Expect more worrisome variants after omicron, scientists say

Expect more worrisome variants after omicron, scientists say
Test tubes labelled “COVID-19 omicron variant test positive” are seen in this illustration picture taken Saturday. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 15 January 2022

Expect more worrisome variants after omicron, scientists say

Expect more worrisome variants after omicron, scientists say
  • Every infection provides a chance for the virus to mutate, and omicron has an edge over its predecessors
  • Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic

DUBAI: Get ready to learn more Greek letters. Scientists warn that omicron’s whirlwind advance practically ensures it won’t be the last version of the coronavirus to worry the world.
Every infection provides a chance for the virus to mutate, and omicron has an edge over its predecessors: It spreads way faster despite emerging on a planet with a stronger patchwork of immunity from vaccines and prior illness.
That means more people in whom the virus can further evolve. Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic, but they say there’s no guarantee the sequels of omicron will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them.
It’s why they urge wider vaccination now, while today’s shots still work.
“The faster omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,” Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, said.
Since it emerged in mid-November, omicron has raced across the globe like fire through dry grass. Research shows the variant is at least twice as contagious as delta and at least four times as contagious as the original version of the virus.
omicron is more likely than delta to reinfect individuals who previously had COVID-19 and to cause “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated people while also attacking the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases for the week of Jan. 3-9, a 55 percent increase from the previous week.
Along with keeping comparatively healthy people out of work and school, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the odds the virus will infect and linger inside people with weakened immune systems — giving it more time to develop potent mutations.
“It’s the longer, persistent infections that seem to be the most likely breeding grounds for new variants,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s only when you have very widespread infection that you’re going to provide the opportunity for that to occur.”
Because omicron appears to cause less severe disease than delta, its behavior has kindled hope that it could be the start of a trend that eventually makes the virus milder like a common cold.
It’s a possibility, experts say, given that viruses don’t spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses don’t always get less deadly over time.
A variant could also achieve its main goal — replicating — if infected people developed mild symptoms initially, spread the virus by interacting with others, then got very sick later, Ray explained by way of example.
“People have wondered whether the virus will evolve to mildness. But there’s no particular reason for it to do so,” he said. “I don’t think we can be confident that the virus will become less lethal over time.”
Getting progressively better at evading immunity helps a virus to survive over the long term. When SARS-CoV-2 first struck, no one was immune. But infections and vaccines have conferred at least some immunity to much of the world, so the virus must adapt.
There are many possible avenues for evolution. Animals could potentially incubate and unleash new variants. Pet dogs and cats, deer and farm-raised mink are only a few of the animals vulnerable to the virus, which can potentially mutate within them and leap back to people.
Another potential route: With both omicron and delta circulating, people may get double infections that could spawn what Ray calls “Frankenvariants,” hybrids with characteristics of both types.
When new variants do develop, scientists said it’s still very difficult to know from genetic features which ones might take off. For example, omicron has many more mutations than previous variants, around 30 in the spike protein that lets it attach to human cells. But the so-called IHU variant identified in France and being monitored by the WHO has 46 mutations and doesn’t seem to have spread much at all.
To curb the emergence of variants, scientists stress continuing with public health measures such as masking and getting vaccinated. While omicron is better able to evade immunity than delta, experts said, vaccines still offer protection and booster shots greatly reduce serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
Anne Thomas, a 64-year-old IT analyst in Westerly, Rhode Island, said she’s fully vaccinated and boosted and also tries to stay safe by mostly staying home while her state has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the US
“I have no doubt at all that these viruses are going to continue to mutate and we’re going to be dealing with this for a very long time,” she said.
Ray likened vaccines to armor for humanity that greatly hinders viral spread even if it doesn’t completely stop it. For a virus that spreads exponentially, he said, “anything that curbs transmission can have a great effect.” Also, when vaccinated people get sick, Ray said their illness is usually milder and clears more quickly, leaving less time to spawn dangerous variants.
Experts say the virus won’t become endemic like the flu as long as global vaccination rates are so low. During a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting people from future variants — including those that may be fully resistant to today’s shots — depends on ending global vaccine inequity.
Tedros said he’d like to see 70 percent of people in every country vaccinated by mid-year. Currently, there are dozens of countries where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. And in the United States, many people continue to resist available vaccines.
“These huge unvaccinated swaths in the US, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere are basically variant factories,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “It’s been a colossal failure in global leadership that we have not been able to do this.”
In the meantime, new variants are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
With so many unvaccinated people, he said, “the virus is still kind of in control of what’s going on.”


