WHO says Omicron in 38 countries, no deaths reported

WHO spokesperson says vaccine makers ‘commendable’ for planning to adjust COVID-19 jabs to protect against Omicron variant.

WHO chief scientist urged people not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant [ Steven Senne/AP]

The World Health Organisation said Omicron has been detected in 38 countries but there are no reported deaths so far from the new COVID-19 variant.

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier also said it is “commendable” that makers of COVID-19 vaccines are planning for the “likelihood” of needing to adjust their products to protect against the Omicron variant.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan urged people not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and said it was too early to say if COVID-19 vaccines would have to be modified to fight it.

Swaminathan said during an interview at the Reuters Next conference on Friday that the right response was to be prepared and cautious and not to panic in face of the new variant.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Swaminathan said.

The emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said, but added that the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the pandemic.

Key developments:

  • The new rules to tackle COVID-19 in the United States include stricter testing of inbound travellers and stepping up booster jabs.
  • Germany is planning to exclude the unvaccinated from all but essential shops and services and is considering a vaccine mandate from February.
  • A United Kingdom study has found mRNA vaccines provide the biggest booster effect.
  • Roche develops new research test kits for the Omicron variant.

This blog is now closed. These were the main developments on Friday:

Maryland governor announces first three confirmed Omicron cases

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced the first three cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus in his state.

“Two cases are from the same household, including a vaccinated individual who recently traveled to South Africa and an unvaccinated person who was a close contact of that individual,” the governor said in a statement.

“One unrelated case involves a vaccinated individual with no known recent travel history,” the governor said, adding that none of the three individuals were hospitalised.

Ireland to temporarily reopen COVID-19 unemployment payment scheme

Ireland is to temporarily restart its COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment scheme for people who lose their jobs as a result of new restrictions on the entertainment sector, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.

“I don’t think this will be a large number of people, maybe in the thousands,” who will be eligible, Varadkar told a news conference.

Russia’s COVID toll hits 578,000 after deadliest month

Russia’s COVID-19 death toll has reached at least 578,020, the third-worst in the world, according to Reuters calculations based on official statistics for October, the country’s deadliest month so far.

Russia ranks behind the US and Brazil with about 787,000 and 615,000 deaths respectively, according to Reuters calculations, having overtaken India in October.

Ireland places new limits on bars and home visits amid COVID surge

The Irish government announced strict new limits on the hospitality sector and home visits as it moved to push down COVID-19 infection rates after officials warned the new Omicron variant was likely to add to pressure on the health service.

“The risks associated with proceeding into the Christmas period without some restrictions … is just too high,” Prime Minister Micheal Martin said in a televised address.

Omicron ‘ultimate evidence’ of vaccine inequity danger

The emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is the “ultimate evidence” of the danger of unequal vaccination rates around the world, the head of the Red Cross said.

“The scientific community has warned the international community on several occasions about the risks of very new variants in places where there is a very low rate of vaccinations,” Francesco Rocca, the president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told the AFP news agency in an interview in Moscow.

About 65 percent of people in high-income countries have had at least one dose of vaccine against the coronavirus, but just over seven percent in low-income countries, UN numbers show.

Western countries have been accused of hoarding vaccines and the WHO has urged them to avoid a rush to give out booster shots when millions worldwide have yet to receive a single dose.

“This is a selfish approach coming from the Western community, this is really a blind approach,” Rocca said.

South Africa’s COVID cases top 3 million

The number of COVID-19 infections topped three million in South Africa as new daily infections driven by the Omicron variant rose steeply, official figures showed.

A leading epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim had earlier this week forecast that coronavirus cases in the continent’s worst-hit country, could see daily infections more than triple this week to more than 10,000.

On Friday 16,055 new cases were reported in a 24-hour reporting cycle, taking the cumulative laboratory-confirmed cases to 3,004,203.

Zimbabwe says identified 50 cases of Omicron

Zimbabwe has identified 50 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, Deputy Health Minister John Mangwiro said, as the government announced it would start offering booster shots to frontline workers, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.

Most of the Omicron cases were detected at a teacher training college as well as the country’s under-17 football team that was due to participate at a regional tournament, Mangwiro told reporters.

“From the outbreak that we detected from Masvingo Teachers College and the Under 17 soccer team, we took 20 samples from the college and 22 samples from the soccer team, they all tested positive for the Omicron variant,” he said, adding that the other 8 cases were found in random samples.

Omicron is in 38 countries, no deaths reported, says WHO

Omicron has been detected in 38 countries but there are no reported deaths so far from the new COVID-19 variant, the World Health Organisation said.

A WHO spokesman told reporters that the UN health agency had “not seen reports of Omicron-related deaths yet”.

And Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said Omicron had been reported in 38 countries, with the variant now spread across all six WHO regions.

The WHO has said it will take several weeks to determine how infectious Omicron is, and to assess how vaccines, tests and treatments hold up against it.

A person presenting with symptoms gets tested for COVID-19 at a drive-up testing centre in Columbus, Ohio, US, December 2, 2021 [Gaelen Morse/Reuters]

Tunisia reports first case of Omicron

Tunisia reported its first infection from the new coronavirus variant Omicron, Health Minister Ali Mrabet told local media.

The minister said the infected person was a 23-year-old man from Congo who came to Tunisia from Istanbul airport.

Omicron cases from Norway Christmas party grow to 13 people

At least 13 people in Oslo have been infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus following a corporate Christmas party in the capital, and more cases are expected to be confirmed, local authorities said.

The outbreak took place at a Christmas party on November 26 organised by renewable energy company Scatec, which has operations in South Africa where the variant was first detected.

Six Omicron cases reported in Nebraska, marking sixth US state

Six cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been found in Nebraska, the state’s health department said, marking the sixth US state with confirmed cases.

One case involved a traveller who returned from Nigeria on November 23, while the other five cases were likely exposed through household contact with that individual, the department said.

Only one of the six individuals was vaccinated and none have needed to be hospitalized, it said.

First case of Omicron variant confirmed in Mexico

The first case of the Omicron variant of coronavirus has been confirmed in Mexico, the country’s deputy health minister said.

UK officials say investigating possible increase in Omicron cases this week

Health officials in Britain said they were investigating a rise this week in the number of COVID-19 tests results that have a trait that is associated with the newly identified Omicron coronavirus variant of concern.

One of Omicron’s mutations produces S-gene target failure (SGTF) in about half the PCR tests in use in Britain, allowing it to be distinguished from Delta and providing a clue over the spread of Omicron before full genomic sequencing.

Although a useful early indicator of the spread of Omicron, SGTF is associated with other variants too, such as Alpha.

“The proportion of test results displaying SGTF has been very low in recent months but an increase has been observed in the past week,” UK Health Security Agency said.

“This is still a very small number of cases but is being investigated carefully to understand whether it is related to travel, any other variant or whether there is evidence of spread of Omicron beginning in the community.”

Britain says it will offer all adults a booster dose of vaccine within two months to bolster the nation’s immunity [File: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP]

UK records 50,584 new COVID-19 cases, 143 deaths

Britain reported 50,584 further cases of COVID-19 and 143 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to official data.

That compares with 53,945 cases and 141 deaths reported a day earlier.

Valneva says no conclusions to be drawn on its COVID shot from UK booster study

French biotech firm Valneva said that no conclusions should be drawn on the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, known as VLA2001,  from a new British study on booster shots.

The study said COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna that use mRNA technology provide the biggest boost to antibody levels when given 10-12 weeks after the second dose.

Traders cited the study as the reason behind a fall of up to 24 percent in Valneva’s shares on Friday.

“The setting in this study leads us to believe that COV-Boost does not allow any conclusions to be reached regarding the use of VLA2001 as a booster in a real-life setting,” Valneva said in an e-mailed statement in response to a Reuters query.

“Valneva believes it is likely that the short interval between the second shot and booster shot could have adversely impacted the results for VLA2001, given that a longer interval is generally required for inactivated vaccines.”

WHO says vaccine makers right to look to adjust COVID-19 jabs

It is “commendable” that makers of COVID-19 vaccines are planning for the “likelihood” of needing to adjust their products to protect against the Omicron variant, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson said.

Christian Lindmeier, speaking at a UN briefing in Geneva, said the agency was still studying the transmissibility and severity of the new variant, first reported in Southern Africa.

“It is very commendable that vaccine manufacturers already start planning ahead and plan for the likelihood for having to adjust the existing vaccine,” he said. “That’s good not just to wait until the final alarm bell rings.”

A nurse prepares vaccines in the Wizink Center currently used for COVID-19 vaccinations in Spain [File: Paul White/AP]

Belgium tightens curbs but avoids lockdown as COVID cases peak

Belgium tightened its coronavirus restrictions for the third consecutive week to fight one of Europe’s worst spikes of COVID-19 cases, but stopped short of the strict curbs imposed in the neighbouring Netherlands or Austria.

“We cannot allow the train of infection that is thundering through our country to continue at its current pace,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told a news conference.

With cases among children rising the most, De Croo said mask mandates will apply from age six. The current requirement to wear a mask is for those aged 10 years and older.

Primary schools will shut for Christmas and New Year holidays a week earlier and secondary schools will shift to a hybrid system, with half of classes from home.

By contrast, bars and restaurants in Belgium, home to EU institutions and NATO, will still be able to open until 11pm local time, six hours later than in the Netherlands.

Czechs to order COVID-19 vaccination for senior citizens, some professions

The Czech Health Ministry is preparing a decree ordering COVID-19 vaccination for people over 60 and several professions including medical workers, police officers and firefighters, news website www.idnes.cz reported.

