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WASHINGTON: Pfizer said on Tuesday tests confirm its new COVID antiviral pills, Paxlovid, cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 per cent for people at high-risk of severe COVID-19 of all variants, including Omicron, within the first three days of their symptoms.

Another trial, including unvaccinated adults, reveal a 70 per cent reduction in the risk of hospitalization and no deaths. “Emerging variants of concern, like Omicron, have exacerbated the need for accessible treatment options for those who contract the virus,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “We are confident that, if authorized or approved, this potential treatment could be a critical tool to help quell the pandemic.

KYIV: A court in Belarus on Tuesday sentenced the husband of the country’s opposition leader to 18 years in prison, six months after the trial began behind closed doors. The charges against Siarhei Tsikhanouski included organising mass unrest and inciting hatred and have been widely seen as politically motivated.

Five other opposition activists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms of 14 to 16 years alongside Tsikhanouski.

Tsikhanouski, 43, a popular video blogger and activist, planned to challenge authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in the August 2020 presidential election. He was widely known for the anti-Lukashenko slogan Stop the cockroach. He was arrested in May 2020, two days after he declared his candidacy.

His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, ran in his stead, drawing tens of thousands of people to rally in her support during the campaign. Official results of the vote handed Lukashenko a landslide victory and a sixth term in office, but were denounced by opposition and the West as a sham.

The results triggered a months-long wave of unprecedented mass protests, the largest of which saw some 200,000 people taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Lukashenko’s government unleashed a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 and brutally beating thousands.

Tsikhanouskaya fled the country to Lithuania a day after the vote under pressure from the authorities. Other key opposition figures have also left the country, while some have ended up behind bars.

In recent months, pressure has mounted on Belarus non-governmental organisations, activists and journalists, with the authorities regularly conducting mass raids and detentions of those they suspect of supporting the anti-government protests. The majority of independent media outlets and rights groups in Belarus have now been shut down.

Commenting on the verdict in her husband’s case, Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press that the dictator publicly retaliates against his strongest opponents, they’re being repressed for their desire to live in a free Belarus.

“We will not stop and will continue the fight with the dictatorship in the centre of Europe,” Tsikhanouskaya, who raises two children, added. “I don’t have the right to tell my children that they won’t see their father for so many years, because I don’t believe it myself.”

Siarhei Tsikhanouski has already spent 20 months behind bars. His trial was shrouded in secrecy, with court hearings held behind closed doors and lawyers bound by non-disclosure agreements.

State media showed a tired-looking Tsikhanouski being led into the closed hearing, along with other defendants who include Mikola Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and was sentenced to six years in prison after demonstrations broke out following that election. Statkevich was arrested again in May 2020 and on Tuesday was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Another popular blogger who also stood trial alongside Tsikhanouski, 29-year-old Ihar Losik, was handed a 15-year sentence. Losik was holding a hunger strike in jail to protest his prosecution.

US ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher said on Twitter that it is clear whom the regime most fears.

The United States, alongside our partners, will continue efforts to secure the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Ihar Losik and all those facing unjust detention and vengeful verdicts, she wrote.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday touted a US strategy to deepen its Asian treaty alliances, offering to boost defence and intelligence work with partners in an Indo-Pacific region increasingly concerned over China's "aggressive actions".

During a visit to Indonesia, Blinken described the Indo-Pacific as the world's most dynamic region and said everyone had a stake in ensuring a status quo that was without coercion and intimidation, in a barely veiled reference to China.

He said the United States, its allies and some South China Sea claimants would push back against any unlawful action.

"We'll work with our allies and partners to defend the rules-based order that we've built together over decades to ensure the region remains open and accessible," he said in a speech at a university.

"Let me be clear: the goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down. Rather, it's to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion and intimidation."

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own, despite some overlapping claims with other coastal states and an international tribunal that ruled that China's vast claim has no legal basis.

Beijing has rejected the US stance as interference from an outside power that could threaten Asia's stability. China's foreign ministry had no immediate comment on Blinken's remarks.

Blinken is making his first visit to Southeast Asia since President Joe Biden took office in January, a trip aimed at shoring up relations after a period of uncertainty about US commitment to Asia under the administration of Donald Trump.

Despite tensions in the South China Sea, Beijing's influence has grown in recent years as it pushes more infrastructure investment and integrated trade ties in the Asia-Pacific, in the perceived absence of a US economic strategy for the region.

Blinken said the United States would strengthen ties with treaty allies like Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines and boost defence and intelligence capabilities with Indo-Pacific partners, as well as defend an open and secure internet.

He stressed, however, that it was not a contest between a US-centric or China-centric region.

He also said Washington was committed to pressing the military junta in Myanmar to end violence, free detainees and return to an inclusive democracy.

