WASHINGTON: Just as it was recovering from the body blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economy has taken yet another hit from the Omicron variant of the virus, which has led to a raft of new travel restrictions.
First reported to the World Health Organization in South Africa less than a week ago, the new strain has rapidly spread everywhere from Africa to the Pacific, and from Europe to Canada, causing dozens of countries to announce travel restrictions.
The severity of the economic impact will depend on how dangerous the variant proves to be, and how well existing vaccinations stand up to it.
That has meant that even with the most favorable scenarios in mind, economists are already revising their 2022 forecasts downwards.
The International Monetary Fund, which expects growth of 4.9 percent for the next year, has been insisting for months that the coronavirus and its variants remain the main threat.
The economic impact could be "modest," in the order of 0.25 percentage points on global growth in 2022 if Omicron causes "relatively mild symptoms" and the vaccines are "effective", said Gregory Daco, chief economist at Oxford Economics.
In the worst-case scenario, in which Omicron proves extremely dangerous and large swaths of the world are in lockdown again, 2022 growth could fall to around 2.3 percent, as compared to the 4.5 percent expected by Oxford Economics before the variant emerged.
And in such a scenario it is not certain that governments, which have stumped up trillions of dollars in aid since the start of the pandemic, would be willing to put in place further fiscal stimulus packages, especially if vaccines are available, Daco said.
Those aspects "are going to be really key to how it affects the global economy and people's behavior," said Erik Lundh, an economist at The Conference Board.
Beyond government measures to contain the new strain, fear of infection could lead people to limit their own travel and economic activities, such as going to restaurants and reducing consumption, which will in turn impact growth, Lundh said.
Another risk is the exacerbation of the global supply chain crunch. Lundh pointed out that "a lot of air cargo is stored basically in the belly of passenger planes ... It's not just all sorts of FedEx planes".
"So if there are cancellations, if there's a lapse in demand for commercial flights for passengers, it does run the risk of limiting the route of trade," which could, in turn, worsen inflationary pressures as goods become more scarce.
In addition, a wave of Omicron infections "could cause some workers to temporarily exit the workforce, and deter others from returning, making current labor shortages worse," said Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics in a note.
Omicron has sparked more anxiety than any other variant since the emergence of Delta, itself already much more contagious than previous strains.
US President Joe Biden, however, said on Monday (Nov 29) that there was "not a cause for panic," even if the United States has closed its borders to travelers from the southern African region where the variant was first detected.
As for vaccine manufacturers, AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Novavax have expressed confidence in their ability to combat the variant.
A US Navy destroyer escort that engaged a superior Japanese fleet in the largest sea battle of World War II in the Philippines has become the deepest wreck to be discovered, according to explorers.
The USS Samuel B Roberts, popularly known as the "Sammy B," was identified on Wednesday broken into two pieces on a slope at a depth of 6,985 meters (22,916 feet).
That puts it 426 meters (1,400 feet) deeper than the USS Johnston, the previous deepest wreck discovered last year in the Philippine Sea also by American explorer Victor Vescovo, founder of Dallas-based Caladan Oceanic Expeditions. He announced the latest find together with UK-based EYOS Expeditions.
"It was an extraordinary honor to locate this incredibly famous ship, and by doing so have the chance to retell her story of heroism and duty to those who may not know of the ship and her crew's sacrifice," Vescovo, a former Navy commander, said in a statement.
The Sammy B. took part in the Battle off Samar, the final phase of the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, in which the Imperial Japanese Navy suffered its biggest loss of ships and failed to dislodge the US forces from Leyte, which they invaded earlier as part of the liberation of the Philippines.
According to some records, the destroyer escort disabled a Japanese heavy cruiser with a torpedo and significantly damaged another while battling the group led by the command battleship Yamato. After having spent virtually all its ammunition, it was critically hit by the battleship Kongo and sank. Of a 224-man crew, 89 died and 120 were saved, including the captain, Lt. Cmdr. Robert W Copeland.
