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Virtual real estate plot sells for $3.3m

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A patch of virtual real estate in the online world Decentraland has sold for a record $US2.4 million ($A3.3 million) worth of cryptocurrency.

The buyer was crypto investor Tokens.com, which announced the purchase along with Decentraland on Tuesday.

Decentraland is an online environment – also called a “metaverse” – where users can buy land, visit buildings, walk around and meet people as avatars.

Such environments have grown in popularity this year, as the pandemic caused people to spend more time online.

Interest surged last month when Facebook changed its name to Meta to reflect its focus on developing virtual reality products for the metaverse.

Decentraland is a specific type of metaverse that uses blockchain. Land and other items in Decentraland are sold in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a kind of crypto asset.

Crypto enthusiasts buy land there as a speculative investment, using Decentraland’s cryptocurrency, MANA.

A subsidiary of Tokens.com, called the Metaverse Group, bought a patch of real estate for 618,000 MANA on Monday, which was around $US2,428,740 ($A3.4 million) at the time, a Decentraland spokesman and a statement by Tokens.com said.

The land’s purchase was recorded on the NFT marketplace OpenSea.

Decentraland said it was the most expensive purchase of a plot of virtual real estate on the platform.

The land is in the “Fashion Street” area of Decentraland’s map and Tokens.com said it would be used to host digital fashion events and sell virtual clothing for avatars.

It is made of 116 smaller parcels, measuring 4.9 square metres each, making the land 568 virtual square metres in size.

Tokens.com chief executive Andrew Kiguel said the assets would complement the real estate already held by Metaverse Group.

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Germany ‘at crossroads’ as Covid cases surge across Europe | Coronavirus

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Germany’s top health officials have raised the prospect of a national lockdown, warning that a rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases and a dramatic increase in the number of patients in intensive care meant contact reduction was the only way of tackling the crisis and avoiding “the road to chaos”.

“We need a massive contact reduction immediately,” said Prof Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal disease control agency.

He called on political leaders to utilise all available measures to prevent gatherings in large numbers and to urge the public to avoid any unnecessary contacts with people outside their own households, as the incidence rate in Germany rose by 75,400, a week-on-week increase of 44%.

“I expect right now for the decision-makers to trigger all measures in order that we can bring down the incidence rate together,” Wieler said. “We are at a crossroads. We have one choice. Either we choose the road that leads to chaos and to a bad end … or the one which unburdens the health system and maybe enables a peaceful Christmas.”

Germany’s outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, called the situation “dramatically serious, to the extent that it has never been at any point in this pandemic”. He added: “It is half an hour after midnight, but some people have still failed to hear the alarm.”

Of 22,000 available intensive care beds in Germany, 4,000 are occupied with coronavirus patients, 85% of whom need breathing assistance. Their average age is between 50 and 79 years. Wieler said while the figure might not seem that high to some, it marked an increase of 100% in a week, and even if there were no new infections, 1,000 more patients could be expected to end up in intensive care within the next 10 to 14 days. Elective surgery around Germany has been cancelled to free up beds and staff.

Germany: number of new coronavirus cases per day

Germany’s air force is on call to transport patients from full hospitals to those with capacity.

Spahn called for decision-makers on the federal and state level to recognise the urgency of the situation and bring forward a meeting planned for 9 December. He said it would be foolhardy to wait for 10 days, as the participants had said they planned to do, in order to see whether the current measures in place were working.

“The medical staff don’t have 10 days to wait and see,” Spahn said. He criticised the fact the Christmas markets were in full swing in Berlin while the city’s university hospital, the Charité, was full. “It is just not appropriate at this time,” he said.

Wieler also expressed his concern over the newly detected variant in southern Africa.

Both men urged Germans to get vaccinated or, if they had already done so, to get booster shots. Spahn said that between 20 and 30m vaccines would be administered before Christmas. Just over 68% of Germans have been fully vaccinated.

Incidence rates across Europe are rising fast. Portugal, which has vaccinated 86% of its population, is reintroducing a series of restrictions as cases continue to rise. On Thursday the prime minister, António Costa, announced that from 1 December, face masks would once again be obligatory in enclosed spaces and that a digital certificate showing vaccination or recovery would be needed to enter restaurants, hotels and cinemas. All those entering hospitals, care homes, bars, clubs and sports events will need to show a negative test. From 1 December, anyone flying into Portugal will need to show a negative test result – even if they have a digital vaccination certificate.

Catalonia – which had become the latest Spanish region to decree that Covid passports are needed to get into bars, restaurants, gyms and care homes – was forced to suspend the requirement until at least Monday after “very intense” demand crashed the system for downloading the passes. The passports are also in use in Aragón, the Balearic islands, Galicia, Murcia and Navarre, but their specific use varies between regions.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has said plans to restrict flights from South Africa and Botswana will be proposed at the next cabinet meeting, which is scheduled for next Tuesday. To date, 89.2% of Spaniards aged over 12 have received two doses of the vaccine.

In the Netherlands the government is due to announce new measures on Friday to tackle a rise in infections. Despite about 85% of the adult population being fully vaccinated, cases hit a record high of nearly 24,000 on Wednesday, about 40% more than the previous week, with hospitals close to capacity. This month the government reintroduced mask-wearing and ordered bars and restaurants to close at 8pm.

Switzerland is planning a referendum on Sunday in which voters can decide on how far the national government’s powers to respond to the pandemic can go. The question will focus on whether the government has the continued authority to insist on certificates to enter bars, restaurants, cultural and sporting events. Cases there are rising and just over 65% of the population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest in Europe.

Austria became the first country in western Europe to re-enter lockdown on Monday and also announced a vaccine mandate from February.

