Europe scrambles for COVID-19 control with boosters, jabs for kids

Dean Eliaz is comforted by his mom Michelle Eliaz as he gets his shot at a Humber River Hospital vaccination clinic after Canada approved Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for children aged 5 to 11, in Toronto, Canada Nov. 25, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 November 2021

Europe scrambles for COVID-19 control with boosters, jabs for kids

  • Berlin, Paris and Lisbon were among capitals weighing tighter Covid restrictions and broader vaccination campaigns

PARIS: Europe scrambled Thursday to regain control over a resurgent coronavirus as governments urged boosters and jabs for young children in a sign of growing unease over a pandemic that has killed 1.5 million people on the continent.
Berlin, Paris and Lisbon were among capitals weighing tighter Covid restrictions and broader vaccination campaigns as surging cases and the encroaching winter threaten to undo hard-won gains against the virus over the summer.
In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman returned to hospital just hours after being released to name a new prime minister as he tested positive for Covid-19.
With governments already struggling to cope with the more infectious Delta variant, the discovery of a new and troubling strain in South Africa was a stark reminder that the fight against Covid-19 is far from won.
In Germany, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel urged more stringent controls, France stepped up booster shots, and the European Union's medicines agency gave the green light to a vaccine for five-year-olds.
Even countries with relatively high rates of vaccination are now tightening Covid measures that have only recently been relaxed.
Merkel implored the new government succeeding her to take quick, decisive measures as the country reported a record 351 Covid fatalities in the past 24 hours, taking the official death toll since the start of the pandemic past 100,000.
Warning that "every day counts", Merkel urged her successor government for "more contact restrictions".
Germany has had to call on hospitals elsewhere in the EU for help as some clinics face overload.
The country last week began requiring people to prove they are vaccinated, have recovered from Covid-19 or recently tested negative before they can travel on public transport or enter workplaces.
Several of the worst-hit areas have cancelled Christmas markets and barred the unvaccinated from bars, gyms and leisure facilities.
Germany's Covid-19 crisis has in part been blamed on its relatively low vaccination rate of about 69 percent, compared to other Western European countries such as France, where it is 75 percent -- even though new cases hit a seven-month high on Wednesday.
A German campaign for booster shots has been marred by supply and logistics snags.
In Paris, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Covid-19 booster shots would be accessible to all adults starting this weekend.
From January 15, people over 18 would need to show proof of a top-up vaccine dose to maintain a valid Covid pass, which is required to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and other public venues.
Adding pressure, the EU Commission recommended that the bloc's vaccination certificate should become invalid once the holder's latest dose is more than nine months old.
Elsewhere in Europe, the streets of the Slovak capital Bratislava were deserted as a new partial Covid lockdown came into effect.
Even Portugal, which has an 86-percent vaccination rate, said it would impose work from home in the New Year and close bars and discotheques.
Belgium, which reimposed tougher curbs only last week, has seen an uptick far worse than projected, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.
The Czech government earlier Thursday implemented a 30-day state of emergency, which includes closing Christmas markets as well as nightclubs.
Hospitals in the east of the country are reaching capacity and some have begun moving patients across the country by helicopters and ambulance.
The spiking cases see Europe re-emerge as the pandemic's epicentre, with the continent battling sluggish vaccine uptake in some nations, the highly contagious Delta variant, colder weather sending people indoors and the easing of restrictions.
An AFP tally of official figures showed Thursday that more than 1.5 million people have died from Covid-19 in Europe.
Scientists in South Africa said they had detected a new variant with multiple mutations, blaming it for a surge in infection numbers.
The number of daily infections in Africa's hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.
Back in Europe, the European Medicines Agency approved the Pfizer/BioNTech jab for five to 11 year olds, clearing the way for vaccinations in an age group where the virus is rapidly spreading, and bringing the EU into line with the US, Israel and Canada.
A World Health Organization study found that Covid vaccines had saved at least half a million lives in Europe.


Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection

Updated 10 sec ago

Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection

BRUSSELS: A huge Belgian chocolate factory has halted production after detecting salmonella in a batch of chocolates.
The Barry Callebaut company said Thursday that its plant in Wieze – which it says is the world’s largest chocolate factory – shut down all production lines as a precaution while the contamination is investigated.
Barry Callebaut produces chocolate for multiple brands sold around the world.
The salmonella was detected Monday, and all chocolate products made at the plant were placed on hold pending investigation, the company said. It identified lecithin, an emulsifier routinely used in making chocolates, as the source of the contamination.
The company said it informed Belgian food safety authorities and is contacting customers who might have contaminated products in their possession.
It is unclear whether any consumers have reported being sickened by the chocolates.
Earlier this year, at least 200 reported cases of salmonella were believed linked to chocolate Easter eggs made in another Belgian plant operated by Italian company Ferrero.

Sudan gears up for mass protest against generals

Updated 30 June 2022

Sudan gears up for mass protest against generals

  • Sudan has been roiled by near-weekly protests as the country’s economic woes have deepened since army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seized power last year

KHARTOUM: Activists in Sudan have called for mass rallies Thursday to demand the reversal of an October military coup that prompted foreign governments to slash aid, deepening a chronic economic crisis.
The protests come on the anniversary of a previous coup in 1989, which toppled the country’s last elected civilian government and ushered in three decades of iron-fisted rule by general Omar Al-Bashir.
They also come on the anniversary of 2019 protests demanding that the generals, who had ousted Bashir in a palace coup earlier that year, cede power to civilians.
Those protests led to the formation of the mixed civilian-military transitional government which was toppled in last year’s coup.
Security was tight in the capital Khartoum on Thursday despite the recent lifting of a state of emergency imposed after the coup.
An AFP correspondent said Internet and phone lines had been disrupted since the early hours, a measure the Sudanese authorities often impose to prevent mass gatherings.
Sudan has been roiled by near-weekly protests as the country’s economic woes have deepened since army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seized power last year.
More than 100 people have been killed in protest-related violence, according to UN figures, as the military cracked down on the anti-coup movement.
“June 30 is our way to bring down the coup and block the path of any fake alternatives,” said the Forces for Freedom and Change, an alliance of civilian groups whose leaders were ousted in the coup.
Activists have called for “million-strong” rallies to mark the “earthquake of June 30.”
Small-scale demonstrations took place in the run-up to call for a huge turnout on Thursday.
UN special representative Volker Perthes called on the security forces to exercise restraint.
“Violence against protesters will not tolerated,” he said in a statement, adding that nobody should “give any opportunity to spoilers who want to escalate tensions in Sudan.”
The foreign ministry criticized the UN envoy’s comments, saying they were built on “assumptions” and “contradict his role as facilitator” in troubled talks on ending the political crisis.
Alongside the African Union and east African bloc IGAD, the United Nations has been attempting to broker talks between the generals and civilians, but they have been boycotted by all the main civilian factions.
The UN has warned that the deepening economic and political crisis threatens to push one third of the country’s population of more than 40 million toward life-threatening food shortages.


Russia pulls forces from Snake Island after ship with 7,000 tons of grain leaves Ukraine port

A ship carrying 7,000 tons of grain has sailed from Ukraine’s port of Berdyansk. (File/AFP)
Updated 46 min 3 sec ago

Russia pulls forces from Snake Island after ship with 7,000 tons of grain leaves Ukraine port

  • The Russian defense ministry said the withdrawal was a “goodwill gesture” to allow Kyiv to export agricultural products

