US president Joe Biden urges concern but not alarm as omicron rises

US President Joe Biden aims to convey his administration’s urgency in addressing omicron and convince wary Americans that the current situation bears little resemblance to the onset of the pandemic. (AP)
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Updated 05 January 2022

US president Joe Biden urges concern but not alarm as omicron rises

  • ‘There’s no excuse, there’s no excuse for anyone being unvaccinated. This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated’

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden urged concern but not alarm as the United States set records for daily reported COVID-19 cases and his administration struggled to ease concerns about testing shortages, school closures and other disruptions caused by the omicron variant.
In remarks Tuesday before a meeting with his COVID-19 response team at the White House, Biden aimed to convey his administration’s urgency in addressing omicron and convince wary Americans that the current situation bears little resemblance to the onset of the pandemic or last year’s deadly winter. The president emphasized that vaccines, booster shots and therapeutic drugs have lessened the danger for the overwhelming majority of Americans who are fully vaccinated.
“You can still get COVID, but it’s highly unlikely, very unlikely, that you’ll become seriously ill,” Biden said of vaccinated people.
“There’s no excuse, there’s no excuse for anyone being unvaccinated,” he added. “This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” He also encouraged Americans, including newly eligible teenagers 12 to 15, to get a booster dose of the vaccines for maximum protection.
Compared with last year, more Americans are employed, most kids are in classrooms, and instances of death and serious illness are down — precipitously so among the vaccinated.
“We’re in a very different place than we were a year ago,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki when asked if the country had lost control of the virus.
Still, over the past several weeks Americans have seen dire warnings about hospitals reaching capacity amid staffing shortages, thousands of holiday flight cancelations in part because crews were ill or in quarantine, and intermittent reports of school closures because of the more-transmissible variant.
On a conference call with governors, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top COVID-19 science adviser, said Americans “should not be complacent” even though initial data shows the omicron variant to produce less severe disease than earlier strains. But, he said, the number of people getting infected by omicron “might overwhelm the positive impact of reduced severity” and “severely stress our hospitals”
While most schools across the country remain open, Biden took aim at those that have closed, saying he believes they have the money for testing and other safety measures. “I believe schools should remain open,” he said.
The president also announced that the US is doubling its order for an anti-viral pill produced by Pfizer that was recently authorized by the FDA to prevent serious illness and death from COVID-19. That means 20 million doses, with the first 10 million pills to be delivered by June.
A senior administration official said that combined with other therapies, such as monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma, 4 million treatments that are effective against the omicron variant would be available by the end of January.
The pills are “a game changer and have the potential to dramatically alter the impact of COVID-19, the impact it’s had on this country and our people,” Biden said.
Biden is under pressure to ease a nationwide shortages of tests that people are using to determine whether they or their family members are infected. Long lines and chaotic scenes over the holidays marred the administration’s image as having the pandemic in hand.
“On testing, I know this remains frustrating. Believe me it’s frustrating to me, but we’re making improvements,” Biden said.
In a reversal, the White House announced last month that it would make 500 million rapid antigen tests available free to requesting Americans, but it will be weeks, if not months, before those tests are widely available. The administration notes those tests are on top of existing supply of rapid tests and that even a small increase will help ease some of the shortages. Additionally, private insurers will be required to cover the cost of at-home tests starting later this month.
Test manufacturers have until Tuesday night to respond to the government’s contract request, and the first awards are expected to be made this week, Psaki said. The administration is still developing a system for Americans to order the tests as well as a means to ship them to people’s homes.
Pressed when the first tests would reach Americans, Psaki said, “I don’t have an update on that at this point in time.”


Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

Updated 46 min 2 sec ago

Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

  • Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in an election in the southern Indian town of Sriperumbudur in 1991
  • His killing was seen as an act of retaliation after he sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987

NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of A.G. Perarivalan, who was convicted of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in an election in the southern Indian town of Sriperumbudur in May 1991. His killing was seen as an act of retaliation after he sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987.
Perarivalan was convicted in 1991 of purchasing the batteries used to detonate the bomb that killed Gandhi.
In May 2021, the Tamil Nadu state government allowed Perarivalan to leave on parole, using a provision in the Tamil Nadu Prison manual.
The Supreme Court took a lenient view of Perarivalan, saying he was 19 years old at the time of arrest and had been jailed for over 30 years, including 16 years on death row and 29 years in solitary confinement.
Speaking to the Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday, Perarivalan recalled years spent in a cramped 6 feet (1.8 m) by 9 feet (2.7 m) cell during his time in solitary confinement.
“A room in which I had nothing but empty walls to look at,” he said, describing obsessively counting bricks on the wall, measuring the door and bolts and imagining smells he craved.
Six others people, including a woman, are still in jail and are awaiting a verdict in the case.
The court said Perarivalan was released after considering his “satisfactory conduct in jail and during parole” and “chronic ailments.”
Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, is head of India’s main opposition Congress party while their son, Rahul, has been leading its campaign for elections. A Congress party spokesman said on Wednesday the party was deeply saddened by the court’s decision.
Many in the state of Tamil Nadu celebrated the verdict as a victory for human rights.
“My best wishes and warm welcome to Perarivalan who is set to fully breathe the air of liberation after more than 30 years of imprisonment,” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin tweeted.


Mozambique declares polio outbreak linked to Pakistan

Updated 18 May 2022

Mozambique declares polio outbreak linked to Pakistan

  • The case in Mozambique is the second imported case of polio in southern Africa this year
  • Sequencing indicates the case is linked to a strain of polio spreading in Pakistan in 2019 

JOHANNESBURG: Health authorities in Mozambique declared a polio outbreak Wednesday after confirming that a child in the country’s northeastern Tete province had been paralyzed by the disease.

The case in Mozambique is the second imported case of polio in southern Africa this year, following a case discovered in Malawi in mid-February. It’s the first case of wild polio in Mozambique since 1992, although cases linked to a mutated virus from the oral vaccine were detected in 2019.

The latest case in Mozambique was found in a child who experienced signs of paralysis in late March, according to a statement issued by the World Health Organization.

Sequencing indicates that the case in Mozambique is linked to a strain of polio spreading in Pakistan in 2019, similar to the case reported in Malawi earlier this year.

WHO declared Africa free of the wild polio virus in August 2020 even though numerous countries across the continent have reported outbreaks linked to the vaccine in recent years. There is no difference between the disease caused by the wild virus or the mutated virus from the vaccine.

“The detection of another case of wild poliovirus in Africa is greatly concerning, even if it’s unsurprising given the recent outbreak in Malawi. However, it shows how dangerous this virus is and how quickly it can spread,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Africa director.

In response to the case in neighboring Malawi, Mozambique recently carried out two mass vaccination campaigns in which 4.2 million children were vaccinated against the disease, said WHO.

Disease surveillance is being strengthened in five countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Vaccination campaigns in the coming weeks are planned to reach 23 million children aged five years and below.

Polio is highly infectious, spread mostly via water and largely affects children younger than five years. There is no cure for polio, and it can only be prevented by immunization. WHO and its partners began an effort to eradicate polio globally in 1988 and have missed numerous deadlines to wipe out the disease. 


Swiss woman indicted over ‘extremist knife attack’

Updated 18 May 2022

Swiss woman indicted over ‘extremist knife attack’

  • The 29-year-old unnamed woman allegedly attacked two women in a department store in the southern city of Lugano
  • She has been charged with attempted murder and violating laws against association with Al-Qaeda, Daesh and related groups

GENEVA: Swiss prosecutors said Wednesday they had indicted a woman for attempted murder on behalf of Daesh group over a brutal knife attack in November 2020.
The 29-year-old unnamed woman allegedly attacked two women in a department store in the southern city of Lugano.
She has been charged with attempted murder and violating laws against association with Al-Qaeda, Daesh and related groups, according to the indictment. She was also charged with unlawful prostitution.
The attorney general’s office said the indictment related to an ‘extremist knife attack’ and the alleged assailant, a Swiss citizen, “intended to kill her victims and to commit a terrorist act on behalf of Daesh.”
“The suspect acted willfully and with particular ruthlessness. She brutally attacked her randomly-selected victims with a knife, with the aim of killing them and thereby spreading terror throughout the population on behalf of the ‘Daesh’,” it said.
One of the two victims sustained serious neck injuries while the second victim, with help from others at the scene, managed to overpower her attacker and hold her until police arrived.
The attacker was arrested and detained.
Police quickly discovered she had been linked to a 2017 jihadism investigation.
The woman had formed a relationship on social media with an extremist fighter in Syria and attempted to travel to the war-torn country to meet him, police alleged at the time.
She was stopped by Turkish authorities at the Syrian border and sent back to Switzerland, they said, adding that the woman had suffered from mental health problems and been admitted to a psychiatric clinic.


