GulfNews World

Swiss voters narrowly back 'burqa ban'

Europe|: Geneva: Swiss voters on Sunday narrowly backed a ban on full face coverings in public places - a decision hailed by supporters as a move against radical Islam but branded sexist and racist by opponents. Official results showed that 51.21 percent of voters, and a majority of federal Switzerland's cantons, supported the proposal. Some 1,426,992 voters were in favour of the ban, while 1,359,621 were against, on a 50.8 percent turnout. The so-called anti-burqa vote comes after years of debate in Switzerland following similar bans in other European countries - and in some Muslim-majority states - despite women in Islamic full-face veils being an exceptionally rare sight in Swiss streets. Even though the proposal "Yes to a ban on full facial coverings" did not mention the burqa or the niqab - which leaves only the eyes uncovered - there was no doubt as to what the debate was about. Campaign posters reading "Stop radical Islam!" and "Stop extremism!", featuring a woman in a black niqab, have been plastered around Swiss cities. Rival posters read: "No to an absurd, useless and Islamophobic 'anti-burqa' law". The ban would mean that nobody could cover their face completely in public - whether in shops or the open countryside. But there would be exceptions, including for places of worship, or for health and safety reasons. The vote came at a time when face masks are mandatory in shops and on public transport due to the coronavirus pandemic. Government opposed ban The Yes vote risks "trivialising the xenophobic and racist atmosphere" towards Muslim women, Meriam Mastour, of the Purple Headscarves feminist group, told broadcaster RTS. Very few women wear the full veil in Switzerland, she stressed, and those that do tend to be converts and tourists. A 2019 Federal Statistical Office survey found that 5.5 percent of the Swiss population were Muslims, mostly with roots in the former Yugoslavia. "It's a huge relief," said Mohamed Hamdaoui, a regional lawmaker in the Bern canton and the founder of the "A Face Discovered" campaign. He called the vote "the opportunity to say stop to Islamism" and not "to Muslims, who obviously have their place in this country". Within Europe, Switzerland's neighbours France and Austria have banned full face coverings, as have Belgium, Bulgaria and Denmark. Several other European countries have bans for particular contexts, such as in schools and universities. The Swiss government and parliament opposed a nationwide ban. Their counter-proposal - which would have been automatically triggered if the initiative was rejected - would have required people to show their faces to the authorities if necessary for identification, such as at borders. Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, any topic can be put to a national vote as long as it gathers 100,000 signatures in the wealthy country of 8.6 million people. Such votes take place every three months. A 2009 vote that banned the construction of minaret towers on mosques sparked anger abroad. Indonesia trade, e-ID votes Two other votes were held on Sunday. A free trade agreement struck between Switzerland and Indonesia, put to the vote after opponents criticised Bern's move to reduce import duties on palm oil, narrowly gained approval with 51.7 percent support. Tariffs will gradually be removed from almost all of Switzerland's biggest exports to the world's fourth most populous country, while the Swiss would abolish duties on Indonesian industrial products. A government plan to introduce a federally-recognised electronic identity that could be used for ordering goods and services online was rejected with 64.36 percent of the vote. It was pushed to a popular vote by critics alarmed at the plan to rely on private firms for the e-IDs, giving them access to sensitive, private information.

