WHO urges ‘rational’ measures against Omicron variant: Live news

Brazil reports first two Omicron cases as WHO chief Tedros says blanket travel restrictions aimed at the new COVID strain are ‘not evidence-based’.

Travellers from South Africa are tested for the Coronavirus Omicron variant upon arrival in a specially designed test lane at the Schiphol airport, The Netherlands, 30 November 2021 [Remko De Waal/EPA]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for countries to keep calm and take “rational” measures in response to the new coronavirus strain, Omicron.

“We call on all member states to take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Omicron variant was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the WHO about it last week, Dutch health authorities say.

It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged – but that has not stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from Southern Africa.

Those moves have been criticised by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.

Here are the latest updates:

Taiwan health ministry advises against mix-and-match vaccination

Amid the possible threat of COVID-19 variant, Omicron, Taiwan’s government said it is advising against mixing-and-matching the two mRNA vaccines.

Taiwan is currently using Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA shots for its population. It is also using Astrazeneca vaccine.

The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) said the general public will be allowed to choose a preferred vaccine as a booster shot and encouraged people to use the same vaccine.

Infectious diseases expert: Omicron is ‘a weirdo’

Philippines reverses decision allowing entry of vaccinated tourists

The Philippine government has temporary halted its decision that would have allowed the entry of fully vaccinated tourists starting on Wednesday, amid concerns of the spread of the Omicron variant.

Health officials have not yet reported any Omicron cases, but said that it is “only a matter of when” it reaches the country.

In late November, Manila had announced plans to let fully vaccinated tourists into the country in a bid to revive its slumping tourism industry.

But officials changed their mind following the spread of Omicron in several countries.

Canada starts ban of unvaccinated travellers from planes, trains

Japan expands travel ban all foreign travelers from 10 African countries

Japan has expanded its travel ban covering all foreign inbound travelers – including temporary or permanent residents – from South Africa and nine nearby countries beginning on Thursday.

The government announced the latest move on Wednesday amid fear of the spread of COVID-10’s Omicron variant, which has been detected in the country on Tuesday.

Report: US to require COVID test to all inbound travelers

Bloomberg News is reporting that the US government plans to require all inbound air travelers to be tested of COVID-19 within a day of their departure, in response to Omicron.

There have been no reported Omicron variant in the US as of Tuesday, but the government is expanding its search and contact-tracing.

Malaysian experts oppose travel bans over Omicron

Thailand to reevaluate re-openings, lockdown amid Omicron fears

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will decide whether a lockdown will be re-introduced if the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is detected in the country, according to the health ministry.

The tourism reopening, which began a month ago will also be reevaluated within two weeks’ time, public health deputy minister Sathit Pitutecha was quoted by Khaosod news website as saying.

Sathit advised against panic, adding that any lockdown measures has yet to be discussed.

“If the Omicron strain is found in Thailand, the country will have to face another lockdown.”

Hong Kong also bans non-residents from Japan, Portugal and Sweden

Starting Friday, Hong Kong will ban non-residents from entering the city from Japan, Portugal and Sweden, according to the government.

The three were added to a fast-expanding list of countries facing travel restrictions due to concerns over the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Non-Hong Kong residents who have been in the three countries in the past 21 days will not be allowed to enter the global financial hub. Residents can only board flights if fully vaccinated and will have to undergo 21-days of quarantine in a hotel at their own cost.

Canada bans travelers from Egypt, Nigeria and Malawi over Omicron fears

Canada has issued a ban on travellers from Egypt, Nigeria and Malawi over fears of the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, bringing to 10 the number of African countries targeted by Ottawa.

“Foreign nationals who have transited or stayed in these 10 countries cannot enter Canada if they have been in those countries in the last two weeks,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a press conference on Tuesday.

The measure takes effect on Wednesday, the government said.

Sydney braces for more Omicron cases but no lockdowns for now

Australian authorities have flagged another probable case of the Omicron variant in Sydney as they braced for more infections after at least two international travellers visited several locations in the city while likely infectious.

Officials in New South Wales (NSW), home to Sydney, said initial testing “strongly indicates” a man in his 40s, who arrived from southern Africa on November 25, had been infected with the Omicron variant and had spent time in the community.

“We believe it is likely it will be confirmed later this afternoon as a definite Omicron case,” NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters, but he ruled out lockdowns to contain the newly identified variant.

