What’s known about ‘stealth’ version of omicron?

A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2022

What’s known about ‘stealth’ version of omicron?

A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
  • Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2

WASHINGTON: Scientists and health officials around the world are keeping their eyes on a descendant of the omicron variant that has been found in at least 40 countries, including the United States.
This version of the coronavirus, which scientists call BA.2, is widely considered stealthier than the original version of omicron because particular genetic traits make it somewhat harder to detect. Some scientists worry it could also be more contagious.
But they say there’s a lot they still don’t know about it, including whether it evades vaccines better or causes more severe disease.
WHERE HAS IT SPREAD?
Since mid-November, more than three dozen countries have uploaded nearly 15,000 genetic sequences of BA.2 to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data. As of Tuesday morning, 96 of those sequenced cases came from the US
“Thus far, we haven’t seen it start to gain ground” in the US, said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, which has identified three cases of BA.2.
The mutant appears much more common in Asia and Europe. In Denmark, it made up 45 percent of all COVID-19 cases in mid-January, up from 20 percent two weeks earlier, according to Statens Serum Institut, which falls under the Danish Ministry of Health.
WHAT’S KNOWN ABOUT THIS VERSION OF THE VIRUS?
BA.2 has lots of mutations. About 20 of them in the spike protein that studs the outside of the virus are shared with the original omicron. But it also has additional genetic changes not seen in the initial version.
It’s unclear how significant those mutations are, especially in a population that has encountered the original omicron, said Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
For now, the original version, known as BA.1, and BA.2 are considered subsets of omicron. But global health leaders could give it its own Greek letter name if it is deemed a globally significant “variant of concern.”
The quick spread of BA.2 in some places raises concerns it could take off.
“We have some indications that it just may be as contagious or perhaps slightly more contagious than (original) omicron since it’s able to compete with it in some areas,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily know why that is.”
An initial analysis by scientists in Denmark shows no differences in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared with the original omicron. Scientists there are still looking into this version’s infectiousness and how well current vaccines work against it. It’s also unclear how well treatments will work against it.
Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2. But they’re hopeful, especially that a prior omicron infection might lessen the severity of disease if someone later contracts BA.2.
The two versions of omicron have enough in common that it’s possible that infection with the original mutant “will give you cross-protection against BA.2,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, an infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Scientists will be conducting tests to see if antibodies from an infection with the original omicron “are able to neutralize BA.2 in the laboratory and then extrapolate from there,” he said.
HOW CONCERNED ARE HEALTH AGENCIES?
The World Health Organization classifies omicron overall as a variant of concern, its most serious designation of a coronavirus mutant, but it doesn’t single out BA.2 with a designation of its own. Given its rise in some countries, however, the agency says investigations of BA.2 “should be prioritized.”
The UK Health Security Agency, meanwhile, has designated BA.2 a “variant under investigation,” citing the rising numbers found in the UK and internationally. Still, the original version of omicron remains dominant in the UK
WHY IS IT HARDER TO DETECT?
The original version of omicron had specific genetic features that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from delta using a certain PCR test because of what’s known as “S gene target failure.”
BA.2 doesn’t have this same genetic quirk. So on the test, Long said, BA.2 looks like delta.
“It’s not that the test doesn’t detect it; it’s just that it doesn’t look like omicron,” he said. “Don’t get the impression that ‘stealth omicron’ means we can’t detect it. All of our PCR tests can still detect it.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF?
Doctors advise the same precautions they have all along: Get vaccinated and follow public health guidance about wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home when you’re sick.
“The vaccines are still providing good defense against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Long said. “Even if you’ve had COVID 19 before — you’ve had a natural infection — the protection from the vaccine is still stronger, longer lasting and actually ... does well for people who’ve been previously infected.”
The latest version is another reminder that the pandemic hasn’t ended.
“We all wish that it was over,” Long said, ”but until we get the world vaccinated, we’re going to be at risk of having new variants emerge.”


WEF 2022: Head of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla project highlights importance of investing in arts, culture  

WEF 2022: Head of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla project highlights importance of investing in arts, culture  
Updated 49 min 15 sec ago

WEF 2022: Head of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla project highlights importance of investing in arts, culture  

WEF 2022: Head of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla project highlights importance of investing in arts, culture  
  • ‘Art creators as important as infrastructure,’ Amr Al-Madani tells Davos panel session via livestream

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s head of the Royal Commission for AlUla has praised the role of arts and culture in sustaining resilient and creative communities, saying that investing in art creators is important to economies and to the healthy growth of societies. 

