Live Updates: Covid Wave Dampens New Year Observances Worldwide

Life was supposed to return to normal this year. Instead, 2021 turned into a kind of purgatory. But there is good reason to hope 2022 will be better.

As this year comes to a close, we want to look back on the arc of the pandemic — and look ahead to the new year that starts Saturday.

This past year began with the ramping up of a mass vaccination campaign, which many people celebrated by taking post-shot selfies of their bandaged arms. By February, new Covid-19 cases were plummeting, and by spring, the virus seemed as if it might be in permanent retreat. On June 2, President Biden gave a speech looking ahead to “a summer of freedom, a summer of joy.”

But then came a turning point of 2021: the emergence of the Delta variant.

It began spreading in the U.S. in the late spring and caused many more infections among the vaccinated than earlier versions of the virus. The overwhelming majority of these breakthrough infections were mild, but they did have the potential to cause serious illness in the older and other vulnerable people.

Delta also sparked new outbreaks among the unvaccinated, and tens of thousands of them died. Ultimately, the U.S. death toll from Covid in 2021 — more than 475,000 — exceeded the 2020 toll. The increase is especially tragic, epidemiologists say, because the availability of vaccines had made most of those deaths avoidable.

Altogether, the year ending tonight has often felt disappointing and grim.

In addition to the direct damage from Covid, the disruptions to daily life — intended to slow the spread of the virus — have brought their own costs. Children have fallen behind in school, and for many, isolation has worsened their mental health. Adults are struggling, too; Americans’ blood pressure has risen, and drug overdoses have soared.

Even people who have avoided the worst of the pandemic’s damage often feel fed up. And the latest variant, Omicron, has sent cases soaring again, to their highest levels yet, and raised the prospect that 2022 will be another year of pandemic purgatory.

At this point, it should be clear that there are no Covid guarantees. Perhaps future variants will emerge, even more dangerous than Omicron or Delta. But the most likely scenario is more hopeful, many experts believe. As the New Year arrives, there are reasons to hope that 2022 will become what people expected 2021 to be — the year that Covid switched from being a pandemic to an endemic virus, not so different from the flu.

Emerging evidence suggests that Omicron really is milder than earlier versions of this coronavirus (either because of intrinsic biological reasons or because of higher levels of population immunity). In South Africa and England, as well as New York, San Francisco and other parts of the U.S., hospitalization numbers are lower than doctors feared.

Omicron will still do terrible damage, especially among the millions of middle-aged and older Americans who remain unvaccinated as well as the hundreds of millions of adults worldwide who remain unvaccinated, because of either vaccine skepticism or unavailability. Many hospitals face the risk of being overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

But when the current surge begins receding, it will likely have left a couple of silver linings. Omicron is so contagious that it will have infected a meaningful share of the population, increasing the amount of Covid immunity and helping defang the virus.

As important, the world has more powerful weapons to fight Covid than it did only a few weeks ago: two new post-infection treatments, one from Merck and a more powerful one from Pfizer, that lower the risk of hospitalization and death. With Pfizer’s treatment, the reduction is almost 90 percent, according to early research trials.

All of which suggests that the U.S. could emerge from the Omicron wave significantly closer to the most realistic Covid future — one in which it becomes an endemic disease that is a more normal part of daily life. It will still cause illness and death; a typical flu season kills about 35,000 Americans, most of them older. For the foreseeable future, battling Covid — through vaccination, treatment and research — will remain important.

But endemic disease does not need to dominate life the way a pandemic does. It does not need to cause the sort of social isolation and public health problems that Covid has over the past two years.

If the U.S. reaches that point in 2022 — as looks likely — the next New Year’s Eve will feel a lot more satisfying than this one.

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Tencent hands shareholders $16.4 bln windfall in the form of JD.com stake

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  • Move comes as Beijing cracks down on technology firms
  • JD.com shares plunge as much as 11.2%, Tencent up 4%
  • Tencent has no plans to sell stakes in other firms-source

BEIJING/HONG KONG, Dec 23 (Reuters) – Chinese gaming and social media company Tencent (0700.HK) will pay out a $16.4 billion dividend by distributing most of its JD.com (9618.HK) stake, weakening its ties to the e-commerce firm and raising questions about its plans for other holdings.

The move comes as Beijing leads a broad regulatory crackdown on technology firms, taking aim at their overseas growth ambitions and domestic concentration of market power.

Tencent said on Thursday it will transfer HK$127.69 billion ($16.37 billion) worth of its JD.com stake to shareholders, slashing its holding in China’s second-biggest e-commerce company to 2.3% from around 17% now and losing its spot as JD.com’s biggest shareholder to Walmart (WMT.N).

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The owner of WeChat, which first invested in JD.com in 2014, said it was the right time for the divestment, given the e-commerce firm had reached a stage where it can self-finance its growth.

Chinese regulators have this year blocked Tencent’s proposed $5.3 billion merger of the country’s top two videogame streaming sites, ordered it to end exclusive music copyright agreements and found WeChat illegally transferred user data.

The company is one of a handful of technology giants that dominate China’s internet space and which have historically prevented rivals’ links and services from being shared on their platforms.

“This seems to be a continuation of the concept of bringing down the walled gardens and increasing competition among the tech giants by weakening partnerships, exclusivity and other arrangements which weaken competitive pressures,” Mio Kato, a LightStream Research analyst who publishes on Smartkarma said of the JD.com stake transfer.

“It could have implications for things like the payments market where Tencent’s relationships with Pinduoduo and JD have helped it maintain some competitiveness with Alipay,” he said.

JD.com shares plunged 11.2% at one point in Hong Kong trade on Thursday, the biggest daily percentage decline since its debut in the city in June 2020, before closing with a 7.0.% decline. Shares of Tencent, Asia’s most valuable listed company, rose 4.2%.

Shares of Tencent and JD on Dec 23

The companies said they would continue to have a business relationship, including an ongoing strategic partnership agreement, though Tencent Executive Director and President Martin Lau will step down from JD.com’s board immediately.

Eligible Tencent shareholders will be entitled to one share of JD.com for every 21 shares they hold.

A Tencent logo is seen in Beijing, China September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

PORTFOLIO DIVESTMENTS?

The JD.com stake is part of Tencent’s portfolio of listed investments valued at $185 billion as of Sept. 30, including stakes in e-commerce company Pinduoduo (PDD.O), food delivery firm Meituan (3690.HK), video platform Kuaishou (1024.HK), automaker Tesla (TSLA.O) and streaming service Spotify (SPOT.N).

Alex Au, managing director at Hong Kong-based hedge fund manager Alphalex Capital Management, said the JD.com sale made both business and political sense.

“There might be other divestments on their way as Tencent heeds the antitrust call while shareholders ask to own those interests in minority stakes themselves,” he said.

A person with knowledge of the matter told Reuters Tencent has no plans to exit its other investments. When asked about Pinduoduo and Meituan, the person said they are not as well-developed as JD.com.

The Chinese internet giant has also invested in overseas companies such as Tesla (TSLA.O), Netamble, Snapchat, Spotify (SPOT.N) and Sea (SE.N). “Going abroad is one of Tencent’s most important strategies in the future,” a CITIC Securities research note said on Thursday. “The possibility of selling overseas high-quality technology and internet assets is small.”

Tencent chose to distribute the JD shares as a dividend rather than sell them on the market in an attempt to avoid a steep fall in JD.com’s share price as well as a high tax bill, the person added.

Kenny Ng, an analyst at Everbright Sun Hung Kai, said the decision was “definitely negative” for JD.com.

“Although Tencent’s reduction of JD’s holdings may not have much impact on JD’s actual business, when the shares are transferred from Tencent to Tencent’s shareholders, the chances of Tencent’s shareholders selling JD’s shares as dividends will increase,” he said.

Technology investor Prosus (PRX.AS), which is Tencent’s largest shareholder with a 29% stake and is controlled by Naspers of South Africa, will receive the biggest portion of JD.com shares.

Walmart owns a 9.3% stake in JD.com, according to the Chinese company. Payments processor Alipay is part of Tencent rival Alibaba Group .

($1 = 7.7996 Hong Kong dollars)

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Reporting by Sophie Yu in Beijing and Scott Murdoch in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Xie Yu, Selena Li, Donny Kwok and Eduardo Baptista in Hong Kong and Nikhil Kurian Nainan in Bengaluru; Writing by Jamie Freed; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu and Muralikumar Anantharaman

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Desmond Tutu, Whose Voice Helped Slay Apartheid, Dies at 90

His words seemed prophetic when, in 2016, an alliance of religious leaders in South Africa joined other critics in urging Mr. Zuma to quit. In early 2018, Mr. Zuma was ousted after a power struggle with his deputy, Mr. Ramaphosa, who took over the presidency in February of that year.