According to Samuel J Cox, a retired admiral and naval historian, Copeland stated there was "no higher honor" then to have led the men who displayed such incredible courage going into battle against overwhelming odds, from which survival could not be expected.
"This site is a hallowed war grave, and serves to remind all Americans of the great cost born by previous generations for the freedom we take for granted today," Cox said in a statement.
The explorers said that up until the discovery, the historical records of where the wreck lay were not very accurate. The search involved the use of the deepest side-scan sonar ever installed and operated on a submersible, well beyond the standard commercial limitations of 6,000 meters (19,685 feet), EYOS said.
Three people died Monday when a long-distance train collided with a dump truck in a rural region of the US state of Missouri, leaving multiple passengers injured, local officials said.
Seven of the Amtrak train's approximately eight cars derailed on a route from Los Angeles to Chicago when it struck the truck at a rail crossing southwest of Mendon, Missouri.
Railcars were seen toppled on their sides along a farm field as passengers climbed out the windows and doors in images posted to social media.
"It all happened like slow motion. It started to rock and, and rock, and then flicker, and then it just all of a sudden -- all this dust was through my window," Robert Nightingale, who had been asleep in the train, told CNN.
Blocked in his car, he climbed into a hallway before exiting through the side of the train, he said, adding that the dump truck appeared to have been carrying big boulders.
Justin Dunn, a spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, told reporters at a press conference that the investigation "is in its preliminary stages."
The train was carrying more than 200 passengers and around a dozen crew when it crossed the intersection on a gravel road, which officials said had neither lights nor electronic control devices marking the tracks, which is common in rural areas.
"There are multiple injuries and we can confirm there were three fatalities, two on the train and one in the dump truck," Dunn said.
Emergency responders from surrounding counties arrived at the scene and some injured were carried to trauma centers in medical helicopters, officials said.
The National Transportation Safety board, the US agency responsible for investigating transportation incidents, said on Twitter that a 14-member team would probe the derailment.
The accident comes one day after another Amtrak-operated train collided with a passenger vehicle at a railroad crossing in California, resulting in three deaths.
The crossing involved did not have guards, and a local fire official said it was not uncommon to have accidents there, the local NBC affiliate reported.
Pollution is linked to more than 10 percent of cancer cases in Europe, a report by the European Environment Agency said Tuesday.
Most of these cases are preventable, it said.
"Exposure to air pollution, carcinogenic chemicals, radon, UV (ultraviolet) radiation and second-hand smoke together may contribute over 10 percent of the cancer burden in Europe," the agency said in a statement.
But EEA expert Gerardo Sanchez said "all environmental and occupational cancer risks can be reduced".
"Environmentally determined cancers due to radiation or chemical carcinogens can be reduced to an almost negligible level," he told journalists last week before the release of the report, the agency's first on the link between cancer and the environment.
In the European Union, 2.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year and 1.3 million die from it.
The continent, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the world's population, reports almost a quarter of new cases and a fifth of deaths.
Air pollution is linked to around one percent of all cancer cases in Europe, and causes around two percent of all cancer deaths, the agency said.
Indoor exposure to radon is linked to up to two percent of all cancer cases, and one in ten lung cancer cases in Europe.
Natural UV radiation may be responsible for up to four percent of all cancer cases in Europe, the agency said.
Exposure to second-hand smoke may increase the overall risk for all cancers by up to 16 percent for people who have never been smokers, it added.
The agency warned that some chemicals used in European workplaces contribute to causing cancer, including lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, acrylamide, and pesticides.
Asbestos, a well-known carcinogen, is estimated to account for 55 to 88 percent of occupational lung cancers. The EU banned asbestos in 2005, but it is still present in some buildings and workers involved in renovation and demolition work are still exposed, the agency said.
"Environmental and occupational cancer risks can be reduced by cleaning up pollution and changing behaviours," it added.
"Decreasing these risks will lead to a fall in the numbers of cancer cases and deaths."
Two Russian missiles slammed into a crowded shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk on Monday, killing at least 16 people and wounding 59, officials said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said more than 1,000 people were in the mall at the time of the attack, which witnesses said caused a huge fire and sent dark smoke billowing into the sky.
At least 16 people were killed and 59 injured, Ukraine's emergency services said.
A Reuters reporter saw the charred husk of a shopping complex with a caved-in roof. Firefighters and soldiers were pulling out mangled pieces of metal as they searched for survivors.
The mall was engulfed in a wall of flame which turned to thick clouds of smoke as firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Aerial photos showed the structure reduced to twisted metal, with workers combing through growing piles of rubble.
"It is impossible to even imagine the number of victims ... It's useless to hope for decency and humanity from Russia," Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Kremenchuk, an industrial city of 217,000 before Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, lies on the Dnipro River in the region of Poltava and is the site of Ukraine's biggest oil refinery.
Dmytro Lunin, governor of the central Poltava region, wrote on Telegram that it was too soon to talk of a final death toll as rescuers continued to trawl through the rubble.
"It's an act of terrorism against civilians," he said separately, suggesting there was no military target nearby that Russia could have been aiming at.
At one point, paramedics rushed into the building after rescuers called out "200" meaning they had found one or more bodies in the building. Reporters were later pushed away from the scene as air raid sirens wailed again.
UKRAINE WANTS MORE WEAPONS
As night began to fall, rescuers brought lights and generators to continue the search. Worried family members, some close to tears and with hands over their mouths, lined up at a hotel across the street from the mall where rescue workers had set up a base.
Kiril Zhebolovsky, 24, was looking for his friend, Ruslan, 22, who worked at an electronics store and hadn't been heard from since the blast. "We sent him messages, called, but nothing," he said. He left his name and phone number with the rescue workers in case his friend is found.
A mall worker who gave his name as Roman, 28, told Reuters that the mall's management had only three days ago allowed shops to remain open during air raid sirens.
Ukraine's air force command said the mall was hit by two long-range X-22 missiles fired from Tu-22M3 bombers that flew from Shaykovka airfield in Russia's Kaluga region.
Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, wrote on Twitter, without citing evidence, that the attack was a "Ukrainian provocation."
"Exactly what Kiev regime needs to keep focus of attention on Ukraine before (the) NATO Summit," he said, referring to the alliance's Madrid gathering due to begin on Tuesday.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that the upcoming summit will agree a new assistance package for Ukraine in areas "like secure communications, anti-drone systems, and fuel."
"We need more weapons to protect our people, we need missile defences," Andriy Yermak, head of President Zelenskiy's office, wrote on Twitter after the attack.
Vadym Denysenko, an interior ministry adviser, said Russia could have had three motives for the attack.
"The first, undoubtedly, is to sow panic, the second is to ... destroy our infrastructure, and the third is to ... raise the stakes to get the civilised West to sit down again at the table for talks," he said.
Russia, which has captured the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk after a weeks-long assault, has stepped up missile strikes across Ukraine in recent days.
Missiles hit an apartment block and landed close to a kindergarten in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday, killing one person and wounding several more people.
The overall number of Covid cases is gradually approaching 550 million amid a rise in new infections in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
According to the latest global data, the total case count mounted to 549,667,293 while the death toll from the virus reached 6,352,025 on Tuesday morning.
The US has recorded 88,910,140 cases so far and 1,041,027 people have died from the virus in the country, the data shows.
In India, as many as 13,562 new Covid-19 cases were recorded in 24 hours, taking the total tally to 43,420,608, according to the data released by the health ministry on Monday.
Besides, 21 deaths were reported due to the pandemic in the country since Saturday morning, bringing the death toll to 525,020.
The overall number of Covid cases is gradually approaching 550 million amid a rise in new infections in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. According to the latest global data, the total case count mounted to 549,667,293 while the death toll from the virus reached 6,352,025 on Tuesday morning.