WHO says no omicron deaths yet, as variant spreads worldwide

Rebecca Gonzales embraces her mother Nimia before saying goodbye at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on December 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images/AFP)
Rebecca Gonzales embraces her mother Nimia before saying goodbye at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on December 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 04 December 2021

WHO says no omicron deaths yet, as variant spreads worldwide

Rebecca Gonzales embraces her mother Nimia before saying goodbye at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on December 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images/AFP)
  • The emergence of Omicron was the “ultimate evidence” of the danger of unequal global vaccination rates, Red Cross head Francesca Rocca said

GENEVA: The omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries but no deaths have yet been reported, the WHO said on Friday, as authorities worldwide rushed to stem the heavily mutated Covid-19 strain’s spread amid warnings that it could damage the global economic recovery.
The United States and Australia became the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, as omicron infections pushed South Africa’s total cases past three million.
The World Health Organization has warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it.
“We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said.
The WHO said on Friday it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to omicron, but the new variant’s spread has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s Covid cases in the next few months.
The new variant could also slow global economic recovery, just as the Delta strain did, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Friday.
“Even before the arrival of this new variant, we were concerned that the recovery, while it continues, is losing somewhat momentum,” she said.
“A new variant that may spread very rapidly can dent confidence.”
A preliminary study by researchers in South Africa, where the variant was first reported on November 24, suggests it is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains.
The emergence of omicron was the “ultimate evidence” of the danger of unequal global vaccination rates, Red Cross head Francesca Rocca said.
South African doctors said there had been a spike in children under five admitted to hospital since omicron emerged, but stressed it was too early to know if young children were particularly susceptible.
“The incidence in those under-fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60,” said Wassila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
In the US, two cases involved residents with no recent international travel history — showing omicron is already circulating inside the country.
“This is a case of community spread,” the Hawaii Health Department said.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled his plans to battle Covid-19 during the winter, with new testing requirements for travelers and a surge in vaccination efforts.

All incoming travelers will need to test negative within a day of their flights, and rapid tests that cost $25 will be covered by insurance and distributed free to the uninsured.
Australia on Friday reported three students in Sydney had tested positive for the variant, despite a ban on non-citizens entering the country and restrictions on flights from southern Africa, with multiple countries rushing to limit travel from the region in the past week.
“It’s quite a kick in the nuts,” said Sabine Stam, who runs a South African tour company and whose customers are demanding refunds. “Everyone is too scared to set a new travel date,” she said.
In Norway, officials said at least 13 people who contracted Covid-19 after an office Christmas party in Oslo last week had the omicron variant — though so far they have only had mild symptoms, city health official Tine Ravlo told AFP.
But the government ushered in restrictions in greater Oslo after fears of the cluster surfaced.
On Friday, Malaysia also reported a first omicron infection in a foreign student arriving from South Africa on November 19. Sri Lanka also announced its first case, a citizen returning from South Africa.
Russia’s federal statistics agency Rosstat, meanwhile, said that nearly 75,000 people died of coronavirus in the country in October, making it the deadliest month of the pandemic.

The new variant poses a major challenge to ending the pandemic.
Rising Delta cases had already forced European governments to reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, curfews or lockdowns, leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.
Belgian authorities said on Friday that primary schools would close a week early for the Christmas holidays.
Germany’s regional leaders agreed new measures including a ban on fireworks at new year parties to discourage large gatherings.
Ireland said it will close nightclubs and reintroduce social distancing in some settings over Christmas and the New Year.
In the UK, ministers have been expressing divergent opinions, not only on the idea of hosting parties, but also on the kind of conduct deemed acceptable.


UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge
Updated 8 sec ago

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge

UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge
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 43 min 48 sec ago

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 40 min 3 sec ago

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 59 min 59 sec ago

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.


Japan widens COVID-19 curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge

Japan widens COVID-19 curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge
Updated 19 January 2022

Japan widens COVID-19 curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge

Japan widens COVID-19 curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge
  • Experts’ panel approves a plan to put the 13 areas under a three-week restraint through Feb. 13
  • Japan has so far resisted the use of lockdowns to fight the pandemic

TOKYO: The Japanese government will place Tokyo and a dozen other areas under new restrictions for COVID-19 effective Friday, allowing local leaders to shorten hours for eateries, as a surge in omicron cases threatens to paralyze society.
A government-commissioned experts’ panel on Wednesday approved a plan to put the 13 areas under a three-week restraint through Feb. 13, said Economy Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who is also in charge of virus measures.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to officially announce the new measures at a government taskforce meeting later Wednesday.
Japan has so far resisted the use of lockdowns to fight the pandemic and instead has focused on requiring restaurants and bars to close early and not serve alcohol, and asking the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
Japan had been gradually expanding social and business activity since an earlier wave of infections subsided in September, which experts say was largely due to the country’s rapid progress in rolling out the initial two doses of vaccines.
But experts say breakthrough infections by the omicron variant are more common. The fast-spreading variant has caused a number of medical workers and others to self-isolate after testing positive or coming into close contact with someone who has. Sharply rising infections have already begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The national government is taking action following requests by local governors, including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who raised alarms about the possibility of essential public services, such as public transportation and garbage collection, grinding to a halt.
Tokyo reported 5,185 new infections Tuesday. Nationwide, Japan has logged more than 32,000 cases, bringing its total to 1.93 million cases, with 184,00 deaths.
More than 134,000 patients are now quarantining or hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the Health Ministry.
Shigeru Omi, the government’s top medical adviser, said vaccines no longer offer reliable protection against the omicron variant, making testing and social curbs among the only effective and realistic measures to prevent more infections.
Restrictions will be in place in 16 areas around the country, including three other prefectures — Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi — which were placed under similar measures earlier this month.
Other areas, including badly hit Osaka, where 5,396 new cases were reported Tuesday, may be added later.
While about 80 percent percent of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the booster rollout nationwide has been slow and reached only 1.3 percent of the population.
The government recently decided to cut intervals between the second and third shots to six months from eight for elderly people, but younger people are unlikely to get their turn until March or later.
While Kishida stresses the need for safety as justification for the restrictions, the measures are also seen as political moves to gain public support ahead of this summer’s parliamentary elections.
Critics also say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.