Coronavirus cases reach record highs in France and UK

France and the UK report record national highs of new coronavirus cases as Omicron variant continues to spread.

Germany is adding the United States, Spain and Portugal to its list of COVID-19 risk areas [File: Martin Meissner/AP]

Britain and France have reported record national highs in the number of new COVID-19 infections, with the UK recording 119,789 new cases and France reporting more than 91,000 new cases.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases has confirmed the country’s first death due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Thursday.

Coronavirus infections have begun rising again across the six Gulf Arab states after months of low or falling figures. The resurgence comes as the UAE is welcoming millions of visitors to the Expo 2020 Dubai world fair and other seasonal events.

As the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread around the world, AstraZeneca has said its booster is effective against the new coronavirus variant, citing data from an independent Oxford University lab study.

Two studies in the UK provided some early hints that Omicron may be milder than the Delta strain. Any reductions in severity will need to be weighed against the fact that Omicron spreads much faster than Delta and is more able to evade vaccines, the studies show.

This live blog is now closed. Here were Thursday’s updates:

Montenegro’s president tests positive for COVID-19

Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic, has tested positive for COVID-19 after being in contact with an infected person.

“The president has mild symptoms and feels well. In line with epidemiological measures he will remain in self-isolation from where he will perform his regular presidential duties,” his office said in a statement on Thursday.

So far, 161,944 people in Montenegro – which has a population of only 620,000 – have fallen ill from the coronavirus and 2,385 people have died.

Many Americans continue with holiday travel plans despite Omicron

Millions of Americans are pushing ahead with holidays that include cross-country flights, busy tourist attractions and indoor dining, even as the surge in COVID-19 infections fuelled by the Omicron variant forces them to adapt some plans on the fly.

While people scramble for COVID-19 tests and weigh varying public health guidance about how to gather safely for a second Christmas marked by the pandemic, many showed they were willing to brave the latest surge in order to enjoy holiday traditions such as worshipping and eating out.

The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday screened 2,081,297 passengers through the nation’s airports, an increase of 144,000 over the number of travelers it screened pre-pandemic on the same date in 2019.

Spain’s Catalonia imposes nighttime curfew to stem surging cases

The northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia won court approval for a night curfew on Thursday as Madrid pledged to distribute millions of more test kits to tackle the Omicron variant that is driving up infections and overshadowing Christmas.

Spain lifted most COVID-19 restrictions over the summer thanks to a high vaccination rate that suppressed infection, but Omicron’s arrival has sent daily cases soaring to a record of more than 72,900 on Thursday.

Omicron has minimal impact on US jobs recovery

Applications for state unemployment benefits in the United States were unchanged last week, signalling that the labour market continues to recover even as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the country.

Initial jobless claims – a proxy for layoffs – were little changed at a seasonally adjusted rate of 205,000 for the week that ended on December 18,  the US Labor Department said on Thursday.

That is still below pandemic levels and a sign that the Omicron strain has yet to hit the jobs market even as it threatens to bring back some restrictions.

Italy makes outdoor mask-wearing compulsory

Italy has reintroduced the mandatory wearing of face masks in outdoor spaces, Health Minister Roberto Speranza announced, to contain mounting coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant.

The minister, who announced the measure to the cabinet, did not say when the rule would come into effect but stated that higher quality masks would be required in certain venues, including cinemas, theatres, sporting events, and on public transport.

Ecuador makes coronavirus vaccine obligatory

Ecuador on Thursday made it obligatory for people to get the coronavirus vaccine, following the arrival of the Omicron variant in the South American country.

“In Ecuador, vaccination against Covid-19 is declared compulsory,” the health ministry said in a statement.

UK says Omicron cases at much lower risk of hospital admission

Preliminary data suggest that people with Omicron variant of coronavirus are between 50 percent and 70 percent less likely to need hospitalisation than those with the Delta strain, the United Kingdom’s public health agency has said.

The UK Health Security Agency’s findings add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants – but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.

Read more here.

Experts says Biden’s Omicron measures too little, too late

US President Joe Biden’s steps to backstop hospitals and distribute coronavirus test kits — however welcome — are too little too late to stem a surge of Omicron-related coronavirus cases over Christmas and New Year’s, health experts said.

A day after Biden outlined plans to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus test kits, Anne Rimoin, a UCLA professor of epidemiology, praised his focus on testing, a “critical tool” that the United States was “woefully” behind on.

“Unfortunately, it’s late in coming and will be a small drop in the bucket compared to the tsunami of cases on the horizon.”

Lithuania to require Covid health pass from MPs

Lithuania’s parliament passed a law that will require lawmakers to have a COVID health pass starting from January in order to attend hearings.

Doors to the building will only be open to MPs who are fully vaccinated, have recently recovered from COVID-19 or have tested negative for the virus over the previous 72 hours.

It is possible that lawmakers unable to attend parliamentary hearings because they do not have the health pass will see their salaries cut.

France’s COVID-19 cases reach national record as deaths rise

France had its worst-ever day in terms of new COVID-19 cases, with more than 91,000 new cases being recorded while the number of deaths also climbed, as the country battles against a fifth wave of the virus.

“Today’s figures are not good,” said health minister Olivier Veran.

Veran had earlier told reporters that the case number would stand at around 88,000 for Thursday, but the final official tally from the health ministry showed 91,608 new cases.

White House says it is ‘grateful’ Trump got, promoted COVID-19 booster

The White House is grateful that former U.S. President Donald Trump received and promoted getting the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The Republican former president recently said in an interview that he received a booster shot, and called the COVID-19 vaccines “one of the greatest achievements of mankind.”

“The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t take the vaccine,” Trump said in an interview with conservative commentator Candace Owens. “If you take the vaccine, you’re protected.”

Former US president Donald Trump [File: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg]

UK health agency says omicron patients less likely to require hospitalisation

UK health agency data suggest omicron patients 50 percent to 70 percent less likely to require hospital admission than those with delta.

France to report around 88,000 new COVID cases

France will report around 88,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, health minister Olivier Veran said, adding these figures would be the worst the country has seen since the pandemic began in 2020.

“Today’s figures are not good,” Veran told reporters.

India’s Modi tells states to beef up health facilities as Omicron cases rise

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked chiefs of states to ramp up oxygen supplies and strengthen health infrastructure to contain a possible surge of Omicron cases ahead of the festive season, as gatherings in public spaces and markets grow in size.

India has recorded 236 Omicron coronavirus cases across 16 states over the last 24 hours, the federal health ministry said, more than double from last week.

“PM directed the officials to ensure that the health systems in the states, beginning from the district level, are strengthened to meet any challenge posed by the new variant,” the government said in a statement.

This week, authorities in New Delhi announced a partial ban on public celebrations for Christmas and New Year’s Eve in a bid to prevent overcrowding. [File: Alastair Grant/AP]

Germany adds US, Spain, Portugal to COVID-19 high risk list

Germany is adding the United States, Spain and Portugal to its list of COVID-19 risk areas, it said, making it more difficult for unvaccinated travellers to return to Germany from those countries.

It also said it was removing Austria from its list of high-risk areas. The changes take effect from midnight on Saturday.

Britain reports record 119,789 new COVID-19 cases

Britain reported a record 119,789 new daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday, compared with 106,122 a day earlier.

There were 147 deaths within 28 days of a positive case, versus 140 on Wednesday, according to government data.

The British government said it won’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions until after Christmas [File: Tolga Akmen/AFP]

Defense Dept staff test positive for COVID after base tour

Seven US Department of Defense staff who traveled last week to multiple American bases, including Indo-Pacific Command on Hawaii, have tested positive for COVID-19, the Pentagon said.

The staff, which consisted of civilian and military personnel, traveled to bases in Michigan, Colorado, Hawaii, California, and Nebraska as part of Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks’ visit to the United States’ bases and commands, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. Hicks tested negative.

Vatican tightens COVID restrictions following Italy action

All Vatican officials and employees will have to have a green pass showing they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or prove they have recovered from the virus, according to a decree issued.

They will not be allowed to work without such proof and will forfeit wages for time absent, according to the decree issued by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Previously, those not vaccinated were able to enter workplaces by providing negative results of recent COVID tests.

