Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers
A healthcare worker collects a swab from a passenger for a PCR test against COVID-19 before traveling to Uganda, amidst the spread of the new variant Omicron, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. (Reuters)
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Updated 29 November 2021

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers
  • Thirteen cases found in Netherlands, couple arrested
  • South African doctor says omicron patients have 'very mild' symptoms

LONDON/AMSTERDAM: The omicron coronavirus variant spread around the world on Sunday, with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it was not yet clear whether omicron, first detected in Southern Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.
“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection,” WHO said.
It said understanding the level of severity of omicron “will take days to several weeks”.
The detection of omicron triggered global alarm as governments around the world scrambled to impose new travel curbs and financial markets sold-off, fearing the variant could resist vaccinations and upend a nascent economic reopening after a two-year global pandemic.
In its statement, the WHO said it was working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19, including vaccines.
Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the developments.
Dutch health authorities said 13 cases of the variant were found among people on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday. Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on the flights and found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for omicron.
“This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told reporters.
Dutch military police said they arrested a married couple who left a hotel where they were in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, and were attempting to flee the country.
omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” last week by the WHO that is potentially more contagious than previous variants, has now been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada and South Africa.
Many countries have imposed travel bans or curbs on Southern Africa to try to stem the spread. Financial markets dived on Friday, and oil prices tumbled.
A South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain said that symptoms of omicron were so far mild and could be treated at home.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters that unlike with Delta, so far patients have not reported loss of smell or taste and there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new variant.
In the most far-reaching effort to keep the variant at bay, Israel announced late on Saturday it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective vaccines are against omicron.
The top US infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told President Joe Biden on Sunday it will take about two weeks to have more definitive information about the transmissibility and other characteristics of omicron, the White House said in a statement, adding that Fauci believes existing vaccines “are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID”.
Biden will give an update on the new variant and the US response on Monday, the White House said.
In Britain, the government has announced measures including stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country and requiring mask wearing in some settings.
More countries announced new travel curbs on southern African nations on Sunday, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
South Africa has denounced the measures as unfair and potentially harmful to its economy, saying it is being punished for its scientific ability to identify coronavirus variants early.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday that his government was considering imposing compulsory COVID-19 shots for people in certain places and activities, and he slammed rich Western countries for what he called their knee-jerk imposition of travel bans.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” Ramaphosa said. “The only thing (it) ... will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to ... the pandemic.”
omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, with some reintroducing restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.
The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in poorer countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.


UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain

UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain
Updated 11 sec ago

UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain

UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain
  • More than one-in-four people quizzed agreed that “there are areas in Britain that operate under Shariah law”
  • Mohammed: Important to document Islamophobia and share data with policy makers when asking for change

LONDON: A UK Muslim leader said on Tuesday that the findings of a survey on Islamophobia had highlighted “the pervasive nature of the problem” in Britain.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham, revealed that Islamophobia had passed the so-called dinner table test in being considered suitable for polite conversation and socially acceptable.

Titled, “The Dinner Table Prejudice: Islamophobia in Contemporary Britain,” the survey found that Muslims were the UK’s second least-liked group after gypsy and Irish travelers, with 25.9 percent of the British public feeling negative toward Muslims, and 9.9 percent very negative.

Speaking at the report’s launch, Zara Mohammed, the first female secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Islamophobia was definitely real, contrary to what some people thought, and that it impacted on all aspects of society.

“I think what’s really great about this report and its contribution to the body of evidence is that it shows us not just the pervasive nature of the problem but also that Muslims are some of the least-liked people in the population.

“In my one year so far as the secretary-general of the MCB, what we have seen is unfortunately a very changing landscape for British Muslims and one that is becoming increasingly hostile.

“This is the reality of how Muslims are perceived in everyday Britain, and that is in 2022 as well,” she added.

More than one-in-four people quizzed for the survey, and nearly half of Conservative Party supporters and those who voted to leave the EU, held conspiratorial views that “no-go areas” in the UK existed where Shariah law ruled.

And 26.5 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement that, “there are areas in Britain that operate under Shariah law where non-Muslims are not able to enter,” the study said. Among Conservative Party voters and those who elected to leave the EU, the figure increased to 43.4 percent.

A further 36.3 percent of Brits said they thought that “Islam threatens the British way of life,” and 18.1 percent supported, and 9.5 percent strongly supported, the idea of banning all Muslim migration to the UK.

“British people acknowledge their ignorance of most non-Christian religions, with a majority stating they are ‘not sure’ how Jewish (50.8 percent) and Sikh (62.7 percent) scriptures are taught.

