How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans

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People queue outside a make-shift COVID-19 vaccination and testing center erected at the Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya, on on July 24, 2021. (AFP)
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)f
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
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The highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in more than a dozen countries the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region. (AFP)
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Updated 05 August 2021

How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans

  • Several MENA countries have experienced an explosion of infections linked to the highly transmissible strain
  • Travel restrictions had to be reimposed once the severity of the threat posed by the spread of delta became clear

DUBAI: Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with low rates of vaccination against COVID-19 have been experiencing an explosion of new cases and fatalities linked to the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.

Worldwide, the variant has been detected in at least 132 countries, prompting new waves of infection, the resumption of travel restrictions, and mounting concern over the availability and effectiveness of vaccines.

In the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region, the variant has been found in more than a dozen countries including Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet reported any cases, it has reimposed a raft of travel curbs in additions to bans and penalties for violators.

Also known by its scientific name B.1.617.2, the delta variant of the coronavirus was first detected in the Indian state of Maharashtra in October but was only labeled a variant of concern by the WHO on May 11.

Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the infectious hazards management unit at the WHO’s Middle East and eastern Mediterranean regional office in Cairo, told Arab News: “It was very easy for delta to spread throughout the region due to the many migrant workers from South Asia living in the Gulf and North Africa.”

The strain, itself the product of multiple mutations, is thought to be 60 percent more infectious than the alpha (or Kent) variant, an earlier mutation that emerged in southern England in November, and as contagious as chickenpox.

According to a confidential CDC document, picked up by US media in late July, delta is more transmissible than the common cold, the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox, Ebola, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), has a longer transmission window than the original strain, and may make older people more ill — even those fully vaccinated.

US health officials said people infected with the delta variant could carry up to 1,000 times more virus in their nasal passages than other strains, resulting in higher transmissibility. The WHO predicted there could be at least 200 million new cases worldwide in a matter of weeks.

In many countries, including the UK, the delta variant has now become the dominant strain. In Israel, which has a very high rate of vaccination, delta makes up 90 percent of new infections.

What is perhaps most alarming for health professionals is the number of young people, many of them unvaccinated, who are becoming seriously ill with the variant.

Earlier iterations of the virus were considered more harmful to older demographics and people with underlying health conditions, groups that governments have tended to prioritize in vaccination drives.

Although it appears to cause more severe symptoms than its forerunners, there was currently not enough data to suggest delta was any more deadly.

More encouraging was the data on the effectiveness of vaccines. A study by Public Health England found that the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against hospitalization after one dose and 96 percent effective after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 71 percent effective after one dose and 92 percent effective after two.

On Sunday, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that New York-based Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech “have tweaked their mRNA vaccine to target the delta variant and will begin testing it on humans” this month.

The global market for COVID-19 vaccines, valued at $70 billion this year, could grow bigger as scientists debate whether people will need booster shots for the delta variant.

Owing to the slow rollout of vaccines in large parts of the developing world, there is limited protection for their populations against COVID-19.

In MENA countries, outbreaks of the delta variant of the coronavirus are adding to the pressure on hospitals, life-saving equipment, and even mortuaries.

Tunisia has been gripped by social unrest, attributable to a mix of political dysfunction, stretched healthcare systems, and mounting economic hardship.

In Iran, a country which has vaccinated just 3 percent of its population, around 35,000 new infections and 357 deaths were recorded on July 27 alone.

In conflict-ridden areas of the Middle East, namely Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, where immunization rates remain low, the surge in delta cases poses a serious challenge to already ailing health systems and fragile government structures.

Abubakar said: “We are extremely concerned about what will happen when the delta variant spreads to emergency countries like Syria and Yemen. Delta will reach all countries in the region. The WHO is trying to work with nations to prepare for the worst, like having more ICU (intensive care unit) beds, oxygen, vaccines, and amplifying our social messaging.

“No country is immune from delta. We cannot afford for other countries in the region to go through what Tunisia is going through right now,” he added.

FASTFACTS

Delta was labeled a variant of concern by WHO on May 11.

Most new cases in eastern Mediterranean are delta variant.

Variant is especially transmissible among the unvaccinated.

Delta may be 60% more infectious than alpha variant.

Surge poses serious challenge to MENA health systems.

Best protection is to receive two doses of the vaccine.

In Lebanon, for instance, a rise in COVID-19 cases would place an even greater burden on a cash-strapped country already blighted by electricity and fuel shortages.

Pierre Abi Hanna, head of the infectious disease division at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, told Arab News: “The numbers in Lebanon are increasing exponentially, and the majority of coronavirus cases circulating in Lebanon, from the samples taken, are from the delta strain.

“Over the last few weeks, we have also seen an increase in the number of hospitalized patients, all of whom are unvaccinated, as well as a small increase in the number of patients in ICU as well as those requiring mechanical ventilation.”

Patients were being hospitalized because they could not take oxygen at home due to Lebanon’s electricity shortages. Those hospitalized had tended to be younger than before and mostly unvaccinated.

“Some of them have received one shot, but the majority have received none. We are now seeing a higher number of cases in the younger population, aged 20 to 49. In the last three days, we have had an increase in the number of people needing ICU beds,” Abi Hanna said.

On a brighter side of the battle, GCC countries have coped well with the delta wave thanks to high rates of vaccination, high levels of compliance with public health measures, and timely travel restrictions.

At the end of June, the UAE announced it was suspending flights from India after recording its first cases of the delta variant. Emirati authorities said the strain now accounted for around one-third of all new infections in the country.

Although it has not recorded any cases of its own, Saudi Arabia unveiled a raft of new measures on July 3 — including a ban on travel to and from the UAE, the world’s top international-transport hub.

Saudi citizens who visit countries on its red list – the UAE, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Lebanon, and Turkey – now face a three-year travel ban either directly or indirectly through states on the green list.




GCC countries have coped well with the delta wave  largely because of high rates of vaccination and high levels of compliance with public health measures. (AFP)

In addition to urging its citizens to continue wearing face masks and maintaining a safe social distance in public places, the Kingdom stressed that the best protection against the delta variant was to receive a second dose of vaccine.

Dr. Wail Bajhmoum, an infectious disease consultant and head of the internal medicine department at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, told Arab News: “Citizens should have the vaccines which have been provided by the government and the Ministry of Health free of charge and have been available for everyone in more than 587 centers all over the Kingdom.

“Researchers have shown that two doses of the vaccine will provide very good immunity against all variants of coronavirus, including delta.”

The UAE, which has implemented one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, has issued a delta-detecting PCR test to help isolate the new outbreak. Cases rose at the end of June to more than 2,000 per day, contributing to a daily average of 10 deaths – the country’s highest toll in a single day since March, according to Reuter’s COVID-19 tracker.

The UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority said the increase in deaths was due to the spread of the alpha, beta, and delta variants. Since then, cases have fallen, with 1,536 recorded infections and two deaths on July 27.

“Some countries are better prepared than others. Delta was confirmed earlier in the Gulf countries, but they have a better system in place to handle the variant. This helped limit the spread of the variant, supplemented by the high vaccination rate in Gulf countries.

“We have found that the impact of delta on Gulf countries is low compared with countries with low vaccination rates, notably Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq,” Abubakar added.

The delta variant is only one of several mutations since the coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 — and it will not be the final iteration.

“It is not the last variant that we will see. We have to be prepared for new variants as well,” Abubakar said.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Iran dismisses IAEA’s work as ‘unprofessional’

Updated 16 September 2021

Iran dismisses IAEA’s work as ‘unprofessional’

VIENNA: Iran on Thursday dismissed the UN nuclear watchdog’s work as “unprofessional” and “unfair” shortly before the two sides are due to hold talks aimed at resolving a standoff over the origin of uranium particles found at old but undeclared sites in Iran.
The issue is a thorn in the side of both Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since the particles suggest Iran once had undeclared nuclear material at three different locations, but the IAEA has yet to obtain satisfactory answers from Iran on how the material got there or where it went.
“The statement of the Agency in its report is completely unprofessional, illusory and unfair,” Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, said in a statement to a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors.
Gharibabadi was referring to a passage in an IAEA report last week that said the lack of progress was seriously affecting the IAEA’s ability to determine that Iran’s program is entirely peaceful, as Tehran says it is.
Failure to resolve the issue complicates efforts to restart talks aimed at bringing the US and Iran fully back into the fold of the 2015 nuclear deal, since Washington and its allies continue to pressure Iran to give the IAEA answers.

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Hezbollah-organized fuel arrives in crisis-hit Lebanon

Updated 16 September 2021

Hezbollah-organized fuel arrives in crisis-hit Lebanon

  • Delivery violates US sanctions imposed on Tehran
  • Lebanon’s crisis is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class