The tightening of regulations was due to the “worsening of the current health emergency”.

The Vatican decree was issued shortly after Italy, which surrounds the tiny city-state, said it would tighten restrictions to try to curb a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing as he recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter’s Square, at the Vatican [File: Andrew Medichini/AP]

Omicron wave forces Lufthansa to axe 33,000 flights

German national carrier Lufthansa will cut its winter flight plan by “around 10 percent” as the spread of the Omicron variant fuels uncertainty about travel, chief executive Carsten Spohr said.

“From the middle of January to February, we see a sharp drop off in bookings”, leading the airline to cancel “33,000 flights or about 10 percent” of its flights this winter, Spohr said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS).

“Above all we are missing passengers in our home markets of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium, because these countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic wave,” Spohr said.

Europe’s largest airline was currently running “about 60 percent” of flights compared with the pre-pandemic year 2019, carrying “roughly half” the number of passengers, the CEO said.

Planes of German airline Lufthansa are parked at the Berlin Schoenefeld airport amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Schoenefeld, Germany, May 26, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Planes of German airline Lufthansa parked at the Berlin Schoenefeld airport amid the spread of the coronavirus disease [File: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters]

Zambia to introduce COVID-19 booster jabs next week

Zambia will introduce COVID-19 booster vaccines as it battles the respiratory disease which has infected over 200,000 people and killed more than 3,000, Health Minister Sylvia Masebo said.

The southern African nation also plans to start vaccinating children aged 12-17, who until now have not been eligible for the COVID-19 jab, Masebo said at a media briefing.

“Zambia will begin to administer the booster vaccines for COVID-19 commencing on 27th December, 2021,” Masebo said.

Merck’s at-home antiviral COVID-19 pill approved by US regulator

United States health regulators have authorised a second antiviral pill against COVID-19, providing another easy-to-use medication to battle the rising tide of Omicron infections.

The US Food and Drug Administration authorised Merck’s molnupiravir. The approval comes a day after the agency cleared a competing drug from Pfizer. That pill, Paxlovid, is likely to become the first-choice treatment against the virus, thanks to its superior benefits and milder side effects.

Read more here.

UK government rules out new restrictions before Christmas

The British government said it won’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions until after Christmas.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said two studies suggesting omicron carries a significantly lower risk of hospitalisation than the previously dominant delta strain was “encouraging news.” But he said it was “not very clear yet … by how much that risk is reduced.”

The UK Health Security Agency is due to publish new data on omicron later Thursday. It follows two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, that found patients with omicron were between 20 and 68 percent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with delta.

People ice skate around the Christmas tree at the Natural History Museum amid the coronavirus outbreak, in London [File: Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

GSK-Vir antibody COVID-19 therapy to be tested in large UK study

GSK and Vir Biotechnology’s antibody-based COVID-19 drug is being studied as a possible treatment for hospitalised patients in a large British study looking into coronavirus therapies, researchers said.

The recovery trial will test sotrovimab as the Omicron variant spreads, its website said, with an “urgent need to evaluate alternative therapies.”

Laboratory studies have shown that sotrovimab is effective against all mutations of Omicron, GSK said this month, citing new data from early-stage studies.

“We hope to begin testing sotrovimab next week,” said Peter Horby, joint chief investigator of recovery and an Oxford University professor. “We lack good antivirals, and hope that we will be able to add other antiviral treatments to the trial”.

Lebanon’s tourism ministry imposes new coronavirus restrictions

Lebanon’s tourism ministry ordered restaurants, hotels, fitness centres and entertainment venues to require visitors to present either a certificate of COVID vaccination or a negative PCR test before entering, it said in a statement.

The ministry said it is requiring such establishments to enforce the new rules until January 9.

Germany reports first death with Omicron variant

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious disease confirmed the country’s first death due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The person was between the age of 60 and 79, the institute said.

There were 810 new Omicron cases reported, bringing the total number of cases with the more contagious variant to 3,198.

The only cases counted are those that are detected by a whole genome sequencing or a diagnostic suspicion based on a variant-specific PCR test.

