Omicron Surge Prompts CES to Trim a Day from Schedule

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show will end a day earlier than planned, the organizer of the global technology and gadget show said, after companies including Amazon and General Motors dropped out of attending the Las Vegas event in person because of omicron concerns.  “The step was taken as an additional safety measure to the current health protocols that have been put in place for CES,” event organizer Consumer Technology Association said on Friday, announcing the event will now end on January 7.  The spread of the omicron variant has led to a sharp jump in COVID-19 infections across the world, making many reconsider their travel plans and leading to thousands of flight cancellations.  The number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has doubled in eight days to a record of 587,143 new cases on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally.  As worries over the new variant loom, many companies have withdrawn from presenting in-person at the event, planned both virtually and in-person, that begins on January 5 with more than 2,200 exhibitors.  Over the last few days, a host of firms including Advanced Micro Devices, Proctor & Gamble, Google, and Facebook parent Meta Platforms have also dropped their in-person plans.  Sony Group’s Sony Electronics has said it will have limited staffing and attendees at the event.  All attendees in Las Vegas will be required to be fully vaccinated and masked. COVID-19 test kits will also be provided at the venue, according to CTA’s statement.    …

Pakistan: 70 Million Fully Vaccinated Against COVID-19

Pakistan says it has administered 155 million COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Friday, fully vaccinating 70 million people, or 30% of the country’s total population, since launching the inoculation drive in February. The South Asian nation of about 220 million reported its first case in early 2020 and since then the pandemic has infected about 1.3 million people and killed nearly 29,000 people, keeping the situation largely under control. “Of the total eligible population [age 12 and above], 46% is fully vaccinated and 63% has received at least one dose,” Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar who heads the National Command and Operation Center that oversees Pakistan’s pandemic response, tweeted.   The government had set the target in May and achieved it “with the help of countless workers, citizens and leadership across the country,” tweeted Faisal Sultan, the special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on national health services.   Faisal advised Pakistanis to continue to use masks, avoid crowded places and ensure social distancing in the wake of rising cases of infection from the omicron variant. Officials said Pakistan has received a total of 247 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to date. The government has purchased 157 million while 78 million arrived through the COVAX dose-sharing program, including 32.6 million donated by the United States, and nearly 9 million donated from China.   The United Nations and other global partners have acknowledged Pakistan’s effective response to the pandemic, citing the country’s success in vaccinating children against polio and other transmittable …

Wet December Raises Some Hope for Drought-Stricken California

Record snowfalls in the western United States that closed roads and caused flight delays also brought some good news for drought-hit California on Thursday, with officials saying the state’s snowpack is now well above normal.  After a string of mountain blizzards, snowpack measured at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada stands at more than 200% of its average for this date, according to the first measurement of the season by California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR). The Sierra Nevada supplies almost a third of the state’s water needs, once the snow runs off to reservoirs and aqueducts.  Statewide, snowpack is 160% of its average, the DWR said.  “We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” said Karla Nemeth, the director of the DWR.  Droughts in California are growing more frequent and intense with climate change, according to scientists, threatening the state’s already tenuous water supply and creating conditions for dangerous wildfires.  Despite the precipitation-heavy end to 2021, the DWR warned against complacency.  The state would still have to see “significant” precipitation in January and February to make up for the two previous winters, the state’s fifth- and second-driest water years on record, the DWR said.  “California continues to experience evidence of climate change with bigger swings between wet and dry years and even extreme variability within a season,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit.  He added that a wet start to the winter season …

James Webb Telescope Begins Long-awaited Space Journey

NASA successfully launched its much-anticipated next-generation space telescope.  Now come weeks of nervousness for project scientists who can only hope the next steps go as planned.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.  Produced by: Arash Arabasadi  Camera :  AP/ NASA TV/ PURDUE UNIVERSITY/ YOUTUBE NASA/  “ARMAGEDDON” / TOUCHSTONE PICTURES – JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS/ NASA JOHNS HOPKINS APL …

South Africa Lifts Curfew, Says COVID-19 Fourth Wave Peaked

South Africa has lifted a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement, effective immediately, saying the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the omicron variant, a government statement said Thursday.  However, wearing a face mask in public places remains mandatory. Failure to wear a mask in South Africa when required is a criminal offense.  The country made the curfew and other changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency.  South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels.  “All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier Thursday said.  Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7% decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25 compared with the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said.  South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts.  Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government also ruled that alcohol shops with licenses to operate after 11 p.m. local time may revert to full license conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during …

