German region in new lockdown after slaughterhouse outbreak as cases rise nationwide

Armin Laschet governor of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia announces week-long lockdown measures in the Guetersloh district at a press conference in Duesseldorf, Germany, Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Following the corona outbreak at meat processor Toennies, the federal state authorities are massively restricting public life in the Guetersloh district with a lockdown. (AP)
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Updated 23 June 2020

German region in new lockdown after slaughterhouse outbreak as cases rise nationwide

  • More than 1,550 people have tested positive for coronavirus at the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck

BERLIN: German authorities slapped new lockdown measures Tuesday on a western region that has seen hundreds of coronavirus infections linked to a slaughterhouse, trying to make sure the cluster doesn't race into the wider community.
More than 1,550 people have tested positive for coronavirus at the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck and thousands more workers and family members have been put under a quarantine to try to halt the outbreak.
The company has blamed its workforce, which is made up of mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, for bringing the virus in while union officials say the outbreak is due to the terrible working and living conditions employees faced under loosely regulated sub-contractors.
The governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Armin Laschet, said people in Guetersloh and parts of a neighboring county for the next week will face some of the same restrictions that existed across Germany during the early stages of the pandemic in March.
These include limiting the number of people who can meet in public to those from a single household or two people from separate households, Laschet said.
“We will order a lockdown for the whole of Guetersloh county," he told reporters Tuesday. “The purpose is to calm the situation, to expand testing to establish whether or not the virus has spread beyond the employees of Toennies.”
"We will get a better picture of the situation through intensive testing, and can then see more clearly within seven days what the situation is,” Laschet said.
Cinemas, fitness studios and bars will be closed, but stores will remain open and restaurants can still serve customers from the same household. Previously, the western county had only closed schools and daycare centers, sparking anger from parents who said their children were being punished for failings at the slaughterhouse.
Prior to the Toennies outbreak, Germany had been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic. Intensive testing, tracing and hospital preparation measures kept Germany’s death toll five times smaller than Britain’s. Germany has seen over 8,900 confirmed virus deaths and about 192,000 cases.
Toennies, a family-owned company, has been criticized for using subcontractors for parts of its operation. The practice, which is common in the German meat industry and which the government now wants to ban, often results in migrant workers living in cramped communal housing and being transported to abattoirs in minibuses, heightening the risk of infection.
A video circulating on social media also showed workers at Toennies seated close together during break times, although the company has disputed how recent the video is.
Laschet expressed his frustration Tuesday at the company's handling of the outbreak, saying authorities had to order Toennies — Germany's biggest meat processing company — to release the names of its employees.
“The readiness to cooperate could have been greater,” he said.
Laschet said the measures will be lifted June 30 if the situation has improved, but declined to provide specific parameters for success. He also urged other regions in Germany not to discriminate against people from Guetersloh.
The German news agency dpa reported that 14 people on vacation, some of them from Guetersloh, were told Monday to leave the Baltic Sea island of Usedom, a popular holiday resort. And Bavaria issued a ban on hotels renting rooms to people from Guetersloh or other countries with more than 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Exceptions will be made for people who can present a negative coronavirus test.
The head of Germany's disease control center said Tuesday the exact reasons why slaughterhouses in Germany, the United States and elsewhere have become coronavirus infection hubs are still being investigated.
“It's certainly the case that if you live in cramped conditions and small rooms then that's a situation where the virus can spread more easily,” said Lothar Wieler, chief of the Robert Koch Institute.
But he added that low temperatures in parts of the plant, intended to keep the meat cool, could also play a role.
“Another factor, which we don't think is small, is the development of aerosols,” said Wieler, referring to tiny droplets that can linger in the air and potentially contain viruses.
Wieler said the outbreak at the slaughterhouse and others linked to religious gatherings could certainly spread to other people in Germany.
“That's why it's so important that we remain careful,” he said. “The virus is still in the country and if we give it the chance to spread, then it will take that chance."
But he expressed hope that Germany could avoid a second wave of the pandemic if people followed government advice on social distancing and hygiene.
Dr. Ute Rexroth, a senior Robert Koch Institute official involved in Germany's pandemic response, noted that poverty seems to play a significant role in who gets infected, calling it “the root of the problem.”


