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.


‘I was attacked simply because I was Muslim,’ says former Hillary Clinton staffer

Updated 17 January 2022

‘I was attacked simply because I was Muslim,’ says former Hillary Clinton staffer

  • Abedin has just published a book about her experiences in US politics, her time growing up in Saudi Arabia and her ill-starred marriage
  • She believes the prejudice she experienced were symptomatic of a wider deterioration in the standards of political life in the US

DUBAI: Muslims were made the “bogeyman” by some politicians in the US at the time of the 2016 election won by former President Donald Trump, a leading American Muslim has told Arab News.

Huma Abedin, chief of staff of the defeated Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, said she endured calls for her investigation by a Republican congressman in 2012 on the flimsy evidence that she and her family were practicing Muslims, with the prejudice intensifying during the 2016 campaign.

“I just want to take a step back and remind people this was 2012 and I believe the experience those of us had was really an appetizer for what was to come — this idea that you could label somebody ‘the other’ and make them the bogeyman. I believe my faith was made a bogeyman in that 2016 election,” she said.

Abedin, who recently published a book about her experiences in US politics and her time growing up in Saudi Arabia, shared her forthright views on “Frankly Speaking,” the series of video interviews with leading global policymakers.

In a wide-ranging conversation, she also spoke of the growing divisions within US politics and society, the empowerment of women in the American system, and her ill-starred marriage to former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, which ended in scandal and divorce.

Human Abedin is shown on screen being interviewed on Frankly Speaking. (AN video screengrab)

Accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice in the US political system are a striking part of her memoir, “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” published last year.

“One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I wanted to share with Americans and with people what it is to be a Muslim American in this country, and it is why I wrote in detail about the accusations that my family faced in 2012, when I was working at the State Department,” Abedin said.

“I was attacked simply because I was Muslim and had two Muslim parents.”

The accusations were quickly discredited by a State Department review, but Abedin believes they were symptomatic of a wider deterioration in the standards of political life in the US.

“Do I see a divide in this country? Absolutely, we all do. And unless we are willing to step forward to continue to engage in public service, we have a choice in the kind of country we’re going to live in,” she said.

“It is very scary to see some of the language that’s out there in the world. Very scary.”

Abedin, who began her political career as a White House intern in 1996, said that while there were always differences between Republican and Democratic politicians, before 2016 these could be debated and resolved.

“The way I was raised in politics and public service was forcing differing opinions to the table, being able to leave the office and go down the street and have dinner together and hash out your differences. That has changed,” she said.

“It’s not the same Washington. It’s not. The parties have become so much more divided in terms of basic human common decency. That seems to have been really allowed to just disappear, and I’m very sad about that.”

Abedin was vice chair of the campaign to elect Clinton in 2016, when the candidate endured baseless calls from Trump for her prosecution and imprisonment on unspecified charges. A late-breaking investigation into Clinton’s emails by the FBI — subsequently discredited — hit her campaign hard, by some accounts costing her the election.

“I would argue that my boss actually did quite well (considering) the external forces. I write about this in detail in my book, everything from the misogyny (to) the attacks — when you have somebody every single day suggesting that you might go to jail without explaining why, as had been the case for her,” she said.

“The attacks (Clinton) had to endure multiple times a day, those things had an effect. (Plus) the FBI investigation — which had a late-breaking role in changing, altering the course of the election, in an election so tight that every little thing mattered — that was a big thing,” Abedin said.

“The forces against our party and our candidate really were quite overwhelming at that moment. So, I still get up every single day and I think about how our country would have been different today if (Clinton) had been elected in 2016.”

Another reason for Clinton’s defeat, she said, was “because she is a powerful, smart, ambitious woman and we are, in this country in my opinion, still afraid of powerful women.”

Born in the US, Abedin’s family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a child, and she grew up in the Kingdom before she left for higher education in America. She returns frequently to Saudi Arabia with her son Jordan, and is impressed by the changes that have taken place since she lived there.

“First of all, you didn’t see women in stores (in the 1980s), you didn’t see the cultural events on the beach. When I was there a couple of years ago with my son, we went for face painting and on the beach and Ferris wheels. A lot of young Saudi men and women are working in small businesses, entrepreneurships.”

Huma Abedin, left, is seen with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in New York during the 2016 US presidential election. (AP file)

She added: “I will always have a very tender place in my heart for the place that was home for me for so long, that I associated with my father. My father is buried there, in Makkah. So, for me to see the progress is amazing, it’s really amazing.”

Before she embarked on her career in Washington political circles, Abedin was briefly a journalist for Arab News.

“I had applied for a White House internship and then left to go home for the summer, and it was Khaled Al-Maeena, who was then the editor-in-chief, who offered me a position with a summer job.”

She said: “Arab News is what we read in our home every single day. It was our New York Times. So, if you had asked me in 1995 would I be doing an interview like this in 25 years, I would say absolutely no way, no how. But it’s a thrill.”

In her memoir Abedin talks candidly about her marriage, and the misgivings she had when she first met Weiner, a New York congressman of Jewish background and then a rising star in Democrat circles in the city.

“I think any Muslim who’s watching will understand our faith, our belief. Men, Muslim men, are allowed to marry outside the religion, (but) it’s much more difficult for Muslim women to marry outside the faith. That really in the end has to do with paternity: If there are children born of that marriage, generally the child takes the father’s religion and so it was a huge crisis of conscience for me,” she said.

The marriage ended when Weiner was jailed for sexual crimes propagated via social media, but in the process affected the 2016 election campaign. “I felt an entire responsibility for that defeat,” Abedin said.

She was a victim of intense media scrutiny during the Weiner scandal, but eventually accepted that the press was just doing its job in covering a major news story. “I understood. It wasn’t easy, but I understood,” she said.

Abedin said that the Democrats under President Joe Biden face an uphill struggle in the upcoming mid-term elections, which traditionally go badly for the incumbent’s party.

“I think the COVID-19 pandemic has presented all kinds of unanticipated challenges, and I think our party has its work cut out for it in November. We have a lot of work to do and we’ve got to keep the enthusiasm, get people out (to vote). It’s going to be hard,” she said.

Abedin, who combines insider knowledge of the US political system with an understanding of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, does not rule out an ambassadorial role in the future.

“I am open to all kinds of opportunities and exploring different things. What that is I don’t know yet, but ambassador sounds really good. I just have to figure out — ambassador to what and for what and how? But I like that actually,” she said.


North Korea fires more suspected missiles, flouts new sanctions

Updated 17 January 2022

North Korea fires more suspected missiles, flouts new sanctions

  • Two suspected “short-range ballistic missiles” were fired east from an airport in Pyongyang early Monday

SEOUL: North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles Monday, Seoul said, its fourth weapons test this month as Pyongyang flexes its military muscle while ignoring offers of talks from the United States.
Despite biting international sanctions, Pyongyang has conducted a string of weapons tests this year, including of hypersonic missiles, as leader Kim Jong Un pursues his avowed goal of further strengthening the military.
Reeling economically from a self-imposed coronavirus blockade, impoverished North Korea has not responded to Washington’s offers of talks, while doubling down on weapons tests and vowing a “stronger and certain” response to any attempts to rein it in.
The launches come at a delicate time in the region, with North Korea’s sole major ally China set to host the Winter Olympics next month and South Korea gearing up for a presidential election in March.
Two suspected “short-range ballistic missiles” were fired east from an airport in Pyongyang early Monday, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, with Japan also confirming the launch.
Fired just before 9 am (0000 GMT), they flew 380 kilometers (about 240 miles) at an altitude of 42 km, the JCS added.
The frequent and varied tests this year indicate North Korea “is trying to improve its technology and operational capability in terms of covert actions,” Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters.
Pyongyang said it successfully tested hypersonic gliding missiles on January 5 and January 11, with the second launch personally supervised by Kim.
In response, the United States last week imposed fresh sanctions on five North Koreans connected to the country’s ballistic missile programs, prompting an angry reaction from Pyongyang.
A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman described the move as a “provocation,” according to state news agency KCNA.
If “the US adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take stronger and certain reaction to it,” the spokesman said hours before Pyongyang fired two train-launched missiles Friday.
Analysts said the Monday test also appeared to be an attempt to send the United States a message.
“It is signalling that it will forge ahead with tests despite criticism,” Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul told AFP.
Hypersonic missiles are a top priority in Pyongyang’s new five-year defense development plan, unveiled in January 2021, which it has pursued while dialogue with the United States remained stalled.
With the country battling major economic hardship domestically after years of Covid-induced isolation, Pyongyang may be looking to offer citizens a military victory ahead of key domestic anniversaries.
“It needs to present something to North Koreans,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute.
“It now has become clear that it will be difficult for the North to score on the economic side.”
This weekend, a North Korean freight train crossed the Yalu River railroad bridge into China for the first time in over a year, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The move could signal the prospect of resumed China-North Korea land trade, which has been suspended since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
It is likely the missile launches will ease off ahead of the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies.
“As stability on the peninsula is a prerequisite for the successful Beijing Olympics, the North will not cross a red line,” Yang said.


Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

Updated 17 January 2022

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

  • North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles, which Japanese officials said landed off the North’s eastern coast

TOKYO: Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday said fighting the pandemic was a “top priority” in his speech opening this year’s parliamentary session, as the Tokyo region was hit by surging infections.
Kishida also named stepping up defense measures against rising regional threats as a priority, hours after North Korea test-fired two possible ballistic missiles — its fourth this year.
“I will devote my body and soul to win this fight against the coronavirus,” Kishida said in his speech before the lower house, which marked the start of its new 150-day session. He called on people to help each other to overcome “the national crisis” of the pandemic.
The Japanese capital reported 4,172 new cases on Sunday, raising the hospital bed occupancy rate to 19.3 percent. Tokyo authorities have said that when that rate breaches 20 percent, they will request the government place the area under pre-emergency status and move toward restrictions like working from home and shorter hours for eateries.
Kishida reiterated his plans to keep Japan’s stringent border controls in place, banning most foreign entrants until the end of February, while the country tries to speed up booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines and reinforce medical systems to support an increasing number of patients being treated at home.
The highly transmissible omicron variant has driven infections higher and started to paralyze medical and public services in some areas, as more people are forced to self-isolate. Japan last week trimmed the 14-day quarantine period to 10 days.
Kishida urged companies to promote remote work, and called on schools to use online classes flexibly. Booster shots only started last month with medical workers and so far less than 1 percent of the population has had their third jab.
Japan recently cut the wait between a second and third shot for elderly people to six months from eight. In part because of a shortage of imported vaccines, most younger Japanese are not expected to get their turn until March.
In his parliamentary speech, Kishida also addressed what he said was an “increasingly severe and complex” regional situation. “I’m determined to protect the people’s lives and daily life,” the premier vowed.
North Korea’s repeated and escalating test-firing of ballistic missiles “are absolutely not permissible and we should not overlook its significant progress of missile technology,” Kishida added.
North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles, which Japanese officials said landed off the North’s eastern coast.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, along with China’s rapid military buildup, have already prompted Kishida’s government to raise Japan’s military budget.
Kishida repeated his plans to review Japan’s defense policy, and consider the development of a controversial pre-emptive strike capability, to “drastically strengthen defense power”.
Kishida is set to hold an online summit with Pesident Joe Biden on Jan. 21 as the two leaders seek to further strengthen bilateral ties, Tokyo and Washington announced Monday.
Kishida called the US alliance “the lynchpin of Japan’s diplomatic and security policies.”
Kishida, who is from the city of Hiroshima that the US attacked with an atomic bomb in World War Two, also said he sought “a world without nuclear weapons” and plans to launch a conference with former and serving world leaders on phasing out nuclear weapons. He said he hoped the initiative would have its first meeting in his hometown this year.
Kishida pledged to promote energy reforms to meet the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. He said he supported the use of “innovative” nuclear energy, nuclear fusion technology as well as renewables to meet this goal.


Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads

Updated 17 January 2022

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads

  • China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections
  • Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday

BEIJING: Several Chinese cities went on high COVID-19 alert as the Lunar New Year holiday travel season started on Monday, requiring travelers to report their trips days before their arrival, as the omicron variant reached more areas including Beijing.
Authorities have warned the highly contagious omicron adds to the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission as hundreds of millions of people travel around China for the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1.
Cities such as Luoyang in central China and Jieyang in the south said on Sunday travelers need to report to communities, employers or hotels their trips three days ahead of arrival.
The southwestern city of Yulin said on Saturday those who want to enter should fill in an online form, including their health credentials and trip details, one day in advance.
Over the weekend, the capital Beijing and the southern technology hub Shenzhen each detected one domestically transmitted omicron case.
The possibility that the omicron case in Beijing was infected through imported goods can’t be ruled out, Pang Xinghuo, an official at the city’s disease control authority, said on Monday.
Li Ang, vice director at the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said a local hospital had admitted nine omicron infections, with six still being treated. He did not say when the infections arrived or why they hadn’t been disclosed earlier.
The city of Meizhou in Guangdong province found one omicron infection linked to an outbreak in Zhuhai, state television said on Monday.
So far, at least five provinces and municipalities reported local omicron infections, while 14 provincial areas found the variant among travelers arriving from overseas.
China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections, despite a high vaccination rate of 86.6 percent. The strategy has taken on extra urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, to be staged in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province starting Feb. 4.
Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday, while dozens of international and domestic flights have been suspended.
China’s aviation regulator said on Monday it would suspend two flights from the United States over COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of canceled flights this year from the country, where omicron is spreading, to 76.
China reported 163 locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptom for Sunday, official data showed on Monday, up from 65 a day earlier.
Sunday’s increase in infections was mainly driven by more cases in the cities of Tianjin and Anyang, where omicron has been found in local clusters.
Tianjin and Anyang reported slightly more than 600 local symptomatic infections from the current outbreaks, smaller than many clusters overseas, but authorities there still have limited movement within the cities and trips to outside.


Philippine election body dismisses one of several petitions to bar Marcos from election

Updated 17 January 2022

Philippine election body dismisses one of several petitions to bar Marcos from election

MANILA: The Philippines poll commission on Monday threw out a petition seeking to bar the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from running in this year’s presidential election.
The Commission on Election’s (Comelec) second division dismissed the complaint seeking to cancel Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s candidacy papers, the lawyers in the petition said.
The case is just one of several filed with the election commission seeking to disqualify the late dictator’s son from running in this year’s election.