AL-AIN, Lebanon: A convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon early Thursday, a delivery organized by the militant Hezbollah group to ease crippling fuel shortages in the crisis-hit country.
The delivery violates US sanctions imposed on Tehran after former President Donald Trump pulled America out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers three years ago.
It was portrayed as a victory by Hezbollah, which stepped in to supply the fuel from its patron, Iran, while the cash-strapped government grappled with the fuel shortages for months.
“This is a very big and great thing for us because we broke the siege of America and foreign countries. ... We are working with the help of God and our great mother Iran,” said Nabiha Idriss, a Hezbollah supporter who gathered with others to greet the tankers’ convoy as it passed through the eastern town of Al-Ain.
Hezbollah has portrayed the Lebanese economic meltdown, which began in October 2019, as partly caused by an informal siege imposed by America due to the militant group’s power and influence in Lebanon. The group has been sanctioned by consecutive US administrations.
Lebanon’s crisis is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class and a sectarian-based political system that thrives on patronage and nepotism. Severe shortages in fuel have paralyzed the country, resulting in crippling power cuts that have disrupted the work of hospitals and bakeries. Just to get gasoline, people must wait hours in line, commonly called, “queues of humiliation.”
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had announced a month ago that Iran was sending fuel to Lebanon to help ease the crisis. The first Hezbollah-commissioned Iranian oil tanker arrived in the Syrian port of Baniyas on Sunday and the diesel was unloaded to Syrian storage places before it was brought overland to Lebanon on Thursday by tanker truck. The convoy went through an informal border crossing in Qusayr in Syria.
Nasrallah said in a televised speech earlier this week that the tanker did not offload its cargo directly in Lebanon to avoid embarrassing Lebanese authorities and risking sanctions on Lebanon.
Hezbollah, which is often accused by its opponents of operating a state-within-a-state and has been taking part in Syria’s civil war alongside government forces, has its own crossing points along the Lebanon-Syria border away from formal border crossings.
There was no immediate comment from Lebanese or US officials on the Iranian fuel delivery Thursday.
“Don’t forget this day,” tweeted Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert and activist, describing it as the day Hezbollah won over the Lebanese state.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV called it “the tanker truck convoys to break the American siege” adding that 20 tanker trucks each carrying 50,000 liters (13,210 gallons) crossed the border Thursday and were on their way to the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek where Hezbollah will start distributing the fuel.
The tanker trucks crossed from Syria’s central province of Homs into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and were welcomed by residents who gathered on the sides of the main road. Hezbollah’s yellow flags and banners praising the Iran-backed group and Syria’s President Bashar Assad decorated the streets. A few women showered the trucks with rice and flowers as they drove past.
The arrival of the Iranian diesel comes nearly a week after a new government was formed ending a 13-month deadlock. Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Najib Mikati has not commented on the deal to import fuel from Iran.
Nasrallah said earlier this week that the diesel will be donated for a period of one month to institutions including public hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, water stations and the Lebanese Red Cross. Nasrallah added that others who will get fuel at low prices are private hospitals, medicine and serum factories, bakeries and cooperatives that sell food products.
Nasrallah said three other tankers carrying diesel and one carrying gasoline will arrive in the coming weeks.


Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for ex-minister

Updated 16 September 2021

Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for ex-minister

  • Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for the former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, after Fenianos failed to appear for questioning
  • Bitar has also demanded that parliament lift the immunity of three MPs — Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil — in addition to a number of security officials he is keen to question

BEIRUT: The judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut Port blast issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for the former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, after Fenianos failed to appear for questioning.

Judge Tarek Bitar has also subpoenaed former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was the premier at the time of the port blast, and has demanded that parliament lift the immunity of three MPs — Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil — in addition to a number of security officials he is keen to question.

Diab stepped down as caretaker prime minister and left the country when Prime Minister Najib Mikati took office earlier this month. Social media was abuzz with the news of Diab’s departure, with many speculating that he would not return for his scheduled questioning on September 20. Diab reportedly travelled to the US to visit his children, whom he had not seen for two years, before receiving Bitar’s subpoena, which was issued on August 26.

A judicial source said that the discriminatory Attorney General, Judge Ghassan al-Khoury — the judicial public prosecutor in the investigation, referred the subpoena against Diab to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces for implementation.

Bitar issued another subpoena against Diab on Sept. 14, this time including the address of his residence in Beirut. If Diab fails to return before Monday morning, then the judge would have the right to issue a warrant for his arrest.

In response to the arrest warrant for Fenianos, who is affiliated with the Marada movement but is not currently an MP and therefore does not have immunity, the head of the Marada movement, Suleiman Frangieh, tweeted: “We reiterate that we stand by Fenianos, who has the right to defend himself.”

Bitar is facing pressure from all sides of the political spectrum. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused the judge of “playing a political game.” Bitar’s predecessor in the case, Judge Fadi Sawan, was relieved of his duties as a result of political pressure when two of the former ministers he had charged with negligence for the disaster had their request for his removal from his post granted by a court.