 Russia said Thursday it had pulled its forces from Ukraine’s Snake Island, calling it a “goodwill gesture” to allow Kyiv to export agricultural products.
“On June 30, as a gesture of goodwill, the Russian armed forces completed their tasks on Snake Island and withdrew a garrison stationed there,” the defense ministry said in a statement.
The announcement came after Ukraine had launched several raids on Russians forces on the Black Sea island.
The Russian defense ministry said the withdrawal was aimed at demonstrating the world that “Russia is not impeding UN efforts to organize a humanitarian corridor to ship agricultural products from Ukraine.”
Moscow added that the “ball is now in Ukraine’s court,” accusing the pro-Western country of having still not demined its Black Sea coast.
A ship carrying 7,000 tons of grain has sailed from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk, the region’s Moscow-appointed official had said earlier on Thursday, marking the first grain shipment since the start of hostilities.
“After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tons of grain are heading toward friendly countries,” Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram.
Russia’s Black Sea ships “are ensuring the security” of the journey he said, adding that the Ukrainian port had been de-mined.
Berdyansk is a port city in the region of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine.
Ukraine has accused Russia and its allies of stealing its grain, contributing to a global food shortage caused by grain exports blocked in Ukrainian ports.
The southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have been largely under Russia’s control since the first weeks of Moscow’s military intervention, and are now being forcefully integrated into Russia’s economy.


Afghan pilgrim bicycling to Makkah reaches Saudi Arabia by air

Updated 30 June 2022

Afghan pilgrim bicycling to Makkah reaches Saudi Arabia by air

  • Noor Mohammad, 48, departed from his home in Ghazni province in early May
  • He was stranded in Iran after failing to obtain Iraqi visa to continue journey by land

KABUL: A pilgrim from southeastern Afghanistan, who became a social media sensation when he embarked on a bicycle journey to Makkah last month, has reached Saudi Arabia, Afghan authorities said on Wednesday, after his expedition took a series of unexpected turns, including a sponsored flight.

Noor Mohammad departed from his home in Layeq village, in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province in early May, planning to cover more than 6,000 kilometers to reach the holy city of Islam by July and perform Hajj.

As he cycled through Afghanistan, a Taliban scholar offered him assistance in getting a plane ticket, but the 48-year-old refused, wanting to go the extra mile in fulfilling the sacred obligation.

Little did he know that soon the help would be needed when after three weeks he got stranded in Iran, trying to obtain an Iraqi visa in the border city of Khorramshahr.

“My Afghan friends promised to get me Iraq’s visa there,” Mohammad told Arab News, as he described his further attempts to get a Kuwaiti visa instead. Again, to no avail.

That was when he decided to reach out to the scholar.

“I had no other way. I contacted Shaikh Hammasi through WhatsApp,” he said. “He introduced me to an Afghan businessman who helped with the stay in Iran and return back to Kabul.”

A screengrab from a May 8, 2022, video shows Noor Mohammad departing for Makkah by bike from Layeq village, in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni, Afghanistan. (Social media)

In Kabul, he was immediately accepted for a Hajj preparation course, where officials took care of his departure. His flight was reportedly covered by acting Interior Minister Serajuddin Haqqani, a close aide of Anas Haqqani — the minister’s brother and senior Taliban leader — told Arab News.

“The ministry of Hajj processed my passport on an urgent basis,” Mohammad said, just days before leaving for Saudi Arabia.

He flew from Kabul on Tuesday, after all his travel documents were processed.

“His name was put on the first flight after that,” Mawlawi Israrulhaq, an official at the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, said. “He traveled to Jeddah from where he will join other Afghan Hajjis in Makkah.”

Mohammad was preparing for his flight days after a deadly earthquake wreaked havoc in eastern Afghanistan, killing an estimated 1,150 people last week.

He has been praying for the victims and said he would remember them too when he reached Makkah.

“As soon as I get to Makkah, I will pray to Allah to make it easy for the families who lost loved ones and their houses,” he added. “I am going to ask him to solve all problems of Afghans.”


