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Omicron already taking over in S.Africa as countries tighten borders

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Omicron already taking over in S.Africa as countries tighten borders
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Passengers wait in line inside the terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

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By Promit Mukherjee

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) -The heavily mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus is rapidly becoming dominant in South Africa, less than four weeks after being identified there, authorities said on Wednesday, as other countries tightened their borders against the new threat.

The United States told airlines to hand over the names of passengers from parts of southern Africa hit by Omicron, which the World Health Organization (WHO) said had now reached at least 24 countries, with cases ranging from mild to severe.

Early indications suggesting that Omicron may be markedly more contagious than previous variants had already rattled financial markets, fearful that new restrictions around the world could choke off a tentative recovery from the economic ravages of the pandemic. [MKTS/GLOB]

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

It said 74% of all the samples it had genetically sequenced last month had been of the new variant, which was announced a week ago but 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.

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 (NYSE:) was likely to offer strong protection against severe disease from Omicron.

The president of the European Union’s executive Commission said there was a “race against time” to stave off the new variant while scientists establish how easily it can spread and whether it can evade vaccine protection. The EU brought forward the start of its vaccine rollout for five-to-11-year-olds by a week to Dec 13.

‘PREPARE FOR THE WORST’

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

She said that, according to scientists, full vaccination and a booster shot provided the strongest possible protection.

But WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan was critical of developed countries pushing booster shots for large parts of their fully vaccinated populations when even vulnerable people in many poorer regions had 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 hospitalisation or death,” he said.

Britain and the United States have both expanded their booster programmes in response to the new variant, highlighting the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world.

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 https://www.reuters.com/world/vaccine-coverage-below-10-seven-eastern-mediterranean-nations-who-2021-12-01 populations.

Ghana, Nigeria, Norway, Saudi Arabia and South Korea were among the most recent countries to report cases of the variant. Britain said its total of 22 cases was certain to rise.

Australia said at least two people had visited several places in Sydney while likely infectious and Denmark said an infected person had taken part in a large concert.

Japan, which had already barred all new foreign entrants, reported its second case https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-expand-travel-ban-some-foreigners-with-resident-status-2021-12-01 of the new variant and said it would expand travel restrictions.

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

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

Hong Kong added Japan, Portugal and Sweden to its travel restrictions, while Uzbekistan said it would suspend flights with Hong Kong as well as South Africa. Malaysia temporarily barred travellers from eight African countries and said Britain and the Netherlands could join the list.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO said https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/officials-offer-vaccine-reassurance-who-advises-against-travel-bans-2021-11-30, 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.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directed airlines to disclose names and other information of passengers who have been to those countries.

Shares https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/global-markets-repeat-wrapup-2-2021-12-01 around the world came off lows plumbed on Tuesday after remarks by the head of the drugmaker Moderna (NASDAQ:) raised questions about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines against Omicron. [MKTS/GLOB]

But Fitch Ratings said it had lowered its global air passenger traffic forecasts for 2021 and 2022, with the emergence of new variants highlighting the unpredictability of the situation.

“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 https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/global-airlines-prepare-omicron-induced-volatility-2021-12-01. “And that’s not a great prospect for the industry and beyond.”

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U.S. airlines scrap nearly 1,000 Christmas Day flights due to Omicron

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U.S. airlines scrap nearly 1,000 Christmas Day flights due to Omicron
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Travelers form lines during the holiday season as the coronavirus Omicron variant threatens to increase case numbers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. December 22, 2021. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

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By Humeyra Pamuk and Joel Schectman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. airlines scrapped nearly 1,000 flights on Saturday, the second straight day of massive cancellations as surging COVID-19 infections have sidelined some pilots and other crew members, upending plans for tens of thousands of holiday travelers over the Christmas weekend.

A total of 957 Christmas Day flights, including domestic flights and those into or out of the country, were canceled, up from 690 on Christmas Eve, according to a running tally on flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. Nearly 2,000 flights were delayed.

At least one airline said that it expects hundreds more cancellations on Sunday.

The Christmas holidays are typically a peak time for air travel, but the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has led to a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections, forcing airlines to cancel flights as pilots and crew need to be quarantined.

United Airlines canceled 230 flights while American Airlines (NASDAQ:) called off 90 flights, representatives for the companies said in separate statements.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United spokesperson Maddie King said. She said the cancellations made up a small portion of United’s 4,000 average daily flights during the holiday season.

“We are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays,” she said.

Winter weather and Omicron forced Delta Air Lines (NYSE:) to scrub 344 flights on Saturday, of approximately 3,000 scheduled flights, “after exhausting all options and resources to prevent those cancellations,” a spokesperson for the company said, adding that the impact was likely to persist on Sunday.

“Delta expects more than 300 of its flights will be canceled on Sunday, Dec. 26,” the spokesperson said. “Delta people are working together around the clock to reroute and substitute aircraft and crews to get customers where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible.”

Globally, FlightAware data showed that just over 2,700 flights were called off on Saturday and another 7,049 were delayed, as of 5.30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT).

Among the most impacted U.S. airports were Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International, Los Angeles International and New York’s JFK International. Six out of the 10 global airports most hit by the cancellations were Chinese.

Not all airlines were affected equally. A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines (NYSE:) said there were no issues to report with the carrier’s flights on Saturday.

The Omicron variant was first detected in November and now accounts for nearly three-quarters of U.S. cases and as many as 90% in some areas, such as the Eastern Seaboard.

The average number of new U.S. coronavirus cases has risen 45% to 179,000 per day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally.

While recent research suggests Omicron produces milder illness and a lower rate of hospitalizations than previous variants of COVID-19, health officials have maintained a cautious note about the outlook.

Ahead of the Christmas holiday, Americans scrambled for COVID-19 tests and many went ahead with their travel plans.

U.S. officials have said that people who are fully vaccinated should feel comfortable proceeding with holiday travel.

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U.S. airlines scrap hundreds of Christmas Day flights due to Omicron

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U.S. airlines scrap hundreds of Christmas Day flights due to Omicron
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Travelers form lines during the holiday season as the coronavirus Omicron variant threatens to increase case numbers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. December 22, 2021. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

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By Humeyra Pamuk and Joel Schectman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. airlines canceled close to 900 flights on Saturday, the second straight day of massive cancellations as surging COVID-19 infections have sidelined some pilots and other crew members, upending plans for tens of thousands of holiday travelers over the Christmas weekend.

More than 880 Christmas Day flights, including domestic flights and those into or out of the country, were canceled, up from 690 on Christmas Eve, according to a running tally on flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. Around 800 flights were delayed.

The Christmas holidays are typically a peak time for air travel, but the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has led to a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections, forcing airlines to cancel flights as pilots and crew need to be quarantined.

United Airlines canceled 230 flights, a company spokesperson said.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” spokesperson Maddie King said. She added that the cancellations made up a small portion of United’s 4,000 average daily flights during the holiday season.

“We are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays,” she said.

FlightAware data showed that Delta Air Lines (NYSE:) scrubbed 292 flights as of 11:23 a.m. EST (1623 GMT), while a spokesperson for American Airlines (NASDAQ:) said the carrier had to call off 90 mainland flights. Globally, a total of more than 2,500 flights were called off on Saturday and some 4,200 others were delayed.

“Our operation has been running smoothly, and unfortunately a number of COVID-related sick calls led us to make the difficult decision to pre-cancel some flights scheduled for today,” a spokesperson for American Airlines said.

Not all airlines were affected equally. A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines (NYSE:) said there were no issues to report with the carrier’s flights on Saturday.

The Omicron variant was first detected in November and now accounts for nearly three-quarters of U.S. cases and as many as 90% in some areas, such as the Eastern Seaboard.

