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COVID-19: Tears, hugs and laughter at Sydney airport as Australia reopens border

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The new freedoms mean that fully vaccinated Australian permanent residents and citizens can leave the country without asking the government for an exemption from a travel ban that has trapped most at home since March 2020.

There have been tears, laughter and warm embraces at Sydney’s international airport after Australia’s border opened for the first time in 20 months.

Travellers tore off their face masks as they saw their loved ones for the first time in almost two years.

The airport, Australia’s busiest international hub, has been almost deserted during the pandemic, but now the country is hoping its vaccination rates are high enough to mitigate the danger of allowing international visitors again.

A couple, Matthew and Anthea Whitehead, are reunited at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
Image:A couple, Matthew and Anthea Whitehead, are reunited
An international traveller is embraced as she arrives at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
Image:Australia has had some of the lengthiest and strictest border controls of anywhere in the world

Australia has had some of the lengthiest and strictest border controls of anywhere in the world since the outbreak of coronavirus.

The new freedoms mean that fully vaccinated Australian permanent residents and citizens can leave the country for any reason without asking the government for an exemption from a travel ban that has trapped most at home since March 2020.Advertisement

Incoming vaccinated Australians are able to come home without quarantining in a hotel for two weeks, with the cap on hotel quarantine numbers previously a major obstacle for thousands of Australians stranded overseas.

That cap now only applies to unvaccinated travellers.

“Just being able to come home without having to go to quarantine is huge,” Carly Boyd, a passenger who travelled from New York, told reporters as Peter Allen’s unofficial national anthem I Still Call Australia Home was playing.

“There’s a lot of people on that flight who have loved ones who are about to die or have people who died this week. So for them to be able to get off the plane and go see them straight away is pretty amazing,” Ms Boyd added.

Father and son are reunited at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
Image:A father and son are reunited
A woman waits for family members to arrive as international travellers arrive at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
Image:A woman waits for family members to arrive

Sydney was the first Australian airport to announce it would reopen because New South Wales was the first state where 80% of the population aged 16 and older have been fully vaccinated.

The country’s second-largest city Melbourne and the national capital Canberra also opened on Monday after Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory achieved the vaccination benchmark.

Sydney John Troy, Mandy Troy, Jordan Foster, Christine Foster, Ros Troy and David Foster reunite at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
Image:John Troy, Mandy Troy, Jordan Foster, Christine Foster, Ros Troy and David Foster reunite
Travellers arriving on the first quarantine free international flights are embraced by family at Sydney International Airport, November 1, 2021. AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT

Sydney had 16 scheduled inbound international flights on Monday and 14 outbound, while Melbourne had five scheduled in and five out.

Elsewhere, Thailand has also reopened its border, with fully vaccinated tourists arriving by air from 46 countries and territories no longer having to quarantine.

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COVID-19: Mild and moderate cases during pregnancy doesn’t harm babies’ brains, finds study

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Parents should be reassured, there is “no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child” say scientists.

Mild and moderate coronavirus infections in pregnant women appear to have no effect on the brain of the developing foetus according to a new study.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic “there is evidence that pregnant women are more vulnerable” to the coronavirus, according to a study presented to the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The new study aims to identify what the possible consequences are for the unborn child if the mother is infected during pregnancy, and to study the likelihood of the virus being passed on to the foetus.

“Women infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy are concerned that the virus may affect the development of their unborn child, as is the case with some other viral infections,” said Dr Sophia Stoecklein, senior author of the study.Advertisement

“So far, although there are a few reports of vertical transmission to the foetus, the exact risk and impact remain largely unclear,” added Dr Stoecklein, from the department of radiology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

“The aim of our study was to fill this gap in knowledge regarding the impact of a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on foetal brain development,” she added.

MRI scans were used to study 33 pregnant women who were infected with COVID-19 during their pregnancy, with the women roughly 28 weeks into the pregnancies at the time of the scan.

The scans were evaluated by radiologists with years of experience in foetal MRIs who found that the brain development in the assessed areas was age-appropriate in all of the children, with no findings indicating any infection affected the brains.

“In our study, there was no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child,” Dr Stoecklein said. “This fact should help to reassure affected parents.”

But she cautioned that only mothers with mild to moderate symptoms who were not hospitalised were included in the study, meaning the impact of “severe infection on brain development in the foetus has not been conclusively determined”.

