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Delta Dents Reopening Hopes As Variant Spreads to 85 Countries

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The delta variant of the coronavirus is now in 85 countries, at least 51 people die in Tigray airstrike, and Hong Kong’s Apple Daily ceases publication.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The delta variant of the coronavirus is now in 85 countries, at least 51 people die in Tigray airstrike, and Hong Kong’s Apple Daily ceases publication.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Fears Grow as Delta Variant Spreads

The rise of the delta variant of the coronavirus across the world is making governments nervous, as they fear another surge in infections and a further delay of economic reopening plans.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization said the variant had been identified in 85 countries, as the agency continued to monitor it as one of four variants of concern.

The variant has already become prevalent in countries with high vaccination rates but which still have not vaccinated their entire populations. It now accounts for 90 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said the variant would be responsible for 90 percent of EU cases by August. In the United States, delta has not been as prominent, but its presence has been growing. In early May, it was estimated to account for 1.3 percent of new cases. That amount has now increased to 20.6 percent.

Although health officials are still studying its properties, the delta variant is known to be more transmissible than others—the ECDC estimates it may be 40 to 60 percent more contagious than the alpha variant, first discovered in the United Kingdom, which has itself been estimated to be 60 percent more transmissible than the initial coronavirus strain.

For those fully vaccinated, the variant should be less of a concern. One study by Oxford University researchers showed that both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were highly effective at preventing the delta variant from causing hospitalization. Confidence in vaccines is so high in the United States that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky called COVID-19 deaths “at this point entirely preventable.”

That assurance provides little comfort to the poorer countries of the world, which have no such protections; 99 percent of residents in low-income countries remain unvaccinated, raising the possibility of more variants beyond the 11 already identified by the WHO developing in the months to come. With full global vaccination not likely until at least 2024, vaccine drives need speeding up. Writing in Foreign Policy, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Katherine Aguirre, Gordon LaForge, and Robert Muggah suggest one solution: Strengthening impact hubs like the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi).

What We’re Following Today

Afghanistan concerns. The U.S. intelligence community has downgraded its assessment of the Afghan government’s resiliency following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying last week that the Kabul government could collapse within six months of withdrawal, the Wall Street Journal reports. The new estimate arrived after Taliban forces made rapid gains in the north of the country as of last week, capturing towns previously held by government forces and surrounding major cities.

The revelation of the intelligence assessment comes as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visits the White House on Friday. (Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer will preview the visit in a FP live conference call today at 11 a.m. ET).

Carnage in Tigray. At least 51 people were killed in an apparent airstrike on a village market in Tigray on Tuesday, local health workers said, adding that Ethiopian soldiers had blocked ambulances from reaching the scene of the bombing. More than 100 others were wounded in the attack, according to Tigray’s health authorities.

The European Union condemned the attack on Wednesday, as EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell said it was the latest in a “horrific series” of abuses in Tigray and called for an immediate cease-fire. It’s not yet known whether Ethiopian or Eritrean forces were responsible for the strike.

Black Sea tensions. Russia complained on Wednesday of a “blatant British provocation” in the Black Sea, as a British Navy vessel sailed near the Crimean peninsula on its way to port in Georgia. Both sides contest the facts of the incident: The Russian Defense Ministry said it fired warning shots near the British ship and dropped four bombs in its way, while the British Defense Ministry said no such obstruction occurred.

A BBC journalist on board the British ship said he heard shots “out of range,” and that Russian military planes shadowed the vessel. Tensions in the area are expected to remain high as NATO conducts military exercises in the Black Sea starting on Monday.

No more Apple Daily. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper made its final print run on Thursday—one million copies—as the pro-democracy outlet became the latest victim of Hong Kong’s national security laws. The decision to close the newspaper came after 500 police officers raided its offices last week, arresting five executives, as assets of companies related to the paper were frozen.

The paper’s owner, Jimmy Lai, has been detained since December on three national security-related charges, including allegedly colluding with a foreign country. As Foreign Policy’s James Palmer wrote on Wednesday’s China Brief, the closure “goes far beyond journalism in Hong Kong,” and raises the chances of self-censorship becoming the norm across other sectors like academia and entertainment.

U.S.-China relations. The Biden administration is planning to upgrade its outreach to China’s leadership in the coming weeks, the Financial Times reports, with a possible meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at next week’s G-20 ministerial meeting. The White House has also asked to send Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Beijing this summer, which would make her only the second high-level Biden administration official to visit China after climate envoy John Kerry travelled to Shanghai in April.

The flurry of diplomacy, which could include a visit to China by Blinken or National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is seen as a prelude to a bilateral meeting between Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, possibly at October’s G-20 summit in Italy.

The Ever Given’s ever after. The Ever Given, the massive cargo ship which became infamous for blocking the Suez Canal in March, may finally complete its journey through the waterway after insurers reached a settlement with Egyptian authorities. The ship had been impounded, along with its crew, ever since it was freed by a complex effort six days after it ran aground.

Terror in Mozambique. The 16-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) agreed to deploy troops to Mozambique on Wednesday in a bid to quell violence in the north of the country. The move comes as a group known as al-Shabab (a separate organization from the Somali group) have terrorized the Cabo Delgado province since 2017, in a conflict that has killed nearly 3,000 people and displaced close to 800,000. Although the SADC agreed to establish a “standby force,” the number or troops and the timing of their deployment has not been disclosed.

Japan is attempting to buck its “salaryman” stereotype and improve the work-life balance of its citizens in new economic policy guidelines that recommend a move to a four-day workweek. The Japanese government cited increased employee retention, especially for those caring for children or older relatives, as an incentive for employers to adopt the policy.

Japanese authorities are hoping an extra day off per week will lead its citizens to solve even more societal problems: By using the time to do more shopping to boost the economy and by giving young people more time to socialize, which may, eventually, boost the country’s sluggish birth rate.

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