WHO Calls for Renewed COVID Prevention Efforts Amid Omicron’s Spread

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The World Health Organization says renewed efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is needed as scientists scramble to determine the risks posed by the new omicron variant. Low vaccine rates combined with public fatigue over safety measures are putting more people in Africa at risk.

Experts say it’s no surprise a new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered.

Fewer than 8 percent of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19, creating an environment for the illness to spread and mutate.

Dr. Mary Stephen is a technical officer for the World Health Organization’s Africa office. 

She said in the absence of vaccines, the public needs encouragement to uphold other measures to reduce the spread and save lives.

“We cannot be tired; we have to continue to make sure we are complying with wearing of our face masks, keeping our distance away, avoiding unnecessary mass gatherings, ensuring good hand hygiene, so that it’s another layer of protection in addition to the vaccination,” she said.

South African scientists detected the omicron variant last week.

Research is under way to determine how transmittable it is and its reaction to vaccines.

Amid uncertainty, Britain, the United States and European Union reacted by imposing travel bans to southern Africa.

Stephen, however, said the variant has already crossed continents and that halting flights to African countries that have long enforced testing for travelers is the wrong response. 

“The world should react to them with solidarity. The solution is not about banning travel but our ability to identify these cases, identify the potential risks, mitigate the risks, while we are still facilitating international travel because we have seen the devastating effects that COVID had on the economy,” she said.

Jeremiah Tshukudu is all too familiar with the economic toll of the pandemic.

The 45-year-old Uber driver said two of his cars were repossessed last year because he could no longer afford the payments during lockdown.

Tshukudu said he fears he’s about to take another financial hit with the new variant.

“I see us like losing close to let’s say 50% of what we’ve been earning recently. Relying on Uber, business was down, that means I wouldn’t be able to provide for the family,” he said.

Despite the pandemic’s impact on him, Tshukudu said he’s still hesitant about getting vaccinated.

With the threat of a new variant, experts are hoping people like him will reconsider.

Dr. Michelle Groome is with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. 

“Hopefully, you know, with some concern over coming fourth wave, hopefully, you know, those that were on the fence may actually go and vaccinate,” she said.

More than 3,200 people in South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, a marked increase from the day before.

The government is campaigning for more people to get vaccinated and even offering grocery vouchers to those who get their shot.

Government data show that at least 41 percent of South African adults have now been vaccinated.

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Zimbabwe Says It’s Prepared for Omicron Variant

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Zimbabwe’s government says the country is very prepared to handle the new COVID-19 variant – omicron – first reported in neighboring South Africa. The World Health Organization says a fourth wave of the pandemic is most likely to hit Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga – who doubles as the country’s health minister – has asked the nation not to be concerned about omicron.

“The country should not panic because we are very prepared. The ramping up of our vaccination program in the past month has seen marked increase in the vaccination uptake. That is the prevention which we are going to have for our people if any other variant comes. At least when your body is protected it is much better than when you are found naked,” said the vice president.

Zimbabwe has fully inoculated about 2.8 million people since February, when it began its vaccination program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has a target of vaccinating at least 10 million Zimbabweans — or 60% of the population — by the end of the year, a figure which might be difficult to reach given the scarcity of resources and short time left.

Itai Rusike, head of the nonprofit Community Working Group on Health, said Zimbabweans should panic about the new variant – initially named B.1.1.529 – since the country shares porous borders with South Africa and Botswana.

“And this new variant is coming at a time when the festive season is upon us. A whole lot of Zimbabweans, they use undesignated entry points. That poses a serious health challenge as they would not be properly screened and monitored as they come back to the country. What we want to encourage the government of Zimbabwe, is for them to strengthen their surveillance and monitoring system especially the land borders and make sure that the screening and monitoring at the entry points is also strengthened,” said Rusike.

Meanwhile, Humphrey Karamagi, a medical officer at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa, said on the WHO Twitter account that a fourth wave of COVID-19 is likely to hit the continent.

“A fourth wave in Africa is almost a certainty, as long as we have these factors in play, which is new variants coming up and the fact that people can be reinfected. And also, if we are getting new population who may not have been exposed. We would then have subsequent waves. Vaccination helps a lot in terms of reducing the severity of the disease [and] also reducing the risk of infection. The vaccine is not a magic bullet. So the vaccine is to work together with the public health measures to reduce the potential and risks of subsequent waves,” said Karamagi.

The WHO says COVID-19 has infected about 6.1 million people in Africa and claimed 152,113 lives. The world health body also says more than 227 million vaccine doses have been administered in Africa.

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New Cases of Omicron Variant in Netherlands, Australia

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Dutch health officials said Sunday 13 people who recently arrived in the Netherlands on flights from South Africa have tested positive for the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The passengers were part of a group of 61 who tested positive following their arrival in Amsterdam on Friday.

The announcement came shortly after Australia said two cases of the variant were discovered in passengers who recently arrived in Sydney.

Omicron is the fifth WHO-designated variant of concern. It was first detected recently in South Africa, which has seen an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases.

There are about 30 mutations on the coronavirus’ spike protein, and scientists worry that some of them could make the virus easier to transmit. But scientists do not yet know whether omicron is in fact more transmissible or dangerous.

Cases of the variant have also been discovered in Israel, Hong Kong and several European countries.

Concern over the variant has prompted many countries, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, and European Union nations, to restrict or ban travel from southern African countries.

The South African government has called the travel restrictions “rushed” and raised concerns about the impact on business.

The top U.S. infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant were already in the U.S.

On Sunday, Fauci told ABC’s “This Week” program that the omicron variant “appears” to be more transmissible than other variants, but health officials are still not sure if it causes more severe disease.

He said efforts are under way to determine if current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the new variant and the answer likely will come in the next two weeks.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility that this could completely evade any protection by vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost,” Fauci said, referring to booster shots.

In South Africa, roughly 35% of the adult population is vaccinated. Figures are even lower across much of the African continent.

Heath experts have warned vaccine inequality would create a breeding ground for virus mutations. 

Information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Australian Government Vows to Unmask Online Trolls

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Australia’s government said Sunday it will introduce legislation to unmask online trolls and hold social media giants like Facebook and Twitter responsible for identifying them.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition government faces an election in the first half of 2022, said the law would protect Australians from online abuse and harassment.

“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others can just anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them,” Morrison told reporters.

“That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

Attorney General Michaelia Cash said the legislation, reportedly to be introduced to parliament by early 2022, is needed to clarify that the social media platforms, and not the users, were responsible for defamatory comments by other people.

Confusion had been sown by a High Court ruling in September that found Australian media, as users managing their own pages on a social network, could be held liable for defamatory third-party comments posted on their pages, Cash said.

Under the planned Australian legislation, the social media companies themselves would be responsible for such defamatory content, not the users, she said.

It would also aim to stop people making defamatory comments without being identified, she said.

“You should not be able to use the cloak of online anonymity to spread your vile, defamatory comments,” the attorney general said.

The legislation would demand that social media platforms have a nominated entity based in Australia, she said.

The platforms could defend themselves from being sued as the publisher of defamatory comment only if they complied with the new legislation’s demands to have a complaints system in place that could provide the details of the person making the comment, if necessary, Cash said.

People would also be able to apply to the High Court for an “information disclosure order” demanding a social media service provide details “to unmask the troll,” the attorney general said.

In some cases, she said, the “troll” may be asked to take down the comment, which could end the matter if the other side is satisfied.

Australia’s opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he would support a safer online environment for everyone.

But he said the government had failed to propose action to stop the spread of misinformation on social media and accused some of the government’s own members of spreading misinformation about COVID and vaccinations.

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COVID Variant Spreads to More Countries as World on Alert

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The new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.

The U.K. on Saturday tightened its rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases. New cases were confirmed Saturday in Germany and Italy, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant has been found in travelers.

In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the United States, too.

“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said on NBC television.

Because of fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant delta variant.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures” after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.

“Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses,” he told a news conference.

Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in England must take a PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day after their arrival and self-isolate until they provide a negative test. And if someone tests positive for the omicron variant, then he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status — currently close contacts are exempt from quarantine rules if they are fully vaccinated.

He also said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required and said the independent group of scientists that advises the British government on the rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been asked to accelerate the vaccination program. This could involve widening the booster program to younger age groups, reducing the time period between a second dose and a booster and allowing older children to get a second dose.

“From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign,” he said.

 

Britain’s Department of Health said the two cases found in the U.K. were linked and involved travel from southern Africa. One of the two new cases was in the southeastern English town of Brentwood, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating with their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.

The British government also added four more countries — Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia — to the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others — Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.

Despite the banning of flights, there are mounting concerns that the variant has already been widely seeded around the world.

Italy and Germany were the latest to report confirmed cases of the omicron variant.

An Italian who had traveled to Mozambique on business landed in Rome on Nov. 11 and returned to his home near Naples. He and five family members, including two school-age children, have since tested positive, the Italian news agency LaPresse said. All are isolating in the Naples suburb of Caserta in good condition with light symptoms.

The variant was confirmed by Sacco hospital in Milan, and Italy’s National Health Institute said the man had received two doses of the vaccine. Italy’s health ministry is urging all regions to increase tracing of the virus and sequencing to detect cases of the new variant first identified in South Africa.

In Germany, the Max von Pettenkofer Institute, a Munich-based microbiology center, said the omicron variant was confirmed in two travelers who arrived on a flight from South Africa on Nov. 24. The head of the institute, Oliver Keppler, said that genome sequencing has yet to be completed, but it is “proven without doubt that it is this variant,” German news agency dpa reported.

 

The Dutch public health institute said the omicron variant was “probably found in a number of the tested persons” who were isolated after arriving Friday in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa. The institute said in a statement that further sequencing analysis is underway to determine for sure that it is the new variant. The results were expected Sunday. A total of 61 people were tested.

Israel said it detected the new strain in a traveler who had returned from Malawi and was tracing 800 travelers who returned recently from southern African countries. And Australia said early Sunday its scientists were working to determine whether two people who tested positive for COVID after arriving from southern Africa are infected with the omicron variant.

The variant’s swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.

Several pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to be able to tweak their vaccine in around 100 days.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant, noting that most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

“At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease, but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed,” he told BBC radio.

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“One of the key factors to emergence of variants may well be low vaccination rates in parts of the world, and the WHO warning that none of us is safe until all of us are safe and should be heeded,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Saturday with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, and they stressed the importance of working together to help African nations vaccinate their populations, the State Department said in a statement. It said Blinken praised South Africa’s scientists for quickly identifying the omicron variant and the government for its transparency in sharing this information, “which should serve as a model for the world.” 

 

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US Praises South Africa’s Quick Detection, Sharing Variant Information

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The United States praised South Africa on Saturday for quickly identifying the latest coronavirus variant, omicron, and sharing this information with the world.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with South Africa’s international relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, and they discussed cooperation on vaccinating people in Africa against COVID-19, the State Department said in a statement.

“Secretary Blinken specifically praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world,” the statement said.

First detected in South Africa, the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was deemed by the World Health Organization a “variant of concern” on Friday.

Earlier Saturday, Pandor’s office issued a statement saying that the country is being punished for detecting the new variant as more countries rush to enact travel bans and restrictions.

By Saturday, more than a dozen countries had announced temporary travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries in the region after cases were reported in Europe and the Middle East. 

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France Says it is Willing to Discuss Autonomy for Guadeloupe

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France is willing to discuss autonomy for the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe if it is in the interests of the people who live there, government minister Sebastien Lecornu said.

Guadeloupe and the nearby French island of Martinique have seen several days of protests against COVID-19 measures that have spilled over into violence.

Lecornu, the minister for France’s overseas territories, said in a YouTube video issued late on Friday that certain elected officials in Guadeloupe had raised the question of autonomy, changing its status as an overseas region.

“The government is ready to talk about this. There are no bad debates, as long as those debates serve to resolve the real everyday problems of people in Guadeloupe,” he said.

That was one of a series of initiatives he said the government in Paris would be taking in Guadeloupe, including improving healthcare, infrastructure projects, and a scheme to create jobs for young people.

The French government this week announced that it would be postponing a requirement that public sector workers in Guadeloupe and Martinique get a COVID-19 vaccination.

That had sparked protests, fanning long-standing grievances over living standards and the relationship with Paris.

In Guadeloupe there is a historic mistrust of the French government’s handling of health crises after many people were exposed to toxic pesticides used in banana plantations in the 1970s.

 

 

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FDA: Merck COVID pill effective, experts will review safety

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Federal health regulators say an experimental COVID-19 pill from Merck is effective against the virus, but they will seek input from outside experts on risks of birth defects and other potential problems during pregnancy.

The Food and Drug Administration posted its analysis of the pill ahead of a public meeting next week where academic and other experts will weigh in on its safety and effectiveness. The agency isn’t required to follow the group’s advice.

The FDA scientists said their review identified several potential risks, including possible toxicity to developing fetuses and birth defects that were identified in studies of the pill in animals. 

Given those risks the FDA will ask its advisers next Tuesday whether the drug should never be given during pregnancy or whether it could be made available in certain cases.  

Under that scenario, the FDA said the drug would carry warnings about risks during pregnancy, but doctors would still have the option to prescribe it in certain cases where its benefits could outweigh its risks for patients.

Given the safety concerns, FDA said Merck agreed the drug would not be used in children.

Other side effects were mild and rare, with about 2% of patients experiencing diarrhea.

Regulators also noted that Merck collected far less safety data overall on its drug than was gathered for other COVID-19 therapies.

“While the clinical safety data base was small, there were no major safety concerns identified,” FDA reviewers concluded.

Additionally, the FDA flagged a concern that Merck’s drug led to small changes in the coronavirus’ signature spike protein, which it uses to penetrate human cells. 

Theoretically, FDA cautioned, those changes could lead to dangerous new variants.

FDA will ask its independent advisers to discuss all those issues and then vote on whether the drug’s overall benefits outweigh its risks.

All COVID-19 drugs currently authorized by the FDA require an injection or IV and can only be given by health professionals. If authorized, Merck’s drug would be the first that U.S. patients could take at home to ease symptoms and speed recovery. It is already authorized for emergency use in the U.K. 

The meeting marks the first time regulators have publicly reviewed a new drug for COVID-19, reflecting the intense interest and scrutiny of a pill that could be soon used by millions of Americans.

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India’s Serum Institute Resumes Vaccine Exports to COVAX Vaccine Sharing Program

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The world’s largest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India has resumed exports of coronavirus vaccines to COVAX the partnership that is distributing vaccines to developing countries. The resumption of exports comes at a critical time when a new variant found in South Africa is causing concern around the world.

India suspended exports of vaccines in March this year following a severe surge in infections during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as it used its stocks to ramp up its domestic inoculation program.

The first shipments went out Friday.

“This will go a long way in restoring vaccine supply equality in the world,” Serum Institute chief executive Adar Poonawalla said on Twitter.

The company said in a press statement that said that it expects the supply of vaccines to COVAX to increase substantially in early 2022. The Serum Institute of India was expected to be one of the main suppliers to the vaccine sharing facility which was created to ensure global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines after the outbreak of the pandemic.

The Serum Institute linked the resumption of exports to surpassing its target of producing 1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of this year – it has produced 1.25 billion doses so far.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which leads the COVAX program along with the World Health Organization, called the restart of exports from India an important development “as it enters its busiest period yet for shipping vaccines to participating economies.”

The export curbs by India were a huge setback to efforts by COVAX, which had been relying on supplies of the affordable and easy to store AstraZeneca vaccine from India’s Serum Institute to distribute to low-income countries. The vaccine is called Covishield in India.

“While COVAX’s portfolio is now much more diversified than it was earlier this year when we received our first SII deliveries, COVISHIELD remains an important product which has the potential to help us protect hundreds of millions of people in the months ahead,” according to Seth Berkley, chief executive of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

India has allowed exports to resume as its vaccination program makes substantial progress and vaccine supplies improve – about 80% of the country has received one dose and about 40% is fully vaccinated. Cases of coronavirus have also reduced dramatically – on Friday, India reported about 9,000 cases.

However, a new variant found in South Africa, dubbed omicron, is causing widespread concern and has prompted experts in India to caution against complacency. Designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization, omicron has already been found in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong and has prompted several countries, including the United States and Britain to impose travel curbs.

India has said it is scaling up screening of passengers from overseas. At a meeting held Saturday to review the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked officials to review plans to ease international travel restrictions.

“In light of the new variant, we remain vigilant with a focus on containment and ensuring increased second dose coverage,” he tweeted. 

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New Hampshire, Vermont Asked to Test Deer for COVID-19

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With hunting season under way, wildlife agencies in the northeastern U.S. states of New Hampshire and Vermont have started testing for COVID-19 in white-tailed deer, as antibodies for the virus have been found in deer in other states, according to a government study.

“We collected blood samples this year during the five busiest days of the hunting season,” said Dan Bergeron, the deer biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “We have biologists at biological check stations and collect ages and weights annually. This year, we also had them collect blood samples.”

New Hampshire and Vermont were approached by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service about testing the white-tailed deer population as part of its national research on the spread of COVID-19 among the species.

Maine is monitoring the tests from other states, but is not actively testing deer for COVID-19.

In its study, released in July, the inspection service tested 481 deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania and found COVID-19 antibodies in 33% of the samples.

“We do not know how the deer were exposed” to the virus, the study said. “It’s possible they were exposed through people, the environment, other deer, or another animal species.”

The study said that based on available information, the risk of deer and other animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low. It also said there were no reports of clinical illness in the deer populations surveyed, and that captive deer “experimentally infected” with the virus as part of a USDA Agricultural Research Service study didn’t show clinical signs of illness. 

 

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South African Scientists Brace for Wave Propelled by Omicron

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As the world grapples with the emergence of the new highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, worried scientists in South Africa — where omicron was first identified — are scrambling to combat its lightning spread across the country.

In the space of two weeks, the omicron variant has sent South Africa from a period of low transmission to rapid growth of new confirmed cases. The country’s numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded Friday, but omicron’s speed in infecting young South Africans has alarmed health professionals.

“We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19,” Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, told an online press briefing.

“Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65% are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,” said Mathivha. “I’m worried that as the numbers go up, the public health care facilities will become overwhelmed.”

She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potential large influx of patients needing intensive care.

“We know we have a new variant,” said Mathivha. “The worst-case scenario is that it hits us like delta … we need to have critical care beds ready.”

What looked like a cluster infection among some university students in Pretoria ballooned into hundreds of new cases and then thousands, first in the capital city and then to nearby Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

Studying the surge, scientists identified the new variant that diagnostic tests indicate is likely responsible for as many as 90% of the new cases, according to South Africa’s health officials. Early studies show that it has a reproduction rate of 2 — meaning that every person infected by it is likely to spread it to two other people.

The new variant has a high number of mutations that appear to make it more transmissible and help it evade immune responses. The World Health Organization looked at the data on Friday and named the variant omicron, under its system of using Greek letters, calling it a highly transmissible variant of concern.

“It’s a huge concern. We all are terribly concerned about this virus,” Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, told The Associated Press.

