Nations on high alert as Covid variant spreads
Russia has confirmed the first two cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the country in travellers who returned from South Africa, health officials said on Monday.
Russia restricted entry for all foreigners travelling from countries in southern Africa and required all Russian nationals returning from South Africa or neighbouring countries as of Thursday to quarantine for 14 days because of the new variant.
Namibia has detected the Omicron variant in 18 of 19 samples sequenced between November 11-26, its health ministry said on Monday.
Although the southern African country has sequenced relatively few samples, the finding suggests the variant first flagged by neighbouring South Africa and Botswana late last month, and since labelled “of concern” by the World Health Organization, is also highly prevalent in Namibia.
Separately, Pakistan on Monday banned travel from 15 countries, including The Netherlands and South Africa, except under certain conditions, and tightened up travel restrictions on 13 other countries in wake of the threat of the new variant.
Croatia confirmed on Monday its first two cases of Omicron, the state health institute said.
“We are not sure about the source of the infection as neither of those two people had travelled abroad. We believe they got infected at a business meeting at which both participated,” said Bernard Kaic, an epidemiologist at the state health institute.
Japan confirmed on Monday its third case of the new omicron variant as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to take strict measures based on a worst-case scenario of a possible resurgence of infections.
Chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that the third confirmed case is a man in his 30s who tested positive upon arrival from Italy at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on December 1 and has since been isolated.
However, initial data from South Africa, the epicentre of the outbreak of the Omicron variant, don’t show a resulting surge of hospitalisations. “Thus far, it doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Anthony Fauci, US President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said on Sunday, while cautioning it’s too early to be certain.
Meanwhile, Italy tightened curbs on Monday on people still not vaccinated against Covid-19, limiting their access to an array of places and services.
Under the new rules, only people who have been vaccinated or have recently recovered from Covid-19 can access indoor seating at bars and restaurants, visit museums, go to cinemas and clubs and attend sporting events.
Ukraine's Severodonetsk was "fully occupied" by the Russian army, its mayor said on Saturday, after weeks of fighting over the key eastern city. The Ukrainian army on Friday said it would withdraw its forces from the city of some 100,000 inhabitants before the war to better defend the neighbouring city of Lysychansk. Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said civilians had started to evacuate the Azot chemical plant, where several hundred people had been hiding from Russian shelling.
Ukraine said it came under "massive bombardment" Saturday from neighbouring Belarus, a Russian ally not officially involved in the conflict, the day after announcing a retreat from the strategic city of Severodonetsk. Belarus has provided logistic support to Moscow since the February 24 invasion, particularly in the first few weeks, and like Russia has been targeted by Western sanctions -- but is officially not involved in the conflict.
President Joe Biden on Saturday signed into law the first significant federal bill on gun safety in decades, saying that while it falls short of what's really needed it will "save lives. While this bill doesn't do everything I want, it does include actions I've long called for that are going to save lives," he said at the White House before leaving for major diplomatic summits in Europe.
Iran's talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with the US will restart in the “coming days,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles said. The negotiations “have to be finished, three months have passed,” Borrell said. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian reiterated his call to the Biden administration to take a “realistic and fair” approach to help reach an agreement. The US pulling out of the Iran accord has increased tensions between the countries.
China deployed “aerial and ground forces” to monitor an US P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft, which flew over the Taiwan Strait on Friday in the backdrop of large scale Chinese armed forces' military drills around the self-ruled island of Taiwan earlier this week. The US Navy's reconnaissance aircraft flew over the Taiwan Strait on Friday in what the US Indo-Pacific Command described as a demonstration of the US's “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.