Emergence of omicron underscores case for global COVID-19 action plan: Experts 

Special People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a testing facility in Times Square on December 9, 2021 in New York City. (AFP)
People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a testing facility in Times Square on December 9, 2021 in New York City. (AFP)
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Updated 19 December 2021

Emergence of omicron underscores case for global COVID-19 action plan: Experts 

People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a testing facility in Times Square on December 9, 2021 in New York City. (AFP)
  • Social distancing and travel bans have returned in many countries since variant detected in November  
  • 8.4 billion vaccines administered, just 7.1 percent of people in low-income countries have had at least one dose 

DUBAI: Just as the world thought it had turned a corner in the fight against COVID-19, hopes of a return to normality were dashed when doctors in South Africa reported that around 3,000 of their patients had contracted a new, possibly more infectious and potentially more vaccine-resistant variant of the coronavirus.

The emergence last month of B.1.1.529 — named omicron by the World Health Organization in line with its system of designating notable variants after letters of the Greek alphabet — sent governments into a frenzy just weeks before the busy Christmas and new year travel season was due to begin. 

Mask-wearing, social distancing, mass testing and work-from-home rules were quickly reimposed in many countries to help contain the anticipated spread of the new variant, while governments closed their borders to travelers from nations where omicron was present.

Despite the rapid response, the variant has already gained a foothold on almost every continent and is expected to become the dominant strain, replacing the previous variant of concern known as delta. 

Emmanuel Kouvousis, senior scientific adviser at Vesta Care, believes the coronavirus will continue to enjoy the upper hand as long as countries lack a united plan of action to achieve a higher global rate of vaccination. 

“If I can make a prediction, I would say the virus will stay around for at least five years from the day it started,” Kouvousis told Arab News, adding that omicron is unlikely to be the last COVID-19 mutation, with at least two more dominant strains expected before the pandemic is truly over. 

By Dec. 1, the number of people infected by omicron in South Africa had more than doubled to 8,561. At least 11 EU countries have since reported cases of omicron, while health officials in the UK expect to see as many as 1 million cases by the end of the year.

Among the Gulf Cooperation Countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman have all reported their first cases of omicron. Israel, Japan and Morocco have closed their borders entirely to foreign travelers. 




A medical worker prepares a BioNtech-Pfizer COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine in Makati City, suburban Manila on November 29, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Part of the problem, according to Konstantinos Dimitrakopoulos, director and head of the medical division at Intelligent Care Group, is that many people are misinformed about the effect of vaccines and are under the false impression they are completely immune once jabbed. 

“The vaccine does not stop you from getting the virus. It doesn’t stop you from contracting it. It doesn’t stop you from spreading it. It simply diminishes your chance of dying or having severe symptoms,” he told Arab News.

“For the vaccine to be the ultimate tool, we would have to press a button and instantly vaccinate billions of people at once” — which is, of course, impossible.

Another issue is the “massive time lags” between populations receiving the first and second doses of the vaccine, which naturally weakens the fight against a rapidly mutating virus.   

“The global community went from understanding the virus, to screening the virus, to developing the vaccines, then vaccinating the people with a time lag, which is a natural lag due to production restrictions,” said Dimitrakopoulos.




Travelers queue at a check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 27, 2021, after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of the Omicron variant. (AFP)

The large disparity in resources and financial capabilities between countries across the globe is one of several factors that have hindered efforts to beat the virus before it could mutate yet again.

After all, despite the administration of more than 8.4 billion vaccine doses worldwide as of early December, an average of just 7.1 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one jab.  

“We do not have factories globally that can produce the vaccines on such a scale, or distribute and administer them simultaneously in a very short window of time,” said Dimitrakopoulos.

However, simply sending more vaccines to poorer countries in Africa and Asia in the hope of increasing the rate of vaccination is unlikely to solve the problem.

“There’s always that question of who will run the last mile and take the vaccines to every single village or area and administer them,” said Dimitrakopoulos.




