Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect for at least a month

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Japan has expanded its travel ban on foreigners coming into the country, preventing entry to those with resident status from 10 southern African nations.

Two Japanese airlines ANA and JAL also said they were suspending new reservations for international flights to Japan until the end of December and NHK public television said the government was seeking a halt to all such reservations.

Japan took some of the strictest steps globally on Monday by closing its borders to non-Japanese for about a month in light of the emergence of omicron. A day later, Japan’s first omicron case – in a Namibian diplomat – was discovered.

Japanese media also reported on Wednesday that a second case of the omicron virus had been confirmed in a traveller. NHK said it was a foreign man and FNN television said it was a traveller from Peru.

The border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. It applies to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Nigeria also joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”

Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

It has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”

Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.

“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.

The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.

Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.

England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.


Two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis

Two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis
Updated 9 sec ago

Two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis

Two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis
  • Veteran Azarenka is a long-time member of the powerful WTA Players’ Council
MELBOURNE: Two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka threw her support Wednesday behind a vaccine mandate on the women’s tour, as tennis wrestles with the fall-out of the saga surrounding unvaccinated Novak Djokovic.
The veteran Azarenka is a long-time member of the powerful WTA Players’ Council, which is working through the challenges posed by coronavirus.
Those were laid bare by the chaos and confusion that engulfed vaccine-skeptic Djokovic, who was deported on the eve of the Australian Open.
Speaking in Melbourne, Azarenka admitted it could be legally challenging to enforce but she believes it would be “helpful for everybody” if the WTA Tour considered a no-jab, no-play policy.
“Well, from my standpoint it’s been very clear. I believe in science. I believe in getting vaccinated, that’s what I did for myself,” the 32-year-old Belarusian said.
“If you ask me just for my opinion if that should be the case, I think it would just be helpful for everybody in the world, especially when we are traveling internationally.”
But the former world number one acknowledged that forcing people to be jabbed could prove problematic.
“Some countries will not allow mandates. I think to impose something legally on the WTA Tour can be a challenge, I think that’s something that we are facing,” she said.
To play at the Australian Open players must be vaccinated, unless they have a medical exemption.
Djokovic believed he was exempt based on recently contracting COVID-19, but it was challenged by Australian authorities and after a high-stakes legal battle he flew out of Melbourne on Sunday.
Azarenka said the drawn-out controversy became “a circus” and there “should be a really hard look on this situation moving forward.”
“I think as soon as there is a grey area in the rules, that gives a bit too much questions, and situations like this happen,” said the Belarusian, who revealed she caught COVID-19 in November.
“On certain things I think black-and-white approach is necessary. In my opinion, this should be the case.”

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge
Updated 38 min 26 sec ago

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge
  • An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had criticized the prime minister

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Wednesday fighting to shore up his premiership after a revolt by his own lawmakers who are angry over a series of lockdown parties in Downing Street.
Propelled into the top job to “get Brexit done,” Johnson in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years but now faces calls to resign after a series of revelations about gatherings in Downing Street during COVID lockdowns.
Johnson has repeatedly apologized for the gatherings, and said that he didn’t know about many of the events, though he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20, 2020.
To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 of the 360 Conservative MPs in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee.
As many as 20 Conservative lawmakers who won their seats at the last general election in 2019 plan to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson, the Telegraph reported.
“Group of 2019 MPs to submit letters to try to hit threshold of 54 to trigger a contest,” BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg said. “They might hit 54.”
An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had criticized the prime minister.
The letters are confidential, so the chairman is the only person who knows how many lawmakers have actually written them.
Johnson will address parliament on Wednesday after his Cabinet is expected to approve plans to end the recent restrictions imposed to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in England.
The “Plan B” measures were introduced by the government last month as the omicron strain spread rapidly across Britain. They included guidance to work from home where possible, masks for indoor settings and vaccine passports for mass events.


WHO says pandemic ‘nowhere near over’ as France, Germany post record cases

WHO says pandemic ‘nowhere near over’ as France, Germany post record cases
Updated 19 January 2022

WHO says pandemic ‘nowhere near over’ as France, Germany post record cases

WHO says pandemic ‘nowhere near over’ as France, Germany post record cases
  • The UN health chief warned against dismissing omicron as mild

GENEVA: The World Health Organization has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, as France, Germany and Brazil posted new records of infections in the past 24 hours.
The highly transmissible omicron strain has spread unabated around the world, pushing some governments to impose fresh measures while speeding up the rollout of vaccine booster shots.
“This pandemic is nowhere near over,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Tuesday from the agency’s headquarters in Geneva.
Europe is at the epicenter of alarming new outbreaks, with Germany’s cases soaring past 100,000 and France reporting nearly half a million cases on Tuesday.
The UN health chief warned against dismissing omicron as mild, as the dominant Covid strain continues to flare new outbreaks from Latin America to East Asia after it was first detected in southern Africa in November.
“omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” he said.
Five millions cases were reported in Europe last week and the WHO has predicted omicron could infect half of all Europeans by March, filling hospitals across the continent.
Germany on Tuesday recorded 112,323 coronavirus cases and 239 deaths, officials said, with omicron found in more than 70 percent of the infections.
The surge has pushed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to seek compulsory vaccinations to ramp up the immunity of the population in Europe’s biggest economy.
Other European countries are also battling soaring omicron rates, with neighboring France recently averaging around 300,000 cases daily.
The latest data issued by Public Health France showed that there were 464,769 new cases in the last 24-hour period, a record number.
The record cases come days after the two-year anniversary of the announcement of the first person dying of a virus in China only later identified as Covid.
Since January 11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to more than 5.5 million.
Hopes for Europe’s tourism recovery remain bleak with the World Tourism Organization saying Tuesday that foreign arrivals will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest, despite a rise of 19 percent last year compared to 2020.
Elsewhere in the world, Brazil registered a new record number of daily cases of more than 137,000 on Tuesday.
The country suffered a devastating second wave last year with deaths topping 4,000 a day, pushing its death toll to the second highest in the world behind the United States.
President Jair Bolsonaro, an avowed vaccine skeptic who has downplayed omicron, is increasingly under fire for his handling of the pandemic, and he is on course to lose the country’s October presidential election, according to polls.
In Asia, Japan was set to tighten restrictions across the country, including Tokyo, as it battles record infections fueled by omicron while China partially relaxed transport restrictions in the megacity of Xi’an where millions have been confined to their homes for weeks.
Japanese experts on Wednesday backed placing 13 regions “under quasi-emergency measures from January 21 to February 13” Daishiro Yamagiwa, minister in charge of coronavirus affairs, told reporters.
China’s resumption of some inter-city train routes in Xi’an from Tuesday comes just before the Lunar New Year holiday later this month, traditionally a period of mass travel.
It also comes as Beijing battles multiple clusters that are testing its enforcement of a strict “zero-Covid” approach ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics.
Focus is increasingly turning to animals and how the virus interacts with them, after at least two countries reported Covid-19 cases in creatures big and small potentially passed between them and humans.
A study published Tuesday in South Africa said big cats caged in zoos are at risk from catching Covid from their keepers.
Researchers found clues pointing to the infection of three lions and two pumas by their handlers at a zoo in Johannesburg, some of whom were asymptomatic.
In Hong Kong, hamsters were bearing the brunt of the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s similarly strict approach to Covid, with officials appearing to blame them for two human cases.
The financial hub’s government faced growing outrage Wednesday over its decision to cull 2,000 small animals in pet shops after several hamsters in a store allegedly tested positive for Covid-19.
“Internationally, there is no evidence yet to show pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans,” Health Secretary Sophia Chan told a press conference.
“But... we will take precautionary measures against any vector of transmission.”


Afghan acting PM Akhund calls for official recognition of Taliban administration

Afghan acting PM Akhund calls for official recognition of Taliban administration
Updated 19 January 2022

Afghan acting PM Akhund calls for official recognition of Taliban administration

Afghan acting PM Akhund calls for official recognition of Taliban administration
  • The Taliban administration took over Afghanistan in August

KABUL- Afghanistan’s acting prime minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, on Wednesday called for international governments to officially recognize the country’s Taliban administration, saying at a news conference in Kabul that all conditions had been met.
“I ask all governments, especially Islamic countries, that they should start recognition,” Akhund said, in his first major public broadcast appearance since he assumed the role in September.
Foreign powers have been reluctant to recognize the Taliban administration which took over Afghanistan in August while Western nations led by the United States have frozen billions of dollars worth of Afghan banking assets and cut off development funding that once formed the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy.


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Ukraine in show of support

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Ukraine in show of support
Updated 19 January 2022

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Ukraine in show of support

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Ukraine in show of support
  • US official will later meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

KIEV: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Kiev Wednesday for crisis talks with Ukraine’s leaders, as diplomatic efforts to dissuade Russia from attacking its pro-Western neighbor falter.

After talks last week failed to ease fears, the White House warned Tuesday that Russia was ready to attack Ukraine at “any point.”

It was a marked intensification of its threat assessment ahead of a meeting between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expected in Geneva on Friday.

Hoping to show robust support ahead of the talks, the top US diplomat is making a one-day visit to Kiev in a show of support for Ukraine.

He was greeted by Ukrainian officials on an icy moonlit tarmac and will later meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Blinken heads Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany to seek Western unity.

“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” the White House’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

“No option is off the table,” she said, warning of an “extremely dangerous situation.”

And she said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has created this crisis.”

Moscow has repeatedly denied that an invasion is planned.

In a call between the US and Russian top diplomats ahead of Blinken’s trip, the Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov had called on Blinken “not to replicate speculation about the allegedly impending ‘Russian aggression’.”

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Blinken “stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions.”

And a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Blinken’s goal was to see “if there is a diplomatic off-ramp” and “common ground” where Russia can be persuaded to pull back from Ukraine.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, efforts have intensified to prevent tensions escalating into a new European war.

However, in a joint press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Tuesday, Lavrov said there would be no further negotiations until the West responds to its demands for sweeping security guarantees.

They include a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO.

Washington has rejected the demands.

While the United States and its European allies have no plans to meet a Russian attack against Ukraine with military force, the economic counter-measures would be unlike any used in the past, Washington says.

The US official said it was possible that Russia is not interested in a diplomatic solution.

“I think it’s still too early to tell if the Russian government is genuinely interested in diplomacy, if it is prepared to negotiate seriously in good faith, or whether it will use discussions as a pretext to claim that diplomacy didn’t address Moscow’s interests,” the official said.

Washington meanwhile warned that draft constitutional reforms in Belarus could lead to the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in the country.

Joint Russia-Belarus military exercises announced Tuesday by Minsk as Russian troops arrived in the country were “beyond normal,” a US official said, and could presage a permanent Russian military presence involving both conventional and nuclear forces.

Kiev has been battling a pro-Moscow insurgency in two breakaway regions bordering Russia since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has so far left more than 13,000 dead.