Good morning. We’re covering the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, a shadow war between Israel and Iran and Iraqis trying to reach Europe.
Updates on the Omicron variant
The new coronavirus variant, first discovered in southern Africa, is showing up across the world.
The new, highly mutated version of the virus has sent ripples of panic through governments and markets. Its differences may enable it to be more contagious and to sidestep immune defenses, but some experts are pointing hopefully to early signs that it may cause only mild illness.
As fear spread, countries started closing their borders to travel from southern African countries. Israel and Morocco banned all foreign travelers. On Friday, the U.S. announced that it would restrict travel from eight countries.
Context: On Friday, the W.H.O. called Omicron a “variant of concern,” the most serious category the agency uses. Scientists cautioned that relatively little was known about the variant but said that vaccines were still likely to work. Health officials in the U.S. are urging unvaccinated people to get a shot as fears grow.
Lead-up: African officials noted that the West’s hoarding of vaccines had helped create their struggle and lashed out at the travel bans. European countries did not find the variant until after South Africa alerted them to it, demonstrating gaps in their own surveillance efforts.
Name: The W.H.O. skipped two Greek letters, avoiding “Nu,” too easily confused with “new,” and “Xi,” the name of China’s leader.
In other developments:
Israel and Iran’s cyberwar grows
The longstanding covert cyberwar between Israel and Iran is expanding past military targets. Now, civilians are bearing the brunt of the shadow war.
In recent weeks, Iranians couldn’t buy gas after a cyberattack paralyzed the country’s 4,300 gas stations. Hackers took control of billboards in cities including Tehran and Isfahan, replacing ads with the message “Khamenei, where is my gasoline?”
Days later, L.G.B.T.Q. Israelis found their intimate details posted online after hackers gained access to a dating site. Hackers also targeted a major medical facility.
The attacks are thought to be the first to do widespread harm to large numbers of civilians, creating widespread chaos and emotional distress.
Nuclear power: Iranian nuclear talks are supposed to resume on Monday, but hopes are fading for a diplomatic resurrection of the 2015 agreement.
Threat to U.S.: The American authorities have warned of Iranian attempts to hack the computer networks of hospitals and other critical infrastructure.
Protests: Separately, Iran violently cracked down on protests against growing water shortages as the vast majority of the country confronts drought.
Iraqis reach for Europe
About 600 migrants who tried to enter the Europe Union through Belarus have returned to Iraq on the latest government evacuation flights.
Some turned back after a migrant boat capsized in the English Channel last week, killing at least 27 people. “What happened to them could have happened to us — that shocked us,” Shaho Omar, 27, said.
But thousands more are undeterred, even after many failed attempts and deportations. “I thought about breaking my fingers so they would take me to the hospital and we would be able to stay,” said Bria Ali, 21, who has twice tried and failed to reach Europe with her family.
What’s next: Last week, the European Commission said around 15,000 migrants remained in Belarus. Hundreds are still trying to cross into Poland every day. Some Iraqis may also opt to stay in Belarus.
English Channel: After last week’s disaster, France and England are arguing over the growing number of hazardous Channel crossings. One victim was Maryam Nuri, 24, a Kurdish woman who died trying to reach her fiancé in England.
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Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater, died at his home in Connecticut early Friday morning. He was 91.
Sondheim spoke to my colleague Michael Paulson about a week ago in what ended up being his last major interview. He was busy right until the end, attending two revivals of his works and a doubleheader of new Broadway plays, and continuing work on an musical adaptation of two films by Luis Buñuel.
“I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say,” he said. “What else would I do with my time but write?”
Impromptu wakes filled New York City piano bars as news of his death spread through his beloved city. Friday night was especially emotional at “Assassins” and “Company,” two Sondheim productions currently in New York.
“Our industry and our art form owes everything to him,” a voice teacher said, adding: “He is the history of American musical theater in one person.”
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