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After spending two years being socially distanced in his home country of South Korea, Kim Hoe-jun booked a last-minute flight to Hawaii, where he had enjoyed his honeymoon six years ago, giving in to his craving for overseas travel.
“I bought the ticket just a week ago, but it was rather a no-brainer. It felt like I was making up for those two years not being able to go abroad often as I used to before COVID,” he said, before boarding the plane from Incheon International Airport on Friday.
Vaccinated and boosted, Kim and his wife are among South Koreans joining in a rush for “revenge travel” — a term that has been trending on social media as people scramble to book overseas trips that were delayed by coronavirus restrictions.
The boom started after March 21 when South Korea lifted a seven-day mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers arriving from most countries. The restriction had been eased last year but was reimposed in December as the highly infectious Omicron variant spread.
The country has largely scrapped its once-aggressive tracing and containment efforts despite a record COVID-19 wave, joining a growing list of Asian countries that have eased quarantine rules, including Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Koreans now appear more ready to travel. Polls showed people are less worried about the implications of catching the virus, and increasingly see its prevention as out of their hands.
Sales of overseas flight tickets on 11st, an e-commerce unit of SK Telecom, South Korea’s top mobile carrier, rose more than eight-fold compared with a year before between March 11, when the lifting of quarantine was announced, and March 27, the company said.
Kim Na-yeon, 27, was excited to return to Hawaii, where she used to live.
“I couldn’t dare to travel even in Korea because of COVID,” she said. “But now I feel a bit freer with the exemption, so I’ve decided to go meet old friends and do some sightseeing.”
Airlines and travel agencies have reported exploding demand for routes to Hawaii, Saipan and Guam, as well as some destinations in Europe and Southeast Asia where tourists submitting a vaccination certificate or negative test result are exempted from quarantine.
Saipan and Guam, both of which have travel bubble pacts with South Korea, also offer free COVID testing and pay for quarantine expenses if a traveler tests positive. Each South Korean national visiting Saipan receives $100 in “travel bucks” to spend at businesses there.
The tour arm of online retail giant Interpark reported a 324% growth in flight bookings for Oceania between March 11-22 from the same period of 2021, a 268% increase for Southeast Asia and 262% more bookings for Europe.
On Sunday, the company sold a record 5,200 Hawaii tour packages within 70 minutes. CJ Corp’s home shopping unit said it received about 2,800 orders for a Spain and Italy trip in one hour on Sunday, totaling 15 billion won ($12.41 million), days after garnering 9 billion won ($7.4 million) from its sales of a Hawaii package.
“The surge reflects growing customer sentiment that an end of COVID travel curbs might be in the offing after the mandatory quarantine was lifted,” said Lee Jeong-pil, general manager of CJ’s home shopping unit.
Lee Tae-woo, a 36-year-old frequent traveler to Japan, said he has changed some money into yen, taking advantage of the currency’s sharp decline and hoping to jump on the revenge travel bandwagon soon.
Though Japan has yet to allow tourists back in, it has reduced the quarantine period for arrivals for business and other purposes to three days from seven this month and signaled further easing of travel curbs.
“It’s been a long wait, and I’m ready to go back as soon as they finally open up again and visit my favorite coffee roastery and enjoy the night view from Shibuya station,” Lee said, referring to Tokyo’s bustling central district.
Federal health officials are dropping the warning they have attached to cruising since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving it up to vacationers to decide whether they feel safe getting on a ship.
Cruise-ship operators welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, which came as many people thought about summer vacation plans.
An industry trade group said the move by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validated measures that ship owners have taken, including requiring crew members and most passengers to be vaccinated against the virus.
The CDC removed the COVID-19 “cruise ship travel health notice” that was first imposed in March 2020, after virus outbreaks on several ships around the world.
However, the agency expressed reservations about cruising.
“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle said in an email.
Daigle said the CDC’s decision was based on “the current state of the pandemic and decreases in COVID-19 cases onboard cruise ships over the past several weeks.”
COVID-19 cases in the United States have been falling since mid-January, although the decline has slowed in recent weeks, and the current seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. is roughly unchanged from two weeks ago, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. States have rolled back mask mandates, putting pressure on federal officials to ease virus-related restrictions.
Outbreaks continue to be reported on cruise ships, which conduct random testing before the end of voyages.
On Sunday, a Princess Cruises ship returning from the Panama Canal had “multiple” passengers who had tested positive for the virus. Princess Cruises said all the affected passengers showed mild symptoms or none at all, and that all crew members and passengers had been vaccinated. About a dozen passengers tested positive before the same boat docked in San Francisco in January.
Operators are required to tell the CDC about virus cases on board ships. The agency has a colored-coded system to classify ships based on the percentage of passengers who test positive. The CDC said that system remains in place.
Cruise-ship operators have complained since the start of the pandemic that their industry has been singled out for a shutdown and then tighter COVID-19 restrictions than others, including airlines.
The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that the CDC’s decision to remove its health warning “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field between cruise and similarly situated venues on land.”
Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a site that publishes review of trips, called the CDC decision big news.
“Symbolically it’s a notice of winds of change when it comes to cruising,” she said. “I do think it can convince some of the doubters. What the CDC says does matter to cruisers.”
China has connected a high-speed, multimillion-dollar, 15,000-kilometer undersea cable to Kenya, as Beijing advances what’s been dubbed its “digital silk road,” and Africa seeks the infrastructure it badly needs for better internet connectivity.
Chinese giant Huawei is a shareholder in the $425-million PEACE cable, which stands for “Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe.” It stretches from Asia to Africa and then into France, where it terminates.
It reached the coastal city of Mombasa on Tuesday, with the CEO of local partner company Telekom Kenya, Mugo Kibati, saying the cable would help meet the sharp rise in demand for internet services on a continent where internet adoption has trailed the rest of the world, but which is home to a growing, young and increasingly digital population.
“This ultra-high-capacity cable will assist Kenya and the region in meeting its current and future broadband capacity requirements, bolster redundancy, minimize transit time of our country’s connectivity to Asia and Europe, as well as assist carriers in providing affordable services to Kenyans,” said Kibati.
For his part, the PEACE Cable’s COO, Sun Xiaohua, said in a statement that the new infrastructure would “bring more business development to this region.” From Kenya, the cable will later be extended further down the continent’s east coast to South Africa.
It’s estimated that 95% of international data flows via submarine cables, and in terms of Africa, China dominates, with the most projects aimed at connecting the continent. Aside from the PEACE cable, China’s proposed 2Africa cable will become one of the biggest undersea projects in the world when it goes live in 2024.
But China’s massive digital infrastructure investments in Africa and elsewhere have not been without controversy, and Washington has expressed deep concerns that Beijing is attempting to monopolize networks and possibly use them for espionage.
Some analysts are concerned the technology could be misused by authoritarian leaders on the continent, but Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said most Africans simply want better internet.
“I think this PEACE Cable generally plays very positively in Africa. Obviously, the United States has raised … concerns around this, particularly in relation to security, but I think for lot of African countries, the security issue is actually balanced by the wider issue of a lack of connectivity,” van Staden told VOA.
Huawei was sanctioned by the U.S. under former president Donald Trump, but the company has built about 70% of Africa’s 4G networks, and van Staden said it seems China is winning the race for digital soft power on the continent.
“I think there’s a space there for competition, but Western actors will have to step up,” he said.
The White House Wednesday announced it has launched a new website — COVID.gov — designed to provide the latest pandemic information as well as access to vaccines, tests, treatments, and masks on a single site.
In a press release, the White House said the site provides access to all the tools available to address COVID-19, including a list of all 90,000 vaccination sites established in the United States, links to obtaining masks and tests, and where to obtain COVID-19 treatments. There is also a search function, which can be used to find the latest information on the status of the pandemic in a given area.
The site also features a so-called “test-to-treat” locator, designed to allow access to U.S. pharmacies and community health centers, where anyone can get tested for COVID-19 and, if required, receive appropriate treatment.
The statement notes U.S. President Joe Biden originally announced the Test-to-Treat initiative in his State of the Union address earlier this month, and since then his administration launched more than 2,000 of the sites across the country. More than 240 sites were established in Veteran’s Health Administration and Department of Defense facilities to serve veterans, military personnel, and their families.
The White House also made a pitch for Congress to approve an additional $22 billion in emergency funding to help continue the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials say in the last two weeks, due to a lack of funding, the administration has already had to stop reimbursements to health care providers for treating the uninsured, cancel orders for treatments, and pull the U.S. out of line for future vaccine and next-generation treatment purchases.
They stress the cuts disproportionately impact our hardest-hit and highest-risk populations, including minorities and individuals with disabilities.
A U.S. astronaut has returned to Earth Wednesday aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft after nearly a full year aboard the International Space Station, during which relations between the two space giants plummeted over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The capsule carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, completed a parachute-assisted landing on the snow-covered steppe of central Kazakhstan, several hours after undocking from the ISS.
For Vande Hei, it ended a U.S. record-breaking stay in space. He was in space for 355 days, breaking the previous record of 340 days set by Scott Kelly in 2016.
NASA says the two countries are continuing to cooperate on the ISS, although Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, posted a series of angry tweets shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, suggesting Russia could abandon the ISS and let it plummet back to Earth. He also shared a video showing Russian cosmonauts abandoning Vande Hei on the ISS.
But in a handover ceremony Tuesday before departing the orbital outpost, Shkaplerov, who commanded the latest ISS crew, expressed a more harmonious view.
“People have problems on Earth. On orbit we are one crew,” he said.
The invasion has led to fallout in other areas of cooperation between Moscow and other international partners in space travel. The European Space Agency has postponed an unmanned mission to Mars because it relied on a Russian rocket. And British-based satellite company One Web canceled a series of launches because they also relied on Russian-built rockets, shifting some of them to U.S.-based SpaceX.
Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
Botswana has become the first country in Africa to approve the use of the Texas-made COVID-19 vaccine Corbevax. Botswana’s president and California biotech company NantWorks made the announcement Monday as they began construction of a plant to produce COVID-vaccines and drugs to fight cancer.
CEO of biotech firm NantWorks Patrick Soon-Shiong announced on Monday that Botswana’s Medicines Regulatory Authority (BOMRA) had approved the Corbevax jab.
He made the announcement at a groundbreaking ceremony for a vaccine and cancer drug production facility, along with Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi.
“I am pleased to announce, Mr. President, with the incredibly hard work of both the Ministry of Health and BOMRA, today we announce Africa’s first approved vaccine for Africa by Botswana,” Soon-Shiong said.
Corbevax is a patent-free COVID vaccine developed by the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in the United States. It has been used in Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia.
Soon-Shiong said the first consignment would be delivered to Botswana for distribution across Africa.
“This vaccine has been tested and shown to be active in every variant including omicron. I got a commitment this morning that Botswana, effective immediately, will have access to 100 million of these vaccines that you can distribute,” Soon-Shiong said.
The plant, which is expected to be operational by 2026, plans to produce vaccines for COVID and other diseases, as well as cancer treatment drugs.
Masisi said the plant heralds a new dawn for the production of pharmaceuticals on the continent.
“This is particularly noteworthy in the Africa region, which bears a disproportionate disease burden exacerbated limitation of resources and capabilities to address these health challenges. We are determined to dictate a new legacy associated with access to medicines, vaccines and other health technologies,” he said.
Masisi said the facility would help address vaccine inequality in Africa, where less than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID – two years into the pandemic.
“Disparities in the distribution of vaccines across the world resulted in a lopsided vaccination drive that seriously hampered efforts to effectively contain the COVID-19 worldwide. This problem has been aptly defined as vaccine nationalism. It is therefore our intent, our conviction that the opening of this vaccine manufacturing facility, will go a long way in changing this narrative,” Masisi said.
Botswana’s Health Minister Edwin Dikoloti says the project would also help treat chronic diseases.
“This day marks a new level in our scientific development and advancement. It signifies a new technological breakthrough which will see us as not just a consumer but also a manufacturer of vaccines and other medication that will come out of this magnificent project,” Dikoloti said.
Botswana’s vaccine manufacturing facility will be the second in Africa being built by Soon-Shiong.
In January, the South African-born U.S. billionaire opened a similar facility in Cape Town.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized a fourth dose of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for people 50 and over.
Previously a fourth dose was only authorized for people 12 and up, who are badly immunocompromised.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control will not weigh in on how to implement the FDA’s authorization.
People wanting the fourth shot should only do so at least four months after the previous booster, the FDA said Tuesday.
The FDA’s authorization comes as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are falling after a winter surge of the omicron variant.
However, a new subvariant, BA.2, is spreading in Europe and the U.S.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve had two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Only half of those eligible have gotten a first booster.
While the vaccines did not stop omicron from circulating widely, health officials say they did help those infected avoid serious illness or death.
The government is also considering authorizing a fourth dose for everyone in the Fall when cases could surge again.
Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press.