Will 2022 bring COVID-19 herd immunity or more lockdowns and travel bans?

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As more of the world develops greater immunity, either through infection or vaccination, there will be more pressure on the virus to mutate, with no guarantees that future variants will be less severe. (AFP)
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As more of the world develops greater immunity, either through infection or vaccination, there will be more pressure on the virus to mutate, with no guarantees that future variants will be less severe. (AFP)
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Updated 12 January 2022

Will 2022 bring COVID-19 herd immunity or more lockdowns and travel bans?

  • With omicron taking the shine off New Year celebrations, experts are undecided whether the worst of the pandemic is over
  • Many governments are developing a tolerance for high rates of infection in hopes of achieving herd immunity

DUBAI: For many, New Year’s Eve festivities were marred by concerns over the latest COVID-19 variant, omicron, and the resulting stresses of PCR tests, flight cancellations and uncertainty over possible lockdowns.

One popular meme that did the rounds over the holidays captured the pervasive sense of deja vu with the punchline: “The year 2022 is pronounced 2020 too,” hinting at a return to the stringent restrictions of two years ago.

The words quickly proved prophetic. Several countries have implemented partial and even full lockdowns after omicron sent the number of coronavirus infections to record highs, while others have tightened restrictions on indoor gatherings and travel.

As a result, the commercial aviation sector has taken another financial hit, with more than 8,000 flights canceled worldwide. Events, concerts and social gatherings planned to mark the new year were also disrupted.

Chaos created by the newly dominant variant, and news of potentially more transmissible, vaccine-resistant strains appearing in France, Israel and Cyprus, has many people wondering whether it is time to surrender to the idea of herd immunity.

“Herd immunity, if it exists, can be achieved in two ways. One, through widespread infection, or two, through widespread vaccination,” Dr. Richard Kennedy, co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, told Arab News.

Wary of imposing further restrictions and undermining economic recovery, several governments are showing tolerance for high rates of infection, perhaps in the hope of achieving herd immunity. But as the well-worn phrase puts it, hope is not a strategy.

“Relying on widespread infection is an incredibly bad idea,” Kennedy said. “Infection causes symptomatic disease, hospitalization, death and leads to more variants. In fact, the only time variants can arise is when someone is infected.” 




Dr. Richard Kennedy. (Supplied)

He added: “The combined cost in terms of human lives, human suffering and societal disruption is simply not worth it. Especially when this route also has a greater chance of prolonging the pandemic or making it worse, depending on the characteristics of the variants that will inevitably arise.”

Indeed, as more of the world develops greater immunity, either through infection or vaccination, Kennedy says, there will be more pressure on the virus to mutate, with no guarantees that future variants will be less severe. 

“This virus is a microscopic parasite that needs human cells to survive and reproduce,” he said. “It doesn’t have feelings or emotions. It doesn’t care if you live or die once infected. It simply does what it is genetically programmed to do.”

Nevertheless, there is a selective advantage for milder variants to become dominant. If a viral strain kills a patient quickly, the time window for it to transmit to other hosts may be too brief, thereby threatening its own survival.

By contrast, slow-burners such as omicron “do an excellent job of infecting someone, reproducing and spreading to new victims,” Kennedy said.

Experts say governments should not be complacent about omicron. The World Health Organization has given warning that it is wrong to describe the variant as “mild” as it is still “hospitalizing people and killing them.”

Although the virus is not under any particular pressure to become more or less aggressive right now, there certainly seems to be an incentive for new variants to be more transmissible — as seen with omicron.




Caption

The US reported 1.35 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, the highest daily total for any country in the world. The record in new cases came the same day as the country saw the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hit an all-time high.

In Saudi Arabia, daily cases more than doubled in just two days in the first week of January, pushing authorities to again enforce mask wearing in public spaces and reimpose preventive measures at the Great Mosque of Makkah for Umrah pilgrims.

Infections in the UAE have risen steadily since early December, when case numbers were as low as 50 per day. The number of daily positive cases (in a population of 10 million) is now regularly crossing the 2,500 mark, placing pressure on testing centers and prompting more people to seek booster jabs.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, the number of daily COVID-19 cases has crossed the 1,000 threshold in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Qatar has reintroduced remote learning at schools and colleges, while a ban on public events has been imposed in Kuwait.

Even as omicron infections explode regionwide, Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at Saudi Arabia’s Jazan University College of Applied Medical Sciences, is confident that GCC countries have efficient systems in place to resist emerging coronavirus strains.

All GCC countries are close to, or have passed, the 70 percent vaccination mark, thereby lowering the susceptibility rate of their populations to severe illness caused by the virus, he said.




