NASA Astronauts Conduct Previously Postponed Spacewalk

Two astronauts with the U.S. space agency, NASA, left the International Space Station (ISS) Thursday to conduct a spacewalk to replace a broken antenna system, two days after the walk was postponed over concerns about space debris.

NASA astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron stepped out of the ISS airlock early Thursday to replace the faulty antenna, used to communicate voice and data to ground control. The operation was expected to last six-and-a-half hours.

The spacewalk had originally been scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed late Monday after NASA said it had received a notification of space debris that it needed to assess. The space agency said once it determined the debris did not pose a risk, the operation was rescheduled for Thursday.

It was not immediately clear whether the debris field that prompted the spacewalk to be postponed was related to a Russian anti-satellite missile test two weeks ago. That event created a debris field that forced ISS crew members to seek shelter in their escape capsules as a precaution.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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US Seeks Norms for Outer Space After ‘Irresponsible’ Russia Test 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday criticized an “irresponsible” Russian test that endangered the International Space Station with debris, and the Biden administration laid out a new strategy for responsible use of space. 

Harris convened the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council and asked members of the government body to promote responsible civil, commercial and national security-related behavior in space, where there are growing commercial interests and concerns about Chinese and Russian competition. 

“Without clear norms for the responsible use of space we stand the real risk of threats to our national and global security,” Harris said. 

She said Russia’s “irresponsible act” of testing anti-satellite technology last month created debris that endangered the International Space Station (ISS). 

U.S. officials have fretted over rising security activity by Washington’s major rivals in space. China’s test of hypersonic weapons this year raised the prospect of an arms race over Earth-orbiting systems that could dodge current missile defenses. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, are seeking to usher in a new era of private commercial space flights following years of private firms working alongside the U.S. government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in rocket launches. 

President Joe Biden also signed an executive order on Wednesday adding the heads of the Education, Labor, Agriculture and Interior Departments as well as his national climate adviser to the National Space Council. 

The administration also wants the group’s work to increase space climate data and enhance scientific-related efforts that could aid job creation and U.S. competitiveness, it said in a statement. 

The National Space Council is separate from the U.S. Space Force military branch created under former President Donald Trump. 

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Biden Marks 33rd World AIDS Day With New Commitments

Marking the 33rd annual World AIDS Day on Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it would ramp up its domestic and international efforts to fight the HIV virus, which has killed 36 million people worldwide in four decades.

President Joe Biden also released Wednesday the domestic-focused National HIV-AIDS Strategy, which aims for a 90% reduction in new HIV cases in the U.S. over the next nine years. Currently, about 1.2 million Americans are thought to be living with the virus. The epidemic peaked in the U.S. in the 1980s.

The administration has said that racism that leads to unequal medical care is itself “a public health threat” that needs to be acknowledged in the battle against the virus. 

The president offered two new measures aimed at ending the epidemic in the United States by 2030 and boosting U.S. efforts to end the spread of HIV, the virus that can progress to AIDS, around the world.

“Today, we once more raise a two-story-tall red ribbon from the North Portico of the White House to remember how far we have come,” Biden told an audience of American activists, politicians and medical experts, including AIDS research pioneer Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “And the work we have left to finish, so we never forget the prices paid all along the way.” 

Internationally, where the bulk of new infections occur, the U.S. seeks to increase donor funding. On Wednesday, Biden said the U.S. would host the Global Fund to Fight AIDS replenishment conference next year. The U.S. is the fund’s largest donor, contributing about $17 billion to it last year. That’s in addition to a commitment Biden made earlier this year in which he sent $250 million of American Rescue Plan funding to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program established in 2003 by President George W. Bush to combat the disease internationally.

Slow, unequal response 

Still, it’s not clear whether even that infusion of funds will right the ship. The United Nations’ AIDS organization said Wednesday that the global goal to end the epidemic by 2030 has been derailed — and not just by the coronavirus pandemic that upended global health policy and practices.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the populations most at risk were not being reached with HIV testing, prevention and care services,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “The pandemic has made things worse, with the disruption of essential health services and the increased vulnerability of people with HIV to COVID-19. Like COVID-19, we have all the tools to end the AIDS epidemic, if we use them well. This World AIDS Day, we renew our call on all countries to use every tool in the toolbox to narrow inequalities, prevent HIV infections, save lives and end the AIDS epidemic.” 

