated nuclear and missile development.
The North may focus on importing fertilizer to boost food production. It also needs construction materials for development projects important to Kim. Factory goods and machinery are crucial to revive industrial production, which has been decimated by two years of halted trade.
Experts, however, still expect North Korea’s trade with China to be significantly smaller than pre-pandemic levels.
North Korea can’t immediately purchase a huge amount of goods because the multiyear toll of sanctions and pandemic-related difficulties has thinned out foreign currency reserves.
“Still, it’s clear that North Korea isn’t a country that can survive without imports for two or three years, so it’s certain they will attempt to slowly increase imports within a limited scope,” said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
North Korea has so far shunned millions of vaccine shots offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly reflecting an unease toward accepting international monitors. But the country may still seek help from China and Russia to inoculate workers, officials and troops in border areas as it proceeds with a phased resumption of trade, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea may also be forced to adopt a scaled-back vaccination program by tightly restricting access to border areas and providing regular testing and vaccination for border workers.
“It could take nearly 100 million shots to fully vaccinate the North Korean population of more than 25 million, and the country will never get anything close to that,” Lim said.


Biden to address US crime wave in New York visit

Biden to address US crime wave in New York visit
Updated 27 January 2022

Biden to address US crime wave in New York visit

Biden to address US crime wave in New York visit
  • Biden faces pressure from the right, which blames him for presiding over rising disorder

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden will address the soaring US crime wave during a trip next week to New York, where five police officers have been shot this year, the White House said Wednesday.
Rising urban violence is a major political liability for the Democrat, with a January study by the Council on Criminal Justice showing homicides in 22 cities increased five percent in 2021 — and a whopping 44 percent over 2019 levels.
Biden will meet next Thursday with Mayor Eric Adams, who took over the Big Apple at the start of the year and was immediately confronted with a spate of high-profile crimes. Two police officers have been killed and three others wounded just this month.
And the city has been unsettled by a series of other violent crimes this month, including another shooting in which a 19-year-old Puerto Rican woman was killed at the fast food restaurant where she worked.
They will “discuss the administration’s comprehensive strategy to combat gun crime, which includes historic levels of funding for cities and states to put more cops on the beat and invest in community violence prevention and intervention programs, as well as stepped up federal law enforcement efforts against illegal gun traffickers,” the White House said.
The crime wave — which still leaves US cities far safer than they were in the 1990s — has been connected by experts to a combination of social disruption linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and fallout for police departments in the aftermath of a spate of botched arrests in which Black people were killed or badly injured.
Biden faces pressure from the right, which blames him for presiding over rising disorder, and from the left, which has campaigned for police reforms — at times, going as far as the “defund the police” movement.
Biden has stressed the need to control the flow of unregistered weapons, such as so-called ghost guns that cannot be traced after use in a crime.
Adams, himself a former police officer, said in a statement also posted to Twitter Wednesday, “Public safety is my administration’s highest priority, and we welcome the opportunity to display to President Biden how federal and local governments can coordinate and support each other in this fight to keep New Yorkers safe.”
And he echoed Biden’s message earlier this week when he called gun violence “a public health crisis.”
The mayor, a Democrat, has proposed more aggressive policing, with deployment of undercover officers.
According to a Pew Research poll last year, some 30 percent of Americans say they own a firearm.


Moderna begins trial of omicron-specific vaccine booster

Moderna begins trial of omicron-specific vaccine booster
Updated 27 January 2022

Moderna begins trial of omicron-specific vaccine booster

Moderna begins trial of omicron-specific vaccine booster
  • The booster specifically targeting omicron will therefore be evaluated as both a third and a fourth dose

WASHINGTON: US biotech company Moderna announced on Wednesday that it has begun clinical trials of a booster dose of vaccine designed specifically to combat the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The trials will involve a total of 600 adults — half of whom have already received two doses of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine at least six months ago, and half of whom have received two doses plus the previously authorized booster dose.
The booster specifically targeting omicron will therefore be evaluated as both a third and a fourth dose.
The company also reported results on the efficacy against omicron of the booster that has already been authorized.
It said that six months after the booster injection, the levels of neutralizing antibodies against omicron were reduced by six times from the peak observed 29 days after the injection — but remained detectable in all participants.
These data were obtained by studying the blood of 20 people who received the 50 microgram booster, half the amount of the first two injections.
“We are reassured by the antibody persistence against omicron at six months after the currently authorized” booster, Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said in the statement.
“Nonetheless, given the long-term threat demonstrated by omicron’s immune escape, we are advancing our omicron-specific variant vaccine booster candidate and we are pleased to begin this part of our Phase 2 study,” Bancel continued.
Moderna’s statement came the day after rivals Pfizer and BioNTech said they had begun enrollment for a clinical trial for an omicron-specific vaccine.
Both vaccines are based on messenger RNA technology, which makes it relatively easy to update them to keep up with mutations specific to new variants.
Several countries, including the United States, have begun to see a decline in cases associated with the infection wave caused by omicron, the most transmissible variant detected so far, but the number of infections worldwide continues to rise.