“In the case of Islam, however, people feel more confident making a judgement, with only 40.7 percent being unsure. This is despite the fact that people are much more likely to make the incorrect assumption that Islam is ‘totally’ literalistic. Prejudice toward Islam is not simply ignorance, then, but miseducation and misrecognition,” the study report added.

Mohammed pointed out that Islamophobia had a very real knock-on impact on the everyday lives of Muslims, and she welcomed the academic evidence contained in reports such as the latest one written by Stephen Jones and Amy Unsworth.

She noted that it was important to document the problem and share data with policy makers when asking for change.

“In some ways it empowers Muslim communities to say, ‘don’t think it’s in your heads, actually something needs to be done.’

“The government’s own evidence on hate crime found that 40 percent of all those facing hate crime were Muslims. This is very much a real problem and I’m hoping that on the back of the work that Prof. Jones has done, we will all be able to benefit from it and use it in our campaigns, activism, and conversations.

“Whilst Islamophobia has certainly passed the dinner table test, it’s time for us to be able to move forward and make a real change, and the MCB remains committed to doing that,” Mohammed said.

The survey launch has coincided with news headlines about British Muslim Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani’s claims that her faith was given as a reason for her sacking as a government minister in 2020.

She said she was told that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at a meeting and that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable.”

“It was like being punched in the stomach. I felt humiliated and powerless,” she added.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a Cabinet Office inquiry into the claims.

On Ghani’s allegations, Mohammed said they “highlighted just how systemic and institutional the problem of Islamophobia is. It hits hard, and it hits deep.”

She added that Islamophobia, “isn’t just in our heads, and just over this weekend we have seen at the heart of politics how this also plays out.

“What is actually being done? What is the approach of decision makers to tackling the problem, if any?”

She said the MCB had been working to push for the adoption of a definition of Islamophobia developed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims.

According to the APPG definition, Islamophobia was rooted in racism and was a type of racism that targeted expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. The definition was widely endorsed throughout Muslim communities, political parties, and civil society.

However, the ruling Conservative Party rejected the APPG definition in 2019 and said it needed “more consideration.”

The late James Brokenshire, Britain’s communities secretary at the time, told the House of Commons that the APPG definition was not in line with the Equality Act 2010, and that two advisers would be appointed to come up with a definition that was.

However, an imam appointed by ministers as a key adviser on Islamophobia, said on Monday he had been ignored by No. 10 and Michael Gove, the UK’s secretary of state for housing, communities, and local government.

Imam Qari Asim, who was asked to help draw up a definition of Islamophobia, told The Times that he had not received replies to emails and letters that he sent to the government over more than two years since he was appointed.


Email contradicts UK PM’s claim over evacuation of animals from Afghanistan

Email contradicts UK PM’s claim over evacuation of animals from Afghanistan
Updated 1 min 37 sec ago

Email contradicts UK PM’s claim over evacuation of animals from Afghanistan

Email contradicts UK PM’s claim over evacuation of animals from Afghanistan
  • According to email, Boris Johnson gave personal authorization despite his vehement denial
  • PM accused of prioritizing pets over Afghans who had worked for British govt 

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally authorized the evacuation of 173 dogs and cats from Afghanistan, according to an email released on Wednesday. 

On Dec. 7, Johnson claimed that it was “complete nonsense” that he had intervened to have the animals evacuated, and that he had “no influence on that particular case,” adding: “Nor would that be right.”

Zac Goldsmith, a minister and member of the House of Lords, told parliamentary colleagues that Johnson’s statement was “entirely accurate,” which this email now contradicts. 

The email was sent on Aug. 25 last year by an official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office during the evacuation from Kabul.

Addressed to the department’s “special cases” team, the official wrote: “The PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated.”

The government and Johnson have come under fire from MPs and a Foreign Office whistleblower for allegedly reallocating military and governmental resources from rescuing Afghans to recovering pets. 

The founder of the Nowzad charity, former Royal Marine Pen Farthing, denies the claims. The charity chartered its own plane and put the animals in the hold, freeing up space for people, but civil servants and MPs said their presence meant that limited military resources were redirected to protect the convoy of animals. 

In December, former Foreign Office worker Raphael Marshall told MPs that the department had received “an instruction from the prime minister” to use “considerable capacity” to help Farthing.

During the airlift, Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat criticized the decision to airlift the animals. 

But Farthing told the BBC: “At no time did any British soldiers leave Kabul airport to get me in, I’m dumbfounded that he’s said this to Parliament.

