Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS, Malaria, Study Shows

More than 1.2 million people are dying every year directly from bacterial infections that are resistant to several antibiotics, according to a new study, making multiresistant bacteria far deadlier than HIV/AIDS or malaria. A further 4.95 million deaths were associated with these multiresistant bacteria.

“It is estimated that if we don’t find alternatives by 2050, millions of lives will be lost and there will be $100 trillion of lost [economic] output,” Antonia Sagona, an expert on bacterial infections at England’s University of Warwick, said in an interview with VOA. 

The study, published in The Lancet and led by the University of Washington in Seattle, analyzed data from 204 countries and territories. It showed that poorer nations were worst hit by antibiotic resistance, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Lower respiratory infections accounted for more than 1.5 million deaths associated with [antibiotic] resistance in 2019, making it the most burdensome infectious syndrome,” the report said.

The authors cautioned there is an urgent need for more research.

“There are serious data gaps in many low-income settings, emphasizing the need to expand microbiology laboratory capacity and data collection systems to improve our understanding of this important human health threat,” they wrote. 

Antibiotic misuse

Scientists say the misuse of antibiotics over decades has encouraged microorganisms to evolve into “superbugs.”

“For example, people have viral infections, and they have been prescribed antibiotics for very many years now. And this over the years has made the problem very severe, so the bacteria have become really resistant to these antibiotics,” Sagona said.

The World Health Organization last year warned that none of the 43 antibiotics in development or recently approved was enough to combat antimicrobial resistance.

New hope? 

So what can be done? Sagona – along with other scientists around the world – is working on new treatments called phages.

“These are viruses that can specifically target bacteria. And they can be used in combination with antibiotics or on their own to clear bacterial infections of multiresistant strains,” she told VOA.

Despite the promising new treatments, scientists say it’s vital that existing antibiotics are not overused – to help slow down the development of the ever-deadlier superbugs.

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Multi-Resistant Superbugs Deadlier Than AIDS and Malaria, Study Shows

Over 1.2 million people are dying every year from bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics, according to a new study. That makes multi-resistant bacteria far deadlier than HIV/AIDS or malaria. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Will Afghanistan be Polio-Free in 2022?

International health workers say the end of the war in Afghanistan brings new hope to efforts to rid the country of the crippling disease polio. 

For many years, efforts to immunize all Afghan children under five years old were considered unfeasible because of widespread insecurity and threats to health workers. 

But with the end of the war, and Taliban pledges last year to support the polio immunization campaign, aid agencies now say they can access nearly all parts of the country, giving them an opportunity to eradicate poliovirus.  

“If we succeed to implement the planned polio campaigns with high coverage of 95%, we can interrupt the circulation of polio virus by the end of 2022,” Kamal Shah Sayed, a UNICEF spokesman in Afghanistan, told VOA.  

Backed by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), a three-day nation-wide polio immunization campaign targeting nearly 10 million children was launched in Afghanistan on January 17. Four additional campaigns are planned for this year.  

Taliban back immunization campaign

Once considered a major obstacle in the way of anti-polio efforts because of their indiscriminate attacks as they fought U.S. and Afghan Government forces, the Taliban are now helping U.N. agencies to eradicate polio, Sayed confirmed. The U.S. withdrew all forces from Afghanistan last August as the Taliban fighters toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan government and declared the country an Islamic Emirate.  

Only four cases of poliovirus were confirmed in 2021 in the landlocked country, down from 56 cases a year before.  

However, there are still several challenges for making a polio-free Afghanistan in 2022.  

Poliovirus is still virulent in the neighboring Pakistan and can easily be transferred through the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings. Polio cases also saw a significant drop in Pakistan from 79 cases in 2020 to only one confirmed case in 2021, according to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program.  

Poor awareness about poliovirus and how to protect children against it remains another problem, particularly in rural Afghan communities.   

Immunization workers also need to have access to every household across the country, but this has been resisted by some Taliban officials who prefer to conduct immunization campaigns at local mosques.  

“The house-to-house polio campaigns are very important,” said Sayed of the UNICEF adding that such access should be especially ensured in the traditional “key polio reservoir regions of the South and East.”  

The drive to rid Afghanistan from poliovirus is taking place as the country suffers from an economic paralysis and a widespread humanitarian crisis which threatens most of the country’s estimated 35 million population. The U.N. has called for nearly $5 billion to provide life-saving food, health, and shelter assistance to the most vulnerable Afghans in 2022. 

The polio immunization campaigns appear to have no funding shortfalls thanks to some 70,000 Afghan volunteers as well as financial contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, the Canadian government, United Arab Emirates, and the Japanese government, UNICEF said.

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CDC: Prior Infection Plus Vaccines Provide Best COVID Protection

A new study in two states that compares coronavirus protection from a prior infection and vaccination concludes that getting the shots is still the safest way to prevent COVID-19. 

The study examined infections in New York and California last summer and fall and found people who were both vaccinated and had survived a prior bout of COVID-19 had the most protection.

But unvaccinated people with a past infection were a close second. By fall, when the more contagious delta variant had taken over but boosters weren’t yet widespread, that group had a lower case rate than vaccinated people who had no past infection. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the study Wednesday, noted several caveats to the research. And some outside experts were cautious of the findings and wary of how they might be interpreted. 

“The bottom-line message is that from symptomatic COVID infection you do generate some immunity,” said immunologist E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania. “But it’s still much safer to get your immunity from vaccination than from infection.”

Vaccination has long been urged even after a case of COVID-19 because both kinds of protection eventually wane — and there are too many unknowns to rely only on a past infection, especially a long-ago one, added immunologist Ali Ellebedy at Washington University in St. Louis. 

“There are so many variables you cannot control that you just cannot use it as a way to say, ‘Oh, I’m infected, then I am protected,’ ” Ellebedy said.

Other studies

The research does fall in line with a small cluster of studies that found unvaccinated people with a previous infection had lower risks of COVID-19 diagnosis or illness than vaccinated people who were never before infected. 

The new study’s findings do make sense, said Christine Petersen, a University of Iowa epidemiologist. She said a vaccine developed against an earlier form of the coronavirus is likely to become less and less effective against newer, mutated versions. 

However, experts said, there are a number of possible other factors at play, including whether the vaccine’s effectiveness simply faded over time in many people and to what extent mask wearing and other behaviors played a part in what happened. 

Another thing to consider: The “staunchly unvaccinated” aren’t likely to get tested and the study only included lab-confirmed cases, Wherry said. 

“It may be that we’re not picking up as many reinfections in the unvaccinated group,” he said. 

CDC officials noted other limitations. The study was done before the omicron variant took over and before many Americans received booster doses, which have been shown to dramatically amplify protection by raising levels of virus-fighting antibodies. The analysis also did not include information on the severity of past infections or address the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. 

‘Safest strategy’

The study authors concluded vaccination “remains the safest strategy” to prevent infections and “all eligible persons should be up to date with COVID-19 vaccination.” 

The researchers looked at infections in California and New York, which together account for about 18% of the U.S. population. They also looked at COVID-19 hospitalizations in California. 

Overall, about 70% of the adults in each state were vaccinated; another 5% were vaccinated and had a previous infection. A little less than 20% weren’t vaccinated; and roughly 5% were unvaccinated but had a past infection. 

The researchers looked at COVID-19 cases from the end of last May until mid-November and calculated how often new infections happened in each group. As time went on, vaccine-only protection looked less and less impressive. 

By early October, compared with unvaccinated people who didn’t have a prior infection, case rates were: 

— Sixfold lower in California and 4.5-fold lower in New York in those who were vaccinated but not previously infected. 

— 29-fold lower in California and 15-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected but never vaccinated. 

— 32.5-fold lower in California and 20-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected and vaccinated. 

But the difference in the rates between those last two groups was not statistically significant, the researchers found. 

Hospitalization data, only from California, followed a similar pattern. 

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Global Health Experts Weigh In on Biden’s Pandemic Performance

It’s been a year since U.S. President Joe Biden took the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. He inherited a global coronavirus pandemic that, from the campaign trail, he promised to end. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports on his handling of the pandemic.

Producer: Arash Arabasadi.

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US Government to Distribute 400 Million High-Quality Face Masks

U.S. news outlets said Wednesday that the Biden administration will distribute 400 million high-quality face masks free of charge to the American people beginning next week.

A White House official, speaking anonymously, said the N95 masks will be shipped to thousands of local pharmacies and community health centers across the United States beginning later this week, with three masks available per adult. The program will be fully operational by early February.

The N95 masks are part of the 750 million masks housed in the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which stores critical medicines and medical supplies for use during a public health emergency. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that N95 masks, which are designed to fit tightly on a person’s face, “offer the highest level of protection” against COVID-19, compared to other face masks.

The officials say the distribution of the N95 masks will be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.

Announcement of the free N95 face masks comes on the same day as the official debut of the federal government’s new website that allows Americans to request free rapid coronavirus test kits. Millions of households began placing orders for the test kits Tuesday during a soft launch of Covidtests.gov. The website allows each household to order a maximum of four tests after clicking on a link that connects to a U.S. Postal Service form.

Some occupants of apartments and other multi-unit dwellings, however, complained on social media that the website’s address verification tool was enforcing the four-per-person household, only allowing one family per building to request the tests.

The two programs are part of an aggressive new effort by the Biden administration to combat a surge of new COVID-19 infections largely driven by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

A high-ranking official with the World Health Organization says the world could turn the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic this year through a more equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the director of WHO’s health emergencies program, told the World Economic Forum Tuesday that COVID-19 may never be eradicated, but stressed the current public health emergency could finally come to an end if more vaccines finally reach the world’s poorest countries.

The U.N. health agency has repeatedly criticized the world’s richest countries for building up huge stockpiles of COVID-19 vaccines and using them to administer booster shots to its citizens, while poorer nations have barely received even a first dose of a vaccine.

More than 334,469,000 people around the globe have been sickened since COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, according to figures compiled by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The center reports more than 5.5. million deaths globally.

Germany announced Wednesday that it had recorded 112,323 new COVID-19 cases, the country’s highest-ever daily figure and the first time it had broken the 100,000 mark for a single day. The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control and prevention agency, said 70 percent of the new cases were driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant. The surge of new infections has prompted the government of new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to consider imposing mandatory vaccinations.

Tokyo and 12 other Japanese prefectures will be placed under new COVID-19 restrictions effective Friday as Japan struggles with an omicron-driven surge. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday in the Japanese capital the new decree will allow local governors to limit the operating hours of bars and restaurants and ban the sale of alcohol. The restrictions will remain in effect until February 13.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse.

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Americans Begin Ordering Free At-Home COVID Tests

The U.S. government quietly conducted a soft launch Tuesday of its website where Americans can request free rapid coronavirus tests — a day ahead of the scheduled rollout.  

Covidtests.gov quickly became the most accessed federal government website as millions of households began placing orders for test kits. 

“COVIDtests.gov is up and running to help prepare for the full launch tomorrow. We have tests for every residential address in the U.S. Please check back tomorrow if you run into any unexpected issues,” said a notice at the top of the government website.  

This reporter mid-Tuesday was able to complete an order within about a minute after clicking on the link that connects to a U.S. Postal Service form.  

Some occupants of apartments and other multi-unit dwellings, however, complained on social media that the website’s address verification tool was enforcing the four-per-person household, only allowing one family per building to request the tests.

A member of Congress from the state of New York, Carolyn Maloney, tweeted advice on how apartment residents might avoid the glitch.

“Every website launch, in our view, comes with risk,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during Tuesday’s White House briefing. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two, but the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success.”  

An administration official last week promised reporters, “we’re ready for this,” explaining that four individual rapid antigen tests would be shipped in seven to 12 days via the Postal Service after a completed online order.  

