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.


Nepal imposes tough restrictions as virus cases set record

Nepal imposes tough restrictions as virus cases set record
Updated 21 sec ago

Nepal imposes tough restrictions as virus cases set record

Nepal imposes tough restrictions as virus cases set record
Katmandu: Nepal’s capital shut schools, ordered citizens to carry vaccination cards in public, banned religious festivals and instructed hotel guests to be tested every three days as it battles its biggest COVID-19 outbreak.
The chief government administrator of Katmandu issued a notice on Friday saying all people must carry their vaccination cards when they are in public areas or shop in stores.
Nepal, however, has only fully vaccinated 41 percent of its population. The notice did not say how unvaccinated people will be able to pay utility bills or shop for groceries.
The government says it has enough vaccines in stock, but a new wave of COVID-19 cases propelled by the omicron variant has created long lines at vaccination centers, with many people unable to receive shots.
All public gatherings and meetings will be banned and cinemas and theaters will be closed. Gymnasiums, pools and other sporting venues will also be shut. No public religious festivals or events will be allowed, the notice said. It did not say how long the restrictions would last.
Authorities also halted in-person classes at all schools and indefinitely postponed university examinations.
Wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing in public will be mandatory. Only 20 customers at a time will be allowed in shopping malls and department stores, and all must carry vaccination cards. Employees will be given regular antigen tests to be allowed to work.
Restaurants and hotels can remain open, but employees must wear face masks and other protection. Hotel guests must take antigen tests every three days.
The government is also limiting road traffic, with bans on alternating days for vehicles with odd or even license plates.
The notice said violators will be punished, but did not elaborates. An existing law relating to pandemics says violators can be jailed for a month.
The Health Ministry reported a record 12,338 new cases on Thursday and 11,352 on Wednesday, compared to a few hundred daily cases last month.
Nepal had full lockdowns in 2020 and again from late April to Sept. 1, 2021.

EU health ministers seek common line over fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose

EU health ministers seek common line over fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose
Updated 39 min 37 sec ago

EU health ministers seek common line over fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose

EU health ministers seek common line over fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose
  • Hungary and Denmark have already decided to roll out a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccines

BRUSSELS: European Union health ministers will try to find a common line on Friday over a potential fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccines, amid a surge in cases sparked by the omicron variant.
The EU drugs regulator said earlier this week it would be reasonable to give a fourth dose to people with severely weakened immune systems, but more evidence was needed.
Ministers will discuss “the administration of the fourth dose,” said a press release issued by the French presidency of the EU, which organized the video-conference for health ministers at short notice.
EU members Hungary and Denmark have already decided to roll out a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccines. Copenhagen said it would do so for the most vulnerable, while the Hungarian government said everybody could get it after a consultation with a doctor.
The rollout of fourth doses began in Israel last month, making it the first country to administer the so-called second booster.
Wealthier nations decided to speed up the rollout of third doses amid a wave of new cases caused by the more contagious omicron variant, but remain divided over a fourth one.
Many consider that more data is needed before making decisions on that.
The French presidency said the video conference was meant to find a common approach at an EU level on vaccination strategies.
The meeting will also discuss coordination of other COVID-19 policies, including for possible new joint purchases of vaccines, as “vaccines adapted to variants are coming soon,” the French presidency said.
Vaccines adapted to omicron could be ready as early as March, but the EU drugs regulator has said it is not yet clear whether they are needed.
Work is underway to develop multivalent vaccines that could protect against multiple variants, but it is not known when or if they could be available.


Taliban to hold meeting in Norway next week

Taliban to hold meeting in Norway next week
Updated 21 January 2022

Taliban to hold meeting in Norway next week

Taliban to hold meeting in Norway next week
  • Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt: We are extremely concerned about the serious situation in Afghanistan

COPENHAGEN: A Taliban delegation will travel to Norway for talks with the Norwegian government, meeting with representatives of the Norwegian authorities and several allied countries but also with civil society activists and human rights defenders from Afghanistan.
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said Friday that it has invited representatives of the Taliban to Oslo from Jan. 23 to Jan. 25. The statement didn’t say which other countries would take part in the meeting.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said that “we are extremely concerned about the serious situation in Afghanistan.” She said there is “a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe for millions of people” in the country.
She stressed that the meeting was “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban. But we must talk to those who in practice govern the country today.”
“We cannot let the political situation lead to an even worse humanitarian catastrophe,” she said.
The Foreign Ministry said that the Taliban delegation meetings also will include Afghans with backgrounds “from various fields and include women leaders, journalists, and people who work with, among other things, human rights and humanitarian, economic, social and political issues.”
It said that earlier this week, a Norwegian delegation visited Kabul for talks on the precarious humanitarian situation in the country.

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UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’

UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’
Updated 21 January 2022

UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’

UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’
  • More than 1.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed by Super Typhoon Rai
  • The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 storms every year

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations said destruction caused by Typhoon Rai in the Philippines had been “badly underestimated” in initial assessments, tripling the number of people “seriously affected” to nine million.
A UN campaign to raise $107.2 million in aid for victims was launched a week after the storm ravaged southern and central regions of the archipelago on December 16, leaving 406 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
But UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines Gustavo Gonzalez said Thursday the target would be revised after more than 66 field assessments showed the destruction was far worse than initially thought.
“One month since the first landfall of Super Typhoon Rai we realize that we have badly underestimated the scale of devastation,” Gonzalez told a virtual briefing.
More than 1.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed in the storm — almost a third more than in 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan — Gonzalez said, adding more resources were “badly needed.”
Only 40 percent of the funds had been received, Gonzalez said, calling for solidarity with the Philippines to avoid the typhoon becoming a “forgotten crisis.”
Typhoon-hit areas already struggling with COVID-19, poverty and malnutrition had seen their economies “literally flattened.”
“This is a very fragile region,” he said.
Humanitarian groups have been working with the government to distribute food packs, drinking water, tents and materials to rebuild houses.
But the scale of the disaster, lack of power and communications in some areas, and depleted government coffers after the COVID-19 response have hampered efforts to distribute aid.
An omicron-fueled surge in infections is also forcing relief workers into isolation and making travel more difficult.
Persistent rain in the region was adding to the misery, Gonzalez said.
“We are talking about a crisis within a crisis,” he said.
Rai, the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines last year, intensified faster than expected, officials said previously.
Scientists have long warned that typhoons are strengthening more rapidly as the world becomes warmer because of human-driven climate change.
The Philippines — ranked among the most vulnerable nations to its impacts — is hit by an average of 20 storms every year.
In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to have made landfall, leaving over 7,300 people dead or missing.


Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill
Updated 21 January 2022

Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill
  • Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels

TEHRAN: Iran, Russia and China on Friday began a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean aimed at boosting marine security, state media reported.
Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will also participate with smaller ships and helicopters.
The report said the maneuvers would cover some 17,000 square kilometers, or 10,600 miles, in the Indian Ocean’s north, and include night fighting, rescue operations and firefighting drills.
This is the third joint naval drill between the countries since 2019. It coincided with a recent visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Russia that ended on Thursday.
“Improving bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow will enhance security for the region and the international arena,” Raisi said upon returning from Russia on Friday, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Tehran has sought to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the United States. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years.
Iran has been holding regular military drills in recent months, as attempts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers flounder.
Russia is also at loggerheads with the US and the West over its neighbor Ukraine, where it has sent some 100,000 troops that Washington, Kiev and their allies fear will be used to invade the country.
Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval maneuvers in multiple areas involving the bulk of its naval potential — over 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft — to last through February. The exercises will be in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, in addition to the joint exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean.