Expect more worrisome variants after omicron, scientists say

Test tubes labelled “COVID-19 omicron variant test positive” are seen in this illustration picture taken Saturday. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 January 2022

Expect more worrisome variants after omicron, scientists say

  • Every infection provides a chance for the virus to mutate, and omicron has an edge over its predecessors
  • Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic

DUBAI: Get ready to learn more Greek letters. Scientists warn that omicron’s whirlwind advance practically ensures it won’t be the last version of the coronavirus to worry the world.
Every infection provides a chance for the virus to mutate, and omicron has an edge over its predecessors: It spreads way faster despite emerging on a planet with a stronger patchwork of immunity from vaccines and prior illness.
That means more people in whom the virus can further evolve. Experts don’t know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic, but they say there’s no guarantee the sequels of omicron will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them.
It’s why they urge wider vaccination now, while today’s shots still work.
“The faster omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,” Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, said.
Since it emerged in mid-November, omicron has raced across the globe like fire through dry grass. Research shows the variant is at least twice as contagious as delta and at least four times as contagious as the original version of the virus.
omicron is more likely than delta to reinfect individuals who previously had COVID-19 and to cause “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated people while also attacking the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases for the week of Jan. 3-9, a 55 percent increase from the previous week.
Along with keeping comparatively healthy people out of work and school, the ease with which the variant spreads increases the odds the virus will infect and linger inside people with weakened immune systems — giving it more time to develop potent mutations.
“It’s the longer, persistent infections that seem to be the most likely breeding grounds for new variants,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s only when you have very widespread infection that you’re going to provide the opportunity for that to occur.”
Because omicron appears to cause less severe disease than delta, its behavior has kindled hope that it could be the start of a trend that eventually makes the virus milder like a common cold.
It’s a possibility, experts say, given that viruses don’t spread well if they kill their hosts very quickly. But viruses don’t always get less deadly over time.
A variant could also achieve its main goal — replicating — if infected people developed mild symptoms initially, spread the virus by interacting with others, then got very sick later, Ray explained by way of example.
“People have wondered whether the virus will evolve to mildness. But there’s no particular reason for it to do so,” he said. “I don’t think we can be confident that the virus will become less lethal over time.”
Getting progressively better at evading immunity helps a virus to survive over the long term. When SARS-CoV-2 first struck, no one was immune. But infections and vaccines have conferred at least some immunity to much of the world, so the virus must adapt.
There are many possible avenues for evolution. Animals could potentially incubate and unleash new variants. Pet dogs and cats, deer and farm-raised mink are only a few of the animals vulnerable to the virus, which can potentially mutate within them and leap back to people.
Another potential route: With both omicron and delta circulating, people may get double infections that could spawn what Ray calls “Frankenvariants,” hybrids with characteristics of both types.
When new variants do develop, scientists said it’s still very difficult to know from genetic features which ones might take off. For example, omicron has many more mutations than previous variants, around 30 in the spike protein that lets it attach to human cells. But the so-called IHU variant identified in France and being monitored by the WHO has 46 mutations and doesn’t seem to have spread much at all.
To curb the emergence of variants, scientists stress continuing with public health measures such as masking and getting vaccinated. While omicron is better able to evade immunity than delta, experts said, vaccines still offer protection and booster shots greatly reduce serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
Anne Thomas, a 64-year-old IT analyst in Westerly, Rhode Island, said she’s fully vaccinated and boosted and also tries to stay safe by mostly staying home while her state has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the US
“I have no doubt at all that these viruses are going to continue to mutate and we’re going to be dealing with this for a very long time,” she said.
Ray likened vaccines to armor for humanity that greatly hinders viral spread even if it doesn’t completely stop it. For a virus that spreads exponentially, he said, “anything that curbs transmission can have a great effect.” Also, when vaccinated people get sick, Ray said their illness is usually milder and clears more quickly, leaving less time to spawn dangerous variants.
Experts say the virus won’t become endemic like the flu as long as global vaccination rates are so low. During a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting people from future variants — including those that may be fully resistant to today’s shots — depends on ending global vaccine inequity.
Tedros said he’d like to see 70 percent of people in every country vaccinated by mid-year. Currently, there are dozens of countries where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. And in the United States, many people continue to resist available vaccines.
“These huge unvaccinated swaths in the US, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere are basically variant factories,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “It’s been a colossal failure in global leadership that we have not been able to do this.”
In the meantime, new variants are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
With so many unvaccinated people, he said, “the virus is still kind of in control of what’s going on.”


Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

Updated 19 May 2022

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

  • Allah Dino, killed by police in a gun battle on Wednesday, was trained in Iran, says Counterterrorism Department
  • Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country

KARACHI: Counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan said on Thursday that a suspect in an attack in the port city of Karachi last week had been trained in Iran and was receiving instructions from the Iran-based commander of a Pakistani separatist group.

One person was killed and several were injured in a bomb blast late on May 12 in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. The assault was claimed by the little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a dissident faction fighting for independence in the province of Sindh.

The attack came two weeks after a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from a Beijing cultural program at Karachi University.

In a press release on Thursday, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) for Sindh said special investigation teams formed in the wake of the latest spate of attacks were able to identify a number of suspects through intelligence sources and the use of technology.

Police used intelligence gathered from the investigation teams to trace three suspects from the Saddar attack on Wednesday as they traveled by motorcycle to transport explosives in Karachi on the instructions of what the CTD said was an Iran-based SRA commander called Asghar Shah.

In a gun battle with the three suspects, two identified as Allah Dino and Nawab Ali were killed while a third suspect fled the scene.

“The accused (Allah Dino) had been taking instructions from Asghar Shah, who operates his group (of the SRA) from Iran,” Syed Khurram Ali Shah, a senior CTD official, told reporters on Thursday.

“The eliminated terrorist Allah Dino was a master of bomb-making and he got his military training from neighbouring country Iran,” the CTD press release said.

Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country. Both nations deny state complicity in such attacks.


Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

Updated 19 May 2022

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

  • "Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger," Biden said
  • Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries' ascension

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to offer robust US support for their applications to join NATO.
Meanwhile Turkey threatened to block the Nordic nations from becoming members of the alliance.
Biden, who has rallied the West to stand up to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, joined Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a sunny White House Rose Garden bedecked with their countries’ flags in a show of unity and support.
“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”
Biden said his administration was submitting paperwork to the US Congress for speedy approval once NATO members gave the two countries a green light.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some,” the president said. “Having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance and deepen our security cooperation across the board.”
Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries’ ascension, pressing Sweden to halt support for Kurdish militants it considers part of a terrorist group and both to lift their bans on some arms sales to Turkey.
All 30 NATO members need to approve any new entrant. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday that Turkey had told allies it will reject Sweden and Finland’s membership.
The Finnish president said at the White House that his country was open to discussing all Turkey’s concerns, and pledged to “commit to Turkey’s security just as Turkey will commit to our security” as a NATO ally.
“We take terrorism seriously,” Niinistö said.
Sweden and Finland have for decades stood outside the Cold War era military alliance designed to deter threats from the Soviet Union, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened security concerns.
The situation in Ukraine “reminds us of the darkest days of European history,” Andersson said. “During dark times it is great to be among close friends.”
Conversations between Sweden, Finland and Turkey have taken place to address Ankara’s concerns, with the United States involved in the effort. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that US officials were confident Turkey’s concerns can be addressed, and Biden told reporters “I think we’re going to be okay” on the issue.
Biden’s unabashed support put a firm, deliberate US stamp of approval on Finland and Sweden’s applications. He squeezed in the meeting just before departing to Asia and gave both leaders speaking time in the Rose Garden, underscoring that support.
Biden’s remarks also sent a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday Putin said there was no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.
Biden said on Thursday that new members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. “It never has been,” he said.


Indian court convicts Kashmiri rebel leader of terrorism

Updated 19 May 2022

Indian court convicts Kashmiri rebel leader of terrorism

  • Mohammed Yasin Malik has been charged with terrorist acts, illegally raising funds and sedition
  • Malik dismisses charges against him as politically motivated while calling himself freedom fighter

NEW DELHI: An Indian court on Thursday convicted a top Kashmiri separatist leader in a terrorism-related case that carries a maximum sentence of the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Mohammed Yasin Malik had been charged with terrorist acts, illegally raising funds, being a member of a terrorist organization, and criminal conspiracy and sedition.

Judge Praveen Singh set May 25 for hearing arguments from both sides on sentencing, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. The judge also directed Malik to provide an affidavit regarding his financial assets.

During the trial, Malik protested the charges and said he was a freedom fighter.

“Terrorism-related charges leveled against me are concocted, fabricated and politically motivated,” his organization, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, cited him as telling the court.

“If seeking Azadi (freedom) is a crime, then I am ready to accept this crime and its consequences,” he told the judge.

The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was one of the first armed rebel groups to come into existence in Indian-administered Kashmir. It supported an independent and united Kashmir. Led by Malik, the group gave up armed rebellion in 1994.

An insurgency broke out in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989 with fighters demanding an independent Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebel groups to fight Indian forces, a charge Pakistan denies. Islamabad says it provides only moral and diplomatic support to insurgents.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since British colonialists granted them independence in 1947. Both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.


Germany strips Schroeder of official perks over Russia ties

Updated 19 May 2022

Germany strips Schroeder of official perks over Russia ties

  • The parliament's decision to strip Schroeder of an office and paid staff follows a lengthy effort to get him to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin
  • EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution on the bloc to slap sanctions on Schroeder

BERLIN: Germany on Thursday removed perks accorded to former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, assessing that he has failed to uphold the obligations of his office by refusing to sever ties with Russian energy giants.
The parliament’s decision to strip Schroeder of an office and paid staff follows a lengthy effort to get him to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin, which spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine.
EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution on the bloc to slap sanctions on Schroeder and other Europeans who refuse to give up lucrative board seats at Russian companies.
“The coalition parliamentary groups have drawn consequences from the behavior of former chancellor and lobbyist Gerhard Schroeder in view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the parliament decided.
“The office of the former chancellor shall be suspended,” it said, noting that Schroeder “no longer upholds the continuing obligations of his office.”
German media have put the annual cost of Schroeder’s office and employees paid for by taxpayers at around 400,000 euros ($421,000).
Schroeder, Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has been under fire for refusing to quit his posts with Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom following Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
He condemned the invasion as unjustified but said that dialogue must continue with Moscow.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who like Schroeder is from the Social Democratic Party, has also repeatedly and publicly urged the former leader to give up his Russian jobs, but to no avail.
Schroeder, 78, is chairman of the board of directors of Russian oil giant Rosneft, and also due to join the supervisory board of gas giant Gazprom in June.
The gas group is behind the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which has been halted by Scholz in one of the West’s first responses to the war in Ukraine.
Schroeder himself signed off on the first Nord Stream in his final weeks in office.
In fact, he took a job with Gazprom as chairman of the shareholder’s committee at its subsidiary Nord Stream in 2005, just days after leaving office and parliament in 2005.
Schroeder has always cut a controversial figure.
Schroeder was born on April 7, 1944 in Mossenberg, western Germany but lost his father in the war in Romania six months later.
Recalling his childhood, he said they “really didn’t have a cent — that is something that marks you for life.”
He joined the SPD at 19 and worked a variety of jobs to fund night classes to earn his high school diploma at age 22.
Schroeder qualified as a lawyer before becoming a radical left-wing activist, only later developing a taste for cigars, bespoke Italian suits and Mercedes cars.
His rise through the official ranks began in 1990 when he became premier of the state of Lower Saxony at his second attempt, before taking Germany’s top job in a coalition with the Greens in 1998.
Germany was the “sick man of Europe” with high joblessness. Schroeder is credited for his so-called Agenda 2010 reforms which restored the country’s economic competitiveness and turned it into an export giant.
But many in his blue-collar party saw the painful cuts as a betrayal of their ideals, and reviled him for pushing through the plans that widened the country’s wealth gap and left it with millions of working poor.
He became the first postwar leader to back Germany’s economic muscle with military might when he deployed combat troops abroad for the first time since World War II: to Kosovo and Afghanistan.
However, despite pressure from US president George W. Bush, he declined to commit German troops to Iraq, causing a rift between Berlin and Washington.
The “bromance” with the Kremlin chief would mark his post-chancellorship years, as Putin made headlines as a prominent guest at Schroeder’s 70th birthday party.
When the Russian leader held his inauguration in 2018, Schroeder was in the front row.
Asked in 2004 if Putin was a “flawless democrat,” Schroeder said he was “convinced that he is.”


UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

Updated 19 May 2022

UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

LONDON: British police said on Thursday they had ended their investigation into COVID-19 lockdown parties held at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office, saying they had issued a total of 126 fines.
“Our investigation was thorough and impartial and was completed as quickly as we could, given the amount of information that needed to be reviewed and the importance of ensuring that we had strong evidence for each FPN (fixed penalty notice) referral,” London Police Acting Deputy Commissioner Helen Ball said.
“This investigation is now complete.”