Italy set to tighten COVID curbs to rein in infections

The Italian government will tighten restrictions in an effort to curb a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, including making mask wearing mandatory outdoors again, the prime minister’s office said.

Among other measures that look set to be approved when the cabinet meets later in the day are a reduction in the validity of COVID-19 health certificates, that give access to an array of places and services, to six months from nine months.

The statement said Italy was also considering closing discos and clubs up until New Year’s Eve.

Egypt’s central bank extends measures to ease pandemic impact

The Central Bank of Egypt said it had extended measures to ease the impact of the coronavirus until June 2022.

The measures that were previously announced included exempting customers from expenses and commissions related to making transfers in Egyptian pounds.

Malta tightens restrictions as COVID-19 cases spike

The Mediterranean islands of Malta became the latest European nation to tighten COVID-19 restrictions as virus numbers hit a new record for a second successive day.

Health Minister Chris Fearne said events where people could not be seated were being banned from December 27 while sports events would have to be held behind closed doors. All venues have to close by 1.00 a.m.

An open-air New Year’s Eve celebration in the capital, Valletta, was cancelled.

Fearne said all those aged over 18 will be able to apply for vaccine booster shots from Dec. 27, and vaccination certificates will be necessary for entry to most venues from January 17.

Spain’s Catalonia to reimpose curfew to fight COVID surge

Spain’s Catalonia will reimpose a night-time curfew starting Christmas Eve to fight a record spike in COVID-19 infections.

A court on Thursday approved with a request from Catalonia’s regional government to impose a nightly curfew between 1:00am and 6:00am. The measure will start on Friday and will last 15 days.

COVID-19 infections on the rise across Gulf states

Coronavirus infections have begun rising again across the six Gulf Arab states after months of low or falling figures, data from health ministries has shown.

The United Arab Emirates has seen a particularly sharp increase in COVID-19 infections since announcing the arrival of Omicron early this month, with 1,002 cases of coronavirus recorded on Thursday, up from 68 on December 2.

The resurgence comes as the UAE is welcoming millions of visitors to the Expo 2020 Dubai world fair and other seasonal events.

The Gulf’s most populous country, Saudi Arabia, registered 252 new infections on Thursday, up from daily tallies of around 50 recorded since late September.

Oman, Qatar and Bahrain are also seeing cases pick up, although less dramatically. Kuwait reported 143 new cases on Wednesday, its highest daily count since late August.

Omicron spreading in Italy, set to be dominant, health body says

The highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly in Italy, the National Health Institute (ISS) has said.

Preliminary data from a flash-survey showed the Omicron variant accounted for 28 percent of cases on December 20.

A previous survey on December 6 found Omicron to be present in just 0.19 percent of cases.

The government was expected to decide at a cabinet meeting later on Thursday on new measures to tackle the pandemic.

Putin hopes Russia will reach COVID-19 herd immunity in 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped Russia could vaccinate enough people to reach collective COVID-19 immunity next year, as he urged more Russians to get inoculated.

Speaking at his annual news conference on Thursday, Putin also complained about the lack of international recognition for Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

“I am talking about the need for mutual recognition of vaccines and for these vaccines to be spread around the world as quickly as possible in as large a quantity as possible,” he said.

“Otherwise, we will not be able to cope with this problem globally.”

China’s Sinovac COVID-19 booster weaker against Omicron, study finds

Three doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine do not produce adequate levels of antibodies to fight the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, researchers from Hong Kong have said in a statement.

The analysis, conducted by researchers from the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, revealed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was more effective.

The statement issued on Thursday did not say how many samples were used in the analysis. It was unclear if the analysis had been peer-reviewed. Sinovac did not immediately issue a response.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have said their three-shot course was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test.

South Africa Omicron data should not be extrapolated to all countries, Africa CDC says

Data from South Africa suggesting the Omicron coronavirus variant is 70 to 80 percent less severe than Delta should be interpreted “with a lot of caution”, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has said.

“Let’s be careful not to extrapolate what we are seeing in South Africa across the continent, or across the world,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, told an online media briefing on Thursday.

A South African study published on Wednesday had found people with the Omicron variant in October and November were 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital than those diagnosed with another variant in the same period.

Nkengasong said that factors such as the young median age of the South African population could be playing a part in what was being observed in the country, and that differing vaccination rates between countries could also lead to different outcomes.

Bulgaria offers cash reward to boost vaccination rates among pensioners

Bulgaria will offer a cash reward to elderly people who get vaccinated against COVID-19, in an attempt to boost vaccination rates among the lowest in the European Union.

Bulgarian Minister Kiril Petkov, who took office this month, said on Thursday that every retired Bulgarian will get 75 levs ($43.40) in addition to their pension in the next six months when vaccinated with a first or second dose.

Pensioners who have already taken three shots will also be eligible for the add-on.

Only 27 percent of Bulgarian adults are fully vaccinated, compared with an average 68 percent in the EU.

South African health regulator approves Johnson & Johnson booster

South Africa’s health regulator has approved the use of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine for a second dose or booster, paving the way for the shot widely used in South Africa to shore up protection against the Omicron variant.

The South African Health Products Authority (SAPHRA) said in a statement on Thursday that it had approved J&J shots for use as a second dose or booster at least two months after the completion of the person’s primary vaccination, with either J&J’s single-shot course or another approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

The country already announced in December that it was preparing to offer people booster doses of both the Pfizer and J&J shots, but it did not specify when J&J boosters would be available.

German health minister expects virus surge around New Year’s

Germany is expecting a surge in coronavirus cases around New Year’s, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has said.

The country has largely been spared from the rapid wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant, unlike some other European countries.

“That will change around New Year and in the first week of January,” Lauterbach said on Thursday.

The government is urging Germans to limit their contacts over the holiday period and to get vaccinated, including with booster shots.

Official figures show 70.7 percent of the population have received a full course of vaccine, while 35 percent have had boosters.

China locks down city as COVID cases surge around the world

China has shut down a city of 13 million in a bid to extinguish a tiny COVID-19 outbreak and chase its zero-case goal, as other nations around the globe battled huge infection surges driven by Omicron.

China on Thursday locked down the northern city of Xi’an, home to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors, where Omicron has not yet been reported. Dozens of the less infectious Delta cases have been detected in the city in recent days.

The move is reminiscent of similar measures adopted in central city of Wuhan in January 2020, when the virus first emerged.

The Chinese government is attempting to maintain a zero-case strategy in advance of the Winter Olympics in February. Only one person per household is allowed leave home every two days to buy necessities, while non-essential businesses are closed.

Oxford study suggests AstraZeneca vaccine booster effective against Omicron

A three-dose course of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the Omicron coronavirus variant, the pharmaceutical company said on Thursday, citing data from an independent Oxford University lab study.

The results, yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, suggest neutralising levels against Omicron were similar to those against the virus’s Delta variant after two doses.

Antibody levels against Omicron after the booster shot were higher than antibodies in people who had been infected with and recovered naturally from COVID-19, the company added.

Read more here.

Australia reinstates COVID-19 curbs as Omicron cases jump

Australia has reintroduced COVID-19 curbs including mandated mask wearing indoors, capacity limits and QR code check-ins to cover most of the population, as daily infections hit a fresh record on Thursday.

Hospitalisations and deaths remained low, but the explosion of infections driven by the spread of the Omicron variant created a risk of healthcare workers being furloughed by testing positive, the authorities said.

“Today’s changes are modest, cautious and take a precautionary approach as we move through this holiday period to the end of January,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, who had steadfastly refused to re-introduce mandated indoor mask wearing, told reporters.

The country recorded more than 8,200 new cases, by far its biggest daily rise since the pandemic began, from a previous record of 5,600 a day earlier, mostly in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.

Australian state offers clues on Omicron variant

Hospital data from the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has offered tentative evidence the Omicron variant is milder than previous coronavirus strains.

Early admission figures suggest Omicron could be half as likely to put people in hospital as the Delta variant, according to an analysis by Andrew Lilley, an economist at Diem Association.

Lilley, a PhD candidate at Harvard University who created a “hazard rate” for admissions using official statistics on hospital stays, estimated the hospitalisation rate for COVID-19 had fallen from 6.9 percent to 3.6 percent in recent weeks as Omicron became the dominant strain in the state.

Although a growing body of evidence from South Africa, Denmark and UK shows Omicron results in milder disease, scientists are divided on whether that is due to the variant being inherently milder or because it is more often associated with breakthrough infections.

Read more here.

China expects surge in COVID cases due to Olympic Games

Organisers of the Beijing Winter Olympics said they expect a surge in COVID-19 cases in China due to foreigners arriving for the Games, and strongly urged participants to get vaccination boosters due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

“A large number of people from different countries and regions will come to China and the flow of people will increase. Consequently, a certain number of positive cases will become a high probability event,” Han Zirong, vice president and secretary-general of the Beijing organising committee, told a press briefing on Thursday.

The Games, set to run from February 4-20, will take place with all athletes and related personnel and staff in a “closed loop”.

China has all but shut its borders during the pandemic and will not allow overseas spectators.

South Korea reports deadliest day of pandemic as Omicron looms

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported on Thursday that the country has set a new record of 109 COVID-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, as officials warned that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could soon become the dominant strain.

In recent weeks, South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths after it significantly relaxed restrictions in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

Health officials said the number of patients in serious or critical conditions also hit a fresh high of 1,083, while an additional 6,919 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Delta variant is currently accounting for a vast majority of the newly reported cases in South Korea.

Philippines approves Pfizer vaccine for young children

The Philippines’s Food and Drug Administration has announced that it has granted an emergency use authorisation for use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for young children.

Chief regulator Eric Domingo made the announcement on Thursday as the country continues to ramp up its vaccination to cover children five to 11 years old.

An estimated 45 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated. The country has a population of more than 110 million.

US authorises Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill as Omicron surges

The United States has authorised Pfizer’s anti-COVID pill for high-risk people aged 12 and up, as a surge of cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron coronavirus variant threatened holiday plans and Americans struggled to find tests.

Paxlovid, which comprises two types of tablets, was granted an emergency use authorisation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a clinical trial showed it to reduce the risk of hospitalisations and deaths among at-risk people by 88 percent.

The US has spent $5.3bn procuring 10 million courses of the treatment, with the first 265,000 to be delivered in January and the rest by late August, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters.

About 150,000 Americans are getting infected every day, with 7,800 being hospitalised and 1,200 are dying, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

The highly mutated Omicron variant accounts for 90 percent of all cases in some US regions, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters.

Scotland reports fewer COVID-19 hospitalisations with Omicron

In Scotland, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus appears less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalisation than Delta, according to an analysis of early data that was posted ahead of peer review on Wednesday.

The updated statistics agree with data released earlier on Wednesday from South Africa and the UK, also in advance of peer review.

At the University of Edinburgh, researchers suggested the risk of hospitalisation was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. The national investigation tracked nearly 152,500 patients diagnosed with COVID-19, including 22,205 infected with the Omicron variant. Half of the Omicron-infected patients were under the age of 40.

The number of Omicron patients who needed to be hospitalised was 68 percent lower than what the researchers would have expected, based on the rate of patients infected with Delta.

A separate study from the Imperial College London found people infected with the variant are around 20 percent less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the Delta variant, and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalised for a night or more.

Biden welcomes approval of Pfizer oral COVID-19 pill

United States President Joe Biden has welcomed the US authorisation of Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill — the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus — calling it “promising”.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised the drug for emergency use on Wednesday.

US expert Fauci warns against large gatherings

Top United States infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has warned against attending large gatherings during the holiday season, saying that they are not considered safe even for vaccinated people and those who have received a booster dose.

“There are many of these parties that have 30, 40, 50 people in which you do not know the vaccination status of individuals. Those are the kind of functions in the context of COVID — and particularly in the context of Omicron — that you do not want to go to,” Fauci said at a White House briefing.

“So to the extent possible, we urge you to stay away from those situations that could put you at a higher risk.”

Fauci had said that small family gatherings “in the setting of the home” remain safe for vaccinated people.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies