Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, studies say

Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, studies say
People queue to pick up coronavirus disease (COVID-19) antigen test kits, as the latest Omicron variant emerges as a threat, at Yorkdale Mall in Toronto, Ontario, Canada December 22, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 December 2021

Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, studies say

Omicron less likely to put you in the hospital, studies say
  • That analysis included all cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December in which the variant could be identified

Two new British studies provide some early hints that the omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the delta version.
Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact omicron spreads much faster than delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals.
Still, the new studies released Wednesday seem to bolster earlier research that suggests omicron may not be as harmful as the delta variant, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.
“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” he said.
An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for omicron cases in England, finding people infected with the variant are around 20% less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the delta variant, and 40% less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.
That analysis included all cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December in which the variant could be identified: 56,000 cases of omicron and 269,000 cases of delta.
A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and other experts, suggested the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with omicron than delta. But that study pointed out that the nearly 24,000 omicron cases in Scotland were predominantly among younger adults ages 20 to 39. Younger people are much less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19.
“This national investigation is one of the first to show that omicron is less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalization than delta,” researchers wrote. While the findings are early observations, “they are encouraging,” the authors wrote.
The findings have not yet been reviewed by other experts, the gold standard in scientific research.
Ascano noted the studies have limitations. For example, the findings are specific to a certain point in time during a quickly changing situation in the United Kingdom and other countries may not fare the same way.
Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that in the Scottish study, the percentage of younger people was almost twice as high for the omicron group compared with the delta group, and that “could have biased the conclusions to less severe outcomes caused by omicron.”
He nonetheless said the data were interesting and suggest omicron might lead to less severe disease. But he added: “It’s important to emphasize that if omicron has a much higher transmission rate compared to delta, the absolute number of people requiring hospitalization might still increase, despite less severe disease in most cases.”
Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested omicron might be milder there. Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical infectious disease epidemiologist in South Africa, said earlier this week that the rate of admissions to hospitals was far lower for omicron than it was for delta.
“Our overall admission rate is in the region of around 2% to 4% compared to previously, where it was closer to 20%,” he said. “So even though we’re seeing a lot of cases, very few are being admitted."


Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting
Updated 10 sec ago

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting
  • Lofti sold and lent items to Metropolitan Museum of Art and kept other artifacts in an apartment located across the road

LONDON: An antiques dealer from Lebanon has been accused of smuggling looted artifacts worth millions of dollars into the US.

Georges Lofti, 81, who previously assisted the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in exposing an Egyptian golden coffin on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as having been looted during unrest in Egypt in 2011, is also accused by law enforcement agents of using the agency to give stolen items a “sheen of legitimacy,” The Times reported.

Lofti sold and lent items to the museum and kept other artifacts in an apartment located across the road, the report added.

He often invited ATU agents to his storage space, believing that they would not suspect the antiquities kept inside were stolen, according to a report by The New York Times.

The ATU were granted an arrest warrant for Lotfi this week on suspicion of stealing 24 items and tricking investigators into giving the artifacts a stamp of approval.

According to legal documents attached to the warrant, ATU security agent Robert Mancene confirmed that Lotfi tipped them off regarding the gold Coffin of Nedjemankh, which the museum bought for $4 million in 2017 and put on display. Following Lofti's tipoff, the coffin was returned in 2019.

“Over the years (Lotfi) has provided me with detailed information about looting practices globally,” Mancene said. The dealer, described by Mancene as “a valuable source of information,” also passed on details about global looters and traffickers, according to the report.

One of the stolen items Lofti is accused of smuggling into the US is the “Palmyra Stone” — a limestone sculpture from Syria depicting a couple with three children worth an estimated $750,000 — which investigators said Lofti did not purchase from a dealer in 1982 as he had claimed, but instead obtained from a smuggler in 2010 or 2011.

Several mosaics, one valued at $2.5 million and another at $500,000, were also among the items Lofti is alleged to have looted.

Lofti, who said that he was shocked by the allegations and denies any wrongdoing, told The New York Times: “I was fighting with them for 10 years to stop illicit trading and they turned against me.”


Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines
Updated 13 August 2022

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines
  • Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages

KYIV: Ukraine’s health minister has accused Russian authorities of committing a crime against humanity by blocking access to affordable medicines in areas its forces have occupied since invading the country 5 1/2 months ago.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages.
“Throughout the entire six months of war, Russia has not (allowed) proper humanitarian corridors so we could provide our own medicines to the patients that need them,” Liashko said, speaking at the Health Ministry in Kyiv late Friday.
“We believe that these actions are being taken with intent by Russia, and we consider them to be crimes against humanity and war crimes that will be documented and will be recognized,” the minister said.
The Ukrainian government has a program that provides medications to people with cancer and chronic health conditions. The destruction of hospitals and infrastructure along with the displacement of an estimated 7 million people inside the country also have interfered with other forms of treatment, according to United Nations and Ukrainian officials.
The war in Ukraine has caused severe disruptions to the country’s state-run health service, which was undergoing major reforms, largely in response to the coronavirus pandemic, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade on Feb. 24.
The World Health Organization said it recorded 445 attacks on hospitals and other health care facilities as of Aug. 11 that directly resulted in 86 deaths and 105 injuries.
But Liashko said the secondary effects were far more severe.
“When roads and bridges have been damaged in areas now controlled by the Ukrainian forces... it is difficult to get someone who had a heart attack or a stroke to the hospital,” he said. “Sometimes, we can’t make it in time, the ambulance can’t get there in time. That’s why war causes many more casualties (than those killed in the fighting). It’s a number that cannot be calculated.”


Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry
Updated 13 August 2022

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry
ANKARA: Two more ships left from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Saturday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, bringing the total number of ships to depart the country under a UN-brokered deal to 16.
Barbados-flagged Fulmar S left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 12,000 tons of corn to Turkey’s southern Iskenderun province, it said. The Marshall Island-flagged Thoe departed from the same port and headed to Turkey’s Tekirdag, carrying 3,000 tons of sunflower seeds.
The statement added that another ship would depart from Turkey on Saturday to Ukraine to buy grains.

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul
Updated 13 August 2022

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul
  • Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts

KABUL: Taliban fighters beat women protesters and fired into the air on Saturday as they violently dispersed a rare rally in the Afghan capital, days ahead of the first anniversary of the hard-line Islamists’ return to power.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year, the Taliban have rolled back the marginal gains made by women during the two decades of US intervention in Afghanistan.
About 40 women — chanting “Bread, work and freedom” — marched in front of the education ministry building in Kabul, before the fighters dispersed them by firing their guns into the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts.
The protesters carried a banner which read “August 15 is a black day” as they demanded rights to work and political participation.
“Justice, justice. We’re fed up with ignorance,” chanted the protesters, many of them not wearing face veils, before they dispersed.
Some journalists covering the protest — the first women’s rally in months — were also beaten by the Taliban fighters.
After seizing power, the Taliban had promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But many restrictions have already been imposed.
Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.
Women have also been banned from traveling alone on long trips, and can only visit public gardens and parks in the capital on days separate from men.
In May, the country’s supreme leader and chief of the Taliban, Hibatullah Azkhundzada, even ordered women to fully cover themselves in public, including their faces — ideally with an all-encompassing burqa.
Some Afghan women initially pushed back against the curbs, holding small protests.
But the Taliban soon rounded up the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.


‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump
Updated 13 August 2022

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump
  • In Poland, the government has come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action
  • Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned

SCHWEDT, Germany: Thousands of fish have washed up dead on the Oder river running through Germany and Poland, sparking warnings of an environmental disaster as residents are urged to stay away from the water.
The fish floating by the German banks near the eastern town of Schwedt are believed to have washed upstream from Poland where first reports of mass fish deaths were made by locals and anglers as early as on July 28.
German officials accused Polish authorities of failing to inform them about the deaths, and were taken by surprise when the wave of lifeless fish came floating into view.
In Poland, the government has also come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action.
Almost two weeks after the first dead fish appeared floating by Polish villages, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday that “everyone had initially thought that it was a local problem.”
But he admitted that the “scale of the disaster is very large, sufficiently large to say that the Oder will need years to recover its natural state.”
“Probably enormous quantities of chemical waste was dumped into the river in full knowledge of the risk and consequences,” added the Polish leader, as German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke urged a comprehensive probe into what she called a brewing “environmental disaster.”
Standing by the riverbank, Michael Tautenhahn, deputy chief of Germany’s Lower Oder Valley National Park, looked in dismay at the river on the German-Polish border.
“We are standing on the German side — we have dead fish everywhere,” he told AFP.
“I am deeply shocked... I have the feeling that I’m seeing decades of work lying in ruins here. I see our livelihood, the water — that’s our life,” he said, noting that it’s not just fish that have died, but also mussels and likely countless other water creatures.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Oder has over the last years been known as a relatively clean river, and 40 domestic species of fish make their home in the waterway.
But now, lifeless fish — some as small as a few centimeters, others reaching 30-40 cm — can be seen across the river. Occasionally, those still struggling to pull through can be seen flipping up in the water, seemingly gasping for air.
Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned.
“This fish death is atypical,” said Axel Vogel, environment minister for Brandenburg state, estimating that “undoubtedly tons” of fish have died.
Fish death is often caused by the distortion of oxygen levels when water levels are too low, he explained.
“But we have completely different test results, namely that we have had increased oxygen level in the river for several days, and that indicates that a foreign substance has been introduced that has led to this,” he said.
Tests are ongoing in Germany to establish the substance that may have led to the deaths, but there are early indications of extremely high levels of mercury — although authorities said final results are still pending.
In Poland, prosecutors have also begun investigating after authorities came under fire over what critics said was a sluggish response to a disaster.
Tautenhahn said the disaster would likely carry consequences for years to come.
“If it is quicksilver, then it will also stay here for a long time,” he said, noting that mercury does not disintegrate but would then remain in the sediments.