WHO chief scientist says omicron ‘quite infectious’, must not panic

WHO’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 December 2021

WHO chief scientist says omicron ‘quite infectious’, must not panic

  • WHO has urged countries to boost healthcare capacity and vaccinate their people
  • "We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," WHO’s chief scientist said

DUBAI: The World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told the Reuters Next conference on Friday that while the new coronavirus variant Omicron appeared to be very transmissible, the right response was to be prepared, cautious and not panic.
The WHO has urged countries to boost health care capacity and vaccinate their people to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, saying travel curbs could buy time but alone were not the answer.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Swaminathan said in an interview at the Reuters Next conference.
While the emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. Parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant before it emerged.
“We need to wait, lets hope it’s milder ... but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said of what was known about Omicron.
“Delta accounts for 99 percent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”
The WHO’s top scientist said the Omicron variant seemed to be causing three times more infections than experienced previously in South Africa, meaning “it does seem to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infection.”
Vaccines did appear to be having some effect.
“The fact that they’re not getting sick .... that means the vaccines are still providing protection and we would hope that they would continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.
Asked about the need for annual vaccine boosters, she said “the WHO is preparing for all scenarios,” which could include an additional dose, particularly among some age groups or vulnerable sections of the population, or a modified vaccine.
“Natural infection acts as a booster,” the WHO scientist said, adding that while the new variant “could have originated in a country where there isn’t a great deal of genome sequencing,” its origins were not known.
“We may never know,” Swaminathan said.

Russian missile strike hits crowded shopping mall in Ukraine

Updated 28 June 2022

Russian missile strike hits crowded shopping mall in Ukraine

  • The casualty figures were difficult to determine as rescuers searched the smoldering rubble

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine: Russian long-range bombers fired a missile that struck a crowded shopping mall in Ukraine’s central city of Kremenchuk on Monday, raising fears of what President Volodymyr Zelensky called an “unimaginable” number of victims in “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history.”
Zelenskky said more than 1,000 civilians were inside the mall, with many managing to escape. Images from the scene showed giant plumes of black smoke, dust and orange flames, with emergency crews rushing in to search broken metal and concrete for victims and put out fires. Onlookers watched in distress.
The casualty figures were difficult to determine as rescuers searched the smoldering rubble. The regional governor, Dmytro Lunin, said at least 13 people were dead and more than 40 wounded.
At Ukraine’s request, the UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday to discuss the attack.
The missile strike unfolded as Western leaders pledged continued support for Ukraine, and the world’s major economies prepared new sanctions against Russia, including a price cap on oil and higher tariffs on goods. Meanwhile, the US appeared ready to respond to Zelensky’s call for more air defense systems, and NATO planned to increase the size of its rapid-reaction forces nearly eightfold — to 300,000 troops.
Zelensky said the mall presented “no threat to the Russian army” and had “no strategic value.” He accused Russia of sabotaging “people’s attempts to live a normal life, which make the occupiers so angry.”
In his nightly address, he said it appeared Russian forces had intentionally targeted the shopping center and added, “Today’s Russian strike at a shopping mall in Kremenchuk is one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history.”
Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flying over Russia’s western Kursk region fired the missile that hit the shopping center, as well as another that hit a sports arena in Kremenchuk, according to Ukrainian officials.
The Russian strike carried echoes of attacks earlier in the war that caused large numbers of civilian casualties — such as one in March on a Mariupol theater where many civilians had holed up, killing an estimated 600, and another in April on a train station in eastern Kramatorsk that left at least 59 people dead.
“Russia continues to take out its impotence on ordinary civilians. It is useless to hope for decency and humanity on its part,” Zelensky said.
Kremenchuk Mayor Vitaliy Maletskiy wrote on Facebook that the attack “hit a very crowded area, which is 100 percent certain not to have any links to the armed forces.”
The United Nations called the strike “deplorable,” stressing that civilian infrastructure “should never ever be targeted,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Group of Seven leaders issued a statement late Monday condemning the attack and saying that “indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime. Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account.”
The attack happened as Russia was mounting an all-out assault on the last Ukrainian stronghold in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk province, “pouring fire” on the city of Lysychansk from the ground and air, according to the local governor. At least eight people were killed and more than 20 wounded in Lysychansk when Russian rockets hit an area where a crowd gathered to obtain water from a tank, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said.
The eastern barrage was part of Russian forces’ intensified offensive aimed at wresting the eastern Donbas region from Ukraine. Over the weekend, the Russian military and their local separatist allies forced Ukrainian government troops out of Lysychansk’s neighboring city, Sievierodonetsk.
To the west of Lysychansk on Monday, the mayor of the city of Sloviansk — potentially the next major battleground — said Russian forces fired cluster munitions, including one that hit a residential neighborhood. Authorities said the number of victims had yet to be confirmed. The Associated Press saw one fatality: A man’s body lay hunched over a car door frame, his blood pooling onto the ground from chest and head wounds. The blast blew out most windows in the surrounding apartment blocks and the cars parked below, littering the ground with broken glass.
“Everything is now destroyed,” said resident Valentina Vitkovska, in tears as she spoke about the blast. “We are the only people left living in this part of the building. There is no power. I can’t even call to tell others what had happened to us.”
Before Monday’s attacks, at least six civilians were killed and 31 others wounded as part of intense Russian shelling against various Ukrainian cities over the past 24 hours — including Kyiv and major cities in the country’s south and east, according to Zelensky’s office. Shelling on Monday in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, killed at least five people and wounded 15.
Russian forces continued to target the key southern Black Sea port of Odesa. A missile attack destroyed residential buildings and wounded six people, including a child, Ukrainian authorities said.
In Lysychansk, at least five high-rise buildings and the last road bridge were damaged over the past day, Haidai said. A crucial highway linking the city to government-held territory to the south was rendered impassable. The city’s prewar population of around 100,000 has dwindled to fewer than 10,000.
Analysts say that Lysychansk’s location high on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets River gives a major advantage to Ukrainian defenders.
“It’s a very hard nut to crack. The Russians could spend many months and much effort storming Lysychansk,” said military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
In other developments, in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, leaders of the G7 countries unveiled plans to seek new sanctions and pledged to continue supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” In a joint statement Monday after they held a session by video link with Zelensky, the leaders underlined their “unwavering commitment to support the government and people of Ukraine in their courageous defense of their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Elsewhere, Washington was expected to announce the purchase of an advanced surface-to-air missile system for Ukraine.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced plans to greatly expand the alliance’s rapid-reaction forces as part of its response to an “era of strategic competition.” The NATO response force currently has about 40,000 soldiers. NATO will agree to deliver further military support to Ukraine — including secure communication and anti-drone systems — when its leaders convene in Spain for a summit later this week, Stoltenberg said.
Britain’s defense ministry said Russia is likely to rely increasingly on reserve forces in the coming weeks. Analysts have said a call-up of reservists by Russia could vastly alter the balance in the war but could also come with negative political consequences for President Vladimir Putin’s government.