Speaking during a livestreamed panel session called “Culture Shock” at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday, Amr Al-Madani described artists as “resilient,” adding that “art creators are essential contributors to the economy and healthy growth,” and “are as important as infrastructure and assets.”

He added: “For those who are in the investment world, your capital with the artists and creatives will always have much higher return than your capital invested anywhere else, in the long term.” 

The panel session was moderated by Jeanne Bourgault, president and CEO of Internews. 

 

 

Bourgault asked Al-Madani to outline cultural preservation initiatives as well as the economic development taking place as part of the regeneration of AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

“To me, culture is really a manifestation of who we are as a society,” Al-Madani said.

“If we use the expansive definition of culture, it’s an ever-evolving implementation of where we have been, and who we have been, and where we intend to be.”  

He said that this understanding is pivotal when working on a project that involves a World Heritage Site which has been “a capital of many ancient civilizations for thousands of years and a cultural capital of the world.” 

The panel also featured Platon, the photographer and founder of the People’s Portfolio, a nonprofit organization that uses portrait photography to highlight humanitarian efforts worldwide.

Anna Konig Jerlmyr, Stockholm’s mayor, discussed the significance of the arts sector and how those in the arts industry had been hit by restrictions introduced to contain COVID-19. 

Under the lockdown in March 2020, many theaters, cinemas, concert venues, book shops and museums were closed. This added to the burden facing artists struggling to make a living, and contributed to the revenue decline for cultural industries, she said.

However, the restrictions pushed artists to find more creative ways to reach those forced to remain home as a result of COVID-19 curbs.

Al-Madani said: “During the pandemic we believed that the loss of any creator was not acceptable.”

Throughout February and March, Desert X AlUla, a site-responsive, international open-air art exhibition, was staged in partnership with a California-based firm.

The event included galleries for female artists. More than half of the artists taking part were women, he added.


Teen gunman kills 15 at Texas elementary school

A woman reacts outside the Ssgt Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 24, 2022. (REUTERS)
A woman reacts outside the Ssgt Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 24, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 44 min 49 sec ago

Teen gunman kills 15 at Texas elementary school

A woman reacts outside the Ssgt Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 24, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • Footage showed small groups of children weaving through parked cars and buses, some holding hands as they fled under police escort from the school, which teaches students aged around seven to 10 years old

UVALDE, United States: An 18-year-old gunman killed 14 young children and a teacher at an elementary school in Texas on Tuesday, in the deadliest US school shooting in years.
The attack in Uvalde, Texas — a small community about an hour from the Mexican border — is the latest in a spree of deadly shootings in America, where horror at the cycle of gun violence has failed to spur enough action to end it.
Governor Greg Abbott, addressing a news conference, said the gunman was believed to have shot his grandmother before heading to Robb Elementary School at around noon, abandoning his vehicle and entering with a handgun, and possibly also a rifle.

Law enforcement personnel walk outside Uvalde High School after shooting a was reported earlier in the day at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (AP)

“He shot and killed, horrifically and incomprehensibly, 14 students and killed a teacher,” Abbott said.
The governor said the suspect, who he described as a local teenager and a US citizen, was also “deceased,” adding that “it is believed that responding officers killed him.”
Footage showed small groups of children weaving through parked cars and buses, some holding hands as they fled under police escort from the school, which teaches students aged around seven to 10 years old.
It was the deadliest such incident since 14 high school students and three adult staff were killed in Parkland, Florida in 2018 — and the worst at an elementary school since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, in which 20 children and six staff were killed.
The White House ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in mourning for the victims — whose deaths sent a wave of shock through a country still scarred by the horror of Sandy Hook.
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the shooting, and was to address the nation later on Tuesday.
Robb Elementary — which teaches more than 500, mostly Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students from second through fourth grade — called on parents not to pick up their children until all were accounted for.
“Please do not pick up students at this time. Students need to be accounted for before they are released to your care. You will be notified to pick up students once all are accounted for,” the school said on its website.

