World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

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Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
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A jittery world is fearing the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe. (AP photos)
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Singapore swiftly joined Britain in imposing a travel ban, with the country’s health ministry saying it would restrict arrivals from South Africa and countries nearby as a precaution. (AFP)
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South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organization working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant. (AP)
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Updated 28 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


British PM denies lying about lockdown party

Updated 13 sec ago

British PM denies lying about lockdown party

LONDON: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday “categorically” denied claims by his former chief aide that he lied to parliament about a Downing Street party held during a strict lockdown.
But appearing in public for the first time after days of Covid self-isolation, Johnson also ducked questions about whether he would resign if an internal inquiry establishes that he did lie.
Johnson is battling damaging allegations that he and staff attended alcohol-heavy events during Covid restrictions, prompting an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
The revelations have sparked public fury, leading to a double-digit lead in polls for the main opposition Labour party over Johnson’s Conservatives, and calls from some Tories for him to quit.
Johnson has apologized for a May 20, 2020 party in the Downing Street garden, telling parliament last week he thought it was a “work event,” despite an aide inviting staff to “bring your own booze.”
But his combative former senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who has been waging a vendetta against Johnson since leaving Downing Street in late 2020, said he warned his then boss about the event at the time.
“I can tell you categorically that nobody told me, nobody said this was something that was against the rules, that it was a breach of the Covid rules, that it was something that wasn’t a work event,” Johnson said.
“Frankly I can’t imagine why on earth it would have been allowed to go ahead,” he told reporters on a visit to a London hospital.
Hanging his head in remorse, Johnson also renewed his office’s apology to Queen Elizabeth II after it emerged that his staff held leaving parties during national mourning for her husband, Prince Philip, in April 2021.
Johnson’s denials have been carefully worded, appearing to clear him of any personal blame even if there was wrongdoing by staff, and relying on a narrow exemption for work gatherings during lockdowns.
But in the latest of an incendiary series of blog posts, Cummings wrote that he told Johnson that Downing Street was becoming a “madhouse.” The prime minister “waved it aside,” he added.
“The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties,” said Cummings, adding he was ready to swear to his account “on oath.”
Six Conservatives have openly called for Johnson’s resignation, although more are reported to have done so in private. Fifty-four letters from Tory MPs are needed to trigger a no-confidence vote.
Asked if he would indeed step down, Johnson said: “We’ll have to see what she (Gray) says.
“I repeat my deep apologies to people for mistakes that may have been made on my watch,” he added.
Johnson’s senior ministerial colleagues have largely rallied round him, urging the public to wait for the conclusions from Gray’s investigation, which is expected in the coming days.
But Dominic Raab, the deputy premier and justice secretary, conceded that a proven lie by a minister “would normally under the ministerial code, and the governance around parliament, be a resigning matter.”
And in his first on-camera comments on the revelations, powerful finance minister Rishi Sunak said “the ministerial code is clear on these matters.”
“I fully support the prime minister’s request for patience as this inquiry persists,” added Sunak, who is tipped to be a strong contender to take over from Johnson in any leadership contest.
Pressed on whether the prime minister had his unequivocal support, Sunak then broke off the interview and walked off with his microphone still attached.
The opposition Labour party was unequivocal in restating its demands for Johnson to quit following the Cummings blog.
“Boris Johnson clearly knows it’s the end of the road,” Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said.

Poland: some 600 migrant crossings into EU foiled this year

Updated 18 January 2022

Poland: some 600 migrant crossings into EU foiled this year

  • Border guards said on Twitter that on Monday, 23 migrants were detained after having crossed the razor-wire barriers into Poland
  • Poland is planning to build a high, metal barrier in the coming months to prevent any illegal crossings from Belarus

WARSAW, Poland: Poland’s Border Guard authorities say that almost 600 attempts by migrants at crossing the border from Belarus have been foiled so far this year.
The attempts have continued since their peak in the fall, but the number of registered tries has dropped significantly, to dozens a day from nearly a thousand a day in November.
Border guards said on Twitter that on Monday, 23 migrants were detained after having crossed the razor-wire barriers into Poland, a European Union member. They were from Syria, Iraq, Cuba, the Palestinian territories and Turkmenistan. Earlier, Yemenis were also detained.
Poland says Belarusian officers are helping the migrants cut and cross the border barriers and attack Poland’s border guards.
Poland is planning to build a high, metal barrier in the coming months to prevent any illegal crossings from Belarus. Border guards continue to receive backup from Poland’s military.
Poland and the EU say the migrant pressure was organized by the government of Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to destabilize the 27-member bloc in retaliation for sanctions that the West introduced after Belarus’ 2020 presidential election that it says was rigged.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said Sunday it has flown back from Belarus some 4,000 Iraqis who got stuck at the border with Poland. The return flights were organized after pressure from the EU, alarmed by the plight of the migrants stuck in woods in freezing winter weather.
In 2021, Poland’s Border Guard registered 39,700 attempts to illegally cross from Belarus.
German federal police say that 11,228 unauthorized entries “with a connection to Belarus” were recorded last year — 5,294 of them in October alone. They say that numbers are continuing to fall.


Pope Francis’ right-hand man tests positive for Covid

Updated 18 January 2022

Pope Francis’ right-hand man tests positive for Covid

  • The 67-year-old cardinal was currently in isolation, exhibiting only "mild symptoms"
  • Francis has been an avid proponent of vaccination

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican’s top diplomat and adviser to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has tested positive for Covid, a spokesman for the Holy See said Tuesday.
The 67-year-old cardinal, who as secretary of state is the Vatican’s number two after the pope, was currently in isolation, exhibiting only “mild symptoms,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
Venezuelan archbishop, Edgar Pena Parra, the Vatican’s deputy secretary of state, also tested positive, but he was asymptomatic, Bruni said.
Both men had been vaccinated.
Pope Francis, 85 and himself vaccinated, frequently meets with Cardinal Parolin, who is considered the pontiff’s right-hand man.
Francis has been an avid proponent of vaccination yet regularly appears without a mask during public audiences and does not hesitate to shake hands with the faithful and pose for photographs.
Since January 10, it has been mandatory for all Vatican employees to wear FFP2-type masks.


US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears

Updated 18 January 2022

US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears

  • Top US official to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and ‘reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will fly Tuesday to Ukraine in a show of support amid fears of a Russian invasion, the State Department said.
Blinken, who will meet Wednesday in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelensky, will “reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Blinken will also head Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany on the Ukraine crisis.
The four transatlantic powers will discuss “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including allies’ and partners’ readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia,” Price said in a statement.
Blinken’s trip “follows extensive diplomacy with our European allies and partners about a united approach to address the threat Russia poses to Ukraine and our joint efforts to encourage it to choose diplomacy and de-escalation in the interests of security and stability,” Price said.
It comes as Blinken’s German and French counterparts also visit Ukraine, following travel to the frontlines by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Tuesday was also holding talks in Moscow in hopes of defusing the crisis.
Russia last year sent tens of thousands of troops to the borders with Ukraine, according to Western officials who fear a new invasion.
Russia denies plans to invade but has demanded security guarantees from the West, including promises that NATO will not be expanded to Ukraine.
The United States and its allies last week held extensive talks with Russia, including in a meeting of the two countries’ senior diplomats in Geneva.
Russia has publicly said that it is disappointed with the results, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying Tuesday that Moscow needs answers before continuing dialogue.
The United States says that Russian demands are non-starters and that Ukraine, where thousands have died in a pro-Russian insurgency launched in 2014, has the right to make its own decisions.
European allies are cautious about admitting Ukraine to the alliance for fear of angering Russia.
The United States has warned of major economic consequences and has voiced hope that Germany would sever the soon-to-open Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia invades.

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Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow

Updated 18 January 2022

Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow

  • Among measures being considered are establishing more ‘sandbox’ areas for tourists
  • Thailand has recorded 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and almost 22,000 deaths overall

BANGKOK: Thailand will lower its COVID-19 alert level and is considering easing more restrictions to boost its economy, its health minister said on Tuesday, in response to a slower infection rate.
Among measures being considered are establishing more “sandbox” areas for tourists, who can skip quarantine if they stay in specified areas for seven days and undergo two COVID-19 tests.
Nightclubs, pubs and bars will remained closed for now, however, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters, adding the COVID-19 alert level will be lowered to 3, from 4, on the government’s 5-level system.
New Sandbox areas could include Chiang Mai, Chonburi, Khon Kaen and Samut Prakan provinces, he said.
The scheme, a calibrated move to rebuild Thailand’s decimated tourism sector, currently operates in Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi and Koh Samui.
Anutin on Monday said he would propose the return of a ‘Test and Go’ scheme that allows free movement to tourists who pass one COVID-19 test on arrival.
Thailand has recorded 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and almost 22,000 deaths overall. Nearly two-thirds of its residents are vaccinated and 13.5 percent have received boosters.