“This variant is mostly in Gauteng province, the Johannesburg area of South Africa. But we’ve got clues from diagnostic tests … that suggest that this variant is already all over South Africa,” said Hanekom, who is also co-chair of the South African COVID Variant Research Consortium.

“The scientific reaction from within South Africa is that we need to learn as much as soon as possible. We know precious little,” he said. “For example, we do not know how virulent this virus is, which means how bad is this disease that it causes?”

A key factor is vaccination. The new variant appears to be spreading most quickly among those who are unvaccinated. Currently, only about 40% of adult South Africans are vaccinated, and the number is much lower among those in the 20- to 40-year-old age group.

South Africa has nearly 20 million doses of vaccines — made by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — but the numbers of people getting vaccines is about 120,000 per day, far below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.

As scientists try to learn more about omicron, the people of South Africa can take measures to protect themselves against it, said Hanekom.

“This is a unique opportunity. There’s still time for people who did not get vaccinated to go and get the vaccine, and that will provide some protection, we believe, against this infection, especially protection against severe infection, severe disease and death,” he said. “So I would call on people to vaccinate if they can.”

Some ordinary South Africans have more mundane concerns about the new variant.

“We’ve seen increasing numbers of COVID-19, so I’ve been worried about more restrictions,” said Tebogo Letlapa, in Daveyton, eastern Johannesburg. “I’m especially worried about closing of alcohol sales because it’s almost festive season now.” 

 

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Tourists Rush to South Africa Airport After Travel Bans Issued

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Anxious-looking travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport and stood in long queues on Friday, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had just shut their doors to South Africa.

Many cut short their holidays, rushing back from safaris and vineyards when Britain announced late Thursday night that all flights from South Africa and its neighbors would be banned the following day.

A flurry of nations — including the United States, Canada and several European countries — have followed suit, concerned about the discovery of a new coronavirus variant, renamed omicron, with several mutations fueling an infection resurgence in South Africa.

United Kingdom citizen Toby Reid, a 24-year-old trader in London, was camping on Cape Town’s Table Mountain with his girlfriend when the ban was announced.

“At about 5:30 a.m., we got up to see if we could catch the sunrise, and at six in the morning, we found out that there was still a possibility to get back,” he told AFP while standing in line for check-in at the Johannesburg airport just hours later.

The couple managed to grab the last two seats on an evening flight to Frankfurt, Germany.

Others who were not so lucky discussed options at ticket counters, eyes widening at proposed prices and convoluted itineraries.

“There should have been more notice,” muttered Christian Good, 50, returning to Devon, England, via Frankfurt with his husband after a beach holiday.

By chance, the pair had originally planned to return on that flight, meaning they would arrive home before mandatory hotel quarantine begins on Sunday — a requirement for citizens returning from “red list” countries.

“It’s ridiculous. We will always be having new variants,” his husband, David, exclaimed, passports in hand.

“South Africa found it, but it’s probably all over the world already,” he told AFP.

The variant has so far been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

‘Tired of this’

At the airport, red “canceled” signs flashed next to London-bound flights listed on the departures board.

Other destinations were still in limbo.

A KLM flight to Amsterdam was delayed by several hours after passengers were suddenly compelled to produce negative COVID-19 results.

Rapid PCR tests were offered at the airport, with results guaranteed in two hours, but at a cost of $86, compared with the standard fee of around $52 for results delivered in roughly 12 hours.

An AFP correspondent observed Some African passport holders being told they would not be allowed to fly to Europe.

Earlier, travelers milled around a closed Air France check-in desk, waiting to find out whether an evening flight to Paris would take off as scheduled, just hours after France announced its own ban.

Among them were U.K. citizen Ruth Brown, 25, who lives in South Africa and had planned to return home for the first time since 2019 next week.

Britain kept South Africa on its red list until early October, meaning many of its citizens have been unable to travel back since the pandemic started because of the costly hotel quarantine.

They had only a few weeks of leeway before the status was revoked.

“We are tired of this situation,” said Brown, who spent the morning on the phone trying to change her flight.

“Apparently (this one) is full, but we are trying to see if we can still get seats,” she sighed.

Further down the line, Elke Hahn cradled a toddler.

She had traveled to South Africa with her partner to adopt the child and was desperate to get back to their home in Austria.

The child’s paperwork was only valid for a specific flight route that had since been changed.

“We will have to get another flight, but I don’t know how that will work,” she said. 

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Fauci: US Must Study Data Before Deciding on Travel Ban Over New COVID Variant

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Top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said Friday that a ban on flights from southern Africa was a possibility and the United States was rushing to gather data on the new COVID-19 variant. 

 

No decision to halt flights had yet been made, he said. The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, said White House officials were discussing potential travel restrictions on southern African countries. Those officials were expected to meet with agency officials Friday afternoon to make a recommendation, the newspaper said, without specifying which agency. 

 

The White House referred to Fauci’s earlier comments when asked about the report and declined further comment. Global authorities have reacted with alarm to the new variant, detected in South Africa, with the European Union and Britain among those tightening border controls as scientists seek to find out if the mutation is vaccine-resistant. 

