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.


Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Updated 27 May 2022

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

  • "We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness
  • So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries

GENEVA: Countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles, a senior World Health Organization official said on Friday.
“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, told the UN agency’s annual assembly.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.
It spreads chiefly through close contact and until the recent outbreak, was rarely seen in other parts of the world, which is why the recent emergence of cases in Europe, the United States and other areas has raised alarms.
So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries where the virus was not previously circulating.
“For us, we think that the key priority currently is trying to contain this transmission in non-endemic countries,” Briand told a technical briefing for member states.
Needed measures included the early detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing, she added.
Member states should also share information about first generation stockpiles of smallpox vaccines which can also be effective against monkeypox, Briand said.
“We don’t know exactly the number of doses available in the world and so that’s why we encourage countries to come to WHO and tell us what are their stockpiles,” she said. A slide of her presentation described global supplies as “very constrained.”
Currently, WHO officials are advising against mass vaccination, instead suggesting targeted vaccination where available for close contacts of people infected.
“Case investigation, contact tracing, isolation at home will be your best bets,” said Rosamund Lewis, WHO head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Programme.


Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

  • Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto

MONTREAL: Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle, local media reported, in an incident that forced several schools into lockdown just two days after a deadly assault on a US primary school.
Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto, and the circumstances of what transpired next were not immediately clear.
But city police chief James Ramer told reporters that the suspect, described as a man in his late teens or early 20s, was dead after he had “confronted” responding officers, without elaborating.
The police force’s Twitter account said that after officers located the man, a “police firearm” was “discharged.”
A spokeswoman for the Special Investigations Unit told the CBC that preliminary evidence showed that two police officers had fired their weapons, and the suspect was pronounced dead at the scene.
It was not clear if the man was holding the weapon when police shot him.
Ramer said he was unable to offer more details, as the incident was under investigation.
“There’s no threat to public safety,” he said.
“Due to the proximity to a school, I certainly understand the trauma and how traumatic this must have been for staff, students and parents, given recent events that have happened in the United States,” the chief added.
On Tuesday, a shooting at a Texas elementary school left 21 dead — 19 children and two teachers.


UN rights envoy says Taliban must reverse restrictions on Afghan women

Updated 26 May 2022

UN rights envoy says Taliban must reverse restrictions on Afghan women

  • Bennett expressed concerns over access to education after the Taliban made a U-turn on allowing girls to go to high school in March
  • Taliban deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani denied human rights concerns

KABUL: The United Nations rights envoy in Afghanistan said on Thursday the country faces “severe” human rights challenges and called on Taliban authorities to reverse growing restrictions on women and investigate attacks against religious minorities.
Richard Bennett, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan spoke to reporters at the end of an 11-day visit to the country, his first since his position was created.
“I urge the authorities to acknowledge human rights challenges that they are facing and to close the gap between their words and the deeds,” he said.
Bennett expressed concerns over access to education after the Taliban made a U-turn on allowing girls to go to high school in March and this month announced that women must cover their faces, to be enforced by punishing their closest male relatives.
“Directives on maharams (male guardians), enforcing a strict form of hijab and strong advice to stay at home feed the pattern of absolute gender segregation and making women invisible in society,” he said.
Taliban deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani denied human rights concerns, saying authorities had paid attention to the issues mentioned and were working on the issue of girls’ secondary education.
Bennett also called for investigation of attacks targeting Afghanistan’s Shia and Sufi religious minorities, a trend he said bore “hallmarks of crimes against humanity.” Recent months have seen more attacks on mosques and other civilian targets, some of which have been claimed by Daesh.
The militant group said it was behind three explosions in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday that killed at least 15 in predominantly Shia areas.
Another, unclaimed, blast the same day tore through a Sunni mosque in the capital Kabul, killing at least five people.