US Braces for Omicron Surge 

Health authorities in the United States are sounding the alarm again, saying Americans could experience disruptions in the coming weeks because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.  The U.S has reported record numbers of cases two days in a row, Reuters reported, adding that 18 states have set pandemic case records. Maryland, Ohio and Washington, D.C., have reported record hospitalizations.  “We are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC.  Many public agencies like police departments and fire departments have reported numerous employees calling in sick, making it harder to deliver services.  Omicron is causing havoc in the airline industry, with thousands of flights either delayed or canceled. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans against taking cruises.  According to a recent University of Texas study, omicron cases could peak between January 18 and February 3. The study said cases could subside by March.  Roughly 62% of Americans have been given two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, USA Today reported. They are considered fully vaccinated, but many health officials are urging booster shots. Only one-third of Americans have gotten boosters, the paper reported.  The U.S. death toll for the pandemic is 823,743, according to the Johns …

Fauci: Skip Large New Year’s Eve Parties

The top infectious disease expert in the United States is urging Americans to avoid taking part in mass New Year’s Eve celebrations as the nation continues to set record-breaking levels of daily new coronavirus infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. The U.S. posted 489,267 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, just two days after recording a new single-day record of 512,553. The U.S. is now averaging more than 265,000 new coronavirus cases per day, breaking the previous mark of 250,000 daily new infections set in January. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said Wednesday he “strongly recommends” that people cancel plans to attend large holiday parties with “30, 40, 50 people” this year, and instead spend the time with small gatherings of friends or relatives who are vaccinated and have received a booster shot. In an interview Wednesday on financial cable network CNBC, Fauci also predicted the current omicron-driven surge may hit its peak in the U.S. by the end of January. Health experts say despite omicron’s fast-moving spread around the world since it was first detected in South Africa last month, it appears to cause less severe illnesses than other versions of the coronavirus. However a World Health Organization official warned this week it is still too early to tell how omicron will affect older, more vulnerable people. Meanwhile, a new study out of South Africa suggests a booster shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine provides strong …

Iran Says Rocket Launch Sent 3 ‘Research Payloads’ Into Space 

Iran has used a satellite launch rocket to send three research devices into space, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on Thursday, as indirect U.S.-Iran talks take place in Austria to try to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal.  He did not clarify whether the devices had reached orbit.  Iran, which has one of the biggest missile programs in the Middle East, has suffered several failed satellite launches in the past few years due to technical issues.  Spokesman Ahmad Hosseini said the Simorgh satellite carrier rocket, whose name translates as “Phoenix”, had launched the three research devices at an altitude of 470 kilometers (290 miles). He did not give further details.  “The intended research objectives of this launch were achieved,” Hosseini said, in comments broadcast on state television. “This was done as a preliminary launch … God willing, we will have an operational launch soon.”  Iranian state television showed footage of what it said was the firing of the launch vehicle.  Thursday’s reported space launch comes as Tehran and Washington hold indirect talks in Vienna in an attempt to salvage a nuclear accord that Iran reached with world powers and that former U.S. president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.  The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s civilian space agency and two research organizations in 2019, claiming they were being used to advance Tehran’s ballistic missile program.  Tehran denies such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development.  Iran launched its first satellite Omid (Hope) in 2009 and its Rasad (Observation) satellite was …

WHO: Populism, Nationalism, Vaccine Hoarding Are Prolonging Pandemic

The World Health Organization is warning that the rapid circulation of the omicron and delta variants of the coronavirus is leading to a tsunami of cases, severe disease and surging deaths among the unvaccinated. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that while science had led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the global death toll from the disease has kept rising. In 2020, the World Health Organization reported 1.8 million deaths globally, a number that pales in comparison to the additional 3.5 million deaths reported in 2021.   Tedros said the reason for the climb was that politics has too often trumped the need to work together to defeat this pandemic. “Populism, narrow nationalism and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, by a small number of countries undermined equity and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants,” he said. Tedros condemned the misinformation and disinformation that often has been spread by a small number of people for undermining science and trust in lifesaving health tools. He said these twin evils have driven vaccine hesitancy and are to blame for the disproportionately large number of unvaccinated people dying from the delta and omicron strains of the coronavirus. He warned that the virus that causes COVID-19 would continue to evolve and threaten the health system if nations did not improve their collective response. He said it was time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by addressing global vaccine inequity. …