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.


Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

Updated 57 min 59 sec ago

Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

  • The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial

NEW YORK: Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said on Tuesday they started a clinical trial to test a new version of their vaccine specifically designed to target the COVID-19 omicron variant, which has eluded some of the protection provided by the original two-dose vaccine regimen.
The companies plan to test the immune response generated by the omicron-based vaccine both as a three-shot regimen in unvaccinated people and as a booster shot for people who already received two doses of their original vaccine.
They are also testing a fourth dose of the current vaccine against a fourth dose of the omicron-based vaccine in people who received their third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine three to six months earlier.
The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial.
“While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with omicron, we recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address omicron and new variants in the future,” Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, said in a statement.
Pfizer has said that a two-dose regimen of the original vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against infection from the omicron variant, and that protection against hospitalizations and deaths may be waning.
Still, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a third dose of an mRNA vaccine like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has provided 90 percent protection against hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Some countries have already started offering additional booster doses, but a recent study from Israel showed that while a fourth dose of an mRNA vaccine boosted antibodies, the level was not high enough to prevent infection by the omicron variant.
BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told Reuters in November that regulators would not likely require testing of an omicron-based vaccine on humans because it and Pfizer had already created versions of their established vaccine to target the earlier Alpha and Delta variants, with clinical trials continuing.
However, the debate appears to have shifted as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement on Friday that international regulators now preferred clinical studies to be carried out before approval of a new vaccine.
These studies should show that neutralising antibodies in the blood of participants are superior to those elicited by current vaccines. Another desired feature of an upgraded vaccine would be for it to also protect against other variants of concern, the EMA said.
The omicron variant has replaced the Delta variant as the dominant lineage in many parts of the world and omicron itself is now splitting into different subforms, one of which, BA2, is causing particular concern.


France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

Updated 25 January 2022

France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

  • Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute”

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron condemned on Tuesday a military coup in Burkina Faso, adding that the situation in the West African country had appeared calm in the last few hours.
Macron also told reporters during a trip in central France that he had been informed Burkina Faso’s ousted President Roch Kabore was “in good health” and not being threatened.
Burkina Faso’s army said on Monday that it had ousted President Roch Kabore, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and the national assembly, and closed the country’s borders.
Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute.”


London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

Updated 25 January 2022

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

  • The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray
  • Boris Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020

LONDON: London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if UK government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council.
Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power.
Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time.
In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation.
“The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”
Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations.
But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this case because there is evidence that those involved knew or should have known that what they were doing was illegal, not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law,” and there seems to be no reasonable defense for the conduct.
“So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets,” she said.


US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

Updated 25 January 2022

US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

  • Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft are still being verified

BANGKOK: A US Navy F35C Lightning II combat jet conducting exercises in the South China Sea crashed while trying to land on the deck of an American aircraft carrier, injuring seven sailors, the military said Tuesday.
The pilot was able to eject before the aircraft slammed into the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Monday and then fell into the water. The pilot was safely recovered by a helicopter, said Lt. Mark Langford, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet.
Seven sailors, including the pilot, were injured and three were evacuated for medical treatment in Manila, Philippines, while four were treated on board the ship. The three sent to Manila were reported in stable condition on Tuesday morning, the Navy said.
Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft were still being verified, Langford said.
“The status and recovery of the aircraft is currently under investigation,” he said.
Two American carrier strike groups with more than 14,000 sailors and marines are conducting exercises in the South China Sea, which the military says is to demonstrate the “US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force’s ability to deliver a powerful maritime force.”
Impact to the deck of the USS Carl Vinson was “superficial,” Langford said, and both carriers have resumed routine flight operations.
As China has pressed territorial claims in the South China Sea and increased pressure on Taiwan, the US and its allies have stepped up exercises in the region, in what they call freedom of navigation operations in line with international law.
As the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln strike groups began their dual carrier operations on Sunday, China flew 39 warplanes toward Taiwan in its largest such sortie of the new year, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.
The formation of 24 Chinese J-16 and 10 J-10 fighter jets stayed out of Taiwanese air space, but the maneuver prompted Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft in response.
Chinese pilots have been flying toward Taiwan on a near-daily basis, and it was unclear if Sunday’s flights were a response to the American exercises. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment.
Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory. Beijing has used diplomatic and military means to isolate and intimidate the self-ruled island, but the US has continued to support Taiwan by selling it advanced weapons and fighter planes.


German woman in dock over joining Daesh in Syria as teenager

Updated 25 January 2022

German woman in dock over joining Daesh in Syria as teenager

  • Leonora Messing, 21, is on trial on suspicion that she and her husband enslaved a Yazidi woman
  • She joined Daesh in Syria at the age of 15

BERLIN: A German woman who traveled to Syria as a 15-year-old to join Daesh goes on trial on Tuesday accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
Leonora Messing, now aged 21, is in the dock in the eastern German city of Halle on suspicion that she and her Daesh husband enslaved a Yazidi woman in Syria in 2015.
During the course of the trial scheduled to last until at least mid-May and being held behind closed doors, Messing will also face charges of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations.
The high-profile case has prompted soul searching in Germany about how a teenage girl from a small town became radicalized and joined the Islamist cause.
Messing ran away from her home for the Daesh-controlled part of Syria in March 2015.
After reaching Raqqa, then the de facto “capital” of Daesh in Syria, she became the third wife of a German national originally from that region.
Messing’s father, a baker from the German village of Breitenbach, only learned his daughter had converted to a radical brand of Islam by opening her abandoned computer and reading her journal after her disappearance.
Six days after she vanished, her father received a message informing him his daughter “chose Allah and Islam” and that she had “arrived in the caliphate.”
“She was a good student,” her father, Maik Messing, told regional broadcaster MDR in 2019.
“She used to go to a retirement home to read to the elderly. She took part in carnival as a majorette. That was when a lot of the people we know saw her for the last time.”
Messing had been living a double life and was visiting, apparently without her parents’ knowledge, a mosque in the western city of Frankfurt that was in the crosshairs of Germany’s domestic intelligence service.
She is among the more than 1,150 Islamists who left Germany from 2011 for Syria and Iraq, according to government findings.
Her case has attracted particular scrutiny due to her young age, and because her father agreed to be followed for four years by a team of reporters from public broadcaster NDR.
As part of the report, he made public thousands of messages he continued to exchange with his daughter, offering rare insights into daily life under Daesh, but also eventually her attempts to break free.
Prosecutors say Messing took part in human trafficking, after her husband “bought” and then “sold” a 33-year-old Yazidi woman.
Messing, who had given birth to two small girls, wound up detained in a Kurdish-controlled camp in northern Syria.
In December 2020, she was repatriated in one of four operations bringing 54 people, most of them children, back to Germany.
Although she was arrested upon her arrival at Frankfurt airport, Messing was later released.
Germany has repeatedly been ordered by its courts to repatriate the wives and children of Daesh recruits.
A Berlin tribunal had demanded in October 2019 that a German woman and her three children be brought back, arguing that the minors were traumatized and should not be separated from their mother.
There are an estimated 61 Germans still in camps in northern Syria, as well as around 30 people with a link to Germany, according to official estimates.
A German court in November issued the first ruling worldwide to recognize crimes against the Yazidi community as genocide, in a verdict hailed by activists as a “historic” win for the minority.
The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking group hailing from northern Iraq, have for years been persecuted by Daesh militants who have killed hundreds of men, raped women and forcibly recruited children as fighters.