Dutch say passengers from S. Africa have COVID-19 despite vaccination

Dutch health authorities said that a significant number of passengers on flights from South Africa over the past week have tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival despite having been vaccinated and testing negative before departure.

“It shows that the virus is spreading easily and that is worrying,” said Bert van de Velden, director of the regional health authority for Kennemerland, which includes Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

Scottish government says Omicron variant cases expected to rise significantly

The Scottish government said it expected cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant to rise significantly in upcoming days as there was now community transmission of the strain.

“The number of Omicron cases now being reported in Scotland is rising, and cases are no longer all linked to a single event, but to several different sources including a Steps concert,” said Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after the number of cases of the variant in Scotland increased to 29.

“This confirms our view that there is now community transmission of this variant within Scotland. Given the nature of transmission we would expect to see cases rise – perhaps significantly – in the days ahead.”

A practice nurse fills a syringe with a dose of AstraZeneca coronavirus disease vaccine [File: Russell Cheyne/Reuters]

US ships 9 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa

The United States sent 9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine doses to countries in Africa and another 2 million doses to other nations, the White House said.

“Today, we are shipping 9 million vaccine doses to Africa and another 2 million worldwide. We need every country to step up with the same urgency and ambition as the US,” White House Spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a post on Twitter.

At least 17 suspected Omicron cases after Oslo party

At least 17 people who caught COVID-19 after a Christmas party with more than 100 guests in Oslo last week are suspected of having the Omicron variant, officials said.

The number is likely to grow as sequencing is carried out on other positive tests from partygoers.

“So far, 60 people have tested positive [for COVID] with PCR tests, and four with antigen tests,” the city of Oslo said in a statement.

“Seventeen are probably Omicron, but that has yet to be confirmed. So far, one case is confirmed to be Omicron after sequencing.”

The Oslo cluster comes as fears rise that Omicron, which South Africa reported to the World Health Organization on November 24, could be more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines than other strains.

Swiss lift Omicron 10-day quarantine

Switzerland announced it was dropping 10-day quarantine rules for people flying in from countries where the Omicron COVID-19 variant has been detected.

The wealthy Alpine nation – one of Europe’s top skiing holiday destinations — said the rule no longer made sense now that the variant is also circulating in Switzerland.

Swiss ski resorts are heavily reliant on winter tourists from Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands – three countries which had been on the quarantine list.

“All countries are removed from the quarantine list as of Saturday,” the government said.

Everyone entering Switzerland must present a negative PCR test, except those crossing the border from neighbouring Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.

Germany’s hospitals brace for COVID-19 peak at Christmas

Germany is likely to see a sharp rise in the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients in the next three weeks, acting Health Minister Jens Spahn warned.

Speaking at a news conference in Berlin, Spahn said the recently agreed measures will show their impact only after a couple of weeks, while an upward trend in hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions still continues.

“The situation in intensive care units is likely to reach a tragic peak around Christmas,” he said, adding that many hospitals in coronavirus hotspots are already overwhelmed and have run out of ICU beds.

He urged citizens to follow hygiene and social distancing rules and avoid unnecessary contact with others to stem the spread of the virus.

People wear mandatory face masks in a shopping street in Dortmund, Germany [File: Martin Meissner/AP]

Italian anti-vaxxer tries to get COVID-19 jab in fake arm

An Italian man turned up at a vaccination centre wearing a fake silicone arm, hoping to fool a nurse into giving him a jab in order to obtain a COVID-19 health certificate, local authorities said.

The man, who is in his 50s, has been reported to police in the northern city of Biella, regional governor Alberto Cirio said, adding that the silicone on the prosthetic arm looked “very similar” to real skin.

“[However] the colour and touch raised the suspicion of the health worker, who asked him to show the whole arm,” Cirio said.

“The incident would border on the ridiculous, were it not for the fact that we are talking about an extremely serious act,” Cirio said in a post on Facebook.

Ansa news agency reported that the man, who has not been named, worked in the health sector and had been suspended from his job because he had refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The jab is mandatory for all health workers.

England’s COVID R number estimated slightly lower

The estimated range of England’s COVID-19 weekly reproduction “R” number is between 0.9 and 1.1, lower than last week, the UK Health Security Agency said.

An R number between 0.9 and 1.1 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 9 and 11 other people. Last week R was estimated between 1.0 and 1.1.

The daily growth of infections was estimated between -1 percent and +1, compared -1 percent and +2 percent the previous week.

Swiss tighten COVID-19 curbs to tackle ‘critical’ situation

Switzerland announced stronger anti-COVID-19 measures, as its government battles to contain a surge in coronavirus infections and the arrival of the Omicron variant in the country.

The country will expand the requirement to wear masks and produce a certificate to prove a person is vaccinated or has recovered from the virus, the government said.

Masks will have to be worn indoors wherever a certificate obligation applies, it said. Meanwhile, events and venues will be allowed to restrict entry only to people who are vaccinated or recovered.

It also