By then, Archbishop Tutu had largely stopped giving interviews because of failing health and rarely appeared in public. But a few months after Mr. Ramaphosa was sworn in as the new president with the promise of a “new dawn” for the nation, the archbishop welcomed him at his home.

“Know that we pray regularly for you and your colleagues that this must not be a false dawn,” Archbishop Tutu warned Mr. Ramaphosa.

At that time, support for the African National Congress had declined, even though it remained the country’s biggest political party. In elections in 2016, while still under the leadership of Mr. Zuma, the party’s share of the vote slipped to its lowest level since the end of apartheid. Mr. Ramaphosa struggled to reverse that trend, but earned some praise later for his robust handling of the coronavirus crisis.

For much of his life, Archbishop Tutu was a spellbinding preacher, his voice by turns sonorous and high-pitched. He often descended from the pulpit to embrace his parishioners. Occasionally he would break into a pixielike dance in the aisles, punctuating his message with the wit and the chuckling that became his hallmark, inviting his audience into a jubilant bond of fellowship. While assuring his parishioners of God’s love, he exhorted them to follow the path of nonviolence in their struggle.

Politics were inherent in his religious teachings. “We had the land, and they had the Bible,” he said in one of his parables. “Then they said, ‘Let us pray,’ and we closed our eyes. When we opened them again, they had the land and we had the Bible. Maybe we got the better end of the deal.”

His moral leadership, combined with his winning effervescence, made him something of a global celebrity. He was photographed at glittering social functions, appeared in documentaries and chatted with talk-show hosts. Even in late 2015, when his health seemed poor, he met with Prince Harry of Britain, who presented him with an honor on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.

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Europeans Ponder Living With, Not Defeating, Covid

MADRID — Covid-19 infections were rising all across Spain, but the message from the country’s leader was clear: The government was not entering 2022 with the restrictions of 2020.

“The situation is different this time, and because of that, we’re taking different measures,” Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, said this week, adding that he understood his people had grown impatient with the pandemic and that he was “fully aware of the fatigue.”

Across Europe, that fatigue is as palpable as the dampened Christmas spirit. The fatigue of another named variant of the coronavirus and another wave of infections. The fatigue of another grim year watching New Year’s Eve gatherings get canceled or curtailed, one by one.

But along with the exhaustion, another feeling is taking root: that the coronavirus will not be eradicated with vaccines or lockdowns, but has become something endemic that people must learn to live with, maybe for years to come.

reducing the risk of severe disease and hospitalization, according to recent studies.

Pfizer and Merck. The new drugs, which can be taken at home with a doctor’s prescription, will be available to some Covid patients who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill.

“I worry a bit because we don’t know much about Omicron,” Susanne Sesterer, 63, a retiree in Hanover, Germany, said on Thursday as she was doing her last shopping before Christmas. “But how much worse can it get?”

Others were giving up.

Dorotea Belli, a 42-year-old Italian who has had two vaccine doses, said she would not go to a family gathering for Christmas and instead stay home in Rome. Many of her colleagues had tested positive for the virus, she said, and her children, 4 and 1, are not eligible for vaccination.

“They and I will miss my parents very much,” she said. “But I don’t want to bring Covid around, and even if my husband and I are vaccinated, who knows?”

Spain’s calculus on new restrictions is not only factoring in the all-important holidays, but also legal barriers that emerged after measures taken by the government in 2020.

In July, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government did not have the authority to impose the lockdown measures that began in March 2020, which restricted Spaniards from leaving their homes except for essential trips like food shopping. Instead, the judges said, the measures required a full parliamentary vote, which few see passing with a majority in the future given how controversial the previous restrictions were.

“The government has its hands tied now,” said Luis Galán Soldevilla, a law professor at the University of Córdoba.

Spain’s lighter measures announced on Thursday received criticism from some sectors, like the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration, a group that includes many health professionals.

“These measures don’t help much,” said Ildefonso Hernández, the group’s spokesman, saying limiting capacity indoors would be more effective. “It makes no sense that people walk the street with a mask and then take it off when they enter a bar.”

In Madrid, residents were charging ahead with their Christmas plans, despite the rising caseload and risks.

Fernando Sánchez, 55, a taxi driver, lost his mother and brother to Covid-19 six months ago. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to cancel his Christmas plans, which this year take place at the home of his in-laws, much as they had before the pandemic.

