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United States not currently contemplating wider travel limits in face of Omicron, Biden says

US not planning travel bans

President Joe Biden says he has no immediate plans to impose additional travel bans to limit the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Biden says the U.S. strategy is to emphasize urging Americans to get vaccinated, or to get the newly available booster shot if they are eligible.

Effective today, the U.S. is barring foreign visitors from eight African countries where the number of cases of the heavily mutated variant is already high.

But Biden says that decision was less about countering the spread than it was about buying the U.S. valuable time in order to encourage wider vaccination.

The first two North American cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed over the weekend in Ottawa.

Biden says it's "almost inevitable" that the variant will turn up on U.S. soil, which is why there's no need right now for wider travel restrictions.

"The degree of the spread impacts on whether or not there is a need for any travel restriction," he said after addressing the nation from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

"I don't anticipate that at this point, and we'll see — we'll see how that works."

The president also called on other countries, although he didn't single any out, to do their part to donate a share of their vaccine supply in order to help snuff out the pandemic around the world.

He says the U.S. has donated more vaccine doses for free than all the other countries of the world combined — more than 275 million doses to 110 countries.

"Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well," he said, noting that recent variants of COVID-19 all originated outside the U.S.

"We can't let up until the world is vaccinated."



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Barbados prepares to bid farewell to queen as head of state

Barbados to ditch queen

The Caribbean island of Barbados on Monday prepared to wave goodbye to Queen Elizabeth II as head of state as it cuts ties with its colonial past and becomes a republic for the first time in history.

The preparations come a month after the Parliament of the former British colony once nicknamed “Little England” elected its first ever president in a two-thirds majority vote.

Thousands of people were expected to watch the late-night event on TV, listen to it on the radio or see it in person at a popular square where the statue of a well-known British lord was removed last year amid a worldwide push to eradicate symbols of oppression.

“It should be a historic moment,” said Dennis Edwards, a property manager who was born in Guyana but lives in Barbados.

His son was born on the island, so Edwards said he plans to take him to see the once-in-a-lifetime event: “He’s a Bajan.”

The most high-profile guest will be Prince Charles, who arrived Sunday in Barbados, an island of more than 300,000 people and one of the wealthier nations in the Caribbean, dependent on tourism, manufacturing and finance. The Prince of Wales was greeted with a 21-gun salute and is scheduled to speak ahead of the president-elect.

Barbados Governor General Sandra Mason, who was appointed by the queen, is scheduled to be sworn in as president shortly after midnight on Tuesday, which marks the island’s 55th independence from Britain.

In a speech to Parliament last month, she said the move to become a republic should not be seen as a condemnation of anyone and that Barbados looked forward to continuing its relationship with the British monarch.

Prime Minister Mia Mottley praised the vote at the time, saying, “We have just elected among us a woman who is uniquely and passionately Barbadian....I can think therefore of no better person at this juncture of our nation.”

Mottley added that the “responsibilities and rights come with the understanding that there is no one else to look over us... This is our moment.”

Mason, 72, is an attorney and judge who also has served as ambassador to Venezuela, Colombia, Chile and Brazil.

Barbados has slowly distanced itself from its colonial past after gaining independence from the United Kingdom in November 1966, more than 300 years after English settlers arrived and turned the island into a wealthy sugar colony based on the work of hundreds of thousands of African slaves.

In 2005, Barbados dropped the London-based Privy Council in favor of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice as its final court of appeal. Then in 2008, it proposed a referendum on the issue of becoming a republic, but it was pushed back indefinitely. Last year, it removed a statue of British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson from National Heroes Square, the location of the ceremony to celebrate the looming republic status.

The transformation into a republic is an event the Caribbean has not seen since the 1970s, when Guyana, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago became republics.

Edwards, the Bajan property manager born in Guyana, said his native country faced a difficult time after becoming a republic because a lot of British-owned businesses pulled out at the time.

“It was a very rough patch for years,” he recalled, adding that he expects the results to be much different for Barbados. “It was a different time back then.”



Stage set for Ghislaine Maxwell's sex trafficking trial

Maxwell jury picked

Two years after Jeffrey Epstein's suicide behind bars, a jury was selected Monday in New York City to determine a central question in the long-running sex trafficking case: Was his longtime companion, Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s puppet or accomplice?