Many see the subpoena against Diab as a measure of how seriously the new government is taking the investigation. If Diab is allowed to continue to evade questioning from Bitar, and if the newly formed government’s parliament refuses to lift ex-ministers’ immunity, then there seems little hope of justice for the victims of the blast and their families.

Those families took to the streets again on Thursday to apply more pressure on the political establishment to stop what they perceive as its interference in the judiciary’s investigation. They blocked the road in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut and stressed the need to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Mothers of some of the victims carried their children’s pictures and banners that referenced Mikati’s emotional speech when he discussed how people were suffering in Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis. “If your eyes watered when you thought about the mothers who were suffering, then stand with us, the mothers of the victims. Help Judge Bitar bring us justice,” the banners read.

Others held banners with blunter statements, including: “We want our rights and we will not let our children’s blood go to waste.”

William Noun, whose brother Joe was one of the 215 people killed by the explosion, which left thousands injured and several residential neighborhoods completely destroyed, told Arab News: “Diab left the country because he is running away from justice. He knows which party blew up the ammonium nitrate. The same party that prevented him from going to the port (when he got word of the ammonium nitrate stored there) before the explosion facilitated his departure.”

The families of the victims said in a joint statement: “The Public Prosecution, which is supposed to be on our side, is taking suspicious actions; it released suspects without having the powers to do so and began leaking information about the investigation.

“Stop confronting us with politics. We do not understand your policies. What we do understand is that you killed us. The Beirut Port blast was on purpose. Someone is responsible and they should be held accountable,” the statement continued.

Local media was so preoccupied with the arrest warrant for Fenianos, that news of Syrian vehicles loaded with Iranian diesel entering Lebanese territory went almost unnoticed.

The convoy — estimated to consist of around 80 tankers — entered through illegal Hezbollah crossings on the outskirts of Hermel. Hezbollah followers reportedly gathered on the road to Baalbek to greet it, and the cargo was emptied into tanks belonging to Al-Amana Fuel Co., which is currently subject to US sanctions.


Egypt welcomes UN call for new Renaissance Dam talks

Updated 16 September 2021

Egypt welcomes UN call for new Renaissance Dam talks

  • Security Council urges fresh round of African Union-led negotiations
  • Ethiopia slams Tunisia for backing opponents in water rights dispute

CAIRO: Cairo has welcomed a presidential statement issued by the UN Security Council which encouraged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations on the Renaissance Dam within the framework of the negotiating track led by the president of the African Union.

The council is hoping to draft a binding legal agreement based on the African Union demands for the filling and operating of the dam.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said that the presidential statement encouraged countries that previously took part in negotiating meetings held under the African Union to continue to support talks in order to settle technical and legal issues related to the dam.

Egypt said that the statement “confirms the importance” of the Renaissance Dam, and recognizes the potential negative repercussions on peace and security in the region that could arise from the dispute.

The ministry stressed that the statement represents an affirmation of demands by the African Union, which ask that Ethiopia engage seriously in order to reach a binding legal agreement.

In the statement, the UN Security Council urged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume African Union-led talks to reach an agreement “within a reasonable time frame.”

However, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry objected to the statement, warning that announcing a position on an issue related to water rights and development is “outside the scope of the UNSC mandate.”

Ethiopia also attacked Tunisia’s position on the Security Council statement, saying: “Tunisia made a historical mistake by requesting a position from the Security Council.”

Tunisia’s “historic misstep in presenting the council’s statement undermines its official responsibility as an alternate member of the UN Security Council for an African seat,” Ethiopia’s foreign ministry added, saying that it “will not recognize any claims which are raised based on the statement.”

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Libya’s NOC says Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil blockades have ended

Updated 16 September 2021

Libya’s NOC says Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil blockades have ended

  • NOC’s chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, had held talks with local elders who had helped to end the protests

TRIPOLI: Libya’s National Oil Corp. (NOC) on Thursday said that a blockade of the Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil terminals had ended and that export operations had returned to normal.
Protesters at those two ports and another, Hariga, had been blocking exports since last week and demanding jobs for local people. NOC said on Wednesday that operations had also resumed at Hariga.
A company statement said that NOC’s chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, had held talks with local elders who had helped to end the protests.
Security issues in Libya, where a fragile peace process has installed a unity government, have repeatedly threatened to undermine oil output that has topped 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) this year.
Last year eastern-based forces, which control most of the oil production and export areas, blockaded terminals for months and almost entirely halted Libyan oil output.
In April, with parliament blocking the unity government’s budget proposals, NOC briefly declared force majeure on some exports after a subsidiary said it could not afford to continue operating.
Rival factions see control over the oil sector that brings in most national wealth as a key factor in both the political and military struggles that have racked Libya since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.