A lab technician works inside a pathological lab equipped to screen COVID-19 patients and those infected with the Omicron variant arriving from high-risk destinations at a government hospital in Chennai. (AFP)

Another factor is the interconnectedness of the world and lack of a uniform global policy for screening the virus. “As long as airports are open, the virus has unlimited ways to spread,” Dimitrakopoulos added. 

Indeed, most of the world’s population is not sufficiently covered by a healthcare system that follows strict screening procedures, responds rapidly to cases by enforcing self-isolation, and provides treatments and vaccinations against the virus.

Distribution is not only being hampered by logistical challenges in the developing world. The monopolization of vaccines as intellectual property by a handful of big pharmaceutical firms has also limited production, according to Kouvousis.

Smaller “generic companies” do not have access to the vaccine’s recipe and, as a result, are unable to boost production or expand its reach in poorer countries, he said. 




With the newly discovered Omicron strain of COVID-19, health officials globally are urging people to get a vaccination or a booster and get tested for the virus. (AFP)

One of the most concerning factors is the widespread public skepticism surrounding vaccinations. Misinformation or a lack of education has meant that large segments of the population neglect social distancing and hygiene measures or outright object to receiving a vaccine. 

These factors combined have allowed the virus to slip through the cracks once more. “There was a delay in putting the message out there on a global scale,” said Kouvousis. 

“We lost momentum because of that arrogance as a medical community who didn’t fear anything and thought they could handle everything,” said Kouvousis. “The numbers are now saying something else.”

According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, the COVID-19 death toll has now surpassed 5.3 million worldwide.

Dimitrakopoulos agrees the world has become complacent, and that more could have been done before and during the pandemic to better prepare for the initial outbreak and the rise of new variants. 




Children accompanied by their parents wait in line as they arrive to receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, outside of the vaccination centre of Parque das Nacoes in Lisbon on December 18, 2021. (AFP)

“Our emergency plans have never been tested,” he said. “The first time that they were supposed to be tested, they proved inefficient; everything was made ad hoc and on the spot as the pandemic was developing.”

Some countries were better prepared when the pandemic hit, while others have adapted well to contain new variants as they have emerged. 

One example of a success story is the UAE, where 100 percent of the population has received its first dose of the vaccine, and over 90 percent are now fully vaccinated. 

“When the virus hit (in February 2020), the daily capacity of the UAE market to perform PCR tests was about 5,000 samples,” said Dimitrakopoulos. Today, the UAE has the capacity to run more than half a million tests per day, process samples and track the source of the virus.

The omicron variant has nevertheless left scientists scrambling to determine its transmissibility and lethality. 

“The data takes time to gather and analyze, but we should have a better idea by the end of December whether omicron is as transmissible or more highly transmissible than the delta variant,” Dr. Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, told Arab News. 




Shoppers, some wearing face coverings to combat the spread of the virus, walks past stores on Oxford Street in London on December 18, 2021. (AFP)

According to the WHO, “a new variant doesn’t mean that things will necessarily be worse, but it does mean that they will be more uncertain.”

Binnicker added: “The best way to prevent mutations from arising is to reduce the number of people being infected. If the virus can’t infect someone, it doesn’t have the opportunity to replicate its genome and this prevents mutations from occurring.” 

Preliminary studies show that a third dose of a vaccine, known as a booster, increases neutralizing antibody levels 25-fold compared with two doses, which alone provide at least 70 percent protection against the omicron variant. 

“In order to significantly reduce the number of infections, we’ll likely need a global immunity rate (from vaccination and/or natural immunity) of at least 80 percent,” said Binnicker. “The faster we can vaccinate the global population, the faster we can drive down the rate of infections and prevent new variants from emerging.” 

To make this a reality, many in the medical community are coming around to the idea of mandatory vaccinations — an idea that could well prove politically unpopular. For this reason, Dimitrakopoulos would like the decision taken out of the hands of politicians.

“In order to tackle the global political issue around mandatory vaccinations, a directive should come from the health authorities such as the WHO and the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” he said. “Not the governments, not the politicians.”