Twelve jurors and six alternates will hear Maxwell’s case, starting with opening statements expected later in the day. They were picked from a pool of 40 to 60 potential jurors who made it through initial questioning.

Maxwell — who once dated the financier — is accused of acting as Epstein's chief enabler, recruiting and grooming young girls for him to abuse. The charges against her stem from the allegations of four women who say she and Epstein victimized them as teens from 1994 to 2004.

Prosecutors say there’s evidence Maxwell knew that the victims, including a 14-year-old, were below the age of consent and that she arranged travel for some between Epstein’s homes, including his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, his posh Manhattan townhouse and at other residences in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and London.

Epstein killed himself at a Manhattan federal lockup in August 2019, a month after his arrest on sex trafficking charges. Authorities charged Maxwell in July 2020, arresting her after tracking her to a $1 million New Hampshire estate where she had been holed up during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty and vehemently denies wrongdoing. The 59-year-old British socialite, jailed in Brooklyn since her arrest, has called the claims against her “absolute rubbish.” Maxwell's lawyers and family say she was Epstein's pawn, now paying “a blood price” to satisfy public desire to see someone held accountable for his crimes.

The wealthy, Oxford-educated Maxwell is the daughter of British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 after falling off his yacht — named the Lady Ghislaine — near the Canary Islands. Robert Maxwell, whose holdings at the time included the New York Daily News, was facing allegations that he had illegally looted his businesses’ pension funds.

Ghislaine Maxwell holds U.S., British and French citizenships and was repeatedly denied bail in the run-up to her trial.



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Iran nuclear deal talks resume in Vienna amid muted hopes

Iran nuclear talks resume

Negotiators in Vienna resumed talks Monday over reviving Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, with hopes of quick progress muted after the arrival of a hard-line new government in Tehran led to a more than five-month hiatus.

The remaining signatories to the nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain — convened at the Palais Coburg, the luxury hotel where the agreement was signed six years ago.

The talks came as Austria is a week into a lockdown imposed because of a surge of coronavirus cases. Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported their start, without elaborating, as journalists remained outside of the hotel.

The last round of talks, aimed at bringing Iran back into compliance with the agreement and paving the way for the U.S. to rejoin, was held in June. Since then, the task has only become more difficult.

The U.S. is not at the table because it unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, who restored and augmented American sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure” to try to force Iran into renegotiating the pact.

President Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to rejoin the deal. A U.S. delegation headed by the administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, is participating indirectly in the talks, with diplomats from the other countries acting as go-betweens.

The nuclear deal saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since the deal's collapse, Iran now enriches small amounts of uranium up to 60% purity — a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran also spins advanced centrifuges barred by the accord and its uranium stockpile now far exceeds the accord’s limits.

Iran maintains its atomic program is peaceful. However, U.S. intelligence agencies and international inspectors say Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program up until 2003. Nonproliferation experts fear the brinkmanship could push Tehran toward even more-extreme measures to try and force the West to lift sanctions.

Making matters more difficult, United Nations nuclear inspectors remain unable to fully monitor Iran's program after Tehran limited their access. A trip to Iran last week by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, failed to make any progress on that issue.

Russia’s top representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, said he held “useful” informal consultations with officials from Iran and China on Sunday. That meeting, he said, was aimed at “better understanding (...) the updated negotiating position of Tehran.“ He tweeted a picture of a meeting Monday he described as a preparatory session with members before Iran joined the discussions.

Enrique Mora, the European Union official chairing the talks, also wrote on Twitter of “intense preparatory work ongoing.”

A delegation appointed by new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is joining the negotiations for the first time. Iran has made maximalist demands, including calls for the U.S. to unfreeze $10 billion in assets as an initial goodwill gesture, a tough line that might be an opening gambit.

Ali Bagheri, an Iranian nuclear negotiator, told Iranian state television late Sunday that the Islamic Republic “has entered the talks with serious willpower and strong preparation.” However, he cautioned that “we cannot anticipate a timeframe on the length of these talks now.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh meanwhile suggested Monday that the U.S. could “receive a ticket for returning to the room” of the nuclear talks if it agrees to “the real lifting of sanctions.” He also criticized a recent opinion piece written by the foreign ministers of Britain and Israel that pledged to “work night and day to prevent the Iranian regime from ever becoming a nuclear power.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in a video address delivered to nations negotiating in Vienna, warned that he saw Iran trying to “end sanctions in exchange for almost nothing.”

“Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality," Bennett said in the video that he later posted to Twitter. "I call upon our allies around the world: Do not give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail.”

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the meeting “the last opportunity for the Iranians to come to the table" after a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

“We want those talks to work,” Truss said. “But if they don’t work, all options are on the table.”

In an interview with NPR broadcast Friday, U.S. negotiator Malley said signs from Iran “are not particularly encouraging.”

Russia’s Ulyanov said there’s pressure to get the process moving after “a very protracted pause.”

“The talks can’t last forever,” he tweeted on Sunday. “There is the obvious need to speed up the process.”



Wary, weary world slams doors shut, fearing omicron variant

Doors close over omicron

Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.

Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, while new cases of the variant identified days ago by researchers in South Africa appeared in places such as Hong Kong and Australia. New cases in Portugal and Scotland might already point toward local spread of the variant outside of southern Africa.

“There might already be some community transmission of this variant in Scotland,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said after Scotland reported its first six cases.

The infections showed the near impossibility of keeping the genie in the bottle in a globalized world of travel and open borders.

Yet, many tried to do just that, even against the urging of the World Health Organization, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.

Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines.

The WHO warned, however, that “the likelihood of potential further spread of omicron at the global level is high. Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences.”

While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.

“This time the world showed it is learning,” said European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”

The WHO has praised Botswana as well as South Africa for quickly alerting the world to the presence of the new variant — and many have warned the countries should not be punished for their speed.

But that did not hold von der Leyen back from pushing the 27-nation EU toward imposing an immediate ban on flights from seven southern African nations — similar to measures many countries have taken.

Cases had already been reported in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 cases of omicron among team members of the Belenenses professional soccer club. Authorities reported that one member recently traveled to South Africa. Its game against Benfica over the weekend had to be abandoned at halftime for lack of players.

Quarantining also became an issue when Dutch military police had to arrest a husband and wife who left a hotel where they were being held after testing positive and boarded a plane bound for Spain.

“Quarantine is not obligatory, but we assume people will act responsibly,” spokeswoman Petra Faber said.

Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.

“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin Tuesday.

Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.

Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions of the virus that has killed more than 5 million people.

And in some parts of the world, authorities were moving in the opposite direction.

In Malaysia, officials went ahead with the partial reopening of a bridge connecting it to the city-state of Singapore. And New Zealand announced it will press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown, though it is also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that she didn’t anticipate any further restrictions and that bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland can reopen, ending a coronavirus lockdown that began in August.

“We’ve come through the past two years of COVID in better shape than nearly anywhere in the world,” Ardern said, pointing to low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, said no data as yet suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous versions.

Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.

The U.S. is banning travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday. “It’s going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness,” the United States’ top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Fauci said it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of omicron, according to dthe White House.



On 2nd try, Swedes elect 1st female prime minister Andersson

1st female PM back again

Magdalena Andersson, who last week was Sweden’s first female prime minister for a few hours before resigning because a budget defeat made a coalition partner quit, was elected again on Monday as the Nordic nation's head of government.

In a 101 -173 vote with 75 abstentions, the 349-seat Riksdag elected Andersson, leader of the Social Democrats, as prime minister. She will form a one-party, minority government. Her Cabinet is expected to be named Tuesday. Formally, she will be installed following an audience with King Carl XVI Gustav, Sweden's figurehead monarch.

Andersson served as prime minister for seven hours before stepping down last week after the Greens left her two-party coalition. Their move followed the rejection of her government’s budget proposal in favor of one presented by opposition parties including the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats, who are rooted in a neo-Nazi movement.

Under the Swedish Constitution, prime ministers can be named and govern as long as a parliamentary majority — a minimum of 175 lawmakers — is not against them.

“It feels good and I am eager to start,” Andersson said of her appointment.

Andersson who was finance minister before becoming prime minister, said she would present her government policies Tuesday when her Cabinet is named. However, she said she has she had three priorities — welfare, climate and combating violence. Sweden has seen a rise in organized crime activity in the past few years and several gang-related shootings have occurred in the three main cities, Stockholm, Goteborg and Malmo.

Andersson repeated she would govern Sweden with the opposition’s budget which was was based on the government’s own proposal but of the 74 billion kronor ($8.2 billion) that the government wanted to spend on reforms, just over 20 billion kronor ($2.2 billion) will be redistributed next year. The approved budget aims at reducing taxes, increased salaries for police officers and more money to different sectors of Sweden’s judiciary system.

In a speech to parliament, Center Party leader Annie Loof said a female prime minister “means a lot to many girls and women, to see this glass ceiling shattered. I am proud that (the Center Party) is involved and makes this possible.” Her party abstained from voting for or against Andersson, paving the way for her election.

Andersson’s appointment as prime minister had marked a milestone for Sweden, viewed for decades as one of Europe’s most progressive countries when it comes to gender relations, but which had yet to have a woman in the top political post.

Sweden is the last Nordic country to have a woman prime minister. The current government leaders in Denmark and Finland are women, Mette Frederiksen and Sanna Marin, respectively. Norway’s first prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland took office in 1981 while Johanna Sigurdardottir became Iceland's first female prime minister in 2009.

With 10 months to the next election, Andersson said, smiling, that she hopes to hold the job for 10 years.



Japan bans entry of foreign visitors as omicron spreads

Entry banned with variant

TOKYO (AP) — Japan announced Monday it will suspend entry of all foreign visitors from around the world as a new coronavirus variant spreads.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the measure will take effect Tuesday.

The decision means Japan will restore border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.

Over the weekend, Japan tightened entry restrictions for people arriving from South Africa and eight other countries, requiring them to undergo a 10-day quarantine period at government-designated facilities.

Many countries have moved to tighten their borders after the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was found in a number of nations.

The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.

Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and both Canada and Australia each found two.

Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organization called for frontiers to remain open.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, emphasized that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. … What we don’t know is whether it can compete with delta,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.

“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Collins said.

The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel.

Canada’s health minister says the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

Authorities in Australia said two travelers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travelers over the weekend.

Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

And Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday that Japan is considering stepping up border controls. Kishida told reporters that he planned to announce new measures in addition to the current 10-day quarantine requirement for travelers from South Africa and eight other nearby countries. Japan still has its border closed to foreign tourists from any country.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry tweeted Sunday that all incoming air travel to the North African country would be suspended to “preserve the achievements realized by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens.” Morocco has been at the forefront of vaccinations in Africa, and kept its borders closed for months in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday. “It’s going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness,” the United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said of the ban on ABC’s “This Week.”

Many countries are introducing such bans, though they go against the advice of the WHO, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.

Fauci says it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of omicron, according to a statement from the White House.

South Africa’s government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

The WHO sent out a statement saying it “stands with African nations” and noting that travel restrictions may play “a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” It said if restrictions are put in place, they should be scientifically based and not intrusive.

In Europe, much of which already has been struggling recently with a sharp increase in cases, officials were on guard.

The U.K. on Saturday tightened rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two omicron cases, but British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government was nowhere near reinstituting work from home or more severe social-distancing measures.

“We know now those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-COVID health outcomes such as impact on mental health,” he told Sky News.

Spain announced it won’t admit unvaccinated British visitors starting Dec. 1. Italy was going through lists of airline passengers who arrived in the past two weeks. France is continuing to push vaccinations and booster shots.

David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the pandemic in Hong Kong, agreed with that strategy.

He said the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the Pfizer vaccine and exhibited very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.

“Vaccines should work but there would be some reduction in effectiveness,” he said.



USGS: Magnitude-7.5 earthquake strikes northern Peru

7.5 earthquake in Peru

The U.S. Geological Survey says a strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.5 has struck in northern Peru.

The earthquake took place at 5:52 a.m. Sunday local time (1052 GMT). While it was extremely strong, it was relatively deep, — measured at 112 kilometers — which usually reduces damage and casualties.

The epicenter was 42 kilometers (26 miles) north northwest of the coastal city of Barranca.

A 14-meter tower in a protected four-century-old church collapsed shortly after the quake, according to local media and witnesses accounts.

Video and photos posted online showed the historic tower, part of a 16th-century complex that was considered the oldest Catholic temple in the Amazonas region, reduced to a pile of stones, although the main atrium appeared to be still standing.

Social media posts also showed damage in other locations, including in a church in southern Ecuador. The quake was also felt in Colombia.

The Defense Ministry’s National Civil Defense Institute in Peru didn’t immediately report damages or injuries by the quake.

Earthquakes are common in Peru, which falls within the Pacific Ring of Fire where 85% of the planet’s seismic activity takes place.



Netherlands, Australia find omicron variant as curbs spread

Omicron variant spreads

The Netherlands confirmed 13 cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus on Sunday and Australia found two as the countries half a world apart became the latest to detect it in travelers arriving from southern Africa.

A raft of curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scramble to slow the variant's spread also grew, with Israel deciding Sunday to bar entry to foreign nationals in the toughest move so far.

Confirmed or suspected cases of the new variant have already emerged in several European countries, in Israel and in Hong Kong, just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The “act first, ask questions later” approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe.

While much remains to be learned about the new variant, researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines and could mean that the pandemic lasts for longer than anticipated.

The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa Friday have so far tested positive for omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel, while sequencing was carried out.

Authorities in Australia said two overseas travelers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the omicron variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travelers over the weekend.

Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on COVID-19, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the new measures were necessary for the “fog of war” surrounding the new variant, saying it was “better to act early and strictly” to prevent its spread.

Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said he has asked his country’s public health institute for advice on whether additional travel restrictions are needed, but he said he wants to coordinate with his European Union counterparts because “I think those are really steps that we will have to take together.”

Many countries have restricted or banned travel from various southern African countries — among the latest New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia. Places that already had imposed restrictions include Brazil, Canada, the EU, Iran, and the U.S. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.

South Africa's government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.” It said it will try to persuade countries that imposed them to reconsider.

“Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise," the minister for international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, said in a statement.

The United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the U.S., though it hasn't yet been detected there.

In Europe, much of which already has been struggling with a sharp increase in cases over recent weeks, officials also were on guard.

The U.K. on Saturday tightened rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two omicron cases. Spain announced it won't admit unvaccinated British visitors starting Dec. 1.

Italy was going through lists of airline passengers who arrived in the past two weeks after a business traveler who returned from Mozambique and landed in Rome on Nov. 11 tested positive for omicron. The Lazio region's top health official, Alessio D’Amato, said that “controls at airports, ports and train stations have been reinforced.”

French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that, while his country had no confirmed cases yet, “it is probable that there currently are cases in circulation."

While it is not clear yet how existing vaccines work against the omicron variant, Veran said France isn’t changing its strategy to fight the latest surge of infections driven by the delta variant, which centers on increasing vaccinations and boosters.

David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the pandemic in Hong Kong, said that even though it is not clear if current coronavirus vaccines are effective against the new variant, the city’s vaccination rate should be increased and booster doses should be implemented as soon as possible.

He said that the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the BioNTech-Pfizer shot and exhibited very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.

“Vaccines should work but there would be some reduction in effectiveness,” he said.



WTA remains 'concerned' about Peng's ability to speak freely

Tennis star concerns remain

Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, says he remains “deeply concerned” about the whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai and her ability to “communicate freely, openly and directly" after allegations that a powerful politician forced her to have sex.

Peng, a three-time Olympian and former top-ranked doubles player, has dropped out of public view after accusing former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse in a Nov. 2 posting on the Chinese internet, which was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.

“Steve Simon has reached out to Peng Shuai via various communication channels,” the WTA said in a statement on Saturday.

“He has sent her two emails, to which it was clear her responses were influenced by others. He remains deeply concerned that Peng is not free from censorship or coercion and decided not to re-engage via email until he was satisfied her responses were her own, and not those of her censors. The WTA remains concerned about her ability to communicate freely, openly, and directly.”

A week ago, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said he had talked with Peng on a video call. The IOC did not release any transcript and said only that Bach reported she said she was well.

The IOC did release a photo of Bach talking with Peng through a video screen shot.

The IOC said in a statement that Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and said she had requested privacy. The IOC did not explain how the call was arranged, although it has worked closely with the Chinese Olympic Committee and government officials to organize the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics which open Feb. 4.

Critics have suggested that Peng would not have called the IOC if she was truly free to speak.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the IOC for working with China's propaganda department in arranging the talk with Peng. The IOC has previously failed to intervene in other human rights issues clouding the Beijing Winter Olympics, claiming it must be neutral.

"The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing's abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault," Yaqui Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.

Simon has threatened to pull WTA events out of China unless he gets clear answers and assurances that Peng is speaking freely. It is the first sports body to publicly push back against China, which supplies critical income to other sports bodies like the IOC and the NBA.

The whereabouts of 75-year-old Zhang, the man accused by Peng, has not been reported. He has not spoken publicly about the incident. He stepped down from the powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee about three years ago.



High alert: World scurries to contain new COVID variant

Scramble to contain omicron

With each passing hour, new restrictions were being slapped on travel from countries in southern Africa as the world scurried Saturday to contain the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines.

A host of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, joined others, including the European Union and the U.K. in impose restrictions on southern African countries in response to warnings over the transmissability of the new variant — against the advice of the World Health Organization. Pharmaceutical companies expressed optimism that they could finesse their vaccines to deal with the new variant though that would clearly take some time.

Despite the banning of flights, there are mounting concerns that the variant has already been widely seeded around the world. Cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

On Saturday, Britain confirmed two linked cases of the new omicron variant while Germany indicated it has a probable case. Dutch authorities are also checking for the new variant after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19.

The global health body has named the new variant omicron, labeling it a variant of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early evidence that it carries a higher degree of infection than other variants. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

With so much uncertainty about the omicron variant and scientists unlikely to flesh out their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world have been taking a safety-first approach, in the knowledge that previous outbreaks of the pandemic have been partly fueled by lax border policies.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

Nearly two years on since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.

Dutch authorities have isolated 61 people who tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday. They are carrying out further investigations to see if any of the travelers have the omicron variant.

The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government imposed a ban on flights from southern African nations.

The 539 travelers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys to other countries. Under government regulations, those who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.

In the U.K., Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people have tested positive with the omicron variant in the southeastern town of Chelmsford and in the central county of Nottinghamshire. He said the cases were linked and related to travel from southern Africa.

Meanwhile, a German official said that there’s a “very high probability” that the omicron variant has already arrived in the country.

Kai Klose, the health minister for Hesse state, which includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “several mutations typical of omicron” were found Friday night in a traveler returning from South Africa, who was isolated at home. Sequencing of the test had yet to be completed.

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. In just two weeks, omicron has turned a period of low transmission in the country into one of rapid growth.

A number of 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.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

“That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through alpha, beta, gamma and delta," he told BBC radio. “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 added that it is "extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.”

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 heeded," said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

“Global vaccine rollout is vital,” he added.



WHO classifies new variant as 'highly transmissible' virus

The new 'omicron' variant

UPDATE 10:30 a.m.

An advisory panel of the World Health Organization classified a new COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa as a highly transmissible virus of concern and named it “omicron” under its Greek-letter system.

The announcement Friday from the United Nations health agency marks the first time in months that WHO has classified a COVID-19 variant as such. The delta variant, which has become the world’s most prevalent, is in the same category.


ORIGINAL 7 a.m.

A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, amid a massive spike in cases in the 27-nation European Union, which is recommending a ban on flights from southern African nations.

Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it has already impacted a jittery world that is sensitive to bad COVID-19 news, with deaths around the globe standing at well over 5 million.

Medical experts, including the World Health Organization, warned against any overreaction before all elements were clear but nations who acted said their concerns were justified.

“Early indications show this variant may be more transmissable than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. "We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” he said.

Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.

“We have one case of this variant that is confirmed. It’s someone who came from abroad,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “It’s a suspicious variant. We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it has also detected the country’s first case of the new variant, in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

The new variant immediately infected stock markets around the world. Major indexes fell in Europe and Asia and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the U.S.

“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

Oil prices plunged, with US. crude off 6.7% at $73.22 per barrel and the international Brent benchmark off 5.6% at $77.64, both unusually large moves for a single day. The pandemic caused oil prices to plunge during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.

Airlines shares were hammered, with Lufthansa off 12.4%, IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia, off 14.4%, Air France-KLM down 8.9% and easyJet falling 10.9%

The WHO cautioned not to jump to conclusions too fast.

Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO said that “it’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses."

“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Ryan said.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed and it “strongly discourages the imposition of travel ban for people originating from countries that have reported this variant,” it said in a statement. It added that “over the duration of this pandemic, we have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome.”

Those urgings quickly fell on deaf ears.

The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

Italy's health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due to the new variant. The Netherlands and the Czech Republic are planning similar measures.

The Japanese government announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and do a COVID test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.

The actions had a quick effect in the world of sports. A batch of British and Irish golfers withdrew from the Joburg Open before Friday’s second round after the U.K. government announced it was banning flights from South Africa.

The South African government said in a statement that the “U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.”

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

The WHO's technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet. It says coronavirus infections jumped 11% in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. The WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.



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