The average number of new U.S. coronavirus cases has risen 45% to 179,000 per day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally.

While recent research suggests Omicron produces milder illness and a lower rate of hospitalizations than previous variants of COVID-19, health officials have maintained a cautious note about the outlook.

Ahead of the Christmas holiday, Americans scrambled for COVID-19 tests and many went ahead with their travel plans.

U.S. officials have said that people who are fully vaccinated should feel comfortable proceeding with holiday travel.

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NASA launches revolutionary space telescope to give glimpse of early universe

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NASA launches revolutionary space telescope to give glimpse of early universe
© Reuters. Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket, with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, is rolled out to the launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana December 23, 2021. Picture taken December 23, 2021. NASA/Bill Ingalls

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By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, built to give the world its first glimpse of the universe as it existed when the earliest galaxies formed, was launched by rocket early Saturday from the northeastern coast of South America, opening a new era of astronomy.

The revolutionary $9 billion infrared telescope https://graphics.reuters.com/SPACE-EXPLORATION/TELESCOPE/klvyknwbrvg, described by NASA as the premiere space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT) from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch base in French Guiana.

The flawless Christmas Day launch, with a countdown conducted in French, was carried live on a joint NASA-ESA webcast. The liftoff capped a project decades in the making, coming to fruition after years of repeated delays and cost over-runs.

“From a tropical rain forest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe,” a NASA commentator said as the two-stage launch vehicle, fitted with double solid-rocket boosters, roared off its launch pad into cloudy skies.

After a 27-minute, hypersonic ride into space, the 14,000-pound instrument was released from the upper stage of the French-built rocket about 865 miles above the Earth, and should gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward on its own.

Live video captured by a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed the Webb gliding gently away after it was jettisoned, drawing cheers and applause from jubilant flight engineers in the mission control center.

Flight controllers confirmed moments later, as the Webb’s solar-energy array was deployed, that its power supply was working.

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1 million miles from Earth – about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb’s special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with the Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.

By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from 340 miles away, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow every 90 minutes.

Named after the man who oversaw NASA through most of its formative decade of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to transform scientists’ understanding of the universe and our place in it.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, striking a spiritual tone as he addressed the launch webcast by video link, quoted the Bible and hailed the new telescope as a “time machine” that will “capture the light from the very beginning of the creation.”

COSMOLOGICAL HISTORY LESSON

Webb mainly will view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born, while Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The new telescope’s primary mirror – consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – also has a much bigger light-collecting area, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back into time, than Hubble or any other telescope.

That, astronomers say, will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen – dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

Hubble’s view reached back to roughly 400 million years following the Big Bang, a period just after the very first galaxies – sprawling clusters of stars, gases and other interstellar matter – are believed to have taken shape.

While Hubble caught glimmers of “toddler” galaxies, Webb will reveal those objects in greater detail while also capturing even fainter, earlier “infant” galaxies, astrophysicist Eric Smith, NASA’s Webb program scientist, told Reuters hours before the launch.

Aside from examining the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies, astronomers are eager to study super-massive black holes believed to occupy the centers of distant galaxies.

Webb’s instruments also make it ideal to search for evidence of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets – celestial bodies orbiting distant stars – and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp (NYSE:) was the primary contractor. The Arianespace launch vehicle is part of the European contribution.

“The world gave us this telescope, and we handed it back to the world today,” Gregory Robinson, Webb program director for NASA told reporters at a post-launch briefing.

Webb was developed at a cost of $8.8 billion, with operational expenses projected to bring its total price tag https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-nasa-telescope/northrop-ceo-grilled-by-u-s-lawmakers-over-space-telescope-idUSKBN1KG2US to about $9.66 billion, far higher than planned when NASA was previously aiming for a 2011 launch.

Astronomical operation of the telescope, to be managed from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is expected to begin in the summer of 2022, following about six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments.

It is then that NASA expects to release the initial batch of images captured by Webb. Webb is designed to last up to 10 years.

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