S.Africa’s COVID-19 cases could triple this week, says expert

Updated 6 sec ago

S.Africa’s COVID-19 cases could triple this week, says expert

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa’s daily COVID-19 infection rate could triple to more than 10,000 by the end of this week as the new Omicron variant spreads rapidly, a top infectious disease expert said on Monday.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the government’s chief adviser during the initial response to the pandemic, also said that, while existing vaccines should be effective at preventing severe disease from the variant, South African hospitals could be under pressure from a flood of admissions within two to three weeks.
“Even if Omicron is not clinically worse, and certainly the anecdotes don’t raise any red flags just yet ..., we are going to see this (pressure on hospitals) in all likelihood because of the rapidity of transmission,” he told a news conference.
The discovery of the variant in southern Africa has caused global alarm, with countries limiting travel from the region and imposing other restrictions for fear it could spread quickly even in vaccinated populations.
The World Health Organization said on Monday that the variant posed a very high global risk of infection surges, though further research was needed to assess its potential to evade protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections.
Abdool Karim, a professor at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal and Columbia University in the United States, said vaccines were still likely to confer good protection against Omicron because of T-cell immunity, different from the antibody immunity that often blocks infections.
“Even if there’s some escape from antibodies it’s very hard to escape T-cell immunity,” he said.
Doctors who have treated South African COVID-19 patients say Omicron so far appears to be producing mild symptoms, including a dry cough, fever and night sweats. But public health experts say it is too early to draw firm conclusions.
The government says it is doing everything possible to prepare health facilities to cope with the variant and is asking countries that imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa to reverse them, Health Minister Joe Phaahla told the same news conference.
So far, there hasn’t been a steep increase in hospital admissions or COVID-19 deaths since the variant was first detected in South Africa last week, in samples from earlier in November.
On Sunday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported 2,858 new cases, down from 3,220 on Saturday but compared to roughly 300 two weeks ago when the country, where around 35 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, was experiencing a lull after a third wave of infections.

US screened 2.45 million passengers Sunday, highest since early 2020

Updated 29 November 2021

US screened 2.45 million passengers Sunday, highest since early 2020

  • Despite fears the jump in demand could strain the system, US air travel was relatively smooth over the holiday period
  • Airlines are also worried about new travel restrictions that the United States imposed on eight southern African countries that bar nearly all foreign nationals in response to a new COVID-19 variant

WASHINGTON: The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 2.45 million airline passengers on Sunday, the highest number of daily passengers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said Monday.
The tally was the highest for one day since mid-February 2020. Volume for the 10-day Thanksgiving travel period was 20.9 million, about 89 percent of pre-pandemic travel numbers, TSA added, and more than twice the volume over 2020.
Despite fears the jump in demand could strain the system, US air travel was relatively smooth over the holiday period, in part due to favorable weather. US airlines have been racing to add more staff and flights to handle the rising number of travelers, offering bonuses and other incentives for current staff.
Airlines are also worried about new travel restrictions that the United States imposed Monday on eight southern African countries that bar nearly all foreign nationals in response to a new COVID-19 variant, and are concerned these curbs may expand to other routes with higher traffic.
On Nov. 8, the Biden administration lifted travel restrictions for fully vaccinated air travelers from 33 countries including China, Brazil and much of Europe.
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said that in the week ended Nov. 14, US airline passenger volumes were 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels, with domestic air travel down 8 percent and international down 25 percent.
Travel group AAA had forecast 53.4 million people would travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13 percent from 2020, with most travelers going by car.


Russia: Latest Zircon hypersonic missile test successful

Updated 29 November 2021

Russia: Latest Zircon hypersonic missile test successful

  • Russia, the United States, France and China have all been experimenting with so-called hypersonic glide vehicles
MOSCOW: Russia said Monday it had carried out another successful test of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, as world powers race to develop the advanced weaponry.
Russia, the United States, France and China have all been experimenting with so-called hypersonic glide vehicles — defined as reaching speeds of at least Mach 5.
As part of “the completion of tests” of Russia’s hypersonic missile weapons, the Admiral Gorshkov warship launched a Zircon missile at a target in the Barents Sea at a range of 400 kilometers, the defense ministry said.
“The target was hit,” the ministry said, describing the test as successful.
The missile has undergone a number of recent tests, with Russia planning to equip both warships and submarines with the Zircon.
Putin revealed the development of the new weapon in a state of the nation address in February 2019, saying it could hit targets at sea and on land with a range of 1,000 kilometers and a speed of Mach 9.
Russia’s latest Zircon test came after Western reports that a Chinese hypersonic glider test flight in July culminated in the mid-flight firing of a missile at more than five times the speed of sound over the South China Sea.
Up until the test, none of the top powers had displayed comparable mastery of a mid-flight missile launch.
China denied the report, saying it was a routine test of a reusable space vehicle.
Russia has boasted of developing several weapons that circumvent existing defense systems, including the Sarmat intercontinental missiles and Burevestnik cruise missiles.
Western experts have linked a deadly blast at a test site in northern Russia in 2019 — which caused a sharp spike in local radiation levels — to the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile.

Couple caught fleeing Dutch COVID-19 quarantine moved to ‘forced isolation’

Updated 29 November 2021

Couple caught fleeing Dutch COVID-19 quarantine moved to ‘forced isolation’

  • Pair left the hotel where travelers who tested positive for the virus were staying after arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport from South Africa

AMSTERDAM: A couple caught trying to escape from COVID-19 quarantine in the Netherlands after testing positive for the coronavirus have been transferred to a hospital where they were being held in isolation, an official said on Monday.
The pair, a Spanish man and Portuguese woman, left the hotel where travelers who tested positive for the virus were staying after arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport from South Africa.
“They have now been transferred to a hospital elsewhere in the Netherlands to ensure they are in isolation. They are now in so-called forced isolation,” said Petra Faber, spokesperson for Haarlemmermeer municipality, where Schiphol is located just outside of the capital.
“We don’t know who tested positive for the new variant and we wouldn’t say because of privacy,” Faber said.
The couple fled the hotel on Sunday and had boarded a plane to Spain when they were detained by military police at the airport, said Faber. They were among 61 out of the more than 600 passengers who arrived on two flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town on Friday and tested positive for COVID-19.
At least 13 of those infected have the newly identified omicron variant of the virus, Dutch health authorities said on Sunday.
Security at the hotel has in the meantime been increased to ensure the quarantined guests stay in their rooms. It is being guarded by regular police and military police.
The discovery of omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic.
Dutch authorities are also seeking to contact and test some 5,000 other passengers who have traveled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe.
In the Netherlands, tougher COVID-19 measures went into effect on Sunday to curb record daily infection rates of more than 20,000 and ease pressure on hospitals.


India’s parliament passes bill to repeal controversial farm laws

Updated 29 November 2021

India’s parliament passes bill to repeal controversial farm laws

  • Narendra Modi said this month his government would repeal the laws in the new session of parliament

NEW DELHI: India’s parliament on Monday passed a bill to repeal three laws aiming at deregulating agricultural markets, bowing to pressure from farmers who have protested for over a year to demand that the laws be rolled back.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration introduced the farm bills last year through an executive order, traditionally reserved for emergency legislation, triggering India’s longest-running farmers’ protest. Parliament then passed the legislation via a voice vote, drawing widespread criticism that it had rushed through the laws without proper debate.
In a bid to end the protests ahead of the state assembly election in India’s most populous Uttar Pradesh state early next year, Modi said this month his government would repeal the laws in the new session of parliament.
As parliament reconvened for its winter session on Monday, both the lower and upper houses passed the bill to withdraw the laws meant to deregulate and open up agricultural markets to companies. Farmers have said the laws would leave them with scant bargaining power against big private purchasers.
The controversial laws saw tens of thousands of people, including many elderly growers and women farmers, brave extreme weather and a severe second wave of coronavirus infections to camp out on the outskirts of New Delhi over the past year.
In addition to their repeal demand, protesting farmers are also asking that Modi’s administration introduce a law to secure government prices for produces beyond just rice and wheat.
The government currently buys rice and wheat at state-set Minimum Support Prices (MSPs), but the subsidies only benefit about 6 percent of India’s millions of farmers.
Protesters are demanding MSPs for all crops – a move that has galvanized growers across the country and taken the protest beyond India’s grain-growing states of Punjab and Haryana.
The government has not yet made any comment on the protesters’ demand for MSPs.
Farmers celebrated the development but said the protest would only be called off when the government promised legislation on MSPs for all produce.