Tedros has warned that discrimination and inequality are at the root of the epidemic, and that inattention to these problems would lead to 7.7 million AIDS-related deaths in the next 10 years. 

Other critics have knocked Biden for not moving fast enough on his promises to fight HIV. In August, the world’s premier medical journal, The Lancet, published a critique of Biden’s pace in nominating a new leader for PEPFAR. Biden announced his pick for the job, Cameroon-born John Nkengasong, a U.S. citizen who heads the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in late September. The Senate received the nomination in mid-October and referred it to the Committee on Foreign Relations, where it remains.

“During his candidacy, U.S. President Joe Biden committed to prioritizing the global AIDS response,” the authors — two American and two African activists — wrote in the medical publication. “This promise has been contradicted by a 6-month delay in nominating an ambassador-at-large to lead PEPFAR, which has functioned without a presidentially appointed health diplomat since Ambassador Deborah L. Birx was detailed to the White House Coronavirus Task Force in February 2020.”

On Wednesday, as he recognized Nkengasong among the crowd gathered at the White House, Biden was hopeful.

“We can do this,” he said. “We can eliminate HIV transmission. We can get the epidemic under control in the United States and in countries around the world. We have a scientific understanding. We have treatments. We have the tools we need. We’re going to engage with people with lived experience with HIV and ensure that our efforts are appropriate and effective and centered around the needs of the HIV community.”

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Biden HIV/AIDS Strategy Calls Racism ‘Public Health Threat’

The Biden administration in its new HIV/AIDS strategy calls racism “a public health threat” that must be fully recognized as the world looks to end the epidemic.

The strategy released Wednesday on the annual commemoration of World AIDS Day is meant to serve as a framework for how the administration intends to shape its policies, research, programs and planning over the next three years.

The new strategy asserts that over generations “structural inequities have resulted in racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching, and unacceptable.”

New HIV infections in the U.S. fell about 8% from 2015 to 2019, but Black and Latino communities — particularly gay and bisexual men within those groups — continue to be disproportionately affected, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population but accounted for more than 40% of new infections. The Latino population accounted for nearly 25% of new infections but makes up about 18.5% of the U.S. population.

Historically, gay and bisexual men have been the most disproportionately affected group. They account for about 66% of new HIV infections, even though they account for only 2% of the population, according to the CDC. In 2019, 26% of new HIV infections were among Black gay and bisexual men, 23% among Latino gay and bisexual men, and 45% among gay and bisexual men under the age of 35.

To reduce the disparities, the strategy includes calls for focusing on the needs of disproportionately affected populations, supporting racial justice, combating HIV-related stigma and discrimination and providing leadership and employment opportunities for people with or at risk for HIV.

Besides addressing racism’s impact on Americans battling the virus or at risk of contracting it, the new strategy also puts greater emphasis on harm reduction and syringe service programs, encourages reform of state laws that criminalize behavior of people with HIV for potentially exposing others and adds focus on the needs of the growing population of people with HIV who are aging.

More than 36 million people worldwide, including 700,000 in the U.S., have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic more than 40 years ago. Nearly 38 million people are living with HIV, including 1.2 million in the U.S.

President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced it will host the Global Fund to Fight AIDS replenishment conference next year. The United States has contributed about $17 billion to the fund, about a third of all donor contributions.

A giant red ribbon, a symbol of support for people living with HIV, was also displayed on the North Portico of the White House to mark World AIDS day. The two-story ribbon display has become an annual tradition at the White House since 2007.

“Honored to continue this tradition on #WorldAidsDay, remembering the lives lost to HIV/AIDS and supporting those living with the virus across the world,” first lady Jill Biden said in a Twitter posting that included a photo of her posing in front of the ribbon display. 

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EU Leaders Consider Mandatory Vaccinations to Fight Omicron Variant

European Union leaders said Wednesday they are considering a number of public health options, including vaccine mandates, to address the growing threat posed by the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said little is currently known about the variant, but enough is known to be concerned. She said they expect scientists to have a handle on the nature of the variant in about two to three weeks, but in the meantime are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. 

Von der Leyen said the best use of that time is to get more people vaccinated, and those who are inoculated should get booster shots. She said more than one-third of the European population — 150 million people — are not vaccinated.

The European Commission president said that while not everyone can be vaccinated, the majority of people can.

“This needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be had,” she said. 

Von der Leyen said Pfizer-BioNTech has indicated it can accelerate the production and distribution of its children’s vaccine, which will be available to European children beginning December 13.

She also said Pfizer and Moderna are set to deliver 360 million more doses of their vaccines by the end of March 2022, and that boosters are available to those who received their initial shots. 

The commission also urged EU members to commit to a day-by-day review of travel restrictions and a readiness to impose all necessary controls, including decisive action, if clusters of the omicron variant are found. 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. 

 

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WHO Works Toward International Pact on Pandemic Prevention 

The World Health Organization (WHO) Wednesday began a lengthy process to develop an international agreement on the prevention and control of future pandemics.

The WHO’s World Health Assembly – the organization’s decision-making body – approved the effort at the end of a rare, three-day special session at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva. The plan, entitled “The World Together,” was created as the world is facing the new omicron variant of coronavirus. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the decision, saying the pandemic has exposed shortcomings in the application and implementation of international health regulations established by the WHO in 2005.

The agreement would establish international standards on issues ranging from data sharing and genome sequencing of emerging viruses to equitable distribution of vaccine and drugs. 

Wednesday’s decision begins the process of drafting and negotiating the agreement, which is not expected to be completed until May 2024.

The European Union (EU) had pushed for the agreement on an international legally binding treaty, along with about 70 countries, but Brazil, India and the United States were among those reluctant to commit to a treaty, diplomats said. 

More than 262.22 million people have been reported infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, and 5.46 million people have died of it since it emerged in China in December 2019. 

 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Today’s HIV Patients Have More Treatment Options

On December 1, many mark World AIDS Day to show support for those living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Treatments have come a long way for those infected with HIV, but a cure is still elusive. VOA’s Laurel Bowman has our story.

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Space Junk Forces Spacewalk Delay, Too Risky for Astronauts 

NASA called off a spacewalk Tuesday because of menacing space junk that could puncture an astronaut’s suit or damage the International Space Station. 

Two U.S. astronauts were set to replace a bad antenna outside of the space station. But late Monday night, Mission Control learned that a piece of orbiting debris might come dangerously close. There wasn’t enough time to assess the threat so station managers delayed the spacewalk until Thursday. 

It’s the first time a spacewalk has been canceled because of threat from space junk. 

The space station and its crew of seven have been at increased risk from space junk since Russia destroyed a satellite in a missile test two weeks ago. 

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the object of concern was part of the Russian satellite wreckage. During a news conference Monday, NASA officials said the November 15 missile test resulted in at least 1,700 satellite pieces big enough to track, and thousands more too small to be observed from the ground but still able to pierce a spacewalker’s suit. 

NASA officials said astronauts Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron faced a 7% greater risk of a spacewalk puncture because of the Russian-generated debris. But they said it was still within acceptable limits based on previous experience. 

Marshburn and Barron arrived at the space station earlier this month. 

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FDA Panel Backs First-of-a-Kind COVID-19 Pill From Merck

A panel of U.S. health advisers on Tuesday narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorization of the first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus. 

A Food and Drug Administration panel voted 13-10 that the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy. 

The recommendation came after hours of debate about the drug’s modest benefits and potential safety issues. Experts backing the treatment stressed that it should not be used by anyone who is pregnant and called on the FDA to recommend extra precautions before the drug is prescribed, including pregnancy tests for women of child-bearing age. 

The vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and asthma. Most experts also said the drug shouldn’t be used in vaccinated patients, who weren’t part of the study and haven’t been shown to benefit. 