GulfNews World

COVID-19: Celebratory 'vaxications' are giving the travel industry a boost

Americas|: Josephine Darwin, 65, marked March 3 on her calendar with the importance of a golden anniversary and planned to celebrate it with similar gusto. On that date, she and her husband, John, 67, would officially be immune"-or as near as can be"-from COVID-19. Newly vaccinated with the Pfizer shot, the Nashville retirees are wasting no time getting back to travel: They plan to fly to Charleston, S.C. next week for a post-vaccine vacation. Call it a 'vaxication.' "I can't begin to describe our excitement to get out and meet people again," says Josephine, who hasn't left her home since March 17, 2020, except for brief walks around the neighborhood and to get jabbed. As soon as she and her husband had their vaccination appointments, they started trip planning. A two-week vacation in Newfoundland is now on the books for September, assuming borders open by then. (They very well may not be; Canada's eastern provinces have been so strict about pandemic travel bans, they have even denied entry to fellow Canadians.) As the US vaccination rollout has sped up, so, too, have requests for vaxications. "We have seen a 25% increase in travel inquiries since the first round of vaccinations became available," says Leah Smith, president of Denver-based Tafari Travel. "Pretty much weekly, I am getting emails from clients saying they just got their first vaccination and are ready to plan the next two years of travel." "It's not uncommon to get up to four trip requests in one email," Smith continues. "Many clients aren't even waiting for the second round to book a trip." And they aren't going to visit their grandkids, says Brooke Lavery, a partner at the high-end travel consultancy Local Foreigner. "People who normally take five to seven trips a year and for whom travel has been a lifestyle for decades are doing celebration trips," she says. The movement may be premature. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has delayed its release of updated Covid-safety guidelines for Americans who've been fully vaccinated. To date, the organization has continued encouraging the inoculated among us to wear masks, continue to social distance, and avoid crowds. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has publicly expressed caution around post-vaccination travels, given the possibility of spreading the virus along the way. 'Travel was our life' Charlotte Benedict, 74, is among the many people who are ready to take the risk. She is three weeks into her second dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, and her husband Roy is a few weeks behind her. Next month, the retired, Dallas-based couple plans to celebrate immunity with a golf trip to St. George, Utah. "Travel was our life," says Charlotte. "We canceled five trips last year and are ready to resume our travels." A farther-flung plan to safari in Kenya with their adult daughter, however, is on hold until 2022. Destinations that offer outdoor settings and naturally social distanced activities are still proving most popular, even to travelers with immunity. "People want to start out with remote places, where they can be outside most of the time," says travel consultant Lavery. "They're still not ready to return to busy resorts." Ted Martens, chief marketing officer of the Boulder, Colo.-based wildlife travel operator Natural Habitat Adventures, says bookings jumped as soon as vaccines started rolling out in December. "We've been riding the pent-up demand for the last two months," he says. "After months of hovering around 35% to 45% booking rates, we saw a jump in January and have been hovering around 80% of normal booking volume these last few months." In many cases, that thirst for wide-open spaces is an excuse to check off big bucket-list vacations, which explains why such places as Antarctica have led the way for the travel industry's recovery. The white continent, along with Egypt and Rwanda, has driven an outsize share of demand for Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founder of luxury travel firm Indagare, who adds that most inquiries are for immediate"-not long-term"-plans. "We are seeing much shorter sign-up windows," she says. "People who have just been vaccinated are eager to get away in the next month or two to places that they'd usually spend months planning for." Recovery at last? These requests are keeping travel operators busier than they have been in a long time. Biggs Bradley says Indagare's bookings remained pretty anemic from March through October. But in November, following news of the first promising vaccine results, she saw an uptick that has continued to grow. Through February, Indagare reported 100% increases in bookings week-over-week, achieving the highest volumes the company has seen since lockdown began. By the end of the month, the company was fielding two to three times as many bookings on a weekly basis as it would have for the entire month of October last year. That constant growth may be the best sign of optimism the ailing travel industry has seen since the pandemic began. Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond, a boutique safari specialist based in Minnesota, says that in the last two weeks he's had at least five clients mention vaccinations as the reason for initiating trips. His clients are among the lucky demographic that has not been financially affected by the pandemic"-if anything, lockdowns have curtailed their spending. Now, they want to travel as soon as possible, he says. "After a year without travel, restaurants, or entertainment, clients are finding they have a lot more money than they did a year ago," says Beal. "They're upgrading trips they deferred in 2020 with that extra money." Shifting realities There's still a catch: Vaccination doesn't make the hassles of traveling during a global pandemic disappear. "There's a whole layer of procedure and regulations people aren't used to, and it keeps changing," says Biggs Bradley. "It's not as simple as having a passport and vaccine." Many clients think they can spread their wings two weeks after their second shot, and her team has had to rein them back to the realities of quarantine rules and border closures that still apply to vaccinated travelers. Worries about virus variants also have some vaccinated travelers, like Josephine Darwin, still taking extensive precautions"-in line with the current recommendations. She even bought a face shield for her first flight. "We've spent the past year dreaming of travel and planning trips," she says. "I'd rather wear a mask than stay home."