The United States was also committed to a new comprehensive regional economic framework, which would include more US foreign direct investment and US companies identifying new opportunities in the region, he said, without providing details.

The administration has yet to spell out what exactly Biden's envisaged economic framework will entail. The Trump administration walked away from a US-inspired multinational Pacific trade deal, in 2017.

Blinken, who will also visit Malaysia and Thailand this week, said the United States would work to strengthen supply chains and close the region's infrastructure gaps, from ports and roads to power grids and the internet.

In another swipe at China, he said the United States was hearing increasing concerns in the Indo-Pacific about opaque, corrupt processes of foreign companies that imported their own labour, drained natural resources and polluted the environment.

"Countries in the Indo-Pacific want a better kind of infrastructure," he said.

"But many feel it's too expensive — or they feel pressured to take bad deals on terms set by others, rather than no deals at all."

WASHINGTON : There are no Kuwaitis amongst those affected by the volatile weather conditions and tornadoes sweeping several US states, said Kuwaiti Ambassador to Washington Sheikh Salem Abdullah Al- Jaber Al-Sabah late Saturday.

The embassy in Washington and Consulates in New York and Los Angeles as well as technical bureaus are following the situation closely and maintaining contact with Kuwaiti citizens and students in the tornadoes-stricken areas, affirmed the Ambassador in a press release to KUNA. Ambassador Sheikh Salem Al-Sabah expressed hopes that all were safe and urged Kuwaitis to follow local authorities’ safety guidelines and directives.(KUNA)

Rescuers were desperately searching for survivors early on Sunday after dozens of devastating tornadoes tore through six US states, leaving at least 83 people dead, dozens missing and towns in ruin.

US President Joe Biden called the wave of tornadoes, including one that travelled more than 200 miles, “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in American history.

“It's a tragedy,” a shaken Biden, who pledged support for the affected states, said in televised comments. “And we still don't know how many lives are lost and the full extent of the damage.”

Scores of search and rescue officials were helping stunned citizens across the US heartland sift through the rubble of their homes and businesses overnight.

More than 70 people are believed to have been killed in Kentucky alone, many of them workers at a candle factory, while at least six died in an Amazon warehouse in Illinois where they were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.

“This event is the worst, most devastating, most deadly tornado event in Kentucky's history,” said state Governor Andy Beshear, adding he fears “we will have lost more than 100 people.”

“The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life, and I have trouble putting it into words,” he told reporters.

Beshear has declared a state of emergency.

The tornado that smashed through Kentucky had rumbled along the ground for over 320km, Beshear said, one of the longest on record.

The longest a US tornado has ever tracked along the ground was a 219-mile storm in Missouri in 1925. It claimed 695 lives.

The small town of 10,000 people was described as “ground zero” by officials, and appeared post-apocalyptic: city blocks leveled; historic homes and buildings beaten down to their slabs; tree trunks stripped of their branches; cars overturned in fields.

Some Christmas decorations could still be seen by the side of the road.

Beshear said there were 110 people working at the candle factory when the storm hit, causing the roof to collapse.

Forty people have been rescued, but it would be “a miracle if anybody else is found alive,” he said.

CNN played a heart-rending plea posted on Facebook by a factory employee.

“We are trapped, please, y'all, get us some help,” a woman says, her voice quavering as a co-worker can be heard moaning in the background. “We are at the candle factory in Mayfield [...] Please, y'all. Pray for us.”

The woman, Kyanna Parsons-Perez, was rescued after being pinned under a water fountain.

“It looks like a bomb has exploded,” 31-year-old Mayfield resident Alex Goodman told AFP.

David Norseworthy, a 69-year-old builder in Mayfield, said the storm blew off his roof and front porch while the family hid in a shelter.

“We never had anything like that here,” he told AFP.

In one demonstration of the storms' power on Saturday, when winds derailed a 27-car train near Earlington, Kentucky, one car was blown 75 yards up a hill and another landed on a house. No one was hurt.

Reports put the total number of tornadoes across the region at around 30.

At least 13 people were killed in other storm-hit states, including at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois, bringing the total toll to 83.

In Arkansas, at least one person died when a tornado “pretty much destroyed” a nursing home in Monette, a county official said. Another person died elsewhere in the state.

Four people died in Tennessee, while one died in Missouri. Tornadoes also touched down in Mississippi. Biden said he planned to travel to the affected areas.

He said that while the impact of climate change on these particular storms was not yet clear, “we all know everything is more intense when the climate is warming, everything”.

More than half a million homes in several states were left without power, according to

One of the tornadoes hit the Amazon warehouse in the southern Illinois city of Edwardsville, with around 100 workers believed to have been trapped inside.

“We identified 45 personnel who made it out of the building safely, one who had to be airlifted to a regional hospital for treatment, and six fatalities,” Edwardsville fire chief James Whiteford told reporters.