 

The World Health Organization (WHO), however, has cautioned against hasty measures and South Africa said a British ban on flights seemed rushed. 

 

“There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said in an interview on CNN. 

 

“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You’re prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that,” he said. 

 

“Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can.”

 

Fauci said U.S. scientists would speak with South African counterparts Friday about the new variant, called B.1.1.529, which has raised concern about its transmissibility and whether it might evade immune responses. 

 

He added there was no indication the new variant was already in the United States. 

 

 

 

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New COVID-19 Variant Detected in South Africa

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South African scientists are scrambling to determine how quickly a newly discovered variant of the coronavirus can spread and if it is resistant to vaccines.  The new strain has led Britain to reimpose flight bans on six southern African countries, which could deal another heavy blow to their economies. 

Coronavirus cases are once again on the rise in South Africa. 

Amid the spike, several mutations of a new variant called the B 1.1.529 have been detected in the country, Botswana and Hong Kong. 

It has sparked concern it could compete with the previously dominant delta variant and trigger another wave of the pandemic.

Dr. Michelle Groome is with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“There’s the potential that this could be more transmissible and that this, there is potential immune escape, but we don’t know yet,” said Groome. “We are busy conducting some laboratory tests, obviously, we can have a look at how, you know, this new variant reacts both to, you know, serum from people who have been infected previously, as well as vaccinated, which will give us a better idea of the potential immune escape.”  

The uncertainty has prompted travel restrictions. 

Britain added six African countries to its so-called red list today, requiring quarantine for incoming travelers and temporarily banning flights.

The European Union also is looking at halting air travel from southern Africa. 

The South African government has called the decisions “rushed” and raised concerns about the impact on business. 

The CEO of South Africa’s inbound tourism association, David Frost, says the effects will be devastating on the sector.  

“We got off the red list in in October and it was sorely needed. We’ve been shut down for over 18 months,” said Frost. “You know, the industry really is on its knees. The impact of this is absolutely dire to livelihoods, to families.”

While social distancing and mask use can help combat the virus, Dr. Groome also questions the efficacy of travel bans.  

“We haven’t been able to contain the spread initially of the of the original virus, and all subsequent variants have spread globally, you know,” said Groome. “I think there’s limited value in terms of these restrictions.”  

Instead, she says vaccinating more of the population would help prevent the most severe cases and deaths.

Roughly 35 percent of the South Africa’s adult population is vaccinated, a figure far below targets of 70 percent. 

Figures are even lower across much of the continent.

Experts have warned vaccine inequality would create a breeding ground for the virus to mutate. 

Astrid Haas is an independent urban economist in Kampala, Uganda.  

“In Europe now and in North America, in particular, they’re talking about booster shots and third vaccines, whereas we know now from the WHO, that less than 10% of African countries are going to even meet their vaccine target for this year. …Just a very sad manifestation of the global vaccine inequity,” said Haas.

In the absence of vaccinations, lockdowns may be on the horizon. 

Such measures already have taken a harsh economic toll across southern Africa. 

Haas says the halt to retail and other services has made it hard for many people to survive.  

“Particularly with respect to the urban poor is that a lot of income is used to purchase food, or a high proportion of income is used to purchase food, and when they are not able to make income, then that affects food security as well,” said Haas.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is convening the country’s coronavirus council this weekend in response to the new variant. 

The government says it will announce any new measures in coming days. 

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Cases Soar but Swiss Reject Lockdown as COVID Law Vote Looms

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Like many others in Europe, Switzerland is facing a steep rise in coronavirus cases. But its federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictive measures. Analysts say it doesn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies, which face a crucial test at the ballot box this weekend as critics have grown increasingly loud.

On Sunday, as part of the country’s regular referendums, Swiss voters will cast ballots about the so-called “COVID-19 law” that has unlocked billions of Swiss francs (dollars) in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic. The law has also imposed the use of a special COVID certificate that lets only people who have been vaccinated, recovered, or tested negative attend public events and gatherings.

If the Swiss give a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.

The vote offers a relatively rare bellwether of public opinion specifically on the issue of government policy to fight the coronavirus in Europe, the global epicenter of the pandemic. The continent enjoys relatively high rates of vaccination compared with countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but has been nearly alone in facing a surge in cases in recent weeks.

Polls suggest a solid majority of Swiss will approve the measure, which is already in effect and the rejection of which would end the restrictions — as well as the payouts. But in recent weeks, opponents have raised heaps of cash for their campaign and drawn support from abroad, including a visit from American anti-vaccination campaigner Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to a rally in the capital, Bern, this month.

Swiss weekly NZZ am Sonntag reported that campaigners have sent hundreds of petitions to government offices around the country alleging that the language in the referendum question is vague and makes no mention of the “COVID certificate” that affords access to places like restaurants and sporting events.

