WHO warns that new coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ risk

WHO warns that new coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ risk
Dutch health authorities said Monday they have found another case of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant among passengers arriving from South Africa, bringing the total to 14. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 09 December 2021

WHO warns that new coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ risk

WHO warns that new coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ risk
  • The UN health agency says ‘considerable uncertainties’ remain about the new variant that was first detected in southern Africa
  • ‘Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us’

BRUSSELS: The World Health Organization (WHO) says the global risk from the omicron variant of the coronavirus is “very high” based on early evidence, and it could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”
The UN health agency, in a technical memo to member states, says “considerable uncertainties” remain about the new variant that was first detected in southern Africa. But it says the likelihood of possible further spread around the world is high.
Taking an act-now-ask-questions-later approach, countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the US and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.
Travelers infected with the new version have turned up in a widening circle of countries over the past few days, including now Spain, and cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.
“Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.
Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.
US President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic.” He said he is not considering any widespread US lockdown and instead urged vaccinations and mask-wearing.
The infections have underscored the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet, many countries are trying to do just that, against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines.
While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.
“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”
Late last week, von der Leyen successfully pushed the 27-nation EU to agree to ban flights from seven southern African nations, similar to what many other countries are doing.
Cases had already been reported in EU nations Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the Belenenses professional soccer team. Authorities reported one member had recently traveled to South Africa. A game over the weekend had been abandoned at halftime for lack of players.
Spain also reported its first confirmed case of the variant.
And after Scotland reported its first six cases, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that “there might already be some community transmission of this variant.”
Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.
Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.
The UK has reported about a dozen omicron cases.
Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions.
So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms, but they warn that it is still early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
“We’ve seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days. So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains,” said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province, where 81 percent of the new cases have been reported.
The variant has provided further proof of what experts have long been saying: that no continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
“The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the UN-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.
In some parts of the world, authorities are moving in the opposite direction.
In Malaysia, officials went ahead with the partial reopening of a bridge connecting it to Singapore. And New Zealand announced it will press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown, though it is also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.


At least 12 killed in Afghan earthquake: District official

At least 12 killed in Afghan earthquake: District official
Updated 50 min 29 sec ago

At least 12 killed in Afghan earthquake: District official

At least 12 killed in Afghan earthquake: District official

HERAT: At least 12 people were killed after an earthquake hit western Afghanistan on Monday, an official said.
The victims died when roofs of their residential houses collapsed in Qadis district in the western province of Badghis, district governor Mohammad Saleh Purdel told AFP.
The quake was magnitude 5.3, according to the US Geological Survey, who originally recorded the magnitude as 5.6.
"Several people were also injured in today's earthquake," Purdel said, adding that the victims included women and children.
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Earthquakes can cause significant damage to poorly built homes and buildings in impoverished Afghanistan.


North Korea fires more suspected missiles, flouts new sanctions

North Korea fires more suspected missiles, flouts new sanctions
Updated 17 January 2022

North Korea fires more suspected missiles, flouts new sanctions

North Korea fires more suspected missiles, flouts new sanctions
  • Two suspected “short-range ballistic missiles” were fired east from an airport in Pyongyang early Monday