Russia steps up attacks in Ukraine after landmark NATO summit

Updated 37 min 42 sec ago

Russia steps up attacks in Ukraine after landmark NATO summit

  • Putin: Russia will respond to NATO moves in Finland, Sweden
  • NATO brands Russia most ‘significant and direct threat’

MADRID/KYIV: Russia pressed on with its offensive in eastern Ukraine on Thursday after NATO branded Moscow the biggest “direct threat” to Western security and agreed plans to modernize Kyiv’s beleaguered armed forces.
Ukrainian authorities said they were trying to evacuate residents from the frontline eastern city of Lysychansk, the focus of Russia’s attacks where about 15,000 people remained under relentless shelling.
“Fighting is going on all the time. The Russians are constantly on the offensive. There is no let-up,” regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television.
“Absolutely everything is being shelled.”

Ukrainian emergency service personnel help an injured local resident after Russian shelling in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on June 29, 2022. (AP Photo/George Ivanchenko) 


In the southern Kherson region, Ukrainian forces were fighting back with artillery strikes of their own, Oleskiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president, said in a video posted online.
At a summit on Wednesday dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical upheaval it has caused, NATO invited Sweden and Finland to join and pledged a seven-fold increase from 2023 in combat forces on high alert along its eastern flank.
In reaction, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would respond in kind if NATO set up infrastructure in Finland and Sweden after they join the US-led military alliance.
Putin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying he could not rule out that tensions would emerge in Moscow’s relations with Helsinki and Stockholm over their joining NATO.
US President Joe Biden announced more land, sea and air force deployments across Europe from Spain in the west to Romania and Poland bordering Ukraine.
These included a permanent army headquarters with accompanying battalion in Poland — the first full-time US deployment on NATO’s eastern fringes.

“President Putin’s war against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and has created the biggest security crisis in Europe since the Second World War,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.
“NATO has responded with strength and unity,” he said.
Britain said it would provide another 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) of military support to Ukraine, including air defense systems, uncrewed aerial vehicles and new electronic warfare equipment.

’Fighting everywhere’
As the 30 national NATO leaders were meeting in Madrid, Russian forces intensified attacks in Ukraine, including missile strikes and shelling on the southern Mykolaiv region close to front lines and the Black Sea.
The mayor of Mykolaiv city said a Russian missile had killed at least five people in a residential building there, while Moscow said its forces had hit what it called a training base for foreign mercenaries in the region.
There was relentless fighting around the hilltop city of Lysychansk, which Russian forces are trying to encircle as they try to capture the industrialized eastern Donbas region on behalf of separatist proxies. Donbas comprises Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
A video clip aired on Russia’s RIA state news agency showed former US soldier Alexander Drueke, who was captured while fighting for Ukrainian forces.
“My combat experience here was that one mission on that one day,” said Drueke, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, referring to the day he was captured outside Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. “I didn’t fire a shot. I would hope that would play a factor in whatever sentence I do or don’t receive.”


President Volodymyr Zelensky once again told NATO that Ukrainian forces needed more weapons and money, and faster, to erode Russia’s huge edge in artillery and missile firepower, and said Moscow’s ambitions did not stop at Ukraine.
The Russian invasion that began on Feb. 24 has destroyed cities, killed thousands and sent millions fleeing. Russia says it is pursuing a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of an unprovoked, imperial-style land grab.

The top US intelligence official Avril Haines said on Wednesday the most likely near term scenario is a grinding conflict in which Moscow makes only incremental gains, but no breakthrough on its goal of taking most of Ukraine.

Full solidarity
In a nod to the precipitous deterioration in relations with Russia since the invasion, a NATO communique called Russia the “most significant and direct threat to the allies’ security,” having previously classified it as a “strategic partner.”
NATO issued a new Strategic Concept document, its first since 2010, that said a “strong independent Ukraine is vital for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.”
To that end, NATO agreed a long-term financial and military aid package to modernize Ukraine’s largely Soviet-era military.
“We stand in full solidarity with the government and the people of Ukraine in the heroic defense of their country,” the communique said.
Stoltenberg said NATO had agreed to put 300,000 troops on high readiness from 2023, up from 40,000 now, under a new force model to protect an area stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas.
NATO’s invitation to Sweden and Finland to join the alliance marks one of the most momentous shifts in European security in decades as Helsinki and Stockholm drop a tradition of neutrality in response to Russia’s invasion.