In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, limited numbers of pilgrims, move several feet apart, circling the cube…
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, limited numbers of pilgrims, move several feet apart, circling the Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 29, 2020.

Islam’s holiest observances began Wednesday as a small group of pilgrims arrived in Mecca to begin the Hajj, which has been dramatically scaled-back due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

Instead of the two million-plus people from around the globe that normally make the required once-in-a-lifetime journey to Islam’s holiest site, Saudi Arabia has barred all international travelers from entering the kingdom to perform the Hajj, limiting the attendees to just 1,000 people made up of Saudi nationals and foreign residents who were pre-selected weeks ago. 

The pilgrims are between the ages of 20 and 50 and have been tested for COVID-19 before traveling to Mecca, where they were required to quarantine in their hotel rooms before the start of the Hajj.  They will also be required to enter quarantine for a week after the end of their five-day pilgrimage.   

Muslim pilgrims maintain social distancing as they circle the Kaaba at the Grand mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 29, 2020. (Saudi Ministry of Media/via Reuters).

The small band of pilgrims will observe social distancing as they walk counterclockwise around the cube-shaped Kaaba placed in the center of the Grand Mosque during the first ritual of the Hajj — a far different scene than usual, with the mosque packed with pilgrims standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they circle the Kaaba.   

Saudi Arabia has more than 270,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 2,800 deaths.   

Australia imposes travel ban

In Australia, authorities in the northeastern state of Queensland have announced that it will ban residents from Greater Sydney effective Saturday to curb the spread of the coronavirus.  

The ban was imposed after two women tested positive for COVID-19  after returning to the state capital of Brisbane from a trip to Melbourne via Sydney and without going into self-isolation.   

FILE - A person in a protective face mask walks along the Princes Bridge amidst a lockdown in response to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Melbourne, Australia, July 17, 2020. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett via Reuters)

Melbourne, the state capital of the southern state of Victoria, is at the halfway mark of a six-week lockdown due to a dramatic spike in new COVID-19 cases, including another 295 new cases reported Wednesday.  Victoria state has also reported 804 coronavirus cases connected to elderly citizens homes.  Sydney, the capital of neighboring New South Wales, posted 19 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, most of them related to several clusters that have emerged at restaurants, funeral homes and parks.  

Vietnam rushes to quell new COVID outbreak

In Vietnam, officials are rushing to control a sudden new outbreak of COVID-19 after reporting one of the world’s most successful control efforts earlier in the year.

People walk toward an ambulance to be driven to a hospital for quarantine relating to a suspected COVID-19 case in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 29, 2020.

Authorities in the Southeast Asian country sealed off the central coast tourist city Danang Sunday after two people tested positive for the deadly atypical pneumonia, domestic media reports say. The new spike in and near Danang had grown to 30 cases as of early Wednesday, mostly traced to a local hospital.  

While Vietnam’s latest figures still hardly match the hundreds of daily cases still being reported in much of the world, the country prides itself on throttling the disease earlier in the year with no deaths to date. Vietnam had gone without transmission for 99 days through Saturday and its domestic economy roared back to life by May.  

Can't smell, can't taste? Scientists know why

A new report in the journal Science Advances has discovered why COVID-19 patients lose their sense of smell. 

Researchers at Harvard Medical School say the coronavirus infiltrates the cells that provide major structural support to sensory neurons — the neurons that detect odors and send those messages to the brain.    

Since the sense of smell is linked to the sense of taste, the coronavirus also affects the ability to taste food.    

The researchers said 90% of recovering COVID-19 patients who lost their sense of smell and taste regained it.    

In separate studies, scientists are still trying to conclude whether it is possible to get COVID-19 twice.    

They say the particular coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new and much is still unknown. 

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