On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit Austria and Germany — at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks. The seven-day average case count in Switzerland shot up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than five-fold increase — with an upward curve like those in neighboring Germany and Austria.

Austria has responded with a much-ballyhooed lockdown, and Germany — which is forming a new government as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure nears its end — has taken some steps like requiring workers to provide their employers with proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test set to take effect next week.

The Swiss Federal Council, the seven-member executive branch, went out of its way on Wednesday to say: “It’s not the time to decree a tightening of measures nationwide,” while opting for a region-by-region approach and calling on citizens to act responsibly through mask-wearing, physical distancing, and proper airing of indoor areas.

That’s even though the council admitted in a statement that cases — particularly among the young — are rising and “the number of daily infections has reached a record for the year and the exponential rise is continuing.” Hospitalizations — notably among the elderly — are rising too, it said, but not as fast.

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset has insisted his government hasn’t tightened restrictions because COVID-19 patients still make up only a small percentage of people in intensive-care units.

“But we also know that the number of hospitalizations lags behind the number of infections,” said Pascal Sciarini, a political scientist at the University of Geneva. “One can imagine that if Switzerland didn’t have this particular event — the vote on Sunday — we’d already be preparing (the) next steps.”

The Swiss council may simply be holding its breath through the weekend, he suggested.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if as early as next week, the tone changes,” Scarini said. “It’s starting to budge … the Federal Council is surely going to wait until after the referendum.” 

 

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World Leaders Struggle to Raise Vaccination Rates as COVID-19 Surges

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With the Northern Hemisphere heading into winter and COVID-19 cases on the rise across Europe and North America, political leaders from Washington to Brussels are struggling to persuade a pandemic-weary public to get vaccinated against the disease that has killed more than 5 million people and sickened hundreds of millions around the world.

In the United States, a high-profile push by President Joe Biden to force all businesses with more than 100 employees to require workers to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing is snarled in court challenges. Across Europe this week, protests, some violent, flared as various governments announced that they would implement stricter measures to combat the disease, including many that limit the ability of unvaccinated people to take an active part in public life.

Worldwide, countries have responded to the continued presence of COVID-19, now nearly two years after it was first detected, with a variety of measures, from blanket vaccine mandates for all eligible individuals to more targeted requirements for people at particular risk, like health care workers.

Plentiful vaccines, variable uptake

According to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, nearly 7.5 billion doses of vaccine have been administered since shots became available. Those doses have not been spread evenly around the world. The bulk of vaccines have been purchased by wealthy countries, like the United States and much of Europe.

That would seem to suggest that Europe and North America would be well protected from a winter surge of the virus, but even among countries where vaccines are plentiful, the percentage of the population that has chosen to get vaccinated against COVID-19 varies sharply.

According to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, only 59.7% of the American public is fully vaccinated, compared with 76.9% in Canada and 50.4% in Mexico. In Europe, vaccine uptake varies widely, from 86.9% in Portugal to just 12.6% in Armenia.

In Central Europe, cases are spiking in Germany and Denmark, where the rates of vaccination are 68.1% and 76.4%, respectively. Both countries are well above the global average in the percentage of people vaccinated, indicating that the disease can still spread rapidly, even where vaccination rates are relatively high.

This has leaders around the world searching for ways to compel more people to get vaccinated, with varied success.

Different approaches to vaccination

A handful of countries — Indonesia, Micronesia, and Turkmenistan — have implemented blanket requirements that all adults receive a vaccination.

This week, Austria became the first European country to announce that vaccination will be compulsory, with a requirement that all adults be vaccinated by February. The announcement came as the government announced it would be enforcing a fourth national lockdown to reduce the spread of the virus, prompting protests across the country.

Many other countries have taken a less extensive approach, tying vaccination status to the ability to work and take part in public activities, including going to restaurants, concerts, and other events.

With other European countries announcing stricter limits on what the unvaccinated are able to do, as well as broader restrictions on public life in general, protests broke out this week in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Croatia, among other nations.

Many European countries have adopted a “vaccine passport” system that limits access to public venues to people who can show proof of vaccination or of recent recovery from COVID-19.

Government employees face requirements

Among the most common measures being taken around the globe is the requirement that government employees be vaccinated in order to remain in their jobs. In addition to the U.S., countries with a requirement that public sector workers be vaccinated include Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

Of those, many have added a mandate for private sector workers as a whole; others have limited the requirement to private sector workers who deal with customers.

Some countries, among them Denmark, France, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Netherlands, have limited mandates to health care workers but have implemented restrictions on the activities of the unvaccinated.

US vaccine resistance

In the United States, President Biden’s attempt to require private businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or testing is in limbo. The proposal, which would take effect in January, would affect about 84 million U.S. workers, on top of existing mandates on health care workers, federal employees and contractors, and the U.S. military.

However, the push by the Democratic president has been met with pushback from Republican politicians across the country. Multiple Republican state attorneys general have filed lawsuits to stop the mandate from coming into force. A federal judge placed a stay on the mandate, preventing its enforcement.