US must urge wary banks to help save Afghan lives: aid group

US must urge wary banks to help save Afghan lives: aid group
Updated 20 sec ago

US must urge wary banks to help save Afghan lives: aid group

US must urge wary banks to help save Afghan lives: aid group
  • The United Nations and aid groups are struggling to get enough money into Afghanistan to fund operations in a country where millions are suffering extreme hunger and the economy

UNITED NATIONS: The United States needs to give written encouragement to banks to transfer money to Afghanistan for the United Nations and aid groups as they race to save millions of lives, the head of a top international aid group told Reuters on Thursday.
Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland, who was UN aid chief from 2003-06, was blunt in his assessment: “It is now, paradoxically, the Western sanctions that is our main problem in saving lives in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban, which has long been blacklisted by the United States as a terrorist group, seized power from Afghanistan’s internationally-backed government in August. Billions of dollars in Afghan central bank reserves and international development aid were frozen to prevent it from falling into Taliban hands.
The United Nations and aid groups are struggling to get enough money into Afghanistan to fund operations in a country where millions are suffering extreme hunger and the economy, education and social services are on the brink of collapse.
In a briefing to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Afghanistan was “hanging by a thread” and that a lack of liquidity in the country was limiting capacity to reach people in need.
Washington issued sanctions exemptions — known as general licenses — last month related to humanitarian work. But Egeland said that was not enough to convince international banks they could avoid the “wrath” of Washington if they transferred funds to Afghanistan for aid groups, and he urged the Treasury to issue something specific in writing.
“The US Treasury needs to be proactive here,” said Egeland, who was part of a meeting of aid groups with US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo last week.
Egeland urged the Treasury to give banks “a comfort letter saying that you are hereby encouraged... to help save lives in Afghanistan by providing whatever services are needed for the aid organizations.”
Guterres on Wednesday also called for “general licenses covering transactions necessary to all humanitarian activities.”
The US Treasury said in a statement after last week’s meeting with aid groups that Adeyemo acknowledged the wariness of the banks and said the Treasury would “continue to provide clarity on the scope of US sanctions” to banks and financial institutions.
He also “offered to increase communication with financial institutions engaging in or interested in doing business in Afghanistan to help get resources into the country as quickly as possible,” it said.
Egeland also appealed for billions of dollars to be released to help Afghan civilians.
Since August, some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank reserves has been frozen abroad and $1.2 billion in development aid — administered by the World Bank — put on hold as donors seek to use it as leverage over the Taliban on issues including human rights.
“Grown men need to speak to each other because, really, I’m frustrated,” Egeland said. “The World Bank refers to the (World Bank) board and the donors — like the US — and the donors — like the US — refer to the World Bank. Can they please proactively fix it?“
“We’re losing in the race against death, and winter, and starvation,” he said.
Some former US officials and experts have suggested the administration of President Joe Biden could face backlash in Congress if it allows large amounts of money to be transferred to Afghanistan, amid fears it could fall into the hands of the Taliban.


Two more men charged in murder of Lebanese-born student Aya Hachem

Aya Hachem was shot on May 17, 2020, as she walked to a supermarket to buy food for her family to break their Ramadan fast. (Lancashire Police)
Aya Hachem was shot on May 17, 2020, as she walked to a supermarket to buy food for her family to break their Ramadan fast. (Lancashire Police)
Updated 28 January 2022

Two more men charged in murder of Lebanese-born student Aya Hachem

Aya Hachem was shot on May 17, 2020, as she walked to a supermarket to buy food for her family to break their Ramadan fast. (Lancashire Police)
  • Eight others were jailed last year for a total of more than 200 years for their parts in the killing of the 19-year-old, who was gunned down in the north of England in May 2020
  • She was the innocent victim of an assassination plot by a tire company boss, who had hired a gunman to kill a business rival who owned a car wash

LONDON: Another two men have been charged in connection with the murder of Lebanese-born law student Aya Hachem, who was gunned down during a drive-by shooting in England almost two years ago.

