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.


UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit

UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit
Updated 58 min ago

UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit

UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit
  • Michelle Bachelet's long-planned trip this week has taken her to the far-western region
  • Her office later clarified that her remarks did not contain a direct endorsement of China's rights record

BEIJING: The UN rights envoy on Saturday said her contentious visit to China was “not an investigation,” and insisted she had unsupervised access during meetings in Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Michelle Bachelet’s long-planned trip this week has taken her to the far-western region, where Beijing is accused of the detention of over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, forced sterilization of women and coerced labor.
The United States has labelled China’s actions in Xinjiang a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” allegations vehemently denied by Beijing which says its security crackdown was a necessary response to extremism.
Bachelet has come under fire from rights groups and Uyghurs overseas, who say she has stumbled into a six-day Communist Party propaganda tour, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping in which state media suggested she supported China’s vision of human rights.
Her office later clarified that her remarks did not contain a direct endorsement of China’s rights record.
Speaking at the end of her trip while still inside China, Bachelet framed her visit as a chance for her to speak with “candour” to Chinese authorities as well as civil society groups and academics.
“This visit was not an investigation,” she told reporters, later insisting she had “unsupervised” access to sources the UN had arranged to meet in Xinjiang.
It is the first trip to China by the UN’s top rights envoy in 17 years and comes after painstaking negotiations over the conditions of her visit, which the UN says is neither a fact-finding mission nor a probe.
Bachelet this week visited the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar, according to her office, but no photos or further details of her itinerary have dribbled out.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said earlier this week that Bachelet’s activities were “arranged according to her will and on the basis of thorough consultations of the two sides.”
She planned to meet “civil society organizations, business representatives, academics,” her office said, but state media has only covered meetings with Xi and foreign minister Wang Yi, during which he gave her a book of Xi quotes on human rights.
Her trip has taken place under a “closed loop,” ostensibly due to Covid-19 risks.
The United States has reiterated its view that Bachelet’s visit was a mistake after the release of thousands of leaked documents and photographs from inside the system of mass incarceration this week, while the UK and Germany have voiced their concerns at the visit.


Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law
Updated 28 May 2022

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law
  • Russia has legislation that labels groups and individuals as foreign agents if they receive foreign funding to engage in political activity
  • Dozens of Kremlin critics have been listed as foreign agents

DUBAI: Former president Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday called for Russia to toughen its laws on “foreign agents” and prosecute individuals working for the interests of foreign states.
Russia has legislation that labels groups and individuals as foreign agents — a term that carries Soviet-era connotations of spying — if they receive foreign funding to engage in what the authorities say is political activity.
Dozens of Kremlin critics have been listed as foreign agents, including journalists and rights activists, and many have fled abroad.
Medvedev, who now serves as deputy head of Russia’s security council, said the enforcement of the “foreign agents” legislation needed to be stepped up as Moscow carries out its military intervention in Ukraine and finds itself under unprecedented sanctions from the West.
“If they (foreign agents) are carrying out activities aimed against our country — especially during this tough period — and receive money for it from our enemies, our response must be quick and harsh,” Medvedev wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
He added that the legislation should more precisely classify “foreign agents” and impose stricter consequences for their offenses.
At present, those listed are subject to stringent financial reporting requirements and have to preface anything they publish, including social media posts, with a disclaimer stating that they are foreign agents.
Lawmakers said last month they planned to submit amendments to the law to add more restrictions, including on investing in strategic industries and working with children.
Medvedev also said he supported legislative initiatives to criminally prosecute “people working in the interest of a foreign state.”
His post began and ended with a reference to a 1960s Soviet television series set during the Russian Civil War of the 1920s, in which Medvedev noted that the hero was shot as a spy.


Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country

Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country
Updated 28 May 2022

Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country

Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country
  • Petro Poroshenko, in power from 2014 to 2019, has made frequent public appearances since the war started

KYIV, Ukraine: The former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, said Saturday he was barred from leaving the country, accusing the government of breaking a so-called political cease-fire in place since Russia invaded.
Poroshenko, in power from 2014 to 2019, has made frequent public appearances since the war started, appearing on international television to offer commentary.
His European Solidarity party is the second biggest party in Ukraine’s parliament after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ruling party.
After Russia invaded, Ukraine’s parliament banned several pro-Russian parties, and allowed others to still operate under a so-called political cease-fire — a tacit understanding that all parties would put aside domestic political disagreements to unite against the war.
But on Saturday, Poroshenko’s office said he “was refused to cross the border of Ukraine,” accusing the government of violating the agreement.
“There is a risk that by this decision, the authorities have broken the ‘political cease-fire’ in place during the war... which one of the pillars of national unity in the face of to Russian aggression,” his office said.
Poroshenko was due to travel to a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Lithuania as part of the Ukrainian delegation, and had received official permission to travel.
He was due to meet in Vilnius with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and a group of European parliamentarians.
He was then to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a summit bringing together European political parties.