Antonio Jesús Navarro, 33, a software engineer, had been looking forward to spending Christmas with his girlfriend, who had traveled to Spain for the holidays from the United States. The two had not seen each other since before the pandemic began.

But then Mr. Navarro learned he had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The couple were isolating until he could get his own test results. He said he was frustrated with public messaging on how to stay safe from Omicron.

“Is an antigen test acceptable?” he said by telephone. “What happens if there are no symptoms?”

Hours later, Mr. Navarro called back to say he and his girlfriend had tested positive for Covid-19.

Nicholas Casey and José Bautista reported from Madrid, and Constant Méheut from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Raphael Minder from Geneva; Gaia Pianigiani from Rome; Christopher F. Schuetze from Hanover, Germany; and Léontine Gallois from Paris.

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Omicron Wave Heads for U.K., but It’s Not Clear How Bad It’ll Be

LONDON — With cases of the Omicron variant doubling every three days and the government doing an about-face on restrictions it had long resisted, Britain is bracing for a new coronavirus surge, unsure if it will be a relatively minor event or a return to the dark days of earlier pandemic waves.

So far, the number of Omicron cases — 817 confirmed by Thursday, though officials say the real figure is likely much higher — is small compared with the daily average of 48,000 new coronavirus cases overall. But the government’s Health Security Agency warned that if the recent growth rate continues, “we expect to see at least 50 percent of Covid-19 cases to be caused by the Omicron variant in the next two to four weeks.”

Early evidence in Britain backs up tentative findings elsewhere, notably in South Africa, where the heavily mutated new variant is already widespread: It appears to be the most contagious form of the virus yet, a previous case of Covid-19 provides little immunity to it, and vaccines seem less effective against it. But it also seems to cause less severe illness than earlier variants.

Britain’s experience with Omicron may be a harbinger of what others can expect. Until now, it has been looser about social restrictions than many other nations in Western Europe, and Britain ordinarily has extensive travel to and from South Africa, so it could be the first wealthy country to be hit hard by Omicron. It also has one of the world’s most robust systems for sequencing viral genomes, so it can identify and track new variants earlier and more thoroughly than other countries.

opposed stricter controls that have been adopted around Europe, which was suffering through its biggest coronavirus wave so far before Omicron appeared.

Times analysis shows how infrastructure issues and the public’s level of willingness to get vaccinated may pose larger obstacles than supply.

“It’s not going to take long before it becomes obvious in other places, but it’s clearer earlier here,” Dr. Barrett said. “I think other countries should basically assume the same thing is happening.”

The genomic surveillance could also give Britain a head start in determining how severe Omicron cases are, though there will be a lag because it takes days or weeks for a person who gets infected to become seriously ill.

“It is increasingly evident that Omicron is highly infectious and there is emerging laboratory and early clinical evidence to suggest that both vaccine-acquired and naturally acquired immunity against infection is reduced for this variant,” Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the Health Security Agency, said in a statement.

Experts fear what that could mean for Britain’s already struggling National Health Service.

“A lot of staff have left or are burnt out,” Dr. English said, after months of dealing with the strains of the pandemic. “Now we’ve going to have another big hit — very likely — from Omicron. I am really, really sympathetic toward my poor colleagues working in clinical practice at the moment.”

said in a statement that the country had been having “increasingly high incidences of Covid-19 for some time,” adding that “health care workers are rightly worried about the impact the Omicron variant could have” on the health system’s ability to function if caseloads rise fast.

Some hospitals have already canceled elective care again, a strategy seen at the start of the pandemic to free up resources for treating coronavirus patients. Patients are already experiencing hourslong waits for ambulances as a result of the existing pressures on the system, Dr. Nagpaul added.

“While the number of Covid hospitalizations today is much lower than last winter, we must not risk complacency by ignoring the rapid doubling of Omicron cases every two to three days,” he said.

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W.H.O. Scolds Rich Nations for Travel Bans and Booster Shots

LONDON — As the still-mysterious Omicron variant reached American shores, the World Health Organization on Wednesday scolded wealthy countries that imposed travel bans and dismissed those that poured resources into vaccine booster campaigns when billions in poor countries had yet to receive their first shots.

The comments by W.H.O. officials reopened fraught questions of equity in how the world has handled the coronavirus pandemic since a stark divide over the availability of vaccines emerged between rich and poor countries earlier this year.