Four bombings, some claimed by Daesh, kill at least 16 in Afghanistan

Updated 26 May 2022

Four bombings, some claimed by Daesh, kill at least 16 in Afghanistan

  • Regional branch of Daesh has repeatedly targeted Shiites and other minorities
  • Daesh wants an Islamic caliphate stretching from Turkey to Pakistan and beyond

KABUL: The death toll from four bombs that ripped through minibuses and a mosque in Afghanistan has risen to at least 16, officials said Thursday, with some of the attacks claimed by the Daesh group.

While the number of bombings has dropped across the country since the Taliban seized power last August, several deadly attacks rocked the country last month during Ramadan.

On Wednesday, at least 10 people were killed when three bombs placed on separate minibuses exploded in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a health official and police said.

"The bombs were placed on three minibuses in different districts of the city," Balkh provincial police spokesman Asif Waziri told AFP, adding that 15 other people were wounded.

Najibullah Tawana, head of the Balkh health department, said three women were among the 10 killed in the blasts.

Hours after the explosions, the Daesh group claimed responsibility for the minibus attacks on social media.

It said on Telegram its "soldiers" were behind the three bombings.

Another bomb exploded inside a mosque in the capital Kabul late Wednesday.

Early on Thursday, Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran tweeted that six people had been killed in that blast and another 18 wounded.

In the immediate aftermath of the mosque attack, the interior ministry had said two people were killed and 10 wounded.

The ministry also said the bomb was placed inside a fan in the mosque.

It was still unclear whether Wednesday's bombings targeted any specific community.

Dozens of civilians were killed in Kabul and other cities in primarily sectarian attacks during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on April 30 in Afghanistan, with some claimed by IS.

On April 29, at least 10 people were killed in a Sunni mosque in Kabul in an attack that appeared to have targeted members of the minority Sufi community who were performing rituals.

On April 21, a bomb at a Shiite mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif killed at least 12 worshippers and wounded scores more.

The deadliest attack during Ramadan came in the northern city of Kunduz, where another bomb targeting Sufi worshippers tore through a mosque on April 22.

At least 33 people were killed in that blast and scores more were wounded.

The regional branch of Daesh in Sunni-majority Afghanistan has repeatedly targeted Shiites and minorities such as Sufis, who follow a mystical branch of Islam.

Daesh and the Taliban are both Sunni groups but bitter rivals.

The biggest ideological difference is that the Taliban pursued an Afghanistan free of foreign forces, whereas Daesh wants an Islamic caliphate stretching from Turkey to Pakistan and beyond.

Taliban officials insist their forces have defeated Daesh, but analysts say the group remains a key security challenge.


Putin won’t be allowed to dictate Ukraine peace terms: German chancellor

Vladimir Putin will not be allowed to dictate peace in Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said. (AP)
Updated 27 May 2022

Putin won’t be allowed to dictate Ukraine peace terms: German chancellor

  • Vladimir Putin will not be allowed to dictate peace in Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said

DAVOS, Switzerland: Russia will not win its war in Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin must not dictate the terms of any peace agreement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday.
After failing to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv or its second city Kharkiv in its three-month-old war, Russian forces are trying to wrest full control of the eastern Donbas region and have also advanced in the south despite stiff Ukrainian resistance and tough Western sanctions on Moscow.
“Putin must not win his war, and I am convinced he will not win,” Scholz said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos. “A capture of the whole of Ukraine seems further away now than at the beginning of the war.”
Although some have suggested that Ukraine should negotiate with Putin and consider ceding territory, Scholz rejected the idea of letting Putin dictate the terms of an agreement.
“There will be no dictated peace,” Scholz added. “Ukraine will not accept this, and neither will we.”
Putin is only likely to seriously negotiate once he accepts that the war cannot be won, making continued Western support for Ukraine essential, he said.
Scholz, however, did not address Ukrainian demands for the delivery of more heavy weapons to Kyiv, despite concrete requests by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Davos on Wednesday.
Kyiv has been seeking to acquire German Marder infantry fighting vehicles and ideally also Leopard main battle tanks but has not made significant headway with the government in Berlin, Kuleba said.
Hoping to weaken Russia’s economy and thus its ability to wage war, Scholz said Germany would end imports of Russian oil by the end of 2022 and also reduce its reliance on Russian gas.