Omicron in Europe before S Africa reported first cases; Brazil reports first two cases

The Omicron coronavirus variant was present in Europe before the first cases were reported in South Africa, new data from the Netherlands showed, as Latin America reported its first two cases in Brazil.

On Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that Omicron was present in the country before South Africa officially reported its first cases, on November 25.

Meanwhile, World Health Organization warned Tuesday – as Canada expanded its restrictions to also include Egypt and Nigeria – that “blanket” travel bans risked doing more harm than good.

FDA panel in US gives narrow backing to Merck COVID pill

A panel of expert advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration has narrowly voted to recommend the agency authorise Merck’s antiviral pill for COVID-19.

FDA authorisation would make it the first at-home treatment for the virus, although its use will probably be limited to those most at risk of developing severe disease.

Merck published data last week suggesting the drug was significantly less effective than previously thought, reducing admission to hospital and deaths in its clinical trial of high-risk individuals by about 30 percent.

“COVID-19 is still an emergency situation,” said committee member Dr David Hardy, who voted yes. “There is a need for something like this. This is the first opportunity that an oral outpatient medication for mildly symptomatic to moderately symptomatic persons would be available, although I do have questions about its overall longer-term efficacy.”

US to tighten rules for inbound travellers: Report

The Washington Post is reporting that the US plans stricter coronavirus testing for all travellers to the country because of Omicron concerns, including a mandatory COVID-19 test a day before passengers board any US-bound flight.

The Biden administration is also discussing additional measures including a seven day self-quarantine and re-testing three to five days after arrival, the paper said.

There is also a “controversial proposal” for a seven day self-quarantine even for those who are fully vaccinated and have tested negative, it added. That proposal is not in the draft but could be added later, the paper said, citing sources.

The measures are expected to be announced on Thursday.

Brazil reports two cases of Omicron strain

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa said preliminary laboratory analysis has found two cases of the Omicron variant in the country.

Anvisa said one of the people had travelled from South Africa. The samples will be sent for final analysis, the regulator said.

INFOGRAPHIC: Tracking global Omicron travel restrictions

About 30 countries have closed their borders to some countries and others have imposed stricter measures to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

Nations are adopting differing levels of border control with countries such as Israel, Morocco and Japan closing their borders entirely, while others have only tightened COVID testing at the border.

View map here.

INTERACTIVE- COVID19 - How Omicron compares
(Al Jazeera)

Mexico to reverse course, give COVID-19 booster shot

Mexican officials have reversed their previous position against giving coronavirus booster shots and said on Tuesday they are studying a plan to administer third doses to people over 60.

President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador said plans for the boosters are still being drawn up, but added, “It won’t be long, we have the vaccines.”

No Omicron case detected in US yet: Fauci

The Omicron variant has not yet been detected in the United States, even as 226 cases have been identified in 20 other countries, Dr Anthony Fauci, the chief infectious disease scientist in the US government, said on Tuesday.

It will take investigators two to four weeks to evaluate the new strain of the virus which exhibits an “unusual constellation of changes” in its “mutational profile”, Fauci told reporters in a White House briefing.

“It suggests strongly that there’s increased transmission compared with the original pandemic virus,” Fauci said, adding scientists do not yet know whether Omicron causes more severe illness.

Second Omicron case confirmed in Spain, two more suspected

Spain has detected a second case of the Omicron coronavirus variant and expects to confirm another two by the end of the week, while Basque authorities said they planned to declare a health emergency amid a rapidly rising caseload.

In Madrid, a 61-year-old woman who returned to Spain from South Africa via Amsterdam tested positive for the variant first isolated in South Africa that scientists fear may evade vaccines.

‘Don’t freak out’ about Omicron, says BioNTech CEO

The CEO of COVID-19 vaccine maker BioNTech has a message for those who are worried about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus: keep your cool.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal (paywall) on Tuesday, Ugur Sahin, who co-founded BioNTech and invented one of the first COVID-19 vaccines, said that while the Omicron variant could lead to more vaccinated people becoming infected, they will likely remain protected against severe illness.

Read more here.

Lockdown ‘extremely unlikely’: PM Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that a new coronavirus lockdown was unlikely despite worries about the new coronavirus variant, Omicron.

“I think another lockdown of the kind that we’ve had before is extremely unlikely,” Johnson said at a press conference. “But we keep everything under constant review.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a news conference in Downing Street, London, on November 30, 2021 [Tom Nicholson/Pool/Reuters]

German MPs to vote on compulsory COVID jabs by year’s end: Scholz

German parliamentarians will vote on compulsory COVID vaccinations for the public by the year’s end, incoming chancellor Olaf Scholz said, as calls grow for the mandatory action to boost inoculation rates.

“My proposal is that we do not act as a government because it’s a question of conscience. Rather a draft bill – or different draft bills – could be put up by parliamentary circles to the Bundestag on that,” he told Bild in an interview.

The compulsory vaccinations should be in force “in the beginning of February or March so we must move quickly now,” he said, adding that he was eyeing the Bundestag vote “this year”.

Eight more Omicron cases found in England

A further eight cases of have been identified in England, taking the total number to 13, Britain’s Health Security Agency said.

“The individuals that have tested positive and their contacts are all isolating. Work is under way to identify any links to travel to southern Africa,” UKHSA said.

People wear face masks on the London underground, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in London, Britain, November 30, 2021 [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Swiss consider further tightening coronavirus restrictions

Switzerland is considering tighter restrictions to contain the rising number of new COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant, the government said following an emergency meeting.

The government will consult with local authorities on whether to make COVID-19 certificates – which provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination, recovery or a negative test – compulsory for all indoor events, removing the current exemption for meetings of up to 30 people.

Germany’s Scholz supports mandatory vaccines – sources

Olaf Scholz, who is set to take over as German chancellor next week, supports making vaccination against COVID-19 compulsory and backs barring the unvaccinated from non-essential stores, sources said on Tuesday.

Scholz and outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel were meeting regional leaders on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to soaring infections in a fourth wave of the pandemic.

According to sources with information about the discussion, Scholz told the meeting he was in favour of a cross-party initiative to make vaccines mandatory, with the hope that it could be put into practice by the end of February.

Olaf Scholz of the German Social Democrats (SPD) [File: Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

Spain’s Hipra vaccine could be booster against variants – minister

A coronavirus vaccine currently under development by Spanish pharmaceutical firm Hipra could be effective as a booster against new variants of the virus, Spain’s Science Minister Diana Morant said.

Spain’s medicines regulator two weeks ago authorised Hipra to carry out Phase II trials of its vaccine, which uses a recombinant protein like that of US-based drugmaker Novavax, on 1,000 volunteers.

WHO’s chief urges states to take ‘rational’ measures

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) voiced concern that some states are introducing blanket measures aimed at the Omicron coronavirus variant that he said were “not evidence-based or effective on their own” and were penalising Southern African countries that reported the strain so quickly.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a speech to the WHO’s 194 member states, urged them to take “rational, proportional risk-reduction measures” in keeping with the agency’s 2005 International Health Regulations.

Moderna CEO’s comments jolt markets

The chief executive of drugmaker Moderna set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets with a warning that existing COVID-19 vaccines would be less effective against the Omicron variant than they have been against the Delta variant.

Leading European stock markets fell about 1.5 percent in early trade, Tokyo’s Nikkei index closed down 1.6 percent, crude oil futures shed more than 3 percent, and the Australian dollar hit a one-year low as Stephane Bancel’s comments spurred fears that vaccine resistance may prolong the pandemic.

Read more here.

The WHO and scientists have also said it could take weeks to understand whether Omicron is likely to cause severe illness or escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines [Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg]

German man infected without travelling

Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig confirmed an infection with the Omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, news agency dpa reports.

Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rates.

Blinken praises South Africa for detecting Omicron, sounding alarm

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised South Africa for detecting the new Omicron strain of the coronavirus variant and making it known to the world, adding that Washington was working to close the vaccination gap between poor and rich countries.

Forty-two cases of COVID-19 Omicron variant confirmed in 10 EU states

Forty-two cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in 10 European Union countries, the head of the EU’s public health agency says, adding that they were mild or asymptomatic, although in younger age groups.

EU authorities were analysing another six “probable” cases, Andrea Ammon, who chairs the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), told an online conference organised by the EU’s Slovenian presidency.

“For the assessment whether it (Omicron) escapes immunity, we still have to wait until the investigations in the laboratories with sera from people who have recovered have been carried out. These are expected in a couple of weeks,” she said.

Dutch found Omicron a week earlier than thought

Dutch health authorities say the new variant was present in the Netherlands a week earlier than previously believed and checks are under way to see how far it has spread.

The RIVM national health and environment institute said it “has found the corona variant Omicron in two test samples that had already been taken in the Netherlands … on November 19 and 23”.

The first Omicron cases in the Netherlands were thought to be 14 infections on two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday, November 26. The two earlier Dutch infections also came before South Africa first reported the new strain on November 24 to the WHO.

UAE approves Sputnik Light as universal booster shot against COVID-19

The United Arab Emirates has approved Russia’s Sputnik Light vaccine as a universal booster shot against COVID-19, Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF announced.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which markets the vaccine abroad, said Sputnik Light can be administered six months after the second dose of any other vaccine used in the UAE.

Greece to make vaccinations for persons over 60 mandatory: PM

Greece has said that it will fine people over the age of 60 who have not received a first COVID-19 shot, as the country grappled with a new surge in coronavirus cases.

Authorities said they would impose a 100-euro ($113) fine on every individual over the age of 60 who was not vaccinated.

The measure would apply each month from January 16 onwards.

Norwegians should wear face masks in crowded places, PM says

Norwegians should wear face masks in public transport and other crowded places amid a surge in coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said.

The centre-left minority government on Monday said it would seek to limit any potential spread of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, including by imposing longer isolation on those found to have been infected with it.

Three new Omicron cases identified in Scotland

Three new Omicron cases have been identified in Scotland, Sky News reported on Tuesday, taking the total number of cases in Britain to 14.

Cambodia bars entry to travellers from 10 African countries

Cambodia has barred entry to travellers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from Omicron.

The move, announced in a health ministry statement late on Monday, came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers. No date was set for lifting the new restriction.

The ministry said the entry ban included anyone who has spent time in the previous three weeks in any of the 10 listed countries, including South Africa where the variant was first identified. Other countries include Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The move comes just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers [File: Cindy Liu/Reuters]

EMA chief: COVID-19 shot against Omicron could be approved in 3-4 months

The EU drug regulator could approve COVID-19 vaccines that have been adapted to target the new variant within three to four months if needed, although existing shots would continue to provide protection, the agency’s chief said.

Speaking to the European Parliament, European Medicines Agency (EMA) Executive Director Emer Cooke said it was not known if drugmakers would need to tweak their vaccines to protect against Omicron, but the agency was preparing for that possibility.

The head of the European Medicines Agency said it was not yet known whether drugmakers would have to tweak the vaccines to better address the threat of the new coronavirus strain [File: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

Japan confirms first case of Omicron

Japan has confirmed its first case of Omicron in a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia, an official said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said on Tuesday the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital. Matsuno did not identify his nationality, citing privacy reasons.

His travel companions and passengers in nearby seats have been identified and have been reported to Japanese health authorities for follow-up.

A notice about COVID-19 safety measures is pictured next to closed doors at a departure hall of Narita Airport on the first day of closed borders to prevent the spread of Omicron [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

China says Omicron will ‘lead to challenges’ for Winter Olympics

China has warned that the fast-spreading Omicron variant would cause challenges in hosting next February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Although China has largely quashed the coronavirus through travel restrictions and snap lockdowns, recurrent domestic outbreaks linked to the Delta variant have put the authorities on high alert.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “China has a lot of experience in responding to COVID-19” and that he “firmly believe[s] the Winter Olympics will be conducted smoothly”.

Australia on alert as first Omicron community case confirmed

Australian authorities confirm that a person who flew into Sydney on Thursday was infected with Omicron, after disclosing that the person had been active in the community, but urged calm as they weighed up the severity of the strain.

The fully vaccinated person visited a busy shopping centre in Sydney while likely infectious, officials said. All passengers in the person’s flight were asked to self-isolate for 14 days regardless of their vaccination status.

The additional case brings Australia’s total number of infections with the new variant to six. But it is the first case where the person appeared to be active in the community, all other cases have been in quarantine and are asymptomatic or display very mild symptoms.

Case of Omicron found on French territory of Reunion

A person has tested positive for Omicron on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, official researcher Dr Patrick Mavingui said.

Mavingui said the person was a 53-year-old man who had travelled to Mozambique and made a stopover in South Africa. The patient, who returned to La Reunion about two weeks ago, is currently in isolation, Mavingui told local French media.