“The 650,000 women and men of the United States Postal Service are ready to deliver and proud to play a critical role in supporting the health needs of the American public,” Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a statement last week. “We have been working closely with the Administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches.” 

President Joe Biden last week announced the government will purchase another 500 million at-home tests for the public, in addition to the order made last month for half a billion tests.  

The Biden administration’s plan is a classic case of big government seeming to be “needed” because it is difficult for private forces to address the problem, according to Jeffrey Miron, director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and a Harvard University economist. 

Americans have the option to purchase tests at pharmacies and other stores. New federal rules went into effect Saturday requiring private medical insurance companies to cover the cost of those at-home tests, but insurers say it could take weeks to sort out the reimbursement procedures, adding another headache to the process.    

“This federal intervention would never have been necessary had the private sector been free to develop, test, and sell test kits without interference from the Food and Drug Administration or Centers for Disease Control,” Miron told VOA. “Other countries had rapid tests widely available many months ago; so, the technology was clearly available.”  

Given the existing rules and regulations about private production and sale of test kits, however, “federal distribution is perhaps a useful step that will reduce the delays and bottlenecks that many people are experiencing in purchasing kits from private suppliers,” Miron said.  

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Large Asteroid to Pass Near Earth Tuesday

A large asteroid is expected to pass within 1.93 million kilometers of Earth on Tuesday, according to NASA.

The asteroid known as 7482 (1994 PC1), which was discovered in 1994, is about one kilometer wide or “bridge size” as NASA called it.

NASA says the asteroid will again make a pass by Earth in July, but it won’t be as close. The space agency says the asteroid will again pass our planet on Jan. 18, 2105, when it is projected to come within 2.32 million kilometers.

The closest known approach of an asteroid happened on Jan. 17, 1933, when one passed within 1.12 million kilometers of Earth

Even at its closest, 7482 (1994 PC1) won’t be visible without the aid of a small telescope.

Nancy Chabot, chief planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, told CBS News that there are about 25,000 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 152 meters wide. Were one of those to impact Earth, it would be “devastating,” she said.

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Somalia’s Capital Sees Influx of People Fleeing Drought

The worst drought in Somalia in decades has millions of people dependent on food aid and thousands flocking to cities to escape hunger. At makeshift shelters on the outskirts of the capital, displaced people face cramped conditions and poor sanitation in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mohamed Sheikh Nor reports from Mogadishu. Camera: Mohamed Sheikh Nor

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China Drops Plans to Sell Olympic Tickets as COVID Cases Rise 

China on Monday canceled plans to sell tickets to the public for the Winter Olympics in Beijing, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country reached its highest point since March 2020. 

Organizers said last year there would be no international spectators at the Games – partly due to China’s weeks-long quarantine requirements – but they had promised to allow domestic audiences. 

But those plans were scrapped Monday as China reported 223 new infections just three weeks before the Winter Olympics are set to open. 

“In order to protect the health and safety of Olympic-related personnel and spectators, it was decided to adjust the original plan to sell tickets to the public and (instead) organize spectators to watch the Games on-site,” the Beijing Olympic organizing committee said in a statement. 

It is unclear how these spectators will be selected and whether they will have to quarantine before or after the Games. 

China, where the virus first emerged in late 2019, has stuck to a strict policy of targeting zero COVID-19 cases even as the rest of the world has reopened. 

But its approach has come under sustained pressure in recent weeks with multiple virus clusters in key areas, including the port of Tianjin and the southern manufacturing region of Guangdong. 

Athletes and officials have already started to land in the capital ahead of the Games, immediately entering a tightly controlled bubble separating them from the rest of the population. 

After a local case of the highly infectious omicron strain was detected in Beijing over the weekend, authorities also tightened regulations for arrivals from elsewhere in China. 

The capital is now demanding a negative test before travel and a follow-up test after entering, with residents urged not to leave the city for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. 

Some tourist sites have also been closed. 

A senior health official told residents to “avoid buying goods from overseas” after saying the local case could have been brought in by international post. 