Dr. Abdullah Algaissi. (Supplied)

“GCC governments have controlled three waves of COVID-19 better than other regions, and it will be the same with omicron,” Algaissi told Arab News.

“We can expect to see the number of cases increase, and eventually we might see a high number of deaths, but the overall effect of omicron will be lower in the GCC than in other countries.”

Algaissi is confident the omicron wave will be short-lived and that the worst of the pandemic is over.

“My theory is that it will be downgraded to an endemic disease, meaning the disease becomes less of a concern because fewer people will be susceptible to it and we will have the tools to deal with it,” he said.

The distribution of a “universal COVID-19 vaccine” — now in the testing phase — will be critical to eliminating all variants, thereby hastening the transition from pandemic to epidemic, Algaissi said. 

“We can predict certain mutations in the virus, and in a few years we may have a vaccine that can protect us from any variant that may emerge in the future, similar to the universal flu vaccine,” he said.

Algaissi does not rule out a new vaccine-resistant strain emerging from populations with low vaccination rates, resulting in a fifth wave. However, he thinks any subsequent COVID-19 wave will be brief. 

Kennedy, of the Mayo Clinic, is less sanguine about the future, cautioning that the world may struggle to fend off the novel coronavirus and its assorted mutations for years to come.

“The human race had a window of opportunity to contain and eradicate this virus. That window is rapidly closing if it is not closed already. We now have to find a way to live with the constant presence of SARS-CoV-2,” he said, using the scientific name for the novel coronavirus.

While the future remains uncertain, Kennedy predicts progress through new vaccines and antivirals, variant-specific vaccines and better treatment options, but also expects major setbacks.

“Because of human nature, most countries have had disjointed, intermittent and rapidly changing responses. This has reduced the effectiveness of these control measures.”




Progress through new vaccines and antivirals offers hope amid uncertainties over the raging pandemic. (AFP)

In practical terms, what this means is that with the resumption of international travel, a country with a high vaccination rate surrounded by neighbors with low vaccination rates is still going to experience problems. Which is why improvements in the distribution of vaccines to the developing world will be paramount.

“This is a global issue that requires a global solution,” said Kennedy. “When we talk about herd immunity, we must interpret that to mean global herd immunity. Nothing short of that will end the pandemic.”

However, he sees a future in which large segments of the population, far from rising to this challenge, continue “to ignore logic, facts and common sense.”

Kennedy said politics would continue to drive each countries’ response, and striking a stark cautionary note, added: “We will see individual countries cobbling together a unique pandemic response that is driven in part by facts and science and in part by emotion and public perception.”

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A century ago, the autonomous sheikhdom of Arabistan was absorbed by force into the Persian state. Today the Arabs of Ahwaz are Iran's most persecuted minority

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Israel deliberately killed Al Jazeera reporter, Palestinian Authority says

Updated 24 sec ago

Israel deliberately killed Al Jazeera reporter, Palestinian Authority says

  • Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the head on May 11 during Israeli military raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank
  • Palestinian Attorney General says there were no militants in immediate area, "only shooting was by occupation forces"

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority on Thursday announced the results of its investigation into the shooting death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, saying it had proven she was deliberately killed by Israeli forces as she tried to flee.

The conclusion echoed the results of a preliminary investigation announced nearly two weeks ago and were widely expected. Israel rejected the findings, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz calling them, “a blatant lie.”

Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian-American reporter for Al Jazeera’s Arabic service, was shot in the head on May 11 during an Israeli military raid in the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

Witnesses and Palestinian officials have said she was hit by Israeli fire. Israel says she was shot during a battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. It says that only a ballistic analysis of the bullet — which is held by the Palestinian Authority — and the soldiers’ guns can determine who fired the fatal shot.

Announcing the results of his probe at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian Attorney General Akram Al Khateeb said he had determined there were no militants in the immediate area where Abu Akleh was located.

“The only shooting was by the occupation forces, with the aim of killing,” he said.

Abu Akleh was in a group of journalists wearing helmets and protective vests marked “press.” Al Khateeb said the army saw the journalists and knew they were journalists.

He accused Israel of shooting Abu Akleh “directly and deliberately” as she tried to escape. He also repeated the Palestinian position that the bullet will not be handed over to the Israelis for study. He said they decided not even to show images of the bullet “to deprive (Israel) of a new lie.”

Al Khateeb said his investigation was based on interviews with witnesses, an inspection of the scene and a forensic medical report.

In a speech later Thursday, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi said it was impossible to know who fired the bullet and once again called on the Palestinians to cooperate to “get to the bottom” of what happened.

