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Ukrainian servicemen in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, Ukraine November 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

Ukraine urged NATO on Wednesday to prepare economic sanctions on Russia to deter a possible invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops concentrated within reach of its border.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he would make the request to NATO foreign ministersmeeting for the second day in Latvia to discuss how to respond to the Russian build-up and avert potentially the worst crisis in relations with Moscow since the Cold War.

“We will call on the allies to join Ukraine in putting together a deterrence package,” Kuleba told reporters as he arrived for the talks in Riga.

This should include preparing economic sanctions against Russia, in case it “decides to choose the worst-case scenario”, Kuleba said, adding that NATO should also boost military and defence cooperation with Ukraine.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO but the U.S.-led alliance has said it is committed to preserving the sovereignty of the former Soviet republic, which has tilted towards the West since 2014 and aspires to join both NATO and the European Union.

That has enraged Russia, drawing a warning from President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that Russia was ready with a newly tested hypersonic weapon in case NATO crossed its “red lines” and deployed missiles in Ukraine.

Russia also backs separatists in a long-running war in the east of Ukraine, and accused Kyiv on Wednesday of mobilising 125,000 troops, or half its army in the conflict zone. Kyiv declined to comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said direct talks with Moscow were needed to end the war in the eastern Donbass region, which Kyiv says has killed more than 14,000 people.

“We must tell the truth that we will not be able to stop the war without direct negotiations with Russia, and today this has already been recognised by all, all external partners,” Zelenskiy told parliament.

Russia said it had started regular winter military drills in its southern military district, parts of which border Ukraine, and that 10,000 troops had relocated to training grounds across the huge area. Its ally Belarus has also announced joint military drills with Russia on the Ukrainiann border.

DETERRING PUTIN

The West has maintained economic sanctions on Russia’s energy, banking and defence sectors since 2014 after it seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine. It has also targeted a growing list of senior Russian officials with asset freezes and travel bans.

But Russia has also blunted the impact of sanctions by reducing its borrowings on foreign financial markets and maintaining large currency and gold reserves.

“We are confident that if we join efforts, if we act in a coordinated fashion, we will be able to deter President Putin and to demotivate him from choosing the worst-case scenario, which is a military operation,” Ukraine’s Kuleba said.

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told reporters any military operation that would violate the sovereignty of Ukraine would be met with “severe consequences” and that Denmark was ready to engage with heavy sanctions.

His comments echoed those of NATO and the United States, who on Tuesday issued stark warnings to Russia that it would pay a high price for any new military aggression against Ukraine.

“Any future Russian aggression against Ukraine would come at a high price and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after the first day of talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Stockholm on Thursday.

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UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed has expressed worry that more than 80% of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries while low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6% of all vaccine

Speaking at the Building Bridges Summit for sustainable finance in Geneva on Monday, Mohammed said the world had not been able to rise to the global solidarity call for vaccination.

“Until everyone gets the vaccine, we will all be at risk, and we will not be able to take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to where they ought to be by 2030.

“For many, the health pandemic has been a tragedy, particularly in developed countries, but for developing countries it has a socio-economic impact that will take so much longer to recover from.

“And so, we need the urgency of the investments in climate action, which will have multiplier effects on the SDGs,” she said.

The UN deputy chief emphasised on securing needed funding to achieve sustainable development by involving as many actors from different sectors as possible.

According to her, involving more actors is more urgent than ever, amid a widening “trust deficit” between the haves and the have-nots.

Mohammed urged all those present from Government, the private sector, international organisations and civil society, to do more to push ahead with a common investment framework to improve people’s lives everywhere.

“We need more ambition, more action, more scale, greater urgency in delivering the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement – and we certainly need more fuel, more financial resources and more investments,” she said.

Highlighting the convening ambition of the summit at Geneva’s Maison de la Paix, Mohammed listed the issues that she hoped the week-long summit might address.

“We need the private sector and its leadership to unlock resources for key transitions in sustainable energy and connectivity, food systems, health, education, social protection, digitalisation.”

“Innovative instruments including blended finance can all play an important role, but we need to massively scale-up that delivery.”

”In spite of the fact that there was the “leadership”, “expertise” and “tools” to achieve so much, the deputy UN chief warned that “the truth is that the trust deficit is widening in our world”

Representing the Swiss Federal Government at the summit’s second iteration, Finance Minister Ueli Maurer highlighted its potential for concrete action, along with the need to be inclusive and transparent in the way that sustainable financing is handled.

“I think Building Bridges, we have to do it between the population and the Government, we have to explain what we have to do,” he said.

“Then we need bridges between the private sector and the Government and then I think we need bridges from Switzerland to the world.”

According to the summit’s organisers, between 2019 and 2020, sustainable investment rose by 31 per cent in Switzerland, to over 1,500 billion francs.

In addition to highlighting opportunities for investors and fund managers, it is hoped that the summit will contribute to creating an ordered and common approach to “net zero” financing, said Patrick Odier, President of Building Bridges initiative and chair of Lombard Odier bank.

“We are trying actually to bring capital closer to the whole array of the Sustainable Development Goals.’’

Odier also responded to the call to end subsidies for fossil fuel industries to create a level playing field for renewable energy investment: “We all know that we have to deal with these issues of subsidies, but finance itself is not at the helm of addressing this issue,” he said.

“What finance can do is basically ask the Government to play its role when it comes to trying to address the fossil industry and of course the emission problematic.”
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International check-in counters stand empty at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday the Omicron coronavirus variant carried a very high risk of infection surges as more countries closed borders, casting a shadow over economic recovery from the two-year pandemic. Big airlines acted swiftly to protect their hubs by curbing passenger travel from southern Africa, fearing that a spread of the new variant would trigger restrictions from other destinations beyond the immediately affected regions, industry sources said.

But shares in carriers bounced back with the rest of the market on Monday after Friday’s rout as hopes grew that the variant might prove to be milder than initially feared.

The WHO advised its 194 member nations that any surge in infections could have severe consequences, but said no deaths had yet been linked to the new variant.

“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said.

“The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high.”

Further research was needed to understand Omicron‘s potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it added.

US President Joe Biden said the new variant was a cause for concern but not panic and that everyone should get their shots. He said it would be weeks before the world knew how effective current vaccines would be against it.

“Sooner or later we are going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” Biden said. “Please wear your mask when you’re indoors, in public settings around other people.”

He said he did not think additional curbs were needed.

An infectious disease expert from South Africa, where scientists first identified Omicron, said it was too early to say whether symptoms were more severe than previous variants, but it did appear to be more transmissible.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim also said existing vaccines were probably effective at stopping Omicron from causing severe illness. Scientists have said it could take weeks to understand the severity of Omicron.

South African cases were likely to exceed 10,000 a day this week, rocketing up from barely 300 a day two weeks ago, Karim added.

But South African President Cyril Ramaphosa denounced “unjustified and unscientific” travel bans that damage tourism-reliant economies. His country has said it is being punished for its scientific ability to detect new variants.

Health ministers from the Group of Seven bloc of wealthy nations praised South Africa for its “exemplary work” in detecting the variant and alerting others, a sentiment echoed by Biden.

JITTERY MARKETS

Fears the new variant might be resistant to vaccines helped wipe roughly $2 trillion off global stock markets on Friday but markets settled down again on Monday, even after Japan said it would close its borders to foreigners.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said on Monday it was too soon to tell if Omicron will have any impact on global supply chains.

The prospect of a fast-spreading variant has raised fears of a return of the sort of restrictions that shut down a swathe of industries in 2020.

“This is new,” Nissan Motor Co’s US spokeswoman, Lloryn love-Carter, said. “We’re monitoring of course, but we still have a lot of pretty strict Covid protocols in place.”

Travellers stranded at Johannesburg international airport said they felt helpless as flights from South Africa were cancelled. “We don’t know what to do, we are just waiting here,” said Ntabiseng Kabeli, from Lesotho.

Portugal found 13 cases of the variant at a Lisbon football club. Spain, Sweden, Scotland and Austria also reported their first cases.

Japan described its ban on arrivals by foreigners as precautionary.

In Israel, a ban on arrivals by foreigners took effect overnight.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern that restrictions would isolate southern African countries.

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalised for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” he said.

Guterres has long warned about the dangers of vaccine inequality around the world and the risk that low immunisation rates are a breeding ground for variants.

More than 261 million people in over 210 countries have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019 and 5,456,515​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

The new variant was discovered just as many parts of Europe were suffering a fourth wave of coronavirus infections as winter grips the continent in the runup to Christmas, with more people gathering indoors and increasing the risk of infection.

European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde tried to reassure investors that the eurozone could cope with a resurgence.

“We now know our enemy and what measures to take,” she told Italian broadcaster RAI late on Sunday. “We are all better equipped to respond to a risk of a fifth wave or the Omicron variant.”

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The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

World powers and Iran will gather in Vienna on Monday to try to salvage their 2015 nuclear deal, but with Tehran sticking to its tough stance and Western powers increasingly frustrated, hopes of a breakthrough appear slim.

Diplomats say time is running low to resurrect the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other powers involved – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of a new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric.

Tehran’s new negotiating team has set out demands that U.S. and European diplomats consider unrealistic, Western diplomats say.

They include insisting that all U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to Iran‘s nuclear programme, be dropped. [nL8N2SI09H

In parallel, Tehran’s conflicts with the U.N. atomic watchdog, which monitors the nuclear programme, have festered.

Iran has pressed ahead with its uranium enrichment programme and the IAEA says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to reinstall monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.

“If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it,” U.S. envoy Robert Malley told BBC Sounds on Saturday.

He warned that Washington would be ready to ramp up pressure on Tehran if talks collapse.

Iranian officials have insisted in the run-up to Monday that their focus is purely the lifting of sanctions rather than nuclear issues. Highlighting that, its 40-strong delegation mostly includes economic officials.

“To ensure any forthcoming agreement is ironclad, the West needs to pay a price for having failed to uphold its part of the bargain. As in any business, a deal is a deal, and breaking it has consequences,” Iran‘s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani said in defiant column in the Financial Times on Sunday.

“The principle of ‘mutual compliance’ cannot form a proper base for negotiations since it was the U.S. government which unilaterally left the deal.”

Diplomats have said Washington has suggested negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal is not achieved.

Failure to strike a deal could also prompt reaction from Israel which has said military options would be on the table.

“The talks can’t last forever. There is the obvious need to speed up the process,’ Moscow’s envoy Mikhail Ulyanov said on Twitter.

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The Omicron coronavirus variant kept spreading around the world on Sunday, with 13 cases found in the Netherlands and two each in Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.

Britain has recorded a third case the UK Health Security Agency said on Sunday, adding that the individual, who was no longer in Britain, was linked to travel to Southern Africa.

UKHSA said that while in Britain, the individual was in Westminster in central London.

“It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing.”

Dutch health authorities said the 13 cases of the variant were found among people on two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday.

Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on those two flights and had found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for the new variant.

“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference in Rotterdam. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”

The discovery of Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” last week by the World Health Organization, has caused worry around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year COVID-19 pandemic.

First discovered in South Africa, it has now been detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong.

Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Many countries have imposed travel bans or curbs on southern Africa to try to stem the spread. Financial markets dived on Friday as investors worried that the variant could stall a global recovery. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel.

Most Gulf stock markets ended lower on Sunday, with the Saudi and Dubai indexes suffering their biggest single-day fall in nearly two years.

In new cases detected on Sunday, Denmark said it had registered two cases in travelers from South Africa, while officials in Australia said two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa had tested positive for the variant.

Austria was investigating a suspected case and in France Health Minister Olivier Veran said the variant was probably already circulating there.

ISRAELI MEASURES

In the most far-reaching effort to keep the variant at bay, Israel announced late on Saturday it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective vaccines are against Omicron.

The top U.S. infectious disease official, Anthony Fauci, said Americans should be prepared to fight the spread of the new variant, but it is too soon to say what actions are needed, including possible mandates or lockdowns.

In Britain, where two linked cases of Omicron identified on Saturday were connected to travel to southern Africa, the government announced measures to try to contain the spread, including stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country and requiring mask wearing in some settings.

British health minister Sajid Javid said on Sunday he expected to receive advice imminently on whether the government can broaden a programme of providing booster shots to fully vaccinated people, to try to weaken the impact of the variant.

Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese respiratory disease expert, said it could take some time to reach a conclusion on the harmfulness of the new variant, state television reported on Sunday.

VACCINE DISPARITIES

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating, many countries – including the United States, Brazil, Canada, European Union nations, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand – have announced bans or restrictions on travel from South Africa and other southern African nations.

More countries imposed such curbs on Sunday, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

The South African government has denounced the travel measures as unfair and potentially harmful to its economy, saying it is being punished for its scientific ability to identify coronavirus variants early.

Mexico’s deputy health secretary, Hugo Lopez Gatell, said travel restrictions are of little use, calling measures taken by some countries “disproportionate”.

“It (Omicron) has not been shown to be more virulent or to evade the immune response induced by vaccines. They affect the economy and well-being of people,” he said on Saturday.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, with some reintroducing restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in poorer countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

“While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he told Reuters on Saturday.

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Israel will host the Miss Universe beauty pageant on Dec 12 despite imposing travel restrictions in a bid to stave off the Omicron strain of the coronavirus, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said on Sunday.

He said participants in the contest, to be held in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, will be granted waivers from the curbs while possibly being subject to PCR testing every 48 hours and other precautionary measures.

Israel announced on Saturday it was banning the entry of foreigners into the country.

“This is an event that will be broadcast in 174 countries, a very important event, a event that Eilat, too, is very much in need of,” Razvozov told reporters.

“We will know how to manage this event. So, by using the waivers committee, we will have events like this, to which the country already committed itself and which we cannot cancel.”
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Passengers waiting for their coronavirus test results at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam

Australia and several other countries joined nations imposing restrictions on travel from southern Africa on Saturday after the discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant sparked global concern and triggered a sell-off on financial markets.

But indicating that such curbs may not stem the spread of the variant, Britain said on Saturday it had detected two cases and authorities in Germany and the Czech Republic also said they had suspected cases.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other coronavirus strains.

The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

Dutch authorities said that 61 out of around 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday had tested positive for the coronavirus. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant.

One passenger who arrived from South Africa on Friday, Dutch photographer Paula Zimmerman, said she tested negative but was anxious for the days to come, having spent hours on a flight that likely had many infected passengers.

“I’ve been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It’s a little scary the idea that you’ve been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive,” she said.

Financial markets plunged on Friday, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, as investors worried the variant could cause another surge in the pandemic and stall a global recovery. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 2.5%, its worst day since late October 2020, and European stocks had their worst day in 17 months.

It could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it. Omicron is the fifth variant of concern designated by the WHO.

TRAVEL CURBS

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations – announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.

On Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens and their dependents returning from there.

Japan said it would extend its tightened border controls to three more African countries after imposing curbs on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho on Friday.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry said on Saturday, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

The two linked cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant detected in Britain were connected to travel to southern Africa, health minister Sajid Javid said.

Britain said it was expanding its “red list” to put travel curbs on more southern Africa countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman and Hungary also announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.

A minister in Hesse state said on Saturday that the variant had very probably arrived in Germany, in a traveller returning from South Africa. Czech health authorities said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.

VACCINATIONS

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world’s population is vaccinated. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the Covax initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

“While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said in a statement to Reuters.

“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts.”

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa as a SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern,” saying it may spread more quickly than other forms.

Preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection and there had been a “detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology,” it said in a statement after a closed meeting of independent experts who reviewed the data.

Infections in South Africa had risen steeply in recent weeks, coinciding with detection of the variant now designated as omicron, WHO said.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other (variants of concern), it said.

Omicron is the fifth variant to carry such a designation.

“This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.

Current PCR tests continue to successfully detect the variant, it said.

Earlier, the WHO cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to the variant of COVID-19, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach”. Global authorities reacted with alarm to the new variant detected in South Africa, with the EU and Britain among those tightening border controls as scientists sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”

It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, he said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.

People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, Lindmeier added.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergency director, praised South African public health institutions for picking up the signal of the new variant.

But he warned that while some countries had systems in place to do this, the situation elsewhere was often unclear. “So it’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here. Especially with relation to South Africa,” he said. “Because we’ve seen in the past, the minute that there is any mention of any kind of variation, then everyone is closing borders and restricting travel.”

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A Christmas bauble shaped as Santa Claus wearing a protective mask in Eichenau, Germany

The discovery of a new coronavirus variant triggered global alarm on Friday as countries rushed to suspend travel from southern Africa and stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered their biggest falls in more than a year.

The United States will restrict travel from South Africa – where the new mutation was discovered – and neighbouring countries effective Monday, a senior Biden administration official said.

Going further, Canada said it was closing its borders to those countries, following bans on flights announced by Britain, the European Union and others.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was designating the variant, named omicron, as being “of concern”, a label only given to four variants to date.

But it could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the variant’s mutations. Health authorities are seeking to determine if omicron is more transmissible or infectious than other variants and if vaccines are effective against it.

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla called the travel restrictions “unjustified”, though he also said preliminary studies suggested the new variant may be more transmissible.

“This new variant of the COVID-19 virus is very worrying. It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date,” said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Britain’s Warwick university.

“Some of the mutations that are similar to changes we’ve seen in other variants of concern are associated with enhanced transmissibility and with partial resistance to immunity induced by vaccination or natural infection.”

Those worries pummelled financial markets, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, and oil, which tumbled by about $10 a barrel.

Meanwhile, the scramble to ban air travel from southern Africa left hundreds of passengers on two KLM flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg stranded on the tarmac for hours at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport before they were transferred for testing.

“Bus to a hall to a huge queue. I can see COVID testers in bright blue PPE far on the distance. Still no snacks for the sad babies,” tweeted New York Times journalist Stephanie Nolen, a passenger on the flight from Johannesburg.

‘MOST SIGNIFICANT VARIANT’

Several other countries including India, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates also toughened travel curbs.

In Geneva the WHO – whose experts on Friday discussed the risks that the variant, called B.1.1.529, presents – had earlier warned against travel curbs for now.

“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here,” said the WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan, praising South Africa’s public health institutions for picking up the new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines will fare.

“As scientists have described, (this is) the most significant variant they’ve encountered to date,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News.

On Wall Street the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 2.5%, tracking its worst day since late October 2020, and European stocks had their worst day in 17 months as financial markets digested the news.

Cruise operators Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line plunged more than 9% each, while shares in United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines slumped almost 10%.

TOO LATE FOR TRAVEL CURBS?

The coronavirus has swept the world in the two years since it was first identified in central China, infecting almost 260 million people and killing 5.4 million.

One epidemiologist in Hong Kong said it may be too late to tighten travel curbs against the latest variant.

“Most likely this virus is already in other places. And so if we shut the door now, it’s going to be probably too late,” said Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong.

Belgium identified Europe’s first case, adding to those in Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa recommended that travel be restricted from some African countries, but President Jair Bolsonaro appeared to dismiss such measures.

Bolsonaro has been widely criticized by public health experts for his management of the pandemic, railing against lockdowns and choosing not to get vaccinated. Brazil has the world’s second-highest death toll from the virus, behind only the United States.

Discovery of the new variant comes as Europe and the United States enter winter, with more people gathering indoors in the run-up to Christmas, providing a breeding ground for infection.

Friday also marked the start of the holiday shopping period in the United States, when retailers offer discounts. This year, U.S. shoppers found stores less crowded than in years past.

Realtor Kelsey Hupp, 36, was at the Macy’s department store in downtown Chicago on Black Friday.

“Chicago is pretty safe and masked and vaccinated. I got my booster so I’m not too concerned about it,” she said.

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An F/A-18C Hornet from the Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 34 'Blue Blasters' launches from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) flight deck, in South China Sea April 8, 2017

Russia’s defence minister on Tuesday accused U.S. bombers of rehearsing a nuclear strike on Russia from two different directions earlier this month and complained that the planes had come within 20 km (12.4 miles) of the Russian border.

The accusation comes at a time of high tension between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, with U.S. officials voicing concerns about a possible Russian attack on its southern neighbour – a suggestion the Kremlin has dismissed as false.

Moscow has in turn accused the United States, NATO and Ukraine of provocative and irresponsible behaviour, pointing to U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine, Ukraine’s use of Turkish strike drones against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and NATO military exercises close to its borders.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Moscow had noted a significant increase in the activity by U.S. strategic bombers which he said had carried out 30 flights close to Russia this month. That, he said, was 2.5 times more than the same period last year.

Shoigu complained in particular of what he said was a simulated U.S. nuclear strike against Russia earlier this month.

“The defence minister underlined that during the U.S. military exercises ‘Global Thunder’, 10 American strategic bombers rehearsed launching nuclear weapons against Russia from the western and eastern directions,” Shoigu was quoted as saying in a defence ministry statement.

“The minimum proximity to our state border was 20 km.”

Shoigu was quoted as saying that Russian air defence units had spotted and tracked the U.S. strategic bombers and taken unspecified measures to avoid any incidents.

Global Thunder, which this year put U.S. nuclear-capable B-52 bombers through their paces, is the U.S. Strategic Command’s annual nuclear and command exercise designed to test and demonstrate the readiness of U.S. nuclear capabilities.

President Vladimir Putin referenced the apparent episode briefly last week, complaining of Western strategic bombers carrying “very serious weapons” close to Russia. He said the West was taking Moscow’s warnings not to cross its “red lines” too lightly.

Shoigu made the comments in a video conference with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. He said that U.S. bomber flights close to Russia’s eastern borders were also a threat to China.

“Against this backdrop, Russo-Chinese coordination is becoming a stabilising factor in world affairs,” said Shoigu.

Russia and China agreed at the meeting to step up cooperation between their armed forces when it came to strategic military exercises and joint patrols, the defence ministry said.

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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan

Armenia on Tuesday asked Russia to help defend it against Azerbaijan after a border clash in which it said 15 of its soldiers had been killed, 12 captured, and two combat positions had been lost.

The fighting was the worst since a 44-day war last year fought between ethnic Armenian forces and the Azeri army over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave which killed at least 6,500 people and ended in a decisive victory for Azerbaijan.

That conflict ended after Russia brokered a peace deal and deployed almost 2,000 peacekeepers to the region. Turkey took the side of Azerbaijan, which took back swathes of land it had lost in an earlier conflict.

In a series of statements carried by Armenian and Russian news agencies, the Armenian defence ministry said its troops had come under fire from Azeri artillery, small arms and armour.

It said 15 of its soldiers had been killed, 12 captured and that two combat positions near the border with Azerbaijan had been lost.

“Since Azerbaijan has attacked Armenia’s sovereign territory we are asking Russia to defend Armenia’s territorial integrity based on an existing 1987 (mutual defence) agreement between our countries,” the Interfax news agency quoted Armen Grigoryan, the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council, as saying.

Russia has a military base in Armenia as well as a peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. There was no immediate response from Russia to the Armenian appeal.

The Azeri defence ministry said it had launched a military operation to respond to what it called large-scale “provocations” from the Armenian side and in a statement blamed Armenia’s military-political leadership.

It said Armenian forces had shelled Azeri army positions with artillery and mortar fire and that its own operation had been successful.

“The Azerbaijan Army has operational and tactical superiority,” it said in the same statement, saying it had targeted Armenian troops and hardware along the border.

“Armenian servicemen are leaving their positions in fear and panic. Military equipment belonging to the opposing side has been destroyed.”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia was ready to help resolve a migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland, RIA news agency reported on Sunday citing an interview on a state TV channel.

“We are ready to help it by all means if of course anything would depend on us,” Putin was quoted as saying.

Russia is a key ally of Belarus, which the European Union says was responsible for flying in thousands of migrants, most of them from the Middle East, and pushing them to try to cross illegally into Poland.

Russia denies Moscow and Minsk were involved. Putin blamed the West for the crisis referring to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Putin said in the interview he had spoken with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko twice since the migrant crisis began but had initially learned about it from media.
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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko Nikolai Petrov/BelTA

The Kremlin said on Friday that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had not consulted Moscow before raising the possibility of cutting natural gas flows to Europe, and that Russia was a reliable exporter that fulfilled its obligations.

Lukashenko threatened on Thursday to retaliate against any new European Union sanctions over a migrant standoff on the Belarus-EU border, including by shutting down the transit of natural gas and goods via Belarus.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Lukashenko’s threat had not been coordinated with Moscow.

Russia is a major exporter of natural gas to Europe via Belarus and the Kremlin made it clear it did not want to see any disruption in supplies.

“This is a statement by the president of Belarus,” Peskov said. “I want to remind you of President Putin’s statement that Russia has always fulfilled its contract obligations… Belarus is our ally, but it is a sovereign state.”

Peskov described Russia as a guarantor of Europe’s energy security.

“Russia’s reliability as a supplier and partner for current and future contracts cannot be called into question,” he said.

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Migrants gather near a barbed wire fence in an attempt to cross the border with Poland in the Grodno region, Belarus

Russia took the rare step of dispatching two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace on Wednesday in a show of support to close ally Belarus at a time when it is locked in a migrant standoff with the European Union.

Moscow’s decision to up the ante came as the 27-nation bloc considered sanctions on Wednesday to punish Minsk for what it calls an artificially created crisis, something Belarus denies.

Migrants trapped in Belarus made multiple attempts to force their way into Poland overnight, Warsaw said on Wednesday, announcing that it had reinforced the border with extra guards.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on states to deescalate and resolve the “intolerable” crisis.

“These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care,” she said.

The Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers that Russia sent to overfly Belarus are capable of carrying nuclear missiles, including hypersonic ones of the kind designed to evade sophisticated Western air defences.

Russia blamed the EU for the crisis on the border, accusing it of failing to uphold its own humanitarian values and of trying to “strangle” Belarus with plans to close part of the frontier. It also said it was unacceptable for the EU to impose sanctions on Belarus over the crisis.

The Kremlin said a suggestion by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that Moscow had a role in the flow of migrants into the EU was irresponsible and that President Vladimir Putin had told German Chancellor Angela Merkel the EU should discuss the crisis directly with Minsk.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped responsible Europeans would “not allow themselves to be drawn into a spiral that is fairly dangerous” after talks with his Belarusian counterpart.

The bloc’s 27 ambassadors are set to agree on Wednesday that the growing numbers of migrants flying to Belarus to reach the EU border amount to “hybrid warfare” by President Alexander Lukashenko – a legal basis for new sanctions.

“Mr. Lukashenko …unscrupulously exploits people seeking refuge as hostages for his cynical power play,” Germany’s acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter.

He described images from the Belarusian border, where people are stuck in freezing conditions with little food and shelter, as “horrific” but said the EU could not be blackmailed.

The EU accuses Belarus of encouraging the migrants – from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa – to try to illegally cross the frontier in revenge for earlier sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses.

Lukashenko has denied using the migrants as weapons.

Germany’s Merkel urged Putin to put pressure on Belarus over the situation at the border, a German government spokesperson said.

Thousands of people have converged on the border this week, where makeshift razor wire fences and Polish soldiers have repeatedly blocked their entry. Some of the migrants have used logs, spades and other implements to try to break through.

“It was not a calm night. Indeed, there were many attempts to breach the Polish border,” Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told broadcaster PR1.

Video from the border obtained by Reuters showed young children and babies among the people stuck there.

“There are lots of families here with babies between two or four months old. They have not eaten anything for the past three days,” the person who provided the video told Reuters, saying they were a migrant themselves and declining to be named.

REINFORCEMENTS

The Polish border guards service reported 599 illegal border crossing attempts on Tuesday, with 9 people detained and 48 sent back. Blaszczak said the force of Polish soldiers stationed at the border had been strengthened to 15,000 from 12,000.

After midnight, two groups of migrants were turned back. One that was around 200 people near the town of Bialowieza and another of around two dozen was turned back near Dubicze Cerkiewne, a spokeswoman told Reuters.

Neighbouring EU state Lithuania, which followed in Poland’s footsteps by imposing a state of emergency at its border on Tuesday, reported 281 migrants were turned back that day, the highest figure since August when such push backs began.

The EU accuses Lukashenko of using “gangster-style” tactics in the months-long border standoff, in which at least seven migrants have died. The new EU sanctions would target around 30 individuals and entities including the Belarusian foreign minister, three EU diplomats told Reuters.

European Council President Charles Michel said the EU needed to make up its mind if it was ready to finance fences to help countries such as Lithuania protect the bloc’s external borders against a “hybrid attack” by Belarus.

Lukashenko’s government blames Europe and the United States for the plight of the people stranded at the border.

The crisis erupted after the EU, United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus over its violent crackdown on mass street protests that were sparked by Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in 2020.

Lukashenko turned to traditional ally Russia for support and financing to ride out the protests. The migrant crisis has given Moscow an opportunity to double down on its support for Belarus, a country it regards a strategic buffer against NATO, and criticise the EU.

Poland denies accusations by humanitarian groups that it is violating the international right to asylum by hustling migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Warsaw says its actions are legal.

Some migrants have complained of being repeatedly pushed back and forth by Polish and Belarusian border guards, putting them at risk of exposure, lack of food and water.

“Yesterday we helped to secure and evacuate one group of immigrants,” said Michal Swiatkowski, 30, a member of the Polish Red Cross rescue group from Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski.

“There were 16 people, most of them were children. They did not require medical attention, although we donated warm clothes, blankets and some food,” he told Reuters.

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World Health Organisation (WHO) says shortage of at least one billion syringes “could occur”, if manufacturing does not pick up based on global demand for syringes.

WHO said that based on a scenario where around seven billion people would need two doses of Coronavirus vaccine between now and 2023, a shortage of at least one billion syringes could occur.

According to the agency, efforts to boost COVID-19 vaccine production should be matched by access to the syringes needed to inject them.

It added that there could even be a global shortage of needles for regular immunisation campaigns by 2022.

Lisa Hedman, WHO Senior Advisor, from the Access to Medicines and Health Products division, warned that a generation of children might miss scheduled immunisation jabs unless manufacturers found a way to make more single-use disposable syringes.

“When you think about the magnitude of the number of injections being given to respond to the pandemic, this is not a place where we can afford shortcuts, shortages or anything short of full safety for patients and healthcare staff,” the WHO expert said.

She told newsmen in Geneva on Tuesday that more than 6.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines were being administered globally per year, which was nearly double the number of routine inoculations delivered annually:

“A shortage of syringes is unfortunately a real possibility and here’s some more numbers.

“That the global manufacturing capacity of around six billion a year for immunisation syringes, it’s pretty clear that a deficit in 2022 of over a billion could happen if we continue with business as usual.”

Hedman explained that reusing syringes even after they were sterilised was not advised, as harmful bacteria remained present.

She also noted that syringes were particularly prone to transport delays because they took up 10 times the space of a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the heads of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank Group, WHO and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) held a follow up session of High-Level Consultations with the CEOs of leading COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing companies on Tuesday.

At the meeting, according to a news release, all participants agree on the urgency of delivering more vaccine doses to low-income countries, where less than 2.5 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

The objective of the meeting was to identify how to ensure more equitable distribution of vaccines and all those participating pledged to continue working together to gain greater clarity on donations, vaccine swaps and delivery schedules.

The meeting was to ensure that distribution of the life-saving vaccines could be more effectively targeted towards those countries most in need.

The meeting of the Multilateral Leaders Task Force on COVID-19 built on technical work undertaken by multidisciplinary teams during the months of September and October.
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Medical specialists transport a patient outside a hospital for people infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Moscow, Russia

Russia said last week’s nationwide workplace shutdown had helped turn the tide of surging COVID-19 cases, even as officials on Tuesday reported the largest one-day death toll of the pandemic so far.

All but a handful of Russia’s 80-plus regions on Monday ended a “non-working” period from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7 that was ordered by President Vladimir Putin, the toughest nationwide restriction since the early months of the pandemic.

The health minister told a televised government meeting on Tuesday that the increase in the number of patients receiving medical care had slowed last week for the first time since the beginning of August, though he said it remained “quite high.”

“Undoubtedly, the fall is due to the… non-working days, the regional measures. These measures have turned the tide, and it is very right that a number of regions – five regions – have decided to extend the regime of days off,” the minister, Mikhail Murashko, said.

He said there were 1.36 million people under various kinds of medical supervision or treatment for COVID-19.

The government coronavirus taskforce reported a record one-day death toll of 1,211 and reported 39,160 new cases in the last 24 hours, down from a peak of 41,335 on Saturday.

St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city by population, has ordered mandatory vaccination for people over 60 and those with chronic illnesses, a regional consumer health watchdog said on Tuesday.

The step was significant because authorities have generally held back from forcing people to get inoculated, fearing it could further entrench resistance to the domestically produced Sputnik V vaccine which is already distrusted by many Russians.

In Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said this coming week would be crucial for the capital and that it would be clear by the end of it what measures needed to be kept on. He said he hoped the situation would be more or less stable.

Many regions that have lifted the workplace shutdown will now require visitors to present a QR code on their mobile phones when visiting cafes, restaurants or shopping centres to prove they have been vaccinated or previously had the virus.

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The virus is infecting 50 million people every 90 days REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Global COVID-19 cases surpassed 250 million on Monday as some countries in eastern Europe experience record outbreaks, even as the Delta variant surge eases and many countries resume trade and tourism.

The daily average number of cases has fallen by 36% over the past three months, according to a Reuters analysis, but the virus is still infecting 50 million people every 90 days due to the highly transmissible Delta variant.

By contrast, it took nearly a year to record the first 50 million COVID-19 cases.

Health experts are optimistic that many nations have put the worst of the pandemic behind them thanks to vaccines and natural exposure, although they caution that colder weather and upcoming holiday gatherings could increase cases.

“We think between now and the end of 2022, this is the point where we get control over this virus … where we can significantly reduce severe disease and death,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist leading the World Health Organisation, told Reuters on Nov. 3.

Infections are still rising in 55 out of 240 countries, with Russia, Ukraine and Greece at or near record levels of reported cases since the pandemic started two years ago, according to a Reuters analysis.

Eastern Europe has among the lowest vaccination rates in the region. More than half of all new infections reported worldwide were from countries in Europe, with a million new infections about every four days, according to the analysis.

Several Russian regions said this week they could impose additional restrictions or extend a workplace shutdown as the country witnesses record deaths due to the disease.

VACCINE INEQUITY

Several world leaders have stressed the need to improve vaccination programs around the world, particularly in the least wealthy countries.

More than half the world’s population has yet to receive a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Our World in Data, a figure that drops to less than 5% in low-income countries.

Improving vaccine access will be on the agenda of meetings of the powerful Asia-Pacific trade group APEC, hosted virtually by New Zealand this week.

APEC members, which include Russia, China and the United States, pledged at a special meeting in June to expand sharing and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and lift trade barriers for medicines.

“Together we are continuing to keep supply chains functioning and are supporting trade in critical medical supplies – including testing kits, PPE and now vaccines,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other aid groups last month appealed to leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies to fund a $23.4 billion plan to bring COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and drugs to poorer countries in the next 12 months.

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A visitor looks at a copy of the Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which will go up for auction on November 9, at the Artcurial auction house in Paris, France, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Noemie Olive

A faithful copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa dating from more than 400 years ago will go under the hammer at a Paris auction on Tuesday, months after another reproduction of one of the world’s most recognisable portraits sold for a record price.

Leonardo’s original, which French King Francois I bought from the painter in 1518, can be found in Paris’ Louvre museum and is not for sale.

But the copy that is on sale, dating from around 1600, is so similar to the original that it is likely that the artist had close access to Leonardo’s version, the Artcurial auction house said.

It estimates the copy will fetch 150,000-200,000 euros ($173,000-$230,000).

“Mona Lisa is the most beautiful woman in painting,” Artcurial’ auction house expert and auctioneer, Matthieu Fournier, said as the painting went on public display ahead of the sale. “Everyone wants to own a high-quality version of Mona Lisa.”

Leonardo, he stressed “had fans, because he invented a style. He had followers, imitators”.

In June, a European collector bought another 17th century copy of Mona Lisa for 2.9 million euros, a record for a reproduction of the work, at an auction at Christie’s in Paris.

In 2017, Christie’s New York sold Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for a record $450 million.
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The fossil remains of an early hominid child have been discovered in a cave in South Africa by a team of international and South African researchers.

The team announced the discovery of a partial skull and teeth of a Homo Naledi child, named Letimela – meaning 'The lost one' in the local language of Setswana - who died almost 250,000 years ago when it was approximately four to six years old.

The remains were found in a remote part of the cave that suggests the body had been placed there on purpose, in what could be a kind of grave.

"If this skull was moved from some other location to that point, that truly is a remarkable level of interaction with the dead," said Professor Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Homo Naledi is a species of archaic human found in the Rising Star Cave, Cradle of Humankind, 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

Homo Naledi dates to the Middle Pleistocene era 335,000–236,000 years ago.

The initial discovery of Homo Naledi, first publicly announced in 2015, comprises 1,550 specimens, representing 737 different elements, and at least 15 different individuals.

The discovery is described in two papers in the PaleoAnthropology journal.
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World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The World Health Organization called on Thursday for vaccine makers to prioritise deliveries of COVID-19 jabs to the COVAX dose-sharing facility for poorer countries and said that no more doses should go to countries with more than 40% coverage.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said that boosters should not be administered except to people who are immunocompromised.

“We continue to call on manufacturers of vaccines that already have WHO Emergency Use Listing to prioritize COVAX, not shareholder profit,” he said. The WHO listing of Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin on Wednesday contributes to vaccine equity, he added.