Ted Cruz, a Republican US senator from Texas, tweeted that he and his wife are “lifting up in prayer the children and families in the horrific shooting in Uvalde.”
But Senator Chris Murphy, a Democratic from Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook shooting took place, made an impassioned appeal for concrete action to prevent further violence.
“This isn’t inevitable, these kids weren’t unlucky. This only happens in this country and nowhere else. Nowhere else do little kids go to school thinking that they might be shot that day,” Murphy said on the Senate floor.
“I’m here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely,” he added.
The deadly violence in Texas follows a series of mass shootings in the United States this month.
On May 14, an 18-year-old white man shot 10 people dead at a Buffalo, New York grocery store.
Wearing heavy body armor and wielding an AR-15 rifle, the self-declared white supremacist allegedly livestreamed his attack, having reportedly targeted the store because of the large surrounding African American population.
The following day, a man blocked the door of a church in Laguna Woods, California and opened fire on its Taiwanese-American congregation, killing one person and injuring five.
Despite recurring mass-casualty shootings, multiple initiatives to reform gun regulations have failed in the US Congress, leaving states and local councils to enact their own restrictions.
The National Rifle Association has been instrumental in fighting against stricter US gun laws. Abbott and Cruz are listed as speakers at a forum that is being held by the powerful lobby in Houston, Texas later this week.
The United States suffered 19,350 firearm homicides in 2020, up nearly 35 percent compared to 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in its latest data.
 


‘Appalled’ US suspects Uyghur abuse approved at Beijing ‘highest levels’

‘Appalled’ US suspects Uyghur abuse approved at Beijing ‘highest levels’
Updated 25 May 2022

‘Appalled’ US suspects Uyghur abuse approved at Beijing ‘highest levels’

‘Appalled’ US suspects Uyghur abuse approved at Beijing ‘highest levels’
  • "We are appalled by the reports and the jarring images," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters
  • The United States accuses Beijing of carrying out genocide against the Uyghurs

WASHINGTON: The United States voiced horror Tuesday at new files on the incarceration of China’s Uyghur minority and said they showed that abuse was likely approved at the highest levels in Beijing.
“We are appalled by the reports and the jarring images,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“It would be very difficult to imagine that a systemic effort to suppress, to detain, to conduct a campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity would not have the blessing — would not have the approval — of the highest levels of the PRC government,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The United States accuses Beijing of carrying out genocide against the Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking people in the western region of Xinjiang, where rights groups say more than one million people have been rounded up.
“We have and we continue to call on the PRC to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained people, to abolish the internment camps, to end mass detention, torture, forced sterilization, and the use of forced labor,” Price said.
Adrian Zenz, an academic who has probed the treatment of the Uyghurs, published a leak of thousands of photos and official documents that shed new light on violent methods to enforce mass internment.
The files, parts of which have been verified by multiple news organizations including the BBC and Le Monde, also provide a window into life in detention facilities.
Photos appear to show officers restraining hooded and shackled inmates with batons, while other guards wearing camouflage stand by with firearms.
The release comes just as UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet started a visit to China that was criticized by the United States, which says that she had not secured sufficient access.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in a tweet that Bachelet “must take a hard look at these faces and press Chinese officials for full, unfettered access — and answers.”


Boat carrying Rohingya fleeing Myanmar capsizes, killing 16

Boat carrying Rohingya fleeing Myanmar capsizes, killing 16
Updated 24 May 2022

Boat carrying Rohingya fleeing Myanmar capsizes, killing 16

Boat carrying Rohingya fleeing Myanmar capsizes, killing 16
  • There were 35 survivors of Saturday's accident that took place Saturday off Myanmar’s southwestern coast
  • UNHCR said at least 17 Rohingya, including children, had died

BANGKOK: At least 16 people from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority have died after a storm capsized the boat they were traveling on to seek refuge in another country, officials and a recovery team member said Tuesday.
There were 35 survivors of Saturday’s accident that took place Saturday off Myanmar’s southwestern coast and four people were missing, the officials said.
UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, expressed shock and sadness about the accident in a statement and said at least 17 Rohingya, including children, had died.
The boat left the western state of Rakhine last Thursday and encountered bad weather two days later off Ayeyarwaddy Region on Myanmar’s southwestern coast, causing it to capsize, the statement said.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have long been persecuted in Myanmar. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape the brutal counterinsurgency campaign of Myanmar’s military following an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group in Rakhine State.
Myanmar’s government has denied accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes, but the US government recently labeled actions by the country’s military as genocide.
There are more than 100,000 Rohingya left in Myanmar, confined in squalid displacement camps, along with those living in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Groups of Rohingya from camps in both countries embark on hazardous voyages to the Muslim-majority countries of Malaysia and Indonesia to seek a better living.
“Some 630 Rohingya have attempted sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal from January to May 2022,” the UNHCR statement said, with women and children making up 60 percent of those trying to flee.
The statement added: “The risk of abuse at the hands of smugglers and the peril of the sea journey itself are both exacerbated during prolonged journeys, when a safe harbor for disembarkation cannot be found.”
An Ayeyarwaddy Region resident said the 16 bodies, including those of two young boys, were recovered near Pathein township, about 300 kilometers (180 miles) west of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Myanmar’s military government seeks to tightly control the flow of information.
A local official, who also requested anonymity for the same reason, said most of the 50 people on board the boat were men under 30 years old. He said the bodies were buried and that the 35 survivors were taken away by the security forces.
Maung Maung Than, a spokesperson for the Ayeyarwaddy Region government, confirmed that the accident happened but did not give further details.
“The latest tragedy shows once again the sense of desperation being felt by Rohingya in Myanmar and in the region,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s director for Asia and the Pacific said in the agency’s statement. “It is shocking to see increasing numbers of children, women and men embarking on these dangerous journeys and eventually losing their lives.”


