Photo used for illustrative purpose.
Millions in China were locked down again, exactly two years after Beijing reported the first death from a virus later confirmed to be COVID-19.
Highly transmissible Omicron has swept across countries, forcing governments to impose fresh measures and scramble to roll out vaccine booster shots. Europe is at the epicentre of alarming new outbreaks and the WHO said on Tuesday Omicron could infect half of all people in the region at current rates.
Europe is currently reporting the largest number of deaths and cases worldwide, according to an AFP tally, with almost eight million recorded infections over the past seven days.
The WHO's regional director for Europe Hans Kluge described a "new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across" the region. "The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks," he added.
The WHO's European region covers 53 countries and territories including several in Central Asia, and Kluge said 50 of them had Omicron cases.
Kluge confirmed that Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, but stressed "approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death — including for Omicron."
A 'permanent scar on development'
The World Bank provided more sobering forecasts on Tuesday, predicting global economic growth will decelerate in 2022 as Omicron risks exacerbating labour shortages and supply chain snarls.
In its latest Global Economic Prospects report, the Washington-based development lender cut its forecast for world economic growth this year to 4.1 per cent after the 5.5 per cent rebound last year.
Bird's eye view of the new graves at the cemetery in Antoninow, Poland. AFP
World Bank President David Malpass said the pandemic could leave a "permanent scar on development" as poverty, nutrition and health indicators move in the wrong direction.
The warnings came exactly two years after the announcement of the first person dying of a virus only later identified as Covid — a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, China, where the illness was first detected.
Since Jan.11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to nearly 5.5 million. China largely tamed its initial outbreak with a mix of lockdowns, border closures and mass testing, but flare-ups in some major cities are testing that zero-Covid strategy just weeks before the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The city of Anyang in Henan province on Monday night told its five million residents not to leave their homes or drive cars on the roads, China's official Xinhua news agency said. The cities of Yuzhou and Xi'an have also entered strict lockdowns.
Hong Kong, which has some of the toughest coronavirus border restrictions in the world, also ramped up its curbs Tuesday to fight an Omicron outbreak, shutting kindergartens and primary schools until early February.
The same day, Japan extended until the end of next month a strict Covid border policy that bars almost all new foreign arrivals.
Booster campaigns not 'sustainable'
Health experts maintain vaccines are among the most potent tools available against the pandemic. But the WHO on Tuesday warned that repeating booster doses of the original Covid jabs is not a viable strategy against emerging variants and called for new vaccines that better protect against transmission.
"A vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable," a WHO vaccine advisory group said in a statement.
A woman receives a dose of virus vaccine in Vietnam.
The issue of unequal access to vaccines was again raised Tuesday as the World Economic Forum warned that the widening gap was threatening the cooperation needed to tackle common challenges such as climate change.
"A greater prevalence of Covid-19 in low-vaccination countries than in high-vaccination ones will weigh on worker availability and productivity, disrupt supply chains and weaken consumption," WEF said in a report.
The deep scepticism and often-violent opposition to jabs in many countries came into sharp focus last week when Australia cancelled the visa of the world's top men's tennis player over Covid shot requirements.
The unjabbed, vaccine-sceptic Novak Djokovic won a legal challenge against the government on Monday, but Australia's immigration minister reserves the right to cancel his visa again as the Serbian aims to defend his Australian Open title.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said that the variant was successfully evading some immune responses, meaning that the booster programmes being rolled out in many countries ought to be targeted towards people with weaker immune systems.
Omicron appears to be better at evading antibodies generated by some COVID-19 vaccines but there are other forms of immunity that may prevent infection and disease, WHO officials said.
More than 8.53 million people have been reported infected by the novel coronavirus globally and 453,834 have died, a Reuters tally showed as of 1326 GMT on Friday.
Elsewhere in Europe, frustrations with COVID-19 curbs were spilling over, with scuffles breaking out at a large anti-restrictions protest in the German city of Kassel, and thousands joining a similar demonstration in Liestal, Switzerland.
It is the latest grim milestone after the novel coronavirus surfaced in central China in December 2019 and went on to infect more than 139 million people, leaving billions more under crippling lockdowns and ravaging the global economy.
The UAE demanded an independent and transparent investigation and the punishment of those responsible, warning against the catastrophic humanitarian situation is extremely sensitive and dangerous.
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The court also fined her Dhs2,000 and 3,000 Saudi riyals after being convicted of stealing the amount of the fine from a house she worked in on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai.
More than 750 people were also hurt in the incident, the ministry said. The Gaza City shooting adds to a Palestinian death toll from the war, which the health ministry earlier Thursday said had topped 30,000.