“As a charity, how many times do we have to tell people the truth? He said the government transported our animals. We left Kabul on a privately chartered flight, there was no government involvement.”


Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them

Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them
Updated 30 min 21 sec ago

Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them

Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them
  • Denmark was expected to announce that it no longer considers COVID-19 as “a socially critical disease” as of next month and will remove most restrictions
  • “We have an extremely record high spread of infection,” Sweden's Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Sweden announced Wednesday that several coronavirus restrictions will be extended for another two weeks.
Meanwhile neighboring Denmark was expected to announce that it no longer considers COVID-19 as “a socially critical disease” as of next month and will remove most restrictions.
“We have an extremely record high spread of infection,” Sweden’s Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said. “The assessment is that existing measures need to remain in place for another two weeks.”
“If the situation allows it, the restrictions will be lifted after that,” she said.
Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, said the reasoning for extending the restrictions is that they expect a decline in cases in a couple of weeks. She said the Scandinavian country had 270,000 new infections in the past seven days and that “our assessment is that, during this period, at least half a million can fall ill per week.”
In Sweden which has previously stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic, has ordered cafes, bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m., urged people to work from home when possible and said distance learning was an option in higher education to try to combat rising COVID-19 infections.
Denmark, meanwhile, is heading in the opposition direction.
In a letter Tuesday to the Danish lawmakers, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said he wants to follow the recommendations by Parliament’s Epidemic Commission so that the “categorization of COVID-19 as a socially critical disease will be abolished as of Feb. 1.”
The letter said “this is a new epidemic situation in which a high and increasing infection does not to the same extent as previously translate into hospitalizations.” The letter was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday ahead of a planned press conference with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
It was not immediately clear what restrictions Danes will end but they likely will include the digital health pass, which now must be used to enter museums, nightclubs, cafes, party buses and to be seated indoors in restaurants.
In Denmark, people above 15 must also flash the pass when attending outdoor events where the capacity exceeds 2,000.
In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin tweeted that “the government will assess the necessity of (the) restrictions” and “should consider opening low-risk cultural and sports events with a COVID pass and extending the opening hours of restaurants on a quicker schedule than was previously estimated.”


Austria to lift lockdown for unvaccinated residents

Austria to lift lockdown for unvaccinated residents
Updated 26 January 2022

Austria to lift lockdown for unvaccinated residents

Austria to lift lockdown for unvaccinated residents
  • Once the mandate goes into effect, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules

BERLIN: Austria will end its lockdown for unvaccinated residents next Monday — one day before a COVID-19 vaccine mandate takes effect in the country, the government announced Wednesday, according to Austrian news agency APA.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said the measure, which was introduced in November, was no longer needed because there was no threat of hospital intensive care units being overstretched, APA reported.
For weeks, the lockdown for the unvaccinated has been “a measure that many people complained about, but that was unavoidable for health policy reasons,” Nehammer said.
On Feb. 1, a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for adults — the first of its kind in Europe — will take effect in the small Alpine country. Officials have said the mandate is necessary because vaccination rates remain too low. They say it will ensure that Austria’s hospitals are not overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. So far, 75.4 percent of the country’s residents have been fully vaccinated.
Once the mandate goes into effect, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules.
From mid-March, police will start checking people’s vaccination status during routine checks; people who can’t produce proof of vaccination will be asked to do so in writing, and will be fined up to 600 euros ($676) if they don’t.
If authorities judge the country’s vaccination progress still to be insufficient, Nehammer said earlier this month, they would then send reminders to people who remain unvaccinated. If even that doesn’t work, people would be sent a vaccination appointment and fined if they don’t keep it. Officials hope they won’t need to use the last measure. Fines could reach 3,600 euros if people contest their punishment and full proceedings are opened.


Ukraine says Russian troop build-up ‘insufficient’ for major attack

Ukraine says Russian troop build-up ‘insufficient’ for major attack
Updated 26 January 2022

Ukraine says Russian troop build-up ‘insufficient’ for major attack

Ukraine says Russian troop build-up ‘insufficient’ for major attack
  • ‘At the moment, as we speak, this number is insufficient for a full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border’
KIEV: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday that the number of Russian troops deployed along his country’s border was not enough for a major attack.
“The number of Russian troops amassed along the border of Ukraine and occupied territories of Ukraine is large, it poses a threat to Ukraine, a direct threat to Ukraine,” Kuleba told reporters.
“However, at the moment, as we speak, this number is insufficient for a full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border.”