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COVID-19 around the world: Japan bans foreigners as other nations tighten restrictions on travellers

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As cases of the new Omicron variant emerge across Europe, many countries are imposing travel bans or increasing quarantine requirements.

Japan will close to all foreign travellers from Tuesday, in a bid to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

It means the country will restore border controls it had only eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.

First detected by researchers in southern Africa, much is still not known about B.1.1.529 but there are fears it could be more contagious than other variants – and more resistant to vaccines.

Israel is set to become the first country to completely shut its borders. File pic
Image:Israel is considering whether to completely shut its borders. File pic

Global concern about the new strain is growing, with countries confirming cases for the first time and travel restrictions being imposed once again.Advertisement

Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organisation called for frontiers to remain open.

Here are the latest COVID-19 developments around the world.

Japan

The Japanese government has announced it will close its borders to all foreigners from Tuesday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said: “We are responding to the Omicron variant with a strong sense of urgency.”

Pic: AP A departures screen displays two cancelled flight to Johannesburg and Cape Tow at Heathrow Airport, in London, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Image:Travel restrictions are being imposed once again as governments suspend flights from southern Africa

Over the weekend, Japan had tightened entry restrictions for people arriving from South Africa and eight other countries, requiring them to undergo a 10-day quarantine period.

Israel

On Saturday, Israel unveiled plans to ban all foreigners from entering the country, having already identified cases on home soil.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban would last for 14 days, if the proposals are approved.

So far, Israel has one confirmed case of the Omicron variant and seven suspected cases.

Phone-tracking technology is going to be used to locate carriers of the new variant, in an attempt to stop it being transmitted to others.

Dr Anthony Fauci 'wouldn't be surprised' if the Omicron variant is already in the US. File pic
Image:Dr Anthony Fauci said he ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ if the Omicron variant is already in the US. File pic

The US

From Monday, the US is going to restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region.

American citizens and permanent US residents – along with spouses and close friends – will be exempt.

No cases linked to Omicron have been detected in the country so far.

But Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease specialist, told NBC that he wouldn’t be surprised if the variant is already in the States, adding: “When you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility… it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

In separate developments, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued a COVID-19 “disaster emergency” declaration on Friday, with infections and hospitalisations increasing in the state.

A business traveller from Italy caught the Omicron variant on a trip to Mozambique. File pic
Image:A business traveller from Italy caught the Omicron variant on a trip to Mozambique. File pic

France

France’s health ministry said on Sunday that it had detected eight possible cases of the Omicron variant, with the government saying it would tighten restrictions to contain its spread.

Canada

Canada has detected two cases of the Omicron variant in Ontario, authorities announced on Sunday.

Health officials Christine Elliott and Kieran Moore said in a joint statement that the cases were found in two people who had recently been in Nigeria.

Ontario has focused rapid COVID-19 testing on travellers who have been to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Italy

On Saturday, health officials confirmed that a case of the Omicron variant had been detected in Italy.

The business traveller had flown from Mozambique, landing in Rome on 11 November and returning to his home in Naples.

Five of his family members, including two children, have also tested positive. All are now isolating and have light symptoms.

Two confirmed cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the southern state of Bavaria. File pic
Image:Two confirmed cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the southern state of Bavaria. File pic

Germany

The Omicron variant has also been detected in three travellers who arrived on a flight from South Africa on 24 November.

Two cases were detected in the southern state of Bavaria, the other in Hesse in the west of the country.

Germany, like other parts of Europe, was suffering under a new wave of cases before Omicron was detected.

Dutch officials are 'almost certain' that the Omicron variant is in the country
Image:Dutch officials are ‘almost certain’ that the Omicron variant is in the country

The Netherlands

Dutch health officials have detected 61 COVID-19 cases among people who flew from South Africa – 13 of which are confirmed to be Omicron.

The Dutch health minister said it was possible that there were more cases of the new COVID variant in the country.

The KLM airline expressed surprise at the high number of cases because all passengers had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before boarding flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Authorities in the country are now attempting to contact 5,000 passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe since Monday.

Switzerland has banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region
Image:Switzerland has banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region

Switzerland

The first case of the variant has been discovered in Switzerland, the government announced late on Sunday as the country tightened its entry restrictions. The case relates to a person who returned from South Africa around a week ago.

Quarantine requirements have been widened to a greater number of travellers in an attempt to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

Those arriving from 19 countries, including the UK, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Egypt and Malawi must prevent a negative COVID-19 test and isolate for 10 days on arrival.