GulfNews World

Scientists underestimated the coronavirus - and are racing to keep up with evolution

World|: Evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom knew it was only a matter of time: The coronavirus would turn into an even more formidable foe, able to dodge the disease-fighting antibodies that protect people after being infected or vaccinated. He even knew which mutation was likely to give it that superpower. He just didn't know it would happen quite this fast. For much of 2020, most people - including most experts - weren't particularly worried about the virus's ability to evolve. SARS-CoV-2 was changing, but so far that hadn't amounted to anything especially concerning. Then, in late fall, it jumped. Distinctive new versions of the virus sparked alarming surges in Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom. In a few short months, variants have become a global preoccupation. Nearly every time public health experts talk about the trajectory of the health crisis, they dwell on the variants, the loose cannon that could wreck hard-won progress. These variants carry not one but a slew of mutations. They appear to have worrisome new abilities, better at spreading or slipping by aspects of immunity. Their sudden emergence caught scientists off guard and set the stage for the next chapter of the pandemic. The mass vaccination campaign that could have felt like a wave of relief is instead an ominous, urgent race against a changing virus. The path to herd immunity, the powerful milestone when the virus won't be able to spark new outbreaks, is looking longer and more complex. Vaccines may not totally vanquish but simply chase a continually changing virus. As scientists work to get a handle on the variants, the situation gives the public a rare front-row seat and real-time view of the unpredictability of viral evolution. The virus is changing, and scientists are preparing for a wide range of possible futures. "We do have to come to terms with the fact that I'm pretty confident that SARS-CoV-2 is going to be more like influenza, which is with us all the time because the virus is changing, and we have to worry about keeping our vaccines updated," Bloom said. "On the other hand, I think that a year from now, it's going to be much less of a problem." Already, researchers are increasing genomic surveillance to track changes to the virus. People like Bloom are building maps of the genetic escape routes the virus could take, so that when mutations inevitably arise, scientists can quickly interpret whether they're likely to pose a threat. That doesn't necessarily mean a world where the pandemic never ends. The outlook is improving as vaccines are rolled out. If vaccines become outdated, they will be updated. "There will be new variants and new ways in which the virus might be escaping our immune responses a little bit, but that's the key - it's probably not going to be that much" of an escape, said Sarah Cobey, who studies viral evolution at the University of Chicago. In laboratories, scientists are testing whether the current variants remain susceptible to antibodies conjured by natural infection and vaccines. Companies are preparing new versions of vaccines and testing extra booster shots, just in case. The stealthy, speedy arrival of variants has put scientists in the familiar position of being unable to predict where the virus is headed. "If you really push virologists, and get them to be honest and not revisionist, the majority, if not all the individuals, in the community were saying, 'It'll probably be all right, it'll probably be fine,' " said Paul Duprex, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh. The past few months have been a wake-up call: "Don't think that we are cleverer than evolution." Even before the variants emerged, there were hints that scientists had been underestimating the virus's capacity to change. Starting last spring, a 45-year-old man with a severe autoimmune disease was in and out of a Boston hospital for five months, with what turned out to be an astonishingly long chronic coronavirus infection. By sequencing the virus over different time points, doctors found that the virus was changing rapidly - highlighting the potential for what his team of doctors called "accelerated viral evolution." Instead of just one or two genetic tweaks, the virus accumulated 21 mutations, and they were concentrated in the spike protein - the spot where the immune system trains much of its firepower to block infections. After the man was given an antibody drug, new mutations emerged that may have helped the virus thwart the treatment. Thousands of miles away in the United Kingdom, the virus took hold in a 70-year old cancer survivor with a compromised immune system. After the patient received rounds of antibody-rich plasma treatment aimed at beating back his disease, the researchers saw different variants gaining and losing ground within the man. One version of the virus increased when he was treated with plasma, then receded as the antibodies diminished, then dominated again when a last course of plasma was given. Researchers created a lab version of that variant. One of its genetic changes reduced the virus's susceptibility to antibodies, they found, but also carried a potential Achilles' heel, making it less efficient at infecting cells. A second change - a missing portion of the genome - seemed to compensate, increasing the virus's ability to infect cells. That change was also found in the fast-spreading variant that triggered a lockdown in the United Kingdom this winter. In Pittsburgh, a man in his 70s who had received a cutting-edge cancer treatment that knocked out part of his immune system was admitted to a hospital with covid-19 pneumonia. He was sick for more than two months, and over the course of his illness, researchers were able to sequence the virus infecting him, uncovering a clue as to why the virus could change so flexibly. Many scientists had assumed that because the virus had a proofreading mechanism to correct errors when it multiplied, it wouldn't mutate rapidly. But the changes in the virus weren't typos in the genetic code - they were missing swaths called deletions. The virus couldn't proofread what wasn't there. "We've been underestimating the capacity of the virus to evolve since the beginning of the pandemic," said Kevin McCarthy, a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh's Vaccine Research Center. These patients, who all died, provided clues about the virus's evolutionary capacity before the variants caught the world's attention. Scientists know that viruses make copy of themselves in people's cells - and they make occasional errors in the process. When infections resolve quickly and mutations accumulate slowly, that doesn't give the virus much chance to cultivate a huge reservoir of genetic diversity. But in immunocompromised people, the virus has far more chances to change its genetic couture. When well-meaning physicians apply a little pressure - such as a round of antibody-rich plasma to try to save a patient's life - there might be a version of the virus that gains an advantage, able to dodge the treatment. No one knows whether any particular variant arose in an immunocompromised person, but the cases have so far proven to be an eerie crystal ball, foreshadowing what plays out in the population. With the virus infecting more than 100 million people across the planet, it was given maximal opportunities to change disguise. "It suggests to me there is an evolutionary jump from some hidden source of viral evolution," said Jonathan Z. Li, who studies HIV drug resistance at Brigham and Women's Hospitalin Boston. "We have a blind spot in the community where the evolution is happening, and we can't see it until we see it's spread far enough." Not every mutation turns a virus into a supervillain. Most have little effect or might actually hobble the virus. And even mutations that seemingly work to the benefit of the virus can come with trade-offs. A genetic tweak that allows the spike protein to fly under the immune system's radar a bit more stealthily, for example, might seem unequivocally helpful to a virus. But a change like that could also backfire, making it less efficient at breaking into the body's cells. A virus that is invisible to the immune system sounds fearsome, but it could be inept in critical ways. One of the open questions about the evolutionary capacity of the coronavirus is whether there is a limit to its ability to change. The spike latches onto cells, like a key fitting into a lock. Many scientists had assumed that if that key changed too much, it wouldn't be able to open the door anymore. "The spike protein seems remarkably tolerant of change. ... That, I don't think most people would have expected," said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. But there were warnings about the spike's propensity for shape-shifting before the variants. At Rockefeller University in New York last summer, virologist Paul Bieniasz and colleagues put the coronavirus's distinctive spike protein under pressure in the laboratory. In test tubes, they put the spike through an immunity gauntlet, exposing it to successive rounds of antibodies designed to sift out versions of the spike capable of avoiding neutralization. Such experiments have limits in what they can predict about how a virus will behave as it spreads through people, but what Bieniasz saw emerge was a mutation at a site called E484. One prominent virologist told the team, "I am not worried about this," Bieniasz recalled. Yet months later, changes to E484 emerged in real life - on the variants found in South Africa and Brazil. Bloom, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, felt a similar shock of recognition late last year. His laboratory had been testing every possible mutation in the region of the spike protein that binds to cells, to see which ones posed the greatest threat to immunity, and E484 had become a focal point of their work. "I think everyone in the community was surprised by how rapidly these experiments became relevant," Bloom said. What scientists are debating now is where the virus could be headed next. It could be in a period of rapid evolution, in which the virus is adapting to get better at infecting people. After some amount of time - how much is another matter for debate - that rate could slow down. Or the virus, like influenza, could simply be in a constant back-and-forth with the immune system. "Is the spike infinitely malleable? Is it plastic enough to let anything happen? There isn't a simple answer," said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine. The immediate implications for ordinary people are not dire. It remains important to bring down transmission to give the virus fewer chances to change - andfor people to get vaccinated. But for scientists, there's a long path ahead. Kizzmekia Corbett, the scientific lead of the coronavirus vaccine program at the NIH's Vaccine Research Center, recently said the emergence of the variants feels like "a second pandemic." Companies and scientists are already beginning tests of revamped vaccines, so that they will be ready if they are needed. "I do think this virus shows more, let's say, genetic flexibility than maybe was anticipated by some," said Vincent Munster, chief of the virus ecology section at NIH's Rocky Mountain Laboratories. "Even though we cannot really look into the future, it would be good to at least anticipate this might be a future scenario, so that we're actually prepared."