But amid fears of a new wave of Covid-19, that seemed unlikely to sway leaders in Europe, Asia, and the United States, which reported its first confirmed Omicron case, in California, on Wednesday. They are scrambling to shield their populations from the variant — about which much remains unknown — by topping up their protection and tightening restrictions on incoming travel.

Travelers reacted with confusion and dismay to news that the United States plans to toughen testing requirements and the screening of inbound passengers. That decision came after Japan, Israel, and Morocco barred foreign travelers and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks.

revealed to the world — and Dr. Tedros warned that the number would rise.

The W.H.O. also voiced skepticism about ambitious booster plans that it claimed come at the expense of first-time vaccinations in less wealthy nations. Britain this week announced a massive new campaign to deliver booster shots to all adults by the end of January. Other European countries and the Biden administration are also pushing these shots as a first line of defense against the variant, buying time for scientists to unravel its genomic code.

Japan joined Israel and Morocco in barring all foreign travelers, and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks. The C.D.C plans to increase testing and screening of international fliers to the U.S.

The borderless nature of the virus, Mr. Guterres said, means that “travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive — they are ineffective.”

Although the United States is not weighing the kind of blanket travel ban on foreign visitors imposed by Japan, the restrictions being weighed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States are stirring widespread concern. The agency is considering requiring travelers to provide a negative result from a test taken within 24 hours before departure, a spokesman said on Tuesday night.

Though the C.D.C. has yet to officially announce the changes, the prospect sent travelers searching for updates, booking pre-emptive tests where they could, and scouring airline websites for reservation changes, as the pandemic threatened to upend another December travel season.

Carlos Valencia, a dual Spanish-American citizen whose Seville-based company operates a study abroad program for American students, had planned to return to the United States in January. But he said that he would put the trip on hold until “there is at least some clarity about whether the new rules make a trip feasible.”

Whatever shape the restrictions take, he said, they are “way overdone — especially when you consider how lax the U.S.A. has been with getting people to wear face masks and its own health safety measures.”

Emanuela Giorgetti, a teacher in northern Italy, was hoping to join her fiancé, whom she has not seen for almost two years, for Christmas in Chicago. “When I heard the news,” she said, “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”

Given the potential threat posed by Omicron, she said she understood the impulse to tighten the rules. But it still seemed unfair.

“We have more vaccinated people in Italy than in the U.S., we wear masks indoors and try to go by the rules,” Ms. Giorgetti said.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce, Rick Gladstone, Raphael Minder, Gaia Pianigiani, Michael D. Shear and John Yoon.

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Vaccine Hesitancy Hurts Covid Fight in Poorer Countries

JOHANNESBURG — The detection of the Omicron variant in southern Africa signals the next stage of the battle against Covid-19: getting many more people inoculated in poorer nations where vaccines have been scarcest in order to deter new mutations from developing.

But while world leaders sometimes talk about this as if it were largely a matter of delivering doses overseas, the experience of South Africa, at least, hints at a far more complex set of challenges.

Like many poor countries, South Africa was made to wait months for vaccines as wealthier countries monopolized them. Many countries still do not have anywhere near enough vaccines to inoculate their populations.

The problems have not ended as shots began arriving in greater numbers.

Neglected and underfunded public health infrastructure has slowed their delivery, especially to rural areas, where storage and staffing problems are common.

turned away shipments of doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, worried that their stockpile of 16 million shots might spoil amid insufficient demand.

Dr. Saad Omer, a Yale University epidemiologist, and they have had a deeper effect.

have said. In several countries, fewer than half say they intend to get vaccinated.

sometimes-violent resistance in rural communities. Vaccine hesitancy rates there approach 50 percent among those who have not completed high school. In some parts of the country, more than a third of doses spoil amid the low demand.

Still, many are eager to be vaccinated. When doses first became widely available in South Africa earlier this year, a third of the country’s adults swiftly got inoculated, a pattern that is repeating elsewhere.

allegations of corruption amid last year’s lockdown, have heightened public unease.

“There’s a lack of confidence in the public health system’s ability to provide vaccines,” said Chris Vick, the founder of Covid Comms, a South African nonprofit group.

The group has been holding vaccine information sessions, but overcoming skepticism is not easy. After a session in the Pretoria township of Atteridgeville, one 20-year-old who attended said she had not been persuaded.

briefly pause delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, leading South Africa to delay its rollout to health care workers. Both countries decided to resume the shots after concluding that they were safe.