“But there is one thing that can be determined with certainty,” the military chief said. “No soldier fired intentionally at a journalist. We investigated that. We checked it. That is the conclusion. There is no other.”

Israel denies targeting journalists and has offered two possible scenarios, saying Abu Akleh was either shot by Palestinian militants who were firing at an Israeli army convoy or that she was hit by Israeli gunfire aimed at a nearby militant. The military has identified the rifle that may have been used in that scenario, but says it needs to test the bullet to make any final determination.

An AP reconstruction of events has lent support to eyewitnesses who say she was shot by Israeli troops. But a weapons expert interviewed by the AP as part of the reconstruction said that it was impossible to reach a conclusive finding without further forensic analysis.

Palestinian witnesses say there were no militants or clashes anywhere near Abu Akleh. The only known militants in the area were on the other side of the convoy, some 300 meters (yards) from her position. They did not have a direct line of sight, unlike the convoy itself, which was some 200 (meters) away on a long straight road.

Israel has publicly called for a joint investigation with the PA, with US participation, and has asked the PA to hand over the bullet for testing. But the State Department said Wednesday that it had received no formal request for assistance from either side two weeks after her death.

The PA has refused to hand over the bullet to Israel or cooperate with it in any way, saying Israel cannot be trusted to investigate its own conduct. Rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating when security forces shoot Palestinians, with cases often languishing for months or years before being quietly closed.

The PA administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hussein Al Sheikh, a top Palestinian official, said Thursday’s report would be shared with the US administration. Copies will also be delivered to Abu Akleh’s family and to Al Jazeera, he said.

The Palestinians say they will also share their results with international parties, including the International Criminal Court, which launched an investigation into possible Israeli war crimes last year. Israel has rejected that probe as being biased against it and is not cooperating with it.

The severe distrust means the Israeli and Palestinian investigations into Abu Akleh’s death are unfolding separately, with neither likely to accept any conclusions reached by the other.

Each side is in sole possession of potentially crucial evidence. Ballistic analysis could match the bullet to a specific firearm based on a microscopic signature, but only if investigators have access to both. Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, a military spokesman, told the AP the military has additional footage from that day, but declined to say what it shows or when it would be released, citing the ongoing investigation.

Palestinians are still mourning Abu Akleh, a widely known and respected on-air correspondent who rose to fame two decades ago, during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli rule. The 51-year-old documented the harsh realities of life under Israeli military rule — now well into its sixth decade with no end in sight — for viewers across the Arab world.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war and has built settlements where nearly 500,000 Israelis live alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. The Palestinians want the territory to form the main part of their future state, but peace talks broke down more than a decade ago, and Israel’s dominant right-wing parties are opposed to Palestinian statehood.


US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

Updated 27 May 2022

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

  • Cargo confiscated off coast of Greece 
  • Sanctions enforced again as nuclear deal hopes fade

JEDDAH: The US has confiscated more than 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil from a tanker off the coast of Greece in a new wave of sanctions enforcement.
The cargo of oil was pumped off the tanker into another vessel on Thursday and is now being transferred to the US.
The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.
The Pegas was one of five vessels named by Washington on Feb. 22, two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector. The tanker was renamed Lana on March 1 and has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.
The vessel, with 19 Russian crew members on board, was initially impounded by Greek authorities last month off the coast of the southern Greek island of Evia.
Greece said the ship had been seized as part of EU sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, but the vessel was later released.

FASTFACT

The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.

However, the US imposed new sanctions this week on a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As a result, the oil tanker was seized again.
Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization said the tanker had sought refuge along Greece’s coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, and the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo.
The ship was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government, the ministry said.
In 2020, Washington confiscated four cargos of Iranian fuel aboard foreign ships that were bound for Venezuela and transferred them with the help of undisclosed foreign partners on to two other ships which then sailed to the US.
Operations against smuggled Iranian oil had tailed off recently amid hopes for a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, including those targeting oil exports.
However, talks on reviving the deal have stalled, and the new oil cargo seizure suggests that the US is again enforcing sanctions.
Washington’s Iran envoy said this week the chances of reviving the nuclear deal were now shaky at best, and the US was ready to tighten sanctions on Iran.


Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Updated 27 May 2022

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

  • Cross-border agreement set to expire on July 10, with Security Council members already sparring over whether it should be extended
  • Number of Syrians facing hunger has almost doubled since 2019, as Ukraine war pushes up prices, and hits wheat and fuel supplies

NEW YORK: With the current UN Security Council’s exceptional authorization for humanitarian aid delivery through the last remaining border crossing into northwest Syria set to expire on July 10, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned that it would be a “failure of the highest order” if the council failed to extend the life-saving operation.