SEOUL: North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles Monday, Seoul said, its fourth weapons test this month as Pyongyang flexes its military muscle while ignoring offers of talks from the United States.
Despite biting international sanctions, Pyongyang has conducted a string of weapons tests this year, including of hypersonic missiles, as leader Kim Jong Un pursues his avowed goal of further strengthening the military.
Reeling economically from a self-imposed coronavirus blockade, impoverished North Korea has not responded to Washington’s offers of talks, while doubling down on weapons tests and vowing a “stronger and certain” response to any attempts to rein it in.
The launches come at a delicate time in the region, with North Korea’s sole major ally China set to host the Winter Olympics next month and South Korea gearing up for a presidential election in March.
Two suspected “short-range ballistic missiles” were fired east from an airport in Pyongyang early Monday, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, with Japan also confirming the launch.
Fired just before 9 am (0000 GMT), they flew 380 kilometers (about 240 miles) at an altitude of 42 km, the JCS added.
The frequent and varied tests this year indicate North Korea “is trying to improve its technology and operational capability in terms of covert actions,” Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters.
Pyongyang said it successfully tested hypersonic gliding missiles on January 5 and January 11, with the second launch personally supervised by Kim.
In response, the United States last week imposed fresh sanctions on five North Koreans connected to the country’s ballistic missile programs, prompting an angry reaction from Pyongyang.
A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman described the move as a “provocation,” according to state news agency KCNA.
If “the US adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take stronger and certain reaction to it,” the spokesman said hours before Pyongyang fired two train-launched missiles Friday.
Analysts said the Monday test also appeared to be an attempt to send the United States a message.
“It is signalling that it will forge ahead with tests despite criticism,” Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul told AFP.
Hypersonic missiles are a top priority in Pyongyang’s new five-year defense development plan, unveiled in January 2021, which it has pursued while dialogue with the United States remained stalled.
With the country battling major economic hardship domestically after years of Covid-induced isolation, Pyongyang may be looking to offer citizens a military victory ahead of key domestic anniversaries.
“It needs to present something to North Koreans,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute.
“It now has become clear that it will be difficult for the North to score on the economic side.”
This weekend, a North Korean freight train crossed the Yalu River railroad bridge into China for the first time in over a year, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The move could signal the prospect of resumed China-North Korea land trade, which has been suspended since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
It is likely the missile launches will ease off ahead of the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies.
“As stability on the peninsula is a prerequisite for the successful Beijing Olympics, the North will not cross a red line,” Yang said.


Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities
Updated 17 January 2022

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities
  • North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles, which Japanese officials said landed off the North’s eastern coast

TOKYO: Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday said fighting the pandemic was a “top priority” in his speech opening this year’s parliamentary session, as the Tokyo region was hit by surging infections.
Kishida also named stepping up defense measures against rising regional threats as a priority, hours after North Korea test-fired two possible ballistic missiles — its fourth this year.
“I will devote my body and soul to win this fight against the coronavirus,” Kishida said in his speech before the lower house, which marked the start of its new 150-day session. He called on people to help each other to overcome “the national crisis” of the pandemic.
The Japanese capital reported 4,172 new cases on Sunday, raising the hospital bed occupancy rate to 19.3 percent. Tokyo authorities have said that when that rate breaches 20 percent, they will request the government place the area under pre-emergency status and move toward restrictions like working from home and shorter hours for eateries.
Kishida reiterated his plans to keep Japan’s stringent border controls in place, banning most foreign entrants until the end of February, while the country tries to speed up booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines and reinforce medical systems to support an increasing number of patients being treated at home.
The highly transmissible omicron variant has driven infections higher and started to paralyze medical and public services in some areas, as more people are forced to self-isolate. Japan last week trimmed the 14-day quarantine period to 10 days.
Kishida urged companies to promote remote work, and called on schools to use online classes flexibly. Booster shots only started last month with medical workers and so far less than 1 percent of the population has had their third jab.
Japan recently cut the wait between a second and third shot for elderly people to six months from eight. In part because of a shortage of imported vaccines, most younger Japanese are not expected to get their turn until March.
In his parliamentary speech, Kishida also addressed what he said was an “increasingly severe and complex” regional situation. “I’m determined to protect the people’s lives and daily life,” the premier vowed.
North Korea’s repeated and escalating test-firing of ballistic missiles “are absolutely not permissible and we should not overlook its significant progress of missile technology,” Kishida added.
North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles, which Japanese officials said landed off the North’s eastern coast.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, along with China’s rapid military buildup, have already prompted Kishida’s government to raise Japan’s military budget.
Kishida repeated his plans to review Japan’s defense policy, and consider the development of a controversial pre-emptive strike capability, to “drastically strengthen defense power”.
Kishida is set to hold an online summit with Pesident Joe Biden on Jan. 21 as the two leaders seek to further strengthen bilateral ties, Tokyo and Washington announced Monday.
Kishida called the US alliance “the lynchpin of Japan’s diplomatic and security policies.”
Kishida, who is from the city of Hiroshima that the US attacked with an atomic bomb in World War Two, also said he sought “a world without nuclear weapons” and plans to launch a conference with former and serving world leaders on phasing out nuclear weapons. He said he hoped the initiative would have its first meeting in his hometown this year.
Kishida pledged to promote energy reforms to meet the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. He said he supported the use of “innovative” nuclear energy, nuclear fusion technology as well as renewables to meet this goal.


Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads
Updated 17 January 2022

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads
  • China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections
  • Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday

BEIJING: Several Chinese cities went on high COVID-19 alert as the Lunar New Year holiday travel season started on Monday, requiring travelers to report their trips days before their arrival, as the omicron variant reached more areas including Beijing.
Authorities have warned the highly contagious omicron adds to the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission as hundreds of millions of people travel around China for the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1.
Cities such as Luoyang in central China and Jieyang in the south said on Sunday travelers need to report to communities, employers or hotels their trips three days ahead of arrival.
The southwestern city of Yulin said on Saturday those who want to enter should fill in an online form, including their health credentials and trip details, one day in advance.
Over the weekend, the capital Beijing and the southern technology hub Shenzhen each detected one domestically transmitted omicron case.
The possibility that the omicron case in Beijing was infected through imported goods can’t be ruled out, Pang Xinghuo, an official at the city’s disease control authority, said on Monday.
Li Ang, vice director at the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said a local hospital had admitted nine omicron infections, with six still being treated. He did not say when the infections arrived or why they hadn’t been disclosed earlier.
The city of Meizhou in Guangdong province found one omicron infection linked to an outbreak in Zhuhai, state television said on Monday.
So far, at least five provinces and municipalities reported local omicron infections, while 14 provincial areas found the variant among travelers arriving from overseas.
China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections, despite a high vaccination rate of 86.6 percent. The strategy has taken on extra urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, to be staged in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province starting Feb. 4.
Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday, while dozens of international and domestic flights have been suspended.
China’s aviation regulator said on Monday it would suspend two flights from the United States over COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of canceled flights this year from the country, where omicron is spreading, to 76.
China reported 163 locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptom for Sunday, official data showed on Monday, up from 65 a day earlier.
Sunday’s increase in infections was mainly driven by more cases in the cities of Tianjin and Anyang, where omicron has been found in local clusters.
Tianjin and Anyang reported slightly more than 600 local symptomatic infections from the current outbreaks, smaller than many clusters overseas, but authorities there still have limited movement within the cities and trips to outside.


Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 January 2022

Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet but communications are still limited and outlying costal areas remain cut off

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation.
A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented earlier flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane later Monday.
Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater communications cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it likely was severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.
The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began cleaning up from the tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.
Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s shoreline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and coastal shops.
No casualties have been reported on Tonga, although there were still concerns about people on some of the smaller islands near the volcano. The tsunami waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.
Scientists said they didn’t think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.
Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulfur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit) global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.
Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.
A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.
Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd. which owns the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.
A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.
He said Tonga had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second outside communications cable to ensure a more robust network but the nation’s isolated location made any solution difficult.
Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.
Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.
“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.
Ardern said New Zealand was unable to send a surveillance flight over Tonga on Sunday because the ash cloud was 63,000 feet (19,000 meters) high.
One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.
Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”
The US Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano. She said she hadn’t yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.
“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.
Tonga gets its Internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji. All Internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time Saturday, said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.
On Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas and swirling around homes, a church and other buildings. A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.
“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.
“The surface area of the island appears to have expanded by nearly 45 percent due to ashfall,” Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.
It’s too early to tell how much ash was produced by the eruption because the volcanic cloud included vapor resulting from sea water interacting with the hot magma, experts said.
The eruption in shallow water may be similar to a series of eruptions between 2016 and 2017 that shaped Bogoslof Island north of the Aleutian Islands, said Michelle Coombs, a scientist at the US Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory.
“When it erupts in shallow sea water, that interaction between hot magma and sea water adds extra energy to the explosion and creates taller and bigger ash clouds,” Coombs said.
The ash cloud was drifting westward and aircrafts will be likely diverted around its periphery as a precaution, said Scott Bachmeier, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.