Eight people were jailed last year for a total of more than 200 years for their parts in the murder of the 19-year-old. She was shot on May 17, 2020, as she walked to a supermarket to buy food for her family to break their Ramadan fast. The bullet entered her left shoulder and passed through her body. She died later in hospital.

Tire company boss Feroz Suleman, 40, had arranged the execution of a rival businessman, Pachah Khan, 31, the owner of a car wash, but the gunman he hired instead shot dead Hachem, an innocent passer-by.

Suleman was sentenced to a minimum of 34 years in prison before parole can be considered. The gunman, Zamir Raja, 33, who missed his first shot before hitting Hachem with the second, was also jailed for a minimum of 34 years.

His driver, Anthony Ennis, 31, must serve at least 33 years. Accomplices Ayaz Hussain, 36, Abubakr Satia, 32, Uthman Satia, 29, and Kashif Manzoor, 26, were sentenced to minimum prison terms of 32 years, 28 years, 28 years and 27 years, respectively.

After a review of the evidence by Lancashire Police, Suhayl Suleman, 37, and Lewis Otway, 41, have now been charged with the murder of Hachem and the attempted murder of Khan.

Both men were interviewed in the early stages of the initial investigation but released without charge. Lancashire Police said both men are due to appear at a local court on Friday.

Hachem’s family fled violence in their native Lebanon when she was a child and settled in Blackburn, in the north of England, where she dreamed of becoming a solicitor.

After her death her father, Ismail, said his dreams had been destroyed by his daughter’s murder.

“I thought I would be safe here … in this small town. No big problems,” he told the BBC at the time. “All my dreams (were) Aya. Everything was Aya.

“She had big dreams, she helped many people. Anywhere, everybody liked Aya. But we lost Aya. My family lost Aya.”


US confident Nord Stream 2 ‘will not’ proceed if Russia invades

US confident Nord Stream 2 ‘will not’ proceed if Russia invades
Updated 28 January 2022

US confident Nord Stream 2 ‘will not’ proceed if Russia invades

US confident Nord Stream 2 ‘will not’ proceed if Russia invades
  • German FM Annalena Baerbock told parliament that her government was ‘working on a strong package of sanctions’ alongside allies ‘including Nord Stream 2’ if Russia attacks Ukraine
  • Germany pursued the pipeline with Russia, a vital source of gas to Europe’s largest economy, despite concerns that it will reduce Ukraine’s leverage by allowing Moscow to bypass its neighbor

WASHINGTON: The United States is confident Germany will not open the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine, a top US official said Thursday.
“If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s number three official, told reporters.
“I think the statements coming out of Berlin even today are very, very strong,” she said.
Asked why the United States was confident, she said that the pipeline still had not been tested or certified by German regulators.
“We will work with Germany to ensure that the pipeline does not move forward,” Nuland said.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told parliament earlier Thursday that her government was “working on a strong package of sanctions” alongside Western allies “including Nord Stream 2” if Russia attacks Ukraine.
Germany controversially pursued the pipeline with Russia, a vital source of gas to Europe’s largest economy, despite concerns that it will reduce Ukraine’s leverage by allowing Moscow to bypass its neighbor.
President Joe Biden drew domestic criticism last year by not imposing sanctions on the operator of Nord Stream, arguing that the pipeline was nearly finished, but his administration instead reached an understanding with Germany to use the project as leverage.
Nuland also said that the United States had asked China — like Russia, a US adversary — to discourage action by Moscow, which has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders.
“We are calling on Beijing to use its influence with Moscow to urge diplomacy because if there is a conflict in Ukraine, it is not going to be good for China either,” Nuland said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke late Wednesday Washington time about the crisis in a phone call with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Russian President Vladimir Putin next month visits Beijing for the Olympics, which the United States is boycotting on the official level due to human rights concerns.


UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones

UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones
Updated 27 January 2022

UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones

UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones
  • Phone seizures may have been related to misunderstanding that Channel crossings were illegal
  • Policy meant hundreds or thousands of people were cut off from loved ones

LONDON: The UK Home Office has admitted exercising an unlawful secret policy of seizing cell phones from migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Lawyers representing the home secretary made the admission at the High Court on Thursday, while fighting legal action brought by three asylum seekers.