The infected woman in Beijing had not traveled or had contact with other infected people, authorities said as they tested 13,000 people living or working in the same area. 

Health official Pang Xinghuo told reporters the virus had been found on the surface of a letter the infected person had received from Canada. 

Dozens of letters from the same batch were tested and five showed traces of COVID-19, Pang said. 

The strain was different from omicron cases in China and similar to variants identified from North America last month, she added. “We come to the conclusion that the possibility of virus infection through inbound objects cannot be ruled out.” 

Therefore, residents should “try to avoid buying goods from overseas during outbreaks”, Pang said. “If you receive overseas mail, you should wear masks and disposable gloves to reduce direct contact.” 

She advised people to “open the packages outdoors.” 

China has linked a number of its virus clusters to products imported from overseas. 

A theory from Beijing that the virus did not originate in China but was imported in frozen food was judged “possible” but very unlikely in a report last year by international experts appointed by the World Health Organization. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States says on its website it is “possible” for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects – but the risk is low. 

Within three days, there should be a 99% reduction in any virus traces left on surfaces. 

Analysts have warned that China’s zero-COVID approach – which includes targeted lockdowns and travel restrictions – will increasingly weigh on the economy. 

Some 68 COVID-19 cases were reported Monday across central Henan province, where partial lockdowns and mass testing have been rolled out for millions of residents. 

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EXPLAINER: Scientists Struggle to Monitor Tonga Volcano After Massive Eruption

Scientists are struggling to monitor an active volcano that erupted off the South Pacific island of Tonga at the weekend, after the explosion destroyed its sea-level crater and drowned its mass, obscuring it from satellites. 

The eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard some 2,300 kms (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand. 

“The concern at the moment is how little information we have and that’s scary,” said Janine Krippner, a New Zealand-based volcanologist with the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program. “When the vent is below water, nothing can tell us what will happen next.” 

Krippner said on-site instruments were likely destroyed in the eruption and the volcanology community was pooling together the best available data and expertise to review the explosion and predict anticipated future activity. 

Saturday’s eruption was so powerful that space satellites captured not only huge clouds of ash but also an atmospheric shockwave that radiated out from the volcano at close to the speed of sound. 

Photographs and videos showed grey ash clouds billowing over the South Pacific and meter-high waves surging onto the coast of Tonga. 

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga yet, but internet and telephone communications are extremely limited and outlying coastal areas remain cut off. 

Experts said the volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been puffing away for about a month before rising magma, superheated to around 1,000 degrees Celsius, met with 20-degree seawater on Saturday, causing an instantaneous and massive explosion. 

The unusual “astounding” speed and force of the eruption indicated a greater force at play than simply magma meeting water, scientists said. 

As the superheated magma rose quickly and met the cool seawater, so did a huge volume of volcanic gases, intensifying the explosion, said Raymond Cas, a professor of volcanology at Australia’s Monash University.

Some volcanologists are likening the eruption to the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, which killed around 800 people. 

The Tonga Geological Services agency, which was monitoring the volcano, was unreachable on Monday. Most communications to Tonga have been cut after the main undersea communications cable lost power. 

Lightning strikes 

American meteorologist, Chris Vagasky, studied lightning around the volcano and found it increasing to about 30,000 strikes in the days leading up to the eruption. On the day of the eruption, he detected 400,000 lightning events in just three hours, which comes down to 100 lightning events per second. 

That compared with 8,000 strikes per hour during the Anak Krakatau eruption in 2018, caused part of the crater to collapse into the Sunda Strait and send a tsunami crashing into western Java, which killed hundreds of people.

Cas said it is difficult to predict follow-up activity and that the volcano’s vents could continue to release gases and other material for weeks or months. 

“It wouldn’t be unusual to get a few more eruptions, though maybe not as big as Saturday,” he said. “Once the volcano is de-gassed, it will settle down.” 

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New Zealand Begins Vaccinating 5-to-11-Year-Olds

New Zealand began inoculating 5- to11-year-old children Monday with Pfizer’s pediatric COVID vaccine. More than 120,000 vaccines have been delivered to 500 vaccination centers around the country, the health ministry said.  

“Getting vaccinated now is a great way to help protect tamariki (children) before they go back to school,” Dr. Anthony Jordan, Auckland’s COVID-19 vaccination program clinical director, said in a statement. “The evidence shows that while children may have milder symptoms, some will still get very sick and end up in hospital if they do get COVID-19. Getting vaccinated also helps to prevent them from passing it on to vulnerable family members,” he added. 

The omicron surge has not yet peaked in the U.S., Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, warned Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “The next few weeks could be tough,” he cautioned, but noted that there has been a drop in cases in some locations, including New York and New Jersey.  

The new self-isolation period for people with COVID in England has been reduced from ten days to five full days. The new measure went into effect Monday. 

“This is a balanced and proportionate approach to restore extra freedoms and reduce the pressure on essential public services over the winter,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. “It is crucial people only stop self-isolating after two negative tests to ensure you are not infectious.” 

The Credit Suisse Group, a Switzerland-based global investment bank, has announced the resignation of its chairman Antonio Horta-Osorio, after an investigation revealed that Horta-Osorio had violated COVID-19 protocols, including attending Wimbledon tennis tournament finals in London in July.  

“I regret that a number of my personal actions have led to difficulties for the bank and compromised my ability to represent the bank internally and externally,” Horta-Osorio said in a statement on the Credit Suisse’s website. 

UNICEF’s executive director said Saturday’s shipment of 1.1 million COVID-19 vaccines to Rwanda “included the billionth dose supplied to COVAX.” Henrietta Fore said, “With so many people yet to be offered a single dose, we know we have much more to do.” 

COVAX is the international alliance working to ensure that equitable allotment of COVID-19 vaccines to low- and medium-income countries. 

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Monday that it has recorded 328.1 million global COVID-19 infections and 5.5 million deaths. The center said 9.7 billion vaccines have been administered.  

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Millions Hunker Down As Storm Hits Eastern US

Millions of Americans hunkered down as a major winter storm hit the eastern United States with heavy snow and ice knocking power out for an estimated 130,000 customers as of early Monday.   

The National Weather Service (NWS) said the storm was bringing a miserable combination of heavy snow, freezing rain and high winds, impacting the southeast and coastal mid-Atlantic before moving up to New England and southern Canada. 

A swath from the upper Ohio Valley north to the lower Great Lakes region could expect more than 30 centimeters of snow Monday, it warned. 

In all, more than 80 million people fell under the winter weather alerts, US media reported.

About 235,000 were without power Sunday but by early Monday that had fallen to around 130,000 along the east coast and Kentucky as supplies were restored, according to the website PowerOutage.US. 

The storm spawned damaging tornadoes in Florida and flooding in coastal areas, while in the Carolinas and up through the Appalachians icy conditions and blustery winds raised concerns.    

Transport was seriously disrupted, with thousands of flights canceled, and a portion of busy interstate highway I-95 closed in North Carolina. 

More than 3,000 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled Sunday.   

Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina was the worst-affected with 95 percent of its flights grounded, according to the FlightAware website. A further 1,200 flights had been canceled early Monday.   

State of emergency

Drivers were warned of hazardous road conditions and major travel headaches from Arkansas in the south all the way up to Maine, on the Canadian border. 

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp had declared a state of emergency on Friday, and snowplows were at work before noon to clear the roads. 

Virginia and North Carolina also declared states of emergency.   

Virginia State Police said on Twitter they had responded to almost 1,000 crashes and disabled vehicles on Sunday. “Mostly vehicle damage. No reported traffic deaths,” the force said.   

A “multi-vehicle backup,” along with minor crashes, had earlier stopped traffic on a major interstate in the southern part of the state.  

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Twitter that up to a foot of snow had fallen in some areas by midday, and that “significant icing is causing trouble in the Central part of the state” as he reminded people to stay inside and avoid travel if possible.   

Also in North Carolina, students were shaken up after the storm caused the roof of a college residence hall to collapse, according to a local ABC news station, though no one was hurt.   

“Very scary,” Brevard College sophomore Melody Ferguson told the station. “I’m still shaking to this moment.” 

The NWS even reported some snow flurries in Pensacola, Florida, while usually mild Atlanta, Georgia also saw snow. 

The storm is expected to cause some coastal flooding, and the NWS warned that winds could near hurricane force on the Atlantic coast. 

The northeastern United States already experienced snow chaos earlier this month. When a storm blanketed the northeast, hundreds of motorists were stuck for more than 24 hours on a major highway linking to the capital Washington.  

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Third Blow for Millions in India’s Vast Informal Sector as Cities Impose Curbs

On a cold winter afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of auto rickshaw drivers huddled outside a metro station hoping to pick up passengers. Since the city shut schools, colleges, restaurants and offices to cope with a third wave of the pandemic fueled by the omicron variant, though, they know their wait could be long and probably futile.

“We work on the streets and depend on people being out,” Shivraj Verma said.

“Now I will not be able to earn enough to even buy food in the city. We get crushed when the city closes.”

This is the third consecutive year that tens of millions of workers in India’s vast informal economy are confronting a loss of livelihoods and incomes as megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, which are the epicenter of the new wave, partially shutter.

 

While India has not enforced a stringent nationwide lockdown as it did in 2020, Delhi has closed offices, imposed a weekend and night curfew and restricted large gatherings. In the business hub of Gurugram, markets shut early as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

For those that work on the street, though, contracting the virus is of little concern — their masks hang loosely on their faces, only to be pulled up when a policeman, who might impose a fine, passes by. Their pressing problem is to earn enough money to feed families, send children to school and pay rent for their tiny tenements.

In the lives-versus-livelihoods debate that has posed one of the pandemic’s greatest dilemmas, their vote is squarely with the latter.

“We don’t worry about the virus, we worry about how to take care of our families. I will have to return again to my village if the situation stays the same,” auto rickshaw operator Mohammad Amjad Khan said.

Khan was among millions of migrants returned to their villages when India witnessed a mass exodus in 2020. He only picked up the courage to return to Delhi after a year and a half in September. At that time India had recovered from its devastating second wave.

Its cities were humming, restaurants and markets were packed, and businesses saw a revival. As India’s economy picked up pace briskly, Khan made a decent living from the auto rickshaw he took on hire to ferry customers and could send some money home. The pandemic appeared to have become a distant memory.

 

The good times lasted for four months. From less than 7,000 new cases a day in mid-December, India has been counting more than a quarter million in recent days. As cities like Delhi hunker indoors, earnings have again plummeted.

“Now I don’t even make enough money to pay for the daily hire of this vehicle. It’s really tough,” Khan said with a despondent shrug.

Indian policymakers have underlined the need to protect jobs.

At a meeting with chief ministers this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there should be minimal loss to the ordinary people’s livelihoods and related economic activity as the country battles the latest wave.

“We have to keep this in mind, whenever we are making a strategy for COVID-19 containment,” he said.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reassured migrant labor that a lockdown will not be imposed.

On the ground however, even partial curbs hit hard the tens of thousands of vendors who line Indian streets – vegetable and fruit sellers, small kiosks selling chips, soft drinks and cigarettes, and food carts.

Anita Singh is allowed to operate her street cart that sells hot meals and snacks till 8 p.m., but in the last two weeks, there have been very few customers to serve.

 

“Most of my sales were to college students or in the late evening when people left offices. Now they are shut,” she said.

Employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level since the Indian economy was battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy. The report said that there are fewer salaried jobs, whereas daily wage work and farm labor has increased – a sign of economic distress.

“There has been a drop in average wages and daily earnings across sectors because of COVID stipulations,” said Anhad Imaan, a communication specialist with several nonprofit organizations working with migrant labor.

“Even in the construction and manufacturing sectors which have remained open, there is less work available per worker.”

That means the quality of lives of those in the informal sector has taken a huge hit.

“They used to spend much of what they earned on food and a place to stay and sent home whatever they saved,” he said, “Now they are down to subsistence levels.”

Although estimates vary widely, studies say millions in India have slipped below the poverty line during the pandemic. A study by Pew Research Center in March pegged the number at 75 million. Another one by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in May after India experienced a second wave put it at 230 million due to “income shocks.”

Whatever the numbers, it is a reality that the group of auto rickshaw drivers waiting for passengers knows too well. As they talked to each other, their top concern was whether there will be a lockdown and whether they should be heading home for a third time.

 

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COVAX Delivers Billionth Vaccine

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Sunday 326.2 million people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, while 5.5 million deaths have been recorded. More than 9 billion vaccines have been administered, the center reported.

UNICEF’S executive director said Saturday’s shipment of 1.1 million COVID vaccines to Rwanda “included the billionth dose supplied to COVAX.” Henrietta Fore said, “With so many people yet to be offered a single dose, we know we have much more to do.”

COVAX is the international alliance working to ensure the equitable allotment of COVID vaccines to low- and medium-income countries.

One case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in Beijing — a rare breach of the city’s strict containment measures — as Chinese authorities battle outbreaks elsewhere before the February opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the start of the Lunar New Year.

A locally transmitted omicron infection was discovered in Beijing’s Haidaian district Saturday morning, Beijing disease prevention and control official Pang Xinghuo said at a news conference.

 

Pang said other occupants in the patient’s residential building and an office building were being tested and that access to 17 locations linked to the patient had been restricted.

Officials in the southern city of Zhuhai suspended the city’s bus service after uncovering seven cases of the highly contagious variant and advised residents to stay home.

Authorities in China are also trying to contain a series of outbreaks, including from the omicron variant, in the port city of Tianjin, the central city of Anyang and in other smaller cities, keeping millions of people in lockdown across the country.

Additionally, China’s National Health Commission spokesperson, Mi Feng, warned Saturday that China is facing “severe” challenges before the Feb. 1 beginning of the Lunar New Year amid the spread of omicron and delta variants.

“The Lunar New Year travel rush is about to start,” Mi noted. “The migration and gathering of people will increase significantly.”

In the next week or two, Americans will begin receiving free rapid home coronavirus tests from the U.S. government. Residents will have to request the tests on a designated website. The tests have been almost impossible to find in stores.

 

The Russian government on Friday delayed approving unpopular legislation that would have restricted access to public places without proof of COVID-19 vaccination, amid a surge in new infections.

The Associated Press reports the bill would have required Russians seeking to enter certain public places to have a QR code either confirming vaccination, recent recovery from COVID-19 or a medical exemption from immunization.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said the measure was pulled due to uncertainty regarding its effectiveness as it was drawn up in response to the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. The omicron variant is currently driving a surge in new infections in the country.

Meanwhile, a French court suspended an outdoor mask requirement in the streets of Paris. The requirement had been imposed Dec. 31 in an effort to suppress the spread of the omicron variant.

A court in Versailles on Wednesday suspended a similar outdoor masking requirement for the Yvelines region.

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse. 

 

 

 

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Djokovic Out of Australian Open as Court Upholds Deportation

Novak Djokovic’s hopes of playing at the Australian Open were dashed Sunday after a court dismissed the top-ranked tennis star’s appeal against a deportation order.

Three Federal Court judges upheld a decision made on Friday by the immigration minister to cancel the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on public interest grounds.

The decision likely means that Djokovic, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, will remain in detention in Melbourne until he is deported.

A deportation order usually also includes a three-year ban on returning to Australia.

The minister canceled the visa on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence in Australia may be a risk to the health and “good order” of the Australian public and “may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia.”

Djokovic’s visa was initially canceled on Jan. 6 at Melbourne’s airport hours after he arrived to compete in the first Grand Slam of 2022.

A border official cancelled his visa after deciding Djokovic didn’t qualify for a medical exemption from Australia’s rules for unvaccinated visitors. 

 

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