The FDA isn’t bound by the panel’s recommendation and is expected to make its own decision before year’s end. The pill is already authorized in the United Kingdom. 

The drug, molnupiravir, could provide a much-needed weapon against the virus as colder weather pushes case counts higher and U.S. officials brace for the arrival of the new omicron variant.

Merck hasn’t specifically tested its drug against the new variant but said it should have some potency based on its effectiveness against other strains of the coronavirus. 

But that uncertainty frustrated many panelists as they grappled with whether to back the treatment for millions of Americans. 

“With no data saying it works with new variants, I really think we need to be careful about saying that this is the way to go,” said Dr. David Hardy of Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science, who ultimately voted to back the drug. 

Effectiveness, dangers

The panel’s narrow-but-positive recommendation came despite new data from Merck that paint a less compelling picture of the drug’s effectiveness than just a few weeks earlier. 

Last week, Merck said final study results showed molnupiravir reduced hospitalization and death by 30% among adults infected with the coronavirus, when compared with adults taking a placebo. That effect was significantly less than the 50% reduction it first announced based on incomplete results. 

That smaller-than-expected benefit amplified experts’ concerns about the drug’s toxicity for fetuses. 

FDA scientists told the panelists earlier Tuesday that company studies in rats showed the drug caused toxicity and birth defects when given at very high doses. Taken together, FDA staffers concluded the data “suggest that molnupiravir may cause fetal harm when administered to pregnant individuals.” 

FDA is weighing a blanket restriction against any use in pregnant women or allowing it in rare cases. Some panelists said the option should be left open for pregnant mothers who have high-risk COVID-19 and may have few other treatment options. 

Dr. Janet Cragan, who backed the drug, said that even with tight restrictions, some pregnant women would inevitably take the drug.

“I don’t think you can ethically tell a woman with COVID-19 that she can’t have the drug if she’s decided that’s what she needs,” a panel member and staffer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think the final decision has to come down to the individual woman and her provider.”

Merck’s drug uses a novel approach to fight COVID-19: It inserts tiny errors into the coronavirus’ genetic code to stop it from reproducing. That genetic effect has raised concerns that the drug could spur more virulent strains of the virus. But FDA regulators said Tuesday that risk is theoretical and seems unlikely. 

Pfizer drug

While Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics were the first to submit their COVID-19 pill to the FDA, rival drugmaker Pfizer is close behind with its own pill under review. 

Pfizer’s drug is part of a decades-old family of antiviral pills known as protease inhibitors, a standard treatment for HIV and hepatitis C. They work differently than Merck’s pill and haven’t been linked to the kind of mutation concerns raised with Merck’s drug. 

Pfizer said this week that its drug shouldn’t be affected by the omicron variant’s mutations. 

The U.S. government has agreed to purchase 10 million treatment courses of Pfizer’s drug, if it’s authorized. That’s more than three times the government’s purchase agreement with Merck for 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir. 

Both drugs require patients to take multiple pills, twice a day for five days. 

 

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1st French Omicron Case on Indian Ocean Island of Reunion

Japan and France confirmed their first cases of the new variant of the coronavirus on Tuesday as countries around the world scrambled to close their doors or find ways to limit its spread while scientists study how damaging it might be.

The World Health Organization has warned that the global risk from the omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”

French authorities on Tuesday confirmed the first case of the omicron variant in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a 53-year-old man who had traveled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion.

The man was placed in quarantine. He has “muscle pain and fatigue,” Mavingui said, according to public television Reunion 1ere.

Japan on Tuesday confirmed its first case in a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia, a day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant. A government spokesperson said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.

Cambodia barred entry to travelers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from the omicron variant. The move came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers on Nov. 15.

The new version was first identified days ago by researchers in South Africa.

WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.

Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that it is early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients. 

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Biden Urges Calm, Vaccination, in Face of Omicron Variant

U.S. President Joe Biden says a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant, dubbed omicron, is a cause for “concern, not panic” and defended his much-criticized decision to restrict travel from the southern African region, where it was first reported. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.

Produced by: Barry Unger

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

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

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

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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COVID Variant Spreads to More Countries as World on Alert

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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