“As the country faces its worst economic and humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict, the international community must safeguard existing, life-saving cross-border assistance and increase their funding pledges to support this aid,” said a commission statement, which also expressed alarm at what it called a “trajectory of consistent narrowing of the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery.”

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one, Bab-al-Hawa.

Moscow argues that international aid operations violate Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

Opposing views among council members last week on the need to extend the cross-border mechanism have sparked concern among humanitarian agencies, as the crossing so far has guaranteed access to desperately needed aid for millions of Syrians since 2014.

“It is a moral abomination that a Security Council resolution was in itself deemed necessary to facilitate cross-border aid in the face of consistent violations — by the government of Syria and other parties — of their obligations under international law to allow and facilitate humanitarian relief for civilians in need,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN Syria Commission, said.

The July 10 renewal vote comes as humanitarian needs throughout Syria are at their highest since the start of the war 11 years ago.

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians are now in need of aid. Across the war-ravaged country, 12 million people face acute food insecurity, a staggering 51 percent increase since 2019, amid a conflict in Ukraine that has sent food prices skyrocketing and threatened supplies of wheat and other commodities.
 
In opposition-held northwest Syria, conditions are deteriorating due to continuing hostilities and a deepening economic crisis. About 4.1 million people there, mostly women and children, depend on aid to meet their basic needs.

Cross-border operations authorized by the Security Council allow aid to reach around 2.4 million people every month.

The commission said in its latest report that this lifeline is vital to the population in northwest Syria, adding that while some aid is delivered cross-line from within Syria, these deliveries contain much smaller, insufficient quantities and are exposed to attacks along a dangerous delivery route that crosses active front lines.

During its 11 years of investigating the conflict, the commission has documented that both the government and armed groups have repeatedly used humanitarian aid as a political bargaining chip, often deliberately withholding it for specific populations, particularly those under siege.

The commission also maintains that across all territories of Syria, staff members of humanitarian organizations constantly run the risk of being harassed, arbitrarily arrested and detained.

Commissioner Hanny Megally said: “Parties to the conflict have consistently failed in their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need across Syria. It is unconscionable that the discussion seems to focus on whether to close the one remaining authorized border crossing for aid, rather than how to expand access to life-saving aid across the country and through every appropriate route.”

Earlier this month, humanitarian aid organizations sounded the alarm at an EU-hosted Brussels VI Conference on Syria.

“The funds for humanitarian assistance are simply not sufficient to address the needs and protect the Syrians right now,” Pinheiro said.

“The international community cannot now abandon the Syrian people. They have endured 11 years of devastating conflict that has inflicted unspeakable suffering. They have never been more impoverished and in need of our help.”

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Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30

Updated 26 May 2022

Blast in Yemen fish market kills at least 4 people, wounds over 30

  • The police statement said that several suspects had been detained for questioning, but gave no further details

ADEN: At least four people were killed and more than 30 injured at a Yemen fish market when an explosive device planted in a trash can detonated, police in the port city of Aden said on Thursday.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said on Twitter that its trauma hospital in Aden received 50 wounded patients, five of whom had died while six were seriously injured.
The police statement said that several suspects had been detained for questioning, but gave no further details.

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Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel

Updated 26 May 2022

Iraq makes it illegal to attempt normalizing ties with Israel

  • The Iraqi parliament has been unable to convene on any other issue including electing a new president
  • Iraq has never recognised the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s parliament approved a law on Thursday that will ban normalizing relations with Israel, at a time when several Arab countries have established formal ties.
The Iraqi parliament has been unable to convene on any other issue including electing a new president and forming its own government, prolonging a political standoff.
Iraq has never recognized the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948 and Iraqi citizens and companies cannot visit Israel, but the new law goes further, specifically criminalizing any attempts to normalize relations with Israel.
The law was proposed by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr whose party, which opposes close ties with the United States and Israel, won more seats in parliament in elections last October.
“Approving the law is not only a victory for the Iraqi people but to the heroes in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” said Iraqi shi’ite lawmaker Hassan Salim who represents Iranian-backed militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Lawmakers from Sadr’s party said they proposed the law to curb any claims by Iranian-backed rival parties that Sadr is making coalitions with Sunni and Kurds who may have secret ties with Israel.
Some Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are forging ties with Israel against a backdrop of shared concerns about the threat that Iran may pose to the region.
Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has made it a condition of any eventual normalization with Israel that Palestinians’ quest for statehood on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war must be addressed.