But he said the operation had turned from rescue to focus “only on recovery,” fuelling fears the toll could yet rise.

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said he was “heartbroken” at the deaths, tweeting: “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones.”

JOHANNESBURG, Dec 11, (AP): As the omicron variant sweeps through South Africa, Dr. Unben Pillay is seeing dozens of sick patients a day. Yet he hasn’t had to send anyone to the hospital. That’s one of the reasons why he, along with other doctors and medical experts, suspect that the omicron version really is causing milder COVID-19 than delta, even if it seems to be spreading faster.
“They are able to manage the disease at home,” Pillay said of his patients. “Most have recovered within the 10 to 14-day isolation period.” said Pillay. And that includes older patients and those with health problems that can make them more vulnerable to becoming severely ill from a coronavirus infection, he said. In the two weeks since omicron first was reported in Southern Africa, other doctors have shared similar stories. All caution that it will take many more weeks to collect enough data to be sure, their observations and the early evidence offer some clues.

According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases:
■ Only about 30% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks have been seriously ill, less than half the rate as during the first weeks of previous pandemic waves.

■ Average hospital stays for COVID-19 have been shorter this time – about 2.8 days compared to eight days.

■ Just 3% of patients hospitalized recently with COVID-19 have died, versus about 20% in the country’s earlier outbreaks. “At the moment, virtually everything points toward it being milder disease,” Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, said, citing the national institute’s figures and other reports. “It’s early days, and we need to get the final data.

Often hospitalizations and deaths happen later, and we are only two weeks into this wave.” In the meantime, scientists around the world are watching case counts and hospitalization rates, while testing to see how well current vaccines and treatments hold up. While delta is still the dominant coronavirus strain worldwide, omicron cases are popping up in dozens of countries, with South Africa the epicenter.

OSLO: Accepting her Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Filipina journalist Maria Ressa launched a vitriolic attack against US tech giants, accusing them of fuelling a flood of “toxic sludge” on social media.

Ressa, the co-founder of news website Rappler, accepted this year’s prize at a ceremony at Oslo’s City Hall together with her co-laureate Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, one of the rare independent newspapers in a Russian media landscape largely under state control.

Speaking to a scaled-down crowd due to the pandemic, 58-year-old Ressa attacked “American internet companies” such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube without mentioning them by name.

“With its god-like power”, their technology “has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world,” she said.

“Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritised by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us,” she said.

Ressa stressed the importance of reliable facts at a time when the world is battling the Covid-19 pandemic or facing upcoming elections in countries like France, the United States, the Philippines and Hungary.

These companies “are biased against facts, biased against journalists. They are — by design — dividing us and radicalising us,” she said.

Ressa, a vocal critic of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly drug war, is herself facing seven criminal lawsuits in her country, which she said could see her sent to prison for 100 years.

Currently on bail pending an appeal against a conviction last year in a cyber libel case, she had to apply to four courts for permission to travel to Norway for Friday’s ceremony.

Her co-laureate Muratov, 60, meanwhile called for a minute of silence during the Nobel ceremony to honour all journalists killed in the line of duty.

“I want journalists to die old,” he said.

Known for its investigations into corruption and human rights abuses in Chechnya, Novaya Gazeta has seen six of its journalists killed since the 1990s, including famed investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006.

“Journalism in Russia is going through a dark time,” Muratov said in his acceptance speech, noting that over 100 journalists, media outlets, human rights defenders and NGOs have recently been branded as “foreign agents” by Russia’s justice ministry.

The “foreign agent” label is meant to apply to people or groups that receive funding from abroad and are involved in any kind of “political activity”.

But it has also been given to Kremlin-critical journalists and media, making their work exceedingly difficult.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that the Nobel was not a “shield” protecting journalists, Muratov said he did not expect his newspaper to be given the status.

“During the 30 years lifetime that our newspaper has had, we have done so much positive and good for the country that announcing us as foreign agents would be deteriorating for the country’s power” and “a stupid thing to do,” he told AFP in an interview.

According to a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders up to Dec 1, at least 1,636 journalists have been killed around the world in the past 20 years, including 46 since the beginning of the year.

In addition, the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has never been higher, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with 293 currently behind bars.

“Bringing the story to the public may in itself be a prevention of war,” the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said.

“The role of the press is to reveal aggression and abuse of power, thereby contributing to peace.” The Oslo ceremony also saw the head of the World Food Programme, the 2020 Peace Prize laureate, give his Nobel lecture. Last year’s festivities had been cancelled due to the pandemic.

This year’s other Nobel laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics would normally receive their prizes at a separate ceremony in Stockholm on Friday.

But due to the Covid situation, they received their awards in their hometowns earlier this week.

A ceremony was to be held in their honour in the Swedish capital later Friday, attended by the royal family.

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