It was followed by neighbouring Slovakia, which on Wednesday entered a two-week lockdown after the health ministry said that hospital admissions had reached a “critical point”. Less than 50% of the population is fully vaccinated.

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‘Draconian’ Covid travel bans are ‘misdirected’, South African health minister says

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File photo of South Africa Health Minister Joe Phaahla | Flickr


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Johannesburg: The travel bans imposed on South Africa by a growing number of nations due to the new potentially highly-transmissible variant of COVID-19 in this country is draconian and misdirected , Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said.

The new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected in South Africa this week, was on Friday designated as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which named it Omicron .

“We feel that it’s a wrong approach. It is misdirected and it goes against the norms as advised by the WHO. We just feel that some of the leaderships of (these) countries are finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem,” Phaahla said at a news briefing late Friday evening.

A variant of concern is the WHO’s top category of worrying COVID-19 variants. It was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24, and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

“It is ironic that we are currently talking about a situation in South Africa today about small samples, (even though) we are concerned about rising numbers from the low levels of about 300 per day just over 14 days ago; to where we are now approaching 3,000 (cases),” Phaahla said.

“It is a significant rise, but in comparison to some of the countries which are now reacting in this very draconian manner, we are talking about countries that have an infection rate of upwards of 40,000 new infections per day,” he said, contrasting the COVID-19 situation in Europe and his country.

“We don’t want to apportion blame, but just in terms of the way the virus moves as people move, it is not inconceivable that it might be possible that this may have even arisen in those countries which have been even more liberal in terms of crowds with no masks at stadiums and so on, the minister said, adding that the travel ban on South Africa are “unjustified”.

Many parts of Europe and the US have opened up stadiums for crowds at sports matches and concerts.

Phaahla said he was aware that the announcement on Thursday by South African scientists about the discovery of the new variant had caused some consternation and uncertainty.

This is expected in a situation of this nature, where we are dealing with a moving target, but we want to assure South Africans and people elsewhere in the world that we believe that some of the action has actually been unjustified, Phahhla said.

I’m referring here specifically to the countries in Europe.”

All that we did together with our scientists who made the discovery of this variant was basically to be in line with the norms and standards as prescribed by the WHO – that as a world community as we deal with this pandemic and any other matter which challenges the world health as a whole, rather than just individual countries we should act with transparency, he said.

The UK announced on Thursday that all flights to and from South Africa and five neighbouring countries would be banned from Friday following an announcement that the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 had been detected in South Africa.

Many other European countries followed suit, most of them indicating that only their own citizens would be allowed back, subject to a quarantine period.

Foreign minister Naledi Pandor also slammed the UK’s for its decision, which was emulated by others, of imposing travel ban on South Africa.

Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise, she said.

Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and businesses, Pandor added.

Along with South Africa, its neighbouring states — Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia and Angola — have also been slapped with travel bans, crippling their economies which are largely reliant on tourism.

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in a statement urged world leaders not to implement knee-jerk policy decisions in response to the detection of the Omicron variant.

DIRCO said it noted that new variants have been detected in other countries as well and each of those cases had no recent links with Southern Africa.

It’s worth noting that the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa…This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker. Excellent science should be applauded and not punished, it said.

DIRCO officials are in discussion with the countries that have banned travel to and from South Africa to dissuade them from continuing the restrictions.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Saturday convened a meeting with the country’s leading virologists and the Coronavirus Command Council. He is expected to address the nation on the current Covid situation on Sunday evening.

While some analysts expect him to announce a firming up of the current lowest Level One of a five-level lockdown strategy, others, including the business sector, have urged him not to move to a harsher level as it would cause even greater harm to the economy, which was just beginning to recover after a one-and-a-half year of lockdown.

Phaahla said the scientists who are constantly monitoring the mutation of the virus informed the authorities so that the WHO and the health sector all over the world could also stay informed.

At no stage did (our scientists) say that they have evidence that this virus is more transmissible. They simply said that as has been the case with other mutations, some of them have had the effect of being more transmissible without also necessarily meaning that in terms of its seriousness (it would have) more impact on the severity of illness,” he said.

The scientists did emphasise that these are very early stages in terms of the specifics of how this new variant is going to unfold, the minister said. Phaahla reiterated that there was no evidence that the current vaccines would be ineffective against the new mutation.

We want to dispel any notion, as has been bandied about by various commentators. At no stage did the scientists who discovered this variant say that (it) would be resistant to the vaccines which are being utilised, he emphasised.

Earlier, South African Medical Research Council CEO Professor Glenda Gray came out in defence of the scientists who had flagged the new variant. Gray said releasing such information could assist in changing behaviour and result in reducing the spread of the virus.

“When you discover a new variant of concern or discover something that can have an impact on transmissions, it behoves you to alert the country. The scientists were doing their job. We don’t know how this new variant will impact us or on vaccine efficacy. If this alert makes people vaccinate, that’s a good thing, she told news24.com website.

Gray opined that banning international travel was not an effective way of stopping the spread of new variants.

“I think that it’s hard to contain variants – we saw with the Delta variant. By the time people recognised that a variant is present in the country it has probably already moved. I’m not convinced that restrictions on travel help. It didn’t help us with Delta, and I’m not sure it will help with this, she said.

Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert who is part of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP) team, who along with Professor Tulio de Oliveira announced the detection of the new variant, said there was sufficient reason to be concerned, but work had already begun on answering important questions posed by the variant.

Lessells said Omicron was different from the Delta variant, first detected in India. Much of the science done to understand the Delta variant was done collaboratively around the world, he said. — PTI


Also read: What’s the new Covid variant in South Africa, and why it’s of ‘serious’ concern even in India


 

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