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

Updated 27 June 2022

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

  • The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder

VIENNA: An Austrian court on Monday sentenced a people smuggler to seven years in prison over the deaths of two Syrians who suffocated in the crammed minivan he was driving, Austria’s news agency reported.
The bodies of the two men were discovered last October when Austrian authorities stopped and searched a van at the border with Hungary.
Thirty people in total were crammed in the vehicle, whose driver fled the scene but has later arrested in Latvia and extradited.
The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder, APA reported.
He said he would accept the verdict, but the prosecution can still appeal it, APA said.
A court spokeswoman could not immediately be reached by AFP.
Austria’s interior ministry announced in May that police had smashed a group believed to have smuggled tens of thousands of mostly Syrians, including the two found suffocated, from Hungary to Austria.
A total of 205 people suspected to be linked to the group have been arrested in central and eastern Europe, the ministry said.
Those smuggled, including children, were trying to reach western European countries, including Germany and France.
The October discovery of the dead men recalled a dire event in August 2015 when 71 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffocated in the back of an air-tight van where they had been hidden by people smugglers.
The bodies, including those of three children and a baby, were discovered in Austria but they had died while still on the other side of the border.
Almost four years later, the Hungarian courts sentenced their smugglers to life imprisonment.
The emotion aroused by that tragedy triggered a brief opening of the borders to hundreds of thousands of people wishing to reach Western Europe.
But Austria and other European countries have since fortified borders to stop people smuggling.

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

Updated 27 June 2022

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

  • AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat: I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border
  • Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa

NAIROBI: The African Union Commission chief has voiced his shock at the “violent and degrading” treatment of African migrants trying to cross from Morocco into Spain after 23 people died, and called for an investigation into the incident.
About 2,000 migrants stormed the heavily fortified border between the Moroccan region of Nador and the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Friday.
At least 23 migrants died and 140 police officers were wounded in the ensuing violence, according to Moroccan authorities. It was the heaviest toll in years from such attempts to cross the frontier at Melilla.
“I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain,” AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement on Twitter late Sunday.
“I call for an immediate investigation into the matter and remind all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritize their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.”
Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, said a UN Security Council meeting would be held behind closed doors on Monday to discuss the violence African migrants face in Melilla.
Kenya, Gabon and Ghana — the African non-permanent members of the Security Council — called for the meeting, he said.
“Migrants are Migrants: whether from Africa or Europe, they do not deserve to be brutalized in this way,” Kimani wrote on Twitter.
Speaking at a regular press briefing, UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We very much deplore this tragic incident and the loss of life.”
Spain on Monday thanked Morocco for its “collaboration” in the defense of Spanish borders and once again blamed “international mafias that traffic human beings” for the incident.
But calls for a probe have increased, with around 50 migrant rights groups calling the Melilla deaths “the tragic symbol of European policies to externalize the European Union’s borders.”
“The death of these young Africans... alerts us to the deadly nature of the security cooperation on migration between Morocco and Spain,” they added.
Spain’s rights ombudsman said it accepted a complaint from several NGOs on the incident and has requested information from the relevant administrative bodies.
The migrant rush in Melilla came after Madrid and Rabat normalized their diplomatic relations following an almost year-long crisis centered on the disputed Western Sahara territory.
For Spain, the main objective of the diplomatic thaw was to ensure Morocco’s cooperation in controlling illegal immigration.
Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa.

