WHO warns that new coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ risk

Dutch health authorities said Monday they have found another case of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant among passengers arriving from South Africa, bringing the total to 14. (AFP)
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Updated 09 December 2021

WHO warns that new coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ risk

  • The UN health agency says ‘considerable uncertainties’ remain about the new variant that was first detected in southern Africa
  • ‘Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us’

BRUSSELS: The World Health Organization (WHO) says the global risk from the omicron variant of the coronavirus is “very high” based on early evidence, and it could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”
The UN health agency, in a technical memo to member states, says “considerable uncertainties” remain about the new variant that was first detected in southern Africa. But it says the likelihood of possible further spread around the world is high.
Taking an act-now-ask-questions-later approach, countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the US and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.
Travelers infected with the new version have turned up in a widening circle of countries over the past few days, including now Spain, and cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.
“Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.
Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.
US President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic.” He said he is not considering any widespread US lockdown and instead urged vaccinations and mask-wearing.
The infections have underscored the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet, many countries are trying to do just that, against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines.
While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.
“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”
Late last week, von der Leyen successfully pushed the 27-nation EU to agree to ban flights from seven southern African nations, similar to what many other countries are doing.
Cases had already been reported in EU nations Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the Belenenses professional soccer team. Authorities reported one member had recently traveled to South Africa. A game over the weekend had been abandoned at halftime for lack of players.
Spain also reported its first confirmed case of the variant.
And after Scotland reported its first six cases, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that “there might already be some community transmission of this variant.”
Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.
Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.
The UK has reported about a dozen omicron cases.
Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions.
So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms, but they warn that it is still early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
“We’ve seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days. So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains,” said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province, where 81 percent of the new cases have been reported.
The variant has provided further proof of what experts have long been saying: that no continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
“The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the UN-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.
In some parts of the world, authorities are moving in the opposite direction.
In Malaysia, officials went ahead with the partial reopening of a bridge connecting it to Singapore. And New Zealand announced it will press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown, though it is also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.


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.