Hindu groups file fresh petitions to stop Muslims from entering historic Indian mosque

Updated 18 May 2022

Hindu groups file fresh petitions to stop Muslims from entering historic Indian mosque

  • Hindus say court should decide on plea to approve looking for Hindu relics in 17th century mosque
  • Muslims vow to fight legal battles against Hindu groups disrupting sanctity of mosques and tombs

LUCKNOW: Members of hard-line Hindu groups filed petitions in a court in northern India to stop Muslims from entering a historic mosque, until the court decides on an earlier plea seeking approval to look for any Hindu relics which may be on the site, lawyers said on Wednesday.

Judges of a local court in Mathura, a Hindu religious town in Uttar Pradesh (UP) state, allowed the new petitions but have yet start hearings in the 2020 case aimed at securing permission to film and survey inside the 17th century Shahi Eidgah mosque.

“We suspect that Hindu symbols could be removed inside Shahi Eidgah mosque so we want the court to suspend entry of Muslims,” said Mahendra Pratap, a lawyer involved in the case.

This month, another local court in the state allowed a team to inspect and film inside one of the most prominent mosques in Varanasi, an ancient town, also the political constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Tuesday, the country’s top court overturned a ruling imposed by a Varanasi court to limit large Muslim prayer gatherings in the Gyanvapsi mosque, but allowed the local court to continue proceedings. read more

Members of hard-line Hindu groups tied to Modi’s party believe that Islamic invaders destroyed Hindu temples during their 200-year rule.

“We believe that idols of Hindu gods were lying inside the mosque built after a temple was destroyed by Muslim rulers to prove supremacy,” said Ranjana Agnihotri, a lawyer appearing on behalf of Hindu groups questioning the legitimacy of the Shahi Eidgah mosque in Mathura.

Surveyors involved in the Varanasi case said they found a large relic of the Hindu god Shiva inside the Gyanvapsi mosque, but Muslim groups said that a fountainhead was being misrepresented to stir religious tension.

Reports of idols found inside the mosque have further emboldened Hindu groups in western and southern states to demand searches in other mosques.

Police in Aurangabad city said they had intensified security around the grave of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb after members of MNS, a regional political party, threatened to destroy the tomb, which they believe was anti-Hindu.

The same party recently succeeded in forcing the Maharashtra government to ensure the decibel levels of the Muslim prayer calls were lowered after its leaders threatened to chant Hindu prayers outside mosques. read more

Leaders of Muslim political and religious groups said they will fight legal battles against Hindu groups disrupting the sanctity of mosques and tombs.

“We (Muslims) will not let Hindus insult our faith and our mosques,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a federal lawmaker and leader of a regional Islamic political party.


Wall collapse at salt factory kills 12 in west India

Updated 18 May 2022

Wall collapse at salt factory kills 12 in west India

  • The workers stocking salt in bags were found buried in the wall debris in the factory
  • The injuries of 13 workers, mostly fractured bones, were not life-threatening

NEW DELHI: A wall collapsed in a salt packaging factory in western India on Wednesday, killing at least 12 workers and injuring another 13, a government administrator said.
The workers stocking salt in bags were found buried in the wall debris in the factory in Morbi district, 215 kilometers (135 miles) west of Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat state, said J.B. Patel, the district officer.
The injuries of 13 workers, mostly fractured bones, were not life-threatening, Patel said.
He also said that the rescue work was almost over. Other details were not immediately available.
Authorities are investigating the cause of the wall collapse.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the deaths as heart-rending. “In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon,” he said.
Building collapses are common in India as many of them are poorly constructed using sub-standard material. A building collapse in 2013 killed at least 72 people in Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital.