WHO warns of ‘toxic mix’ as EU chief mulls mandatory COVID-19 jabs

WHO warns of ‘toxic mix’ as EU chief mulls mandatory COVID-19 jabs
Passengers walk inside a terminal of the Barcelona Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 02 December 2021

WHO warns of ‘toxic mix’ as EU chief mulls mandatory COVID-19 jabs

WHO warns of ‘toxic mix’ as EU chief mulls mandatory COVID-19 jabs
  • WHO: It could take several weeks to understand whether or not omicron is more transmissible

GENEVA: The WHO issued stern warnings Wednesday on the dangers of vaccination apathy and the European Union put mandatory jabs on the table, as the United States registered its first case of the fast-spreading omicron strain of the coronavirus.
The new variant, first reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa a week ago, has quickly popped up across continents, darkening economic forecasts and deepening fears of another difficult winter in the northern hemisphere.
“Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing — a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reminding the world that the delta variant “accounts for almost all cases.”
“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from omicron,” he said.
The WHO says it could take several weeks to understand whether or not omicron is more transmissible, and whether it results in more severe disease — as well as how effective current treatments and vaccines are against the variant.
Its detection and spread, however, have highlighted that the now nearly two-year global fight against COVID-19 is far from over.
In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “understandable and appropriate” to discuss how to “encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination” in the bloc — although only individual member states can impose vaccine mandates.
Austria has already said it will make COVID jabs compulsory next February, Germany is considering a similar approach, and Greece said Tuesday it would mandate vaccines for over-60s.
The United States, officially the world’s hardest-hit country, announced it had detected its first omicron case, a fully vaccinated traveler from South Africa who is recovering from mild symptoms.
Top American infectious diseases specialist Anthony Fauci stressed that fully vaccinated adults should seek a booster when eligible to give themselves the best possible protection.
“Our experience with variants such as the delta variant is that even though the vaccine isn’t specifically targeted to the delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection,” he said.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also recorded their first cases of omicron, making the Gulf the latest region to be affected.

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The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control meanwhile recommended that children aged five to 11 who are at risk of severe COVID-19 should be considered a “priority group” for vaccination.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned omicron threatens the world’s recovery and lowered growth estimates for 2021 from 5.7 percent to 5.6 percent.
The Paris-based OECD said the recovery had “lost momentum and is becoming increasingly imbalanced” and would remain “precarious” until vaccines were deployed worldwide.
omicron has prompted governments around the globe to reimpose travel restrictions, mostly targeting southern Africa. Japan has suspended new flight bookings into the country.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary Guterres Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing chorus of criticism against such bans, calling them deeply unfair and punitive” as well as “ineffective.”
Rising infection rates have already seen some European governments reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns in a desperate attempt to limit hospitalizations, but leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.
Portugal, which has Europe’s highest vaccination rate, reintroduced mask mandates in indoor settings, and aims to administer a third COVID-19 jab to almost one-fifth of its population by the end of the year.
From Wednesday, every adult in Italy became eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot, previously only open to those aged over 40.
Despite new restrictions recently introduced in Denmark, the country on Wednesday registered a record number of new COVID-19 cases with 5,120 infections in the last 24 hours.
Even as governments acted unilaterally in imposing travel restrictions, WHO member states came together in Geneva to work on an international accord on handling the next pandemic.
An intergovernmental negotiating body will be established to reach an agreement on responding to future pandemics with a first meeting due before March 1, 2022.
While the European summer of fleeting COVID-19 freedoms may be over, in the southern hemisphere, Pacific nation Fiji ended 615 days of international isolation on Wednesday and reopened to tourists.
Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcomed waving holidaymakers from Sydney, the first of an expected flood of desperately needed tourists in the coming weeks.


Doctor goes on trial in Germany accused of torture in Syria

Doctor goes on trial in Germany accused of torture in Syria
Updated 4 sec ago

Doctor goes on trial in Germany accused of torture in Syria

Doctor goes on trial in Germany accused of torture in Syria
BERLIN: A court in Germany will begin hearing a case Wednesday against a Syrian doctor accused of crimes against humanity for torturing and killing inmates at a government-run prison in his home country.
Federal prosecutors say the doctor, identified as Alaa M. in keeping with German privacy rules, worked at a military intelligence prison in the Syrian city of Homs from April 2011 until late 2012.
They accuse the doctor of killing one person, torture in 18 cases, causing serious physical and psychological harm to another person, and other crimes including one that led to another death.
The defendant entered Germany in 2015, and German authorities permitted him to practice medicine after recertifying his Syrian medical credentials. He worked at a clinic near Kassel in central Germany, where multiple Syrians recognized the doctor from his time in Syria and reported him to German police.
In one case, he is accused of beating an anti-government demonstrator after prison officials called the doctor to the hospital to treat a man experiencing an epileptic attack following torture. That man later died.
In another case, German authorities accused the doctor of intentionally killing a prisoner via injection to demonstrate “his power and at the same time to suppress the uprising of a part of the Syrian population,” the Frankfurt regional court said.
The defendant has denied the allegations.
This latest case follows last week’s landmark conviction of a former senior member of the Syrian secret police for crimes against humanity, including the torture of at least 30 anti-government demonstrators at a detention center in Douma, Syria.
Alaa M. has been in pretrial detention since his arrest in June 2020.

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis
Updated 7 min 51 sec ago

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka wants no-jab, no-play rule in women’s tennis

Former world number one 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 48 min 27 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.