The South African government held regular briefings, but these were on television and in English, when radio remains the most powerful medium and most South Africans do not speak English as their mother tongue.

a recent study found. That is in part because of mistrust of the Black-led government, but also because American Covid conspiracists have found wide reach among white South Africans on social media, according to Mr. Vick of Covid Comms.

Covid pill from Merck for high-risk adults, the first in a new class of antiviral drugs that could work against a wide range of variants, including Omicron. The pill could be authorized within days, and available by year’s end.

The first modern, worldwide campaign, begun in 1959 against smallpox, provoked deep skepticism in parts of Africa and Asia, where it was seen as a continuation of colonial-era medical abuses. Some W.H.O. officials used physical force to vaccinate people, deepening distrust. The campaign took 28 years.

The effort to eradicate polio, which finally ramped up in poor countries in the 1980s and is still ongoing, has run into similar resistance. A study in the science journal Nature found that vaccine avoidance was highest among poor or marginalized groups, who believed that the health authorities, and especially Western governments, would never voluntarily help them.

In Nigeria in the early 2000s, amid a spike in religious tensions, unfounded rumors circulated that foreign health workers were using polio vaccines as cover to sterilize the country’s Muslim population. Boycotts and local bans led to a polio resurgence, with cases spreading to 15 other countries, as far as Southeast Asia.

survey by the Africa Center for Disease Control found that 43 percent of those polled believe Africans are used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials — a legacy of Western drug companies’ doing exactly this in the 1990s.

Even within their own borders, Western governments are struggling to overcome vaccine resistance. So it is hard to imagine them doing better in faraway societies where they lack local understanding.

Any appearance of Western powers forcing unwanted vaccines into African or Asian arms risks deepening the backlash.

“If the objective is to keep the U.S. and the rest of the world safe, it should be pretty obvious that the success of the domestic program depends on what happens internationally,” Dr. Omer said.

Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Nairobi.

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World Omicron Fight Hindered by Fragmented Response

ROME — In a wrenchingly familiar cycle of tracking first cases, pointing fingers and banning travel, nations worldwide reacted Monday to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the piecemeal fashion that has defined — and hobbled — the pandemic response all along.

As here-we-go-again fear and resignation gripped much of the world, the World Health Organization warned that the risk posed by the heavily mutated variant was “very high.” But operating once again in a vacuum of evidence, governments chose approaches that differed between continents, between neighboring countries, and even between cities within those countries.

Little is known about Omicron beyond its large number of mutations; it will be weeks, at least, before scientists can say with confidence whether it is more contagious — early evidence suggests it is — whether it causes more serious illness, and how it responds to vaccines.

In China, which had been increasingly alone in sealing itself off as it sought to eradicate the virus, a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party gloated about democracies that are now following suit as Japan, Australia and other countries gave up flirting with a return to normalcy and slammed their borders shut to the world. The West, it said, had hoarded vaccines at the expense of poorer regions, and was now paying a price for its selfishness.

announced that government employees, health care workers and staff and students at most schools must be vaccinated by Jan. 22.

tied to a single soccer team — and Scotland reported six, while the numbers in South Africa continued to soar.

Experts warned that the variant will reach every part of the world, if it hasn’t already.

The leaders of the world’s top powers insisted that they understood this, but their assurances also had a strong whiff of geopolitics.

President Xi Jinping of China offered one billion doses of Covid vaccine to Africa, on top of nearly 200 million that Beijing has already shipped to the continent, during an address to a conference in Senegal by video link.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in thwarting virus transmission, and said the West was now paying the price for its selfish policies. “Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” it wrote. “But they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.”

told France Inter radio on Monday that variants would continue to emerge unless richer countries shared more vaccines. “We need a much more systemic approach,” she said.

“zero Covid” strategy.

China has steadfastly kept a high wall against visitors from the rest of the world. Foreign residents and visa holders are allowed in only under limited circumstances, leading to concerns by some within the business world that Covid restrictions were leaving the country increasingly isolated.

Visitors must submit to two-week quarantines upon arrival and face potential limits on their movement after that. Movements are tracked via monitoring smartphone apps, which display color codes that can signal whether a person has traveled from or through an area with recent infections, triggering instructions to remain in one place.

In other parts of Asia, people are less focused on eradicating the virus than just surviving it.

“This news is terrifying,” said Gurinder Singh, 57, in New Delhi, who worried about his shop going under. “If this virus spreads in India, the government will shut the country again, and we will be forced to beg.”

