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Omicron rapidly dominating in South Africa; U.S. reports first case

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Heavily mutated Omicron is rapidly becoming the dominant variant of the coronavirus in South Africa less than four weeks after it was first detected there, and the United States on Wednesday became the latest country to identify an Omicron case within its borders.

The first known U.S. case was a fully vaccinated person in California who returned to the United States from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive seven days later.

The person had mild symptoms and was in self-quarantine, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, told reporters at the White House.

Late on Tuesday, airlines in the United States were told to hand over the names of passengers arriving from parts of southern Africa hit by Omicron, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention letter seen by Reuters.

Key questions remain about the new variant, which has been found in two dozen countries, including Spain, Canada, Britain, Austria and Portugal. The UAE reported its first case on Wednesday, the second Gulf country after Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

Early indications suggesting Omicron may be markedly more contagious than previous variants have rattled financial markets, fearful that new restrictions could choke off a tentative recovery from the economic ravages of the pandemic.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said early epidemiological data suggested Omicron was able to evade some immunity, but existing vaccines should still protect against severe disease and death.

It said 74% of all the virus genomes it had sequenced last month had been of the new variant, which was first found in a sample taken on Nov. 8 in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province.

The number of new cases reported in South Africa doubled from Tuesday to Wednesday.

World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove told a briefing that data on how contagious Omicron was should be available “within days.”

BioNTech’s CEO said the vaccine it makes in a partnership with Pfizer was likely to offer strong protection against severe disease from Omicron.

Pedestrians wearing protective masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, make their way at the Ameyoko shopping district in Tokyo, Japan, December 1, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Pedestrians wearing protective masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, make their way at the Ameyoko shopping district in Tokyo, Japan, December 1, 2021. Photo: Reuters

‘Prepare for the worst’

The president of the European Union’s executive body said there was a “race against time” to stave off the new variant while scientists establish how dangerous it is. The EU brought forward the start of its vaccine rollout for 5-to-11-year-olds by a week to Dec. 13.

“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, told a news conference.

She said that full vaccination and a booster shot provided the strongest possible protection, according to scientists – a view echoed by Fauci.

But WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan criticized developed countries pushing booster shots for large parts of their fully vaccinated populations when vulnerable people in many poorer regions have had no vaccination at all.

“There is no evidence that I’m aware of that will suggest that boosting the entire population is going to necessarily provide any greater protection for otherwise healthy individuals against hospitalization or death,” he said.

Britain and the United States have both expanded their booster programs in response to the new variant.

The WHO has noted many times that the coronavirus will keep producing new variants for as long as it is allowed to circulate freely in large unvaccinated populations.

Passengers wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walk at a subway station in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Passengers wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walk at a subway station in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Travel restrictions

Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures to guard against Omicron as of Nov. 28, the WHO said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres slammed what he called “travel apartheid.”

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO said, while advising those who were unwell, at risk, or 60 years and over and unvaccinated to postpone travel.

The United States has barred nearly all foreigners who have been in one of eight southern African countries.

Hong Kong added Japan, Portugal and Sweden to its travel restrictions. Malaysia temporarily barred travelers from eight African countries and said Britain and the Netherlands could join the list.

Fitch Ratings said it lowered its global air passenger traffic forecasts for 2021 and 2022.

A person wearing a face mask shops, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in London, Britain, November 30, 2021. Photo: Reuters

A person wearing a face mask shops, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in London, Britain, November 30, 2021. Photo: Reuters

“It feels a little bit like we are back to where we were a year ago,” said Deidre Fulton, a partner at consultancy MIDAS Aviation, at an industry webinar. “And that’s not a great prospect for the industry and beyond.”

Wall Street’s major averages fell more than 1% on Wednesday, erasing morning gains, on investor angst over the first U.S. case, along with concerns about inflation. Crude oil prices also fell.

Fauci said it could take two weeks or more to gain insight into how easily the variant spreads from person to person, how severe the disease is that it causes, and whether it can bypass the protections provided by the vaccines currently available.

“We don’t have enough information right now,” said Fauci, adding that the variant’s molecular profile “suggests that it might be more transmissible, and that it might elude some of the protection of vaccines. … We have to be prepared that there’s going to be a diminution in protection.”

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20211202/omicron-rapidly-dominating-in-south-africa-us-reports-first-case/64492.html

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Swiss glaciers melting away at record rate

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Switzerland’s glaciers lost six percent of their total volume this year due to a dry winter and repeated summer heatwaves, shattering previous ice melt records, a report revealed Wednesday.

The study by the Cryospheric Commission (CC) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences laid bare the drastic scale of glacial retreat — which is only set to get worse.

“2022 was a disastrous year for Swiss glaciers: all ice melt records were smashed,” the CC said, adding that a two percent loss in 12 months had previously been considered “extreme”.

Three cubic kilometres of ice — three trillion litres of water — have melted away, the report said.

“It’s not possible to slow down the melting in the short term,” said glaciology professor Matthias Huss, head of Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland, which documents long-term glacier changes in the Alps and is coordinated by the CC.

If carbon dioxide emissions are reduced and the climate protected, “this might save about one third of the total volumes in Switzerland in the best case”, he told AFP.

Otherwise, the country “will be losing almost everything by the end of the century”.

This picture taken on September 2, 2022 above Ulrichen shows glaciologist and head of 'Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland' (GLAMOS) network Matthias Huss (with yellow shirt) during a visit with his team on the Gries glacier to takes readings of measuring equipment. Photo: AFP

This picture taken on September 2, 2022 above Ulrichen shows glaciologist and head of ‘Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland’ (GLAMOS) network Matthias Huss (with yellow shirt) during a visit with his team on the Gries glacier to takes readings of measuring equipment. Photo: AFP

Saharan dust speeds melt

At the start of the year, the snow cover in the Alps was exceptionally light, then a large volume of sand dust blew in from the Sahara Desert between March and May, settling on the surface.

The contaminated snow absorbed more heat and melted faster, depriving the glaciers of their protective snow coating by early in the European summer.

The continuous heat between May and early September therefore ravaged the glacial ice.

By mid-September, the once-thick layer of ice that covered the pass between the Scex Rouge and Tsanfleuron glaciers had completely melted away, exposing bare rock that had been frozen over since at least the Roman era.

And in early July, the collapse of a section of the Marmolada glacier, the biggest in the Italian Alps, killed 11 people and highlighted how serious the situation had become.

According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published in February, the melting of ice and snow is one of the 10 key threats from climate change.

This picture taken on September 2, 2022 above Ulrichen shows glaciologist and head of 'Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland' (GLAMOS) network Matthias Huss during a visit with his team on the Gries glacier to takes readings of measuring equipment. Photo: AFP

This picture taken on September 2, 2022 above Ulrichen shows glaciologist and head of ‘Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland’ (GLAMOS) network Matthias Huss during a visit with his team on the Gries glacier to takes readings of measuring equipment. Photo: AFP

Smallest glaciers hardest hit

“The loss was particularly dramatic for small glaciers,” the CC said.

The Pizol, Vadret dal Corvatsch and Schwarzbachfirn glaciers “have practically disappeared — measurements were discontinued”, the commission said.

In the Engadine and southern Valais regions, both in the south, “a four to six-metre-thick layer of ice at 3,000 metres above sea level vanished,” said the report.

Significant losses were recorded even at the very highest measuring points, including the Jungfraujoch mountain, which peaks at nearly 3,500 metres.

“Observations show that many glacier tongues are disintegrating and patches of rock are rising out of the thin ice in the middle of glaciers. These processes are further accelerating the decline,” said the report.

“The trend also reveals how important glaciers are to the water and energy supply in hot, dry years,” the report stressed — something to consider given that hydroelectricity provides more than 60 percent of Switzerland’s total energy production.

This picture taken on September 2, 2022 above Ulrichen shows glaciologist and head of 'Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland' (GLAMOS) network Matthias Huss (with yellow shirt) during a visit with his team on the Gries glacier to takes readings of measuring equipment. Photo: AFP

This picture taken on September 2, 2022 above Ulrichen shows glaciologist and head of ‘Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland’ (GLAMOS) network Matthias Huss (with yellow shirt) during a visit with his team on the Gries glacier to takes readings of measuring equipment. Photo: AFP

The glacial meltwater in July and August alone would have provided enough water this year to completely fill all the reservoirs in the Swiss Alps.

But Huss said that if the country experienced this year’s meteorological conditions in 50 years’ time, “the impact would be much stronger, because in 50 years, we expect that almost all glaciers are gone and therefore cannot provide water in a hot and dry summer”.

Melt reveals macabre finds

The melting of the glaciers has also had some unexpected consequences.

Hikers are regularly making macabre discoveries as bodies are being freed from the ice they have been encased in for decades or even centuries.

The melting can also be a boon for archaeologists who suddenly have access to objects that are thousands of years old.

Meanwhile the melting of a glacier between Italy and Switzerland has moved the border that ran along the watershed, forcing lengthy diplomatic negotiations.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220928/swiss-glaciers-melting-away-at-record-rate/69301.html

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Apple drops plan to boost iPhone production as demand falters: Bloomberg

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Apple Inc is dropping plans to increase production of its new iPhones this year after an anticipated surge in demand failed to materialize, Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The company told suppliers to curtail efforts to increase assembly of its flagship iPhone 14 product family by as many as 6 million units in the second half of this year, Bloomberg reported.

Instead, the Cupertino, California-headquartered company will aim to produce 90 million handsets for the period, nearly the same number as a year ago and in line with Apple’s original forecast this summer, the report said.

Apple did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Demand for the higher-priced iPhone 14 Pro models is stronger than for the entry-level versions and at least one Apple supplier is shifting production capacity from lower-priced iPhones to premium models, Bloomberg reported.

Apple had this week said it would start manufacturing the iPhone 14, launched earlier this month, in India, as the tech giant moves some of its production away from China. 

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220928/apple-drops-plan-to-boost-iphone-production-as-demand-faltersbloomberg/69298.html

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Taiwan’s pangolins suffer surge in feral dog attacks

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In most of its habitats, the heavily trafficked pangolin’s biggest threat comes from humans. But in Taiwan, the scaly mammals brave a different danger: a surging feral dog population.

Veterinarian Tseng Shao-tung, 28, has seen firsthand what a dog can do to the gentle creatures during his shifts at a hospital in Hsinchu.

Last month he worked to save the life of a male juvenile pangolin who had been lying in the wild for days with half of its tail chewed off.

“It has a big open wound on its tail and its body tissue has decayed,” Tseng said as he carefully turned the sedated pangolin to disinfect the gaping injury.

It was the fifth pangolin Tseng and his fellow veterinarians had saved this year, all from suspected dog attacks.

Chief veterinarian Chen Yi-ru said she had noticed a steady increase of pangolins with trauma injuries in the last five years — most of them with severed tails.

Pangolins are covered in hard, overlapping body scales and curl up into a ball when attacked. The tail is the animal’s most vulnerable part.

“That’s why when attacked, the tail is usually the first to be bitten,” Chen explained.

Wildlife researchers and officials said dog attacks, which account for more than half of all injuries since 2018, have become “the main threat to pangolins in Taiwan” in a report released last year.

Most trafficked mammal

Pangolins are described by conservationists as the world’s most trafficked mammal, with traditional Chinese medicine being the main driver.

Although their scales are made of keratin — the substance that makes up our fingernails and hair — there is huge demand for them among Chinese consumers because of the unproven belief that they help lactation in breastfeeding mothers.

That demand has decimated pangolin populations across Asia and Africa despite a global ban and funded a lucrative international black market trade.

All eight species of pangolins on both continents are listed as endangered or critically endangered.

Taiwan has been a comparative conservation success story, transforming itself from a place where pangolins went from near-extinct to protected and thriving.

Chan Fang-tse, veterinarian and researcher at the official Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, said the 1950s to 1970s saw massive hunting.

“Sixty thousand pangolins in Taiwan were killed for their scales and hides during that period,” he told AFP.

A 1989 wildlife protection law ended the industry, while rising conservation awareness led the public to start embracing their scaly neighbours as something to be cherished, rather than a commodity.

The population of the Formosan or Taiwanese pangolin, a subspecies of the Chinese pangolin, has since bounced back with researchers estimating that there are now between 10,000 to 15,000 in the wild.

But the island’s growing feral dog population — itself a consequence of a 2017 government policy not to cull stray animals — is hitting pangolins hard, Chan warned.

“Pangolins are most affected because they have a big overlap of roaming area and pangolins don’t move as fast as other animals,” Chan said.

Picky eaters

Pangolins are also vulnerable because of how few offspring they have.

The solitary Formosan pangolins mate once a year and only produce one offspring after 150 days of pregnancy. Captivity breeding programmes have had little success.

“It may be more difficult to breed pangolins than pandas,” Chan said.

The rise in injured pangolins has created another challenge for animal doctors: finding enough ants and termites to feed the picky eaters who often reject substitute mixtures of larvae.

Piling into a truck with three other vets, Tseng headed to a tree to retrieve an ant nest he had recently spotted.

“We have to be constantly on the lookout and go search for ants nests every couple of days now because we have more pangolins to feed,” Tseng said.

A pangolin can eat an ant nest the size of a football each day.

The government has also called for residents to report nest locations to help feed the pangolins until they can be released back into the wild.

But the injured pangolin in Tseng’s care will likely have to be sent to a zoo or government facility for adoption after it recovers.

“It will have difficulty climbing up trees and won’t be able to roll itself into a ball shape,” Tseng said.

“It has lost the ability to protect itself in the wild.”

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220928/taiwan-s-pangolins-suffer-surge-in-feral-dog-attacks/69297.html

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