Direct flights have already been banned from South Africa and the surrounding region.

Despite cases being detected in Italy and Germany, both neighbours of Switzerland, travel restrictions have not been imposed on any countries it shares borders with.

Spain is clamping down on unvaccinated Britons entering the country
Image:Spain is clamping down on unvaccinated Britons entering the country

Spain

From next month, British tourists will only be able to enter Spain if they can show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

Until now, unvaccinated travellers were allowed into the country if they could present a negative PCR test that was taken 72 hours before their arrival.

“The appearance of new variants causing (coronavirus) obliges an increase in restrictions,” the government said.

Spain’s Industry, Trade and Tourism department said approximately 300,000 British people who are resident in Spain will not be affected by the new measures.

Indonesia

All travellers arriving in the country will need to quarantine for at least seven days – with those arriving from southern Africa and Hong Kong having to self isolate for 14 days.

Indonesia is due to take over the presidency of the G20 on 1 December, and has said that delegates attending will not be affected by the restrictions.

A number of cases have been detected in Denmark
Image:A number of cases have been detected in Denmark

Denmark

Two cases of Omicron have been identified in Denmark in two travellers who arrived from South Africa.

Henrik Ullum, director of the State Serum Institute, said: “This was to be expected, and our strategy is therefore to continue intensive monitoring of the infection in the country.”

The pair have been put in isolation, and contacts are being traced.

Australia

Two cases of Omicron have also been found in Australia, in the state of New South Wales.

Again, the pair involved were on a flight from southern Africa, both had been vaccinated and were asymptomatic. They are now isolating, and 260 other people on the flight are also in isolation.

Anyone arriving in the state from southern African countries, and the Seychelles, have been told they must isolate for 14 days.

Still, the nation plans to press ahead with plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from 1 December.

New Zealand

New Zealand has announced it is restricting travel from nine southern African countries.

Thailand

Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travellers, has also announced a ban on visitors from eight African countries.

Morocco

The country’s foreign ministry said it is suspending all incoming air travel from around the world from Monday for two weeks.

In a tweet, it said the move had been taken to “preserve the achievements realised by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens”.

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Criminals with ‘advanced forging capabilities’ selling valid vaccine certificates on dark web

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The gang is believed to have brought in at least €425,000 (£360,000) in revenues and may either have access to government systems or have compromised the national health authority’s cryptographic keys.

Criminals with “advanced forging capabilities” are selling valid vaccine certificates on the dark web, according to new research, suggesting they may have compromised government systems.

Academics from Aalborg University’s Cyber Security Group warn there are many scams among the dozens of listings for COVID-19 vaccine certificates on underground digital markets.

The ability for unvaccinated people to bypass various protections in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus could endanger other people and potentially contribute to the development of a variant which is vaccine-resistant.

Despite the wide range of unverified listings which the researchers found and suspected of being scams, they said they managed “to discover a number of certificates which we are able to verify” according to the preprint of the study which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

This raised the risk that “malicious individuals [have] access to governmental systems, which they can manipulate at will” or that the cryptographic keys used by national health organisations to authenticate the certificates had leaked.Advertisement

The listing that provoked the most concern to the researchers was advertising certificates registered in 25 countries across the European Union, the samples from which they verified to be valid across Europe, using two different national COVID-19 apps

Single certificates are being sold for €250 (£210) with payments to be made in Bitcoin, although discounts available for bulk orders.

This particular vendor shop “is the only platform that elaborates on the operation of their service in such detail” and details the technical mechanisms used to check the QR code on the vaccine certificate.

“To provide proof that the generated certificates sold are valid, the homepage of the site also includes a sample QR code, of a fictional individual, which we validated using two national COVID-19 mobile applications,” the researchers wrote.

A video uploaded by the gang also offered the researcher a short glimpse of their administration dashboard, which at the time showed they had made over 1,700 sales – amounting to more than €425,000 (£360,000) in revenue.

“The individuals behind this vendor shop present an advanced understanding of the system that surrounds the issuance and verification of certificates, which combined with the quality of their web page, the overall attention to detail in describing the operation of their business, and the verification use cases shown, raises the probability of the service being legitimate,” the academics wrote.

“This fact however, leads to the question of how these sellers have managed to infiltrate the EU COVID-19 certificate systems in so many countries. Unfortunately, they do not disclose this information, since it would mean the end of their operation,” they add.

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