Reporting was contributed by Declan Walsh from Nairobi, Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, Carlos Tejada from Seoul, Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, India, Lynsey Chutel from South Africa, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Elian Peltier and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Megan Specia from London, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Emma Bubola from Rome and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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Business

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The floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is seen after the close of trading in New York, U.S., March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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NEW YORK, Nov 26 (Reuters) – COVID-19 has resurfaced as a worry for investors and a potential driver of big market moves after a new variant triggered alarm, long after the threat had receded in Wall Street’s eyes.

Worries about a new strain of the virus, named Omicron and classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern, slammed markets worldwide and dealt the S&P 500 index its biggest one-day percentage loss in nine months. The moves came a day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday when thin volume likely exacerbated the moves.

With little known about the new variant, longer term implications for U.S. assets were unclear. At least, investors said signs that the new strain is spreading and questions over its resistance to vaccines could weigh on the so-called reopening trade that has lifted markets at various times this year.

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The new strain may also complicate the outlook for how aggressively the Federal Reserve normalizes monetary policy to fight inflation.

“Markets were celebrating the end of the pandemic. Slam. It isn’t over,” said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors. “All policy issues, meaning monetary policy, business trajectories, GDP growth estimates, leisure and hospitality recovery, the list goes on, are on hold.”

The S&P 500 fell by a third as pandemic fears mushroomed in early 2020, but has more than doubled in value since then, though the pandemic’s ebb and flow has driven sometimes-violent rotations in the types of stocks investors favor. The index is up more than 22% this year.

Before Friday, broader vaccine availability and advances in treatments made markets potentially less sensitive to COVID-19. The virus had dropped to a distant fifth in a list of so-called “tail risks” to the market in a recent survey of fund managers by BofA Global Research, with inflation and central bank hikes taking the top spots.

On Friday, however, technology and growth stocks that had prospered during last year’s so-called stay-at-home trade soared, including Zoom Communications (ZM.O), Netflix Inc (NFLX.O) and Peloton (PTON.O).

At the same time, stocks that had rallied this year on bets of economic reopening may suffer if virus fears grow. Energy, financials and other economically sensitive stocks tumbled on Friday, as did those of many travel-related companies such as airlines and hotels.

The new Omicron coronavirus variant spread further around the world on Sunday, with 13 cases found in the Netherlands and two each in Denmark and Australia, even as more countries tried to seal themselves off by imposing travel restrictions.

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

Friday’s swings also sent the Cboe Volatility Index (.VIX), known as Wall Street’s fear gauge, soaring and options investors scrambling to hedge their portfolios against further market swings. read more

Reuters Graphics

Andrew Thrasher, portfolio manager for The Financial Enhancement Group, had been concerned that recent gains in a handful of technology stocks with large weightings in the S&P 500, including Apple Inc (AAPL.O), Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O), were masking weakness in the broader market.

“This set the kindling for sellers to push markets lower and the latest COVID news appears to have stoked that bearish flame,” he said.

Some investors said the latest COVID-19 related weakness could be a chance to buy stocks at comparatively lower levels, expecting the market to continue rapidly recovering from dips, a pattern that has marked its march to record highs this year.

“We’ve had numerous days when economic optimism collapses. Each of these optimism collapses were a good buying opportunity,” wrote Bill Smead, founder of Smead Capital Management, in a note to investors. Among the stocks he recommended were Occidental Petroleum (OXY.N) and Macerich Co (MAC.N), down 7.2% and 5.2% respectively on Friday.

One of several wild cards is whether virus-driven economic uncertainty will slow the Federal Reserve’s plans to normalize monetary policy, just as it has started unwinding its $120 billion a month bond buying program.

Futures on the U.S. federal funds rate, which track short-term interest rate expectations, on Friday showed investors rolling back their view of a sooner-than-expected rate increase.

Investors will be watching Fed Chair Jerome Powell and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s appearance before Congress to discuss the government’s COVID response on Nov. 30 as well as U.S. employment numbers, due out next Friday.

Investors held out hope that markets could stabilize. Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Capital Management, said moves may have been exaggerated by lack of liquidity on Friday, with many participants out for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“My first reaction is anything we are going to see today is overdone,” Ablin said.

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Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Megan Davies and Lewis Krauskopf; Writing by Ira Iosebashvili; Editing by Megan Davies, Richard Chang and Alexander Smith

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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