China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan

China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan
Updated 28 May 2022

China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan

China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan
  • China is building on a security pact it recently signed with Solomon Islands

SYDNEY: China’s foreign minister signed a deal with Samoa on Saturday to strengthen diplomatic relations, while Australia’s new leader said he had a “comprehensive plan” for the Pacific, as Beijing and Canberra continued rival campaigns to woo the region.
China is building on a security pact it recently signed with Solomon Islands, which has alarmed the United States and its allies such as Australia as they fear a stepped-up military presence by Beijing. Australia’s new center-left government has made the Pacific Islands an early diplomatic priority.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, sworn in on Monday, said on Saturday his Labor government’s plan includes a defense training school, support for maritime security, a boost in aid and re-engaging the region on climate change.
“We will be proactive in the region, we want to engage,” he told reporters.
China’s Wang Yi, on a tour of the Pacific seeking a 10-nation deal on security and trade, finished a visit to Samoa, where he met Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa and signed documents including an “economic and technical cooperation agreement,” Samoa said in a statement.
“Samoa and the People’s Republic of China will continue to pursue greater collaboration that will deliver on joint interests and commitments,” it said.
Also Saturday, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he had a “wonderful meeting” with Australia’s Penny Wong, who had visited days after taking office to show the new government’s attention to the Pacific Islands.
“Fiji is not anyone’s backyard — we are a part of a Pacific family,” Bainimarama wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of himself and Penny Wong shaking hands.
Bainimarama appeared to be taking a veiled swipe at Scott Morrison, the conservative prime minister ousted in an election last weekend, who once referred to the Pacific as Australia’s “backyard”.
Climate change, which Pacific Island nations consider an existential threat, had been a key issue in the election.
Australia’s Wong has said that Canberra will be a partner that does not come with strings attached, while China’s Wang expressed hope that Beijing’s ties with the Solomon Islands could be a regional model.
Wang was headed to Fiji, where he is expected to push for the regional deal in a meeting he is to host on Monday.


Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east
Updated 28 May 2022

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east
  • A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in full

KYIV/POPASNA, Ukraine: Ukrainian forces may have to retreat from their last pocket in the Luhansk region to avoid being captured, a Ukrainian official said, as Russian troops press an advance in the east that has shifted the momentum of the three-month-old war.
A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in full. His troops have gained ground in the two areas collectively known as the Donbas while blasting some towns to wastelands.
Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said Russian troops had entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest Donbas city still held by Ukraine, after trying to trap Ukrainian forces there for days. Gaidai said 90 percent of buildings in the town were damaged.
“The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days as analysts have predicted,” Gaidai said on Telegram, referring to the area including Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River.
“We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to retreat.”
Russia’s separatist proxies said they controlled Lyman, a railway hub west of Sievierodonetsk. Ukraine said Russia had captured most of Lyman but that its forces were blocking an advance to Sloviansk, to the southwest.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was protecting its land “as much as our current defense resources allow.” Ukraine’s military said it had repelled eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles.
“If the occupiers think that Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian,” Zelensky said in an address.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said while Russian forces had begun direct assaults on built-up areas of Sievierodonetsk, they would likely struggle to take ground in the city itself.
“Russian forces have performed poorly in operations in built-up urban terrain throughout the war,” they said.
Russian troops advanced after piercing Ukrainian lines last week in the city of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have captured several villages northwest of Popasna, Britain’s defense ministry said.
Russian forces shelled parts of Kharkiv on Thursday for the first time in days. Authorities said nine people were killed. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In the south, where Moscow has seized a swath of territory since the Feb. 24 invasion, including the port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to impose permanent rule.
In the Kherson region in the south, Russian forces were fortifying defenses and shelling Ukraine-controlled areas, the region’s Ukrainian governor, Hennadiy Laguta, told media.
He said the humanitarian situation was critical in some areas and people were finding it very difficult to leave.
Police said 31 people had been evacuated on Friday from the Luhansk region, including 13 children.