Protesters call for release of Indian activist who fought for victims of 2002 anti-Muslim riots

Updated 27 June 2022

Protesters call for release of Indian activist who fought for victims of 2002 anti-Muslim riots

  • Teesta Setalvad is accused of tutoring witnesses, forging documents, fabricating evidence in cases pertaining to Gujrat riots
  • PM Modi is accused of failing to stop the rioting when at least 1,000 people died under his watch, he denies the accusations

MUMBAI: Protesters in India’s financial capital Mumbai on Monday demanded the release of a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of faking documents about anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

Teesta Setalvad is accused of tutoring witnesses, forging the documents and fabricating evidence in cases pertaining to the riots in Gujarat when Modi was state chief minister, according to police documents seen by Reuters.

A lawyer for Setalvad could not immediately be reached for comment.

Modi was accused of failing to stop the rioting when at least 1,000 people died under his watch. He denied the accusations and was exonerated in an Indian Supreme Court inquiry in 2012. Last week, the Supreme Court dismissed another petition questioning his exoneration.

Setalvad, a leading rights activist, was detained from her residence in Mumbai on Saturday by police from Gujarat, taken to the neighboring state, placed under formal arrest and sent to police custody until July 2.

“Just because activists like her are fighting in the court of law, doesn’t mean they should be put behind bars,” Nooruddin Naik, a protester, told Reuters.

Protesters carrying placards and posters of Setalvad shouted slogans against Modi and his party, the BJP.

Meanwhile “Teesta” was a top trending topic on Twitter on Monday.

Her arrest was condemned internationally as well, and Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said she was “deeply concerned” over Setalvad’s detention.

“Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by Indian state,” she said in a tweet.

Afghanistan earthquake survivors unsafe as aftershocks continue, official says

Updated 27 June 2022

Afghanistan earthquake survivors unsafe as aftershocks continue, official says

  • Afghanistan's most destructive earthquake in decades struck southeastern region last week
  • At least 1,000 people were killed, 3,000 were injured and 10,000 homes were desroyed

KABUL: Aftershocks continue to be felt in the area hit by a deadly earthquake in Afghanistan last week and the area remains unsafe for survivors, a senior Afghan official said on Monday, as authorities continued to grapple with the disaster’s fallout.

Afghanistan’s most destructive earthquake in decades struck a remote southeastern region near the Pakistani border on Wednesday last week, killing at least 1,000 people, injuring 3,000 and destroying 10,000 homes.

Among the dead were 155 children, with nearly 250 children injured and 65 orphaned, the UN humanitarian office (OCHA) said.

“The place is not safe yet,” Afghanistan acting Minister of Public Health Qalandar Ibad told a news conference in Kabul, adding that tremors continued to be felt in the area.

Aftershocks on Friday killed five people and injured 11. There are no reports of injuries in the later tremors reported by Ibad.

He said structures partially damaged in the main shock are not liveable, and people had to live in tents.

On the other hand, he said the mercury would drop fast in comings weeks in the mountains and this presented a fresh challenge for authorities.

“People do not have shelters — elders, children. ... We ask the international community to pay attention,” he said.

The disaster is a major test for Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban rulers, who many foreign governments have shunned because of concerns about human rights since they seized power last year.

In addition, sanctions on Afghan government bodies and banks have cut off most direct assistance for a country that was facing a humanitarian crisis, including famine, even before the 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck.

The United Nations and several other countries have sent aid to the affected area.

An Afghan aid agency appealed on Monday for cash for survivors of the earthquake, saying it had no room to store food and had enough tents, and that money for villagers to meet their particular needs would be most useful now.

“People ask for cash in the areas. They say they’ve received enough aid,” the deputy head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), Mullah Noordden Turaby, told journalists.

Turaby said the ARCS had no place to store food and they had enough tents for shelter.

He said cash would be more useful to survivors struggling to make ends meet and the ARCS could help distribute money if donors were worried about transparency.

The UN humanitarian office reported progress in its latest bulletin on Sunday, saying that a shortage of tents had been resolved and groups were distributing various aid including food, hygiene kits and cash.

However, it said several logistical problems remained including limited communications as a result of downed mobile phone networks and poor road conditions in some areas.