Avoid Iraq reconstruction mistakes, Maryam co-founder warns

Avoid Iraq reconstruction mistakes, Maryam co-founder warns
Updated 24 May 2022

Avoid Iraq reconstruction mistakes, Maryam co-founder warns

Avoid Iraq reconstruction mistakes, Maryam co-founder warns
  • The Ukraine4All: Constructing an Inclusive Future event invited business and political figures, as well as young Ukrainian global leaders, to discuss the future of Ukraine

DAVOS: Public- as well as private-sector funding is vital for the reconstruction of Ukraine in a post-war scenario, but ensuring corruption does not stall rebuilding efforts is also essential, a Maryam Forum Foundation panel said at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The Ukraine4All: Constructing an Inclusive Future event invited business and political figures, as well as young Ukrainian global leaders, to discuss the future of Ukraine after the end of hostilities in its war with Russia.

Panelist and Maryam co-founder Khaled Janahi said that failures in previous Western reconstruction efforts in countries such as Iraq cannot be repeated.

“The issue is, (Ukraine needs) 1 trillion dollars and it’s how to make sure that out of that trillion dollars, $980 billion is really used properly, spent by the Ukrainians, with the help of outside, to build up Ukraine, whether it is hard infrastructure or soft infrastructure and to have the institutions around it,” he said.

“And only 20 billion of it going to corruption, instead of 400 billion going to corruption and 600 (to rebuilding).”

He said that the mistakes of the US reconstruction project in Iraq, which he said was still “effectively a failed state,” were a good lesson to learn from.

“The Americans invaded, they left, and in the Arab world we have the story ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ — they left forty thieves in the country,” Janahi said.

“In that country, they are still paying the price for these forty thieves.

“It is not only Ukrainians that have to fight their own corruption from the inside, we also have to make sure about the outside,” he added.

Janahi said that compared to refugees from the MENA region, those fleeing Ukraine would have better opportunities.

“We have all these refugees — Syrian, Palestinians, Yemenis — and the good news is that Ukrainians won’t be the same," he said.

“Ukranians will be looked after and they will come out of this because the world is going that way, and that’s the way the world is.

“And one reason is we, as the Arabs, are not pushing for those guys from our part of the world to be looked after.

“We live in a world today that is run by rulers, not by leaders. Even if they are elected, a lot of them are rulers not leaders. Unfortunately what’s happened, whether it’s Syria or now in Ukraine, it proves the point,” he added.

Panellists discussing the post-war future of Ukraine during the Maryam Forum Foundation panel 'The Ukraine4All: Constructing an Inclusive Future.' (AN Photo/Daniel Fountain)

His fellow panellist, businessman Martin Sorrell, said it will require a collaborative effort from both the private and public sectors if the Ukrainian reconstruction project is to prove successful.

“The fundamental issue is that Putin will remain in power, and Putin will continue to pursue (this war). The only way you are going to be able to reconstruct Ukraine is by not relying on the private sector on its own —there must be an effort from government institutions,” he added.

“I don’t think the private sector on its own will do the business. It will take concerted, coordinated public sector and government intervention on a significant scale.”

Eric Cantor, former US congressman and house majority leader, agreed, and also warned of the potential for corrupt officials to derail the rebuilding project.

“The private sector won’t be first — government has to be the catalyst,” he said. “But I also think there has to be transparency. You’ve got to see where the corruption is.

“How do we keep the taxpayer dollars out of the hands of the oligarchs? How do you make sure the procurement process in the cities and towns of Ukraine, that you don’t see government officials taking some of that money?

“That image has to now grow into how the world can believe that Ukraine can build a new Ukraine, and not the way it was,” he added.