The men, from Iraq and Iran, were all arrested on arrival in the UK and were stripped of their possessions, despite committing no crime.

Government authorities kept their mobile phones for several months, leaving them unable to contact friends and family.

One of the men feared for the lives of his wife and seven-year-old child, but had no means to check on them.

The unnamed claimants are asking the High Court to make declarations of “serious illegality,” award damages and require the Home Office to alert everyone affected by the unlawful policy.

Their lawyers estimate that hundreds or possibly thousands of mobile phones have been unlawfully seized since 2018.

The Home Office initially denied the seizure policy existed, and then later apologized for failing a “duty of candor” by withholding the information.

Alan Payne QC, representing the Home Office, told the High Court: “The home secretary is accepting that the seizure policies were unlawful, were not in accordance with the law for the purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights and did not provide a lawful basis for the processing of data.”

Payne also admitted that a separate policy to keep asylum seekers’ phones for a minimum of three months was a “disproportionate interference” with human rights.

Lawyers for the claimants argued that the concessions were “manifestly incomplete and inadequate to reflect the extent of the illegality,” but Home Secretary Priti Patel’s team argued that the remaining grounds of legal challenge were “academic” and should be dismissed.

Home Office lawyers said the policy’s “precise origins are not known” and that it “appears to have developed organically.”

The confusion, they argued, derives from the misunderstanding that all people arriving in small boats from the Channel had committed a crime — this is not the case.

Sir James Eadie QC, representing the home secretary, said there was a “misunderstanding permeating that an illegal entry offense was always committed by passengers” on small boats at the time.

In December, a court ruled that crossing the Channel with the aim of being intercepted and claiming asylum did not amount to illegal entry, and that a “legal heresy” had developed among authorities and caused a series of wrongful prosecutions.


Afghanistan tops agenda of India’s first Central Asia summit

Afghanistan tops agenda of India’s first Central Asia summit
Updated 27 January 2022

Afghanistan tops agenda of India’s first Central Asia summit

Afghanistan tops agenda of India’s first Central Asia summit
  • Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan participated
  • Modi says five Central Asian republics key to India’s vision of ‘integrated and stable extended neighborhood’

NEW DELHI`: India held its first summit with five Central Asian states on Thursday to address joint concerns over Afghanistan, and to develop regional security cooperation.

Held virtually, Thursday’s summit, hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi,was also attended by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

“Our aim and concerns for regional security are the same,” Modi said in his opening remarks. “We are all worried about the happenings in Afghanistan. In this context our cooperation for regional security and peace are all the more important.”

Like India, three of the Central Asian republics — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — also border Afghanistan.

Modi, the first Indian leader to visit all five Central Asian countries, said they are key to New Delhi’s vision of “an integrated and stable” extended neighborhood.

“We have to prepare an ambitious roadmap for our cooperation, through which, in the next three years, regional connectivity cooperation will be able to adopt an integrated approach,” he said.

As other global powers look to cement their grip on the region following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Indian government has been largely sidelined, while other players such as Pakistan and China have been increasingly involved in Afghan politics on both domestic and international fronts.

Foreign policy experts see the summit as “significant” in view of the situation in Kabul.

“The Central Asian countries’ importance has increased very significantly as a result of what has happened in Afghanistan,” India’s former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ashok Sajjanhar, told Arab News.

“After the departure of the NATO and American troops, it’s the regional countries’ responsibility to maintain peace and security in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that India and the Central Asian republics are “on the same page and want an inclusive government in Afghanistan, respect for rights of minorities, and women and children.”

Anil Trigunayat, former Indian ambassador to Russia, said the summit provides “excellent reconnect for the sharing of ideas and concerns and a future roadmap with our extended neighborhood,” adding that “the developments in Afghanistan are mutual interests for New Delhi and the Central Asian republics.”

Thursday’s summit follows a lower-level security meeting on Afghanistan that India hosted in November, where, besides officials from the five post-Soviet republics, representatives from Russia and Iran were also present.