The cases have been consolidated before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati, where the Biden administration is requesting that the stay on the mandate be lifted.

Supreme Court-bound

Brian Dean Abramson, an adjunct professor of vaccine law at Florida International University and the author of the BloombergLaw/American Health Law Association treatise Vaccine, Vaccination, and Immunization Law, told VOA that the fate of the mandate remains unclear.

According to Abramson, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the bureau within the Labor Department that crafted the mandate, left itself open to a number of challenges. For example, it is claiming that the new mandate is necessary to protect workers from a dangerous disease, but simultaneously claiming that health care workers can continue to observe a standard put in place earlier this year that is considerably less stringent.

Regardless of its fate in the 6th Circuit, Abramson said, the case is probably headed for the highest court in the land.

“What I do think is fairly inevitable, is that this will get to the U.S. Supreme Court rather quickly,” he said. “And I think we could see the Supreme Court receiving this, having some kind of expedited argument, and issuing a decision before the end of the year.” 

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When Aliens Attack: Australia’s Native Species Under Threat

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A new report warns that Australia’s native wildlife is in the “grip of an unprecedented alien attack.” Experts at the national science agency, the CSIRO, are predicting that much of the country’s unique flora and fauna is in danger of disappearing by 2050 unless urgent action is taken.

Nonnative species have invaded Australia and threaten to overrun indigenous plants and animals.

Invasive pests include European rabbits, which infest two-thirds of Australia, feral cats, pigs, foxes and cane toads.

Introduced species are endangering more than 80% of Australia’s threatened species.

A report, Fighting Plagues and Predators: Australia’s Path Towards a Pest and Weed-Free Future, highlights what researchers believe is “a looming wave of new extinctions.”

The study was compiled by the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, a government agency.

Andy Sheppard, CSIRO’s research director for biosecurity, said Australia’s colonization by the British more than 200 years ago has left a devastating environmental legacy.

“Look, Australia, as a lot of post-British colonial countries suffered from a huge amount of introduction of exotic species early in their colonization histories,” he said. “You know, there were societies set up to deliberately introduce stuff so that the Europeans felt more at home. Australia just like New Zealand has suffered enormously as a result. Australia unfortunately has the worst record internationally for mammalian extinction, and that is largely to do with the activities of feral cats and feral foxes.”

The report released Tuesday estimated the cost of the damage caused by invasive species in Australia – mostly weeds, feral cats, rabbits and fire ants – at about $18 billion dollars each year and growing.

The study said that “urgent, decisive, coordinated action” was needed to stop the spread of invasive species and protect Australia’s “irreplaceable native animals and plants.”

Traditionally, chemical baits and biological controls have been used to manage feral pest populations. The methods are controversial, and some animal welfare advocates have criticized them as inhumane.

Scientists in Australia are working on genetic pest control techniques. Testing is under way on mice, but a so-called “working system” could be up to five years away. One potential biocontrol involves disrupting the breeding cycles of rodents to limit their ability to reproduce.

 

 

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Volunteers Map Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in Vast Citizen Science Project

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An expedition to find lost shipwrecks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef begins Friday. The voyage is part of the Great Reef Census, one of the world’s largest marine citizen science projects.

Conservationists estimate there are up to 900 shipwrecks on the Great Barrier Reef, but only 150 have been found. Shallow water in some parts of the reef off northeastern Australia and the region’s susceptibility to storms and cyclones have made seafaring perilous.

Volunteers discovered three shipwrecks last year while surveying the world’s largest coral system. The expedition, which ends Dec. 1, is returning to Five Reefs and the Great Detached Reef, remote regions that are rarely visited, to gather more data and hunt for other wrecks. Onboard the boat are conservationists, scientists and a marine archaeologist.

Andy Ridley, the chief executive of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, the organization that runs the survey, said last year’s discovery was an unforgettable experience.

“The first mate on the boat was floating over the top of a reef from one side to the other and noticed there were river stones in the water, and, you know, round stones on the top of a coral reef is unusual,” he said. “We realized it was ballast from an old ship. We discovered one of what we think is three 200-year-old wrecks on that particular reef in the far northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It was kind of one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my entire life. It was like one of those kind of boyhood kind of dreams.”

Scientists, tourists, divers and sailors are contributing to this year’s Great Reef Census.

They are taking thousands of pictures that will help document the health of a reef system that faces various threats, such as climate change, overfishing and pollution.

The images will be analyzed early next year by an international army of online volunteers who, in the past, have included children from Jakarta, Indonesia, a church group in Chicago, and citizen scientists from Colombia.

In 2020, its first year, the survey, which runs from early October to late December, collected 14,000 images.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area. It stretches for 2,300 kilometers down northeastern Australia and is the size of Germany.

It comprises 3,000 individual reefs, is home to 10% of the world’s fish species and is the only living thing visible from space.

 

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