Japan provides $3m aid for makeshift clinics in Yemen 

Japan provides $3m aid for makeshift clinics in Yemen 
Updated 2 min 14 sec ago

Japan provides $3m aid for makeshift clinics in Yemen 

Japan provides $3m aid for makeshift clinics in Yemen 
  • The clinics will operate in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Dhale’, Marib, Shabwa, Hadhramout and Mahra, the Ministry of Public Health said

The Japanese government has provided $3m in aid to help set up eight temporary clinics in Yemen.

The cash was provided through the United Nations Office for Project services, the Yemen News Agency (SABA) reported. 

The clinics will operate in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Dhale’, Marib, Shabwa, Hadhramout and Mahra, the Ministry of Public Health said. 

Every clinic will be equipped with a fully equipped laboratory, ultrasound and x-ray equipment, and an ECG and examination room. 

Meanwhile Yemen’s Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Muamar Al-Eryani has praised Japan’s humanitarian efforts in Yemen during a meeting with Charge D’Affairs of the Japanese Embassy in Yemen Kazohiro Higashe on Wednesday, according to SABA. 

The two discussed mutual relations between Japan and Yemen, as well as ways to enhance the countries’ bilateral ties. 

Al-Eryani also shared the latest developments in Yemen, including the Houthis’ violations of the UN Truce and the militia’s refusal to end the siege in Taiz, SABA reported. 

For his part, the Japanese diplomat confirmed his country’s support for Yemen’s legitimacy, security, and stability.


Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir
Updated 53 min 25 sec ago

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir
  • Soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours
  • Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989

SRINAGAR, India: Three Indian soldiers and two suspected militants were killed Thursday after rebels stormed a military camp in disputed Kashmir, officials said.
At least two assailants armed with guns and grenades attacked the camp in the remote Darhal area of southern Rajouri district early Thursday, said Mukesh Singh, a senior police officer.
The soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours, Singh said.
A reinforcement of soldiers and counterinsurgency police encircled the camp as the fighting raged inside, officials said.
In addition to the five deaths, two soldiers were injured in the fighting, Singh said.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
On Wednesday, police said government forces killed three rebels in Budgam district during a counterinsurgency operation.
India and Pakistan claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety.
Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

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North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul
Updated 11 August 2022

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul
  • Kim Jong Un's powerful sister blamed leaflets from the South for causing the COVID outbreak in her isolated country
  • Seoul expresses regrets over the groundless claims and  threatening remarks by North Korea's leader

SEOUL, South Korea: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered preventive measures eased just three months after acknowledging an outbreak, claiming the country’s widely disputed success would be recognized as a global health miracle.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also reported Thursday that Kim’s sister said her brother had suffered a fever and blamed the North Korean outbreak on leaflets flown from across the border from South Korea, while warning of deadly retaliation.
Some experts believe North Korea has manipulated the scale of the outbreak to help Kim maintain absolute control of the country amid mounting economic difficulties. They believe the victory statement signals Kim’s aim to move to other priorities but are concerned his sister’s remarks portend a provocation.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, issued a statement expressing strong regret over North Korea’s “extremely disrespectful and threatening comments” that were based on “ridiculous claims” about the source of its infections.
Since North Korea admitted to an omicron outbreak of the virus in May, it has reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It has claimed the outbreak has been slowing for weeks and just 74 people have died.
“Since we began operating the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in May), daily fever cases that reached hundreds of thousands during the early days of the outbreak were reduced to below 90,000 a month later and continuously decreased, and not a single case of fever suspected to be linked to the evil virus has been reported since July 29,” Kim said in his speech Wednesday, according to KCNA.
“For a country that has yet to administer a single vaccine shot, our success in overcoming the spread of the illness in such a short period of time and recovering safety in public health and making our nation a clean virus-free zone again is an amazing miracle that would be recorded in the world’s history of public health,” he said.
For Kim to declare victory against COVID-19 suggests that he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting a broken and heavily sanctioned economy further damaged by pandemic border closures or conducting a nuclear test, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
South Korean and US officials have said North Korea could be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years amid its torrid run of weapons tests this year that included its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
The provocative testing activity underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security concessions, experts say.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the South Korean military was maintaining firm readiness and prepared for “various possibilities” of North Korean provocations.
The bellicose rhetoric of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, is concerning because it indicates she will try to blame any COVID-19 resurgence on the South and is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation, Easley said.
North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with objects carried by balloons flown from South Korea — a questionable and unscientific claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible.
Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Kim Yo Jong reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysteric farce” kicked off by South Korea to escalate confrontation. She claimed that her brother had suffered fever symptoms and praised his “energetic and meticulous guidance” for bringing an “epoch-making miracle” in the fight against COVID-19.
“(South Korean) puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it toughly,” she said. “We have already considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”
Kim Yo Jong’s reference to Kim Jong Un’s illness wasn’t further explained.
Outside experts suspect the virus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.
In May, Kim prohibited travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals should be met, which meant huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
At the virus meeting, Kim called for the easing of preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of new coronavirus variants and monkeypox.


FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home
Updated 11 August 2022

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home
  • Supporters of President Donald Trump have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home
  • Trump is being investigated by the US Justice Department for potential mishandling of classified information

OMAHA, Nebraska: The director of the FBI had strong words Wednesday for supporters of former President Donald Trump who have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Christopher Wray, who was appointed as the agency’s director in 2017 by Trump, called threats circulating online against federal agents and the Justice Department “deplorable and dangerous.”
“I’m always concerned about threats to law enforcement,” Wray said. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”
Wray made the remarks following a news conference during a long-planned visit to the agency’s field office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he discussed the FBI’s focus on cybersecurity. He declined to answer questions about the hours-long search Monday by FBI agents of Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida resort.
It has been easy to find the threats and a call to arms in those corners of the Internet favored by right-wing extremists since Trump himself announced the search of his Florida home. Reactions included the ubiquitous “Lock and load” and calls for federal agents and even US Attorney General Merrick Garland to be assassinated.
On Gab — a social media site popular with white supremacists and antisemites — one poster going by the name of Stephen said he was awaiting “the call” to mount an armed revolution.
“All it takes is one call. And millions will arm up and take back this country. It will be over in less than 2 weeks,” the post said.
Another Gab poster implored others: “Lets get this started! This unelected, illegitimate regime crossed the line with their GESTAPO raid! It is long past time the lib socialist filth were cleansed from American society!“
The search of Trump’s residence Monday is part of an investigation into whether Trump took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice Department has been investigating the potential mishandling of classified information since the National Archives and Records Administration said it had received from Mar-a-Lago 15 boxes of White House records, including documents containing classified information, earlier this year.

 


Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight
Updated 14 sec ago

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight
  • The two men were escorted off an aircraft in Seattle after a fellow passenger told flight attendants they had been talking and sending text messages in Arabic

LONDON: Two Muslims have filed a lawsuit accusing Alaska Airlines of discrimination for allegedly removing them from a flight prior to takeoff because they were “talking and texting in Arabic.”

According to Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, the incident occurred after they boarded a flight from Seattle to San Francisco in February 2020. They said the airline’s staff humiliated them “before their fellow passengers by unnecessarily deplaning (them) and allowing (other passengers) to observe plaintiffs surrounded by uniformed law enforcement personnel.”

The men said that they had been talking and texting in Arabic in the first-class cabin when a fellow traveler informed flight attendants about the text messages. They allege that an Alaska Airlines employee subsequently removed them from the flight due to a “ticket issue.”

This is not the first time that Arab passengers have complained about the way they were treated by airline staff in the US. In 2019, for example, Issam Abdallah said he was “humiliated” when an American Airlines flight to Texas he boarded in Alabama was canceled because crew members felt “uncomfortable” with him on the flight.

In 2016, Khairuldeen Makhzoom, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic and saying the phrase “inshallah” (which means God willing) during a telephone conversation.