Health ministry data showed on Monday that France had registered a huge jump in coronavirus-related hospital admissions, with the number of COVID patients in ICUs jumping by 117 to 1,749 people, the biggest increase since March-April, when the number rose by more than 100 a day on several days.

Singapore to hold off further reopening to evaluate Omicron

Singapore will hold off on further reopening measures while it evaluates Omicron and will boost testing of travellers and front-line workers to reduce the risk of local transmission, authorities say.

“This is a prudent thing to do, for now, when we are faced with a major uncertainty,” Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told a media briefing on Tuesday, adding the variant had not yet been detected locally.

India promises more COVID-19 shots to Omicron-hit Africa after Chinese move

India stands ready to “expeditiously” send more COVID-19 vaccines to Africa to help fight Omicron, New Delhi announced late on Monday after China pledged 1 billion doses to the continent.

India and China have close ties with many African countries but Beijing has pumped much more money into the region, and on Monday promised to invest another $10bn.

India says it supplied more than 25 million doses of domestically made shots to 41 African countries, mostly through the global vaccine-distribution network COVAX.

Moderna CEO says vaccines likely less effective against Omicron

The head of drugmaker Moderna says COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to be as effective against the Omicron variant as they have been previously, sparking fresh worry in financial markets about the trajectory of the pandemic.

“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like ‘this is not going to be good’,” Moderna Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times.

Bancel added that the high number of mutations on the protein spike the virus uses to infect human cells meant it was likely the current crop of vaccines would need to be modified.

Hong Kong bans non-resident arrivals from 13 more countries

Hong Kong has banned the entry of non-residents from more countries and plans to expand that to travellers who have been to Australia, Canada, Israel and six European countries in the past 21 days.

In a statement late on Monday, the Hong Kong government said non-residents from Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia would not be allowed to enter as of November 30. Residents can return if they are vaccinated but will have to quarantine for seven days in a government facility and another two weeks in a hotel at their own cost.

Additionally, non-residents who have been to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel, and Italy in the past 21 days would not be allowed to enter the city from December 2. Vaccinated residents returning from these countries will have to do three weeks of hotel quarantine.

Fiji proceeds with border reopening despite Omicron

Fiji will press on with plans to reopen its border to international travellers on Wednesday, despite the threat from the Omicron variant, the Pacific nation’s leader told parliament.

Fiji has long targeted December 1 as the day it will welcome back foreign holidaymakers to boost a tourism-reliant economy devastated since the pandemic forced borders to close in March last year.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said Omicron’s recent emergence would not derail the plans and he would personally welcome the first Fiji Airways flight into Nadi from Australia on Wednesday morning.

Singapore says two travellers to Sydney with Omicron transited at Changi

Singapore’s Ministry of Health says two travellers from Johannesburg who tested positive for Omicron in Sydney, Australia, had transited through Changi Airport.

The two individuals left Johannesburg on November 27 on a Singapore Airlines flight and arrived at Changi on the same day to transit, the ministry said in a statement. Both had tested negative for COVID-19 prior to departure, it added.

The ministry said most of the travellers had remained in the transit area at Changi Airport. Of the seven who disembarked, six had been placed on a 10-day stay at home notice, while the seventh, a close contact of an infected individual on the flight, had been quarantined.

“Contact tracing is ongoing for airport staff who may have come into transient contact with the cases,” the ministry said.

Hong Kong stocks begin with further losses

Hong Kong shares have dipped at the open of trade to extend losses stemming from the new Omicron strain that has fanned fears about the effect on the global economic recovery.

The Hang Seng Index dipped 0.29 percent, or 69.38 points, to 23,782.86 on Tuesday.

The Shanghai Composite Index added 0.23 percent, or 8.05 points, to 3,570.75, while the Shenzhen Composite Index on China’s second exchange gained 0.35 percent, or 8.80 points, to 2,525.73.

Australia to delay border reopening for international travellers

Australia says it will delay the reopening of its borders to vaccinated skilled workers, international students and other visa holders, which was set for Wednesday, a “temporary pause” to allow time to “gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant”.

“The National Security Committee has taken the necessary and temporary decision to pause the next step to safely reopen Australia to international skilled and student cohorts, as well as humanitarian, working holiday maker and provisional family visa holders from 1 December until 15 December,” a Monday evening statement by Canberra said.

“The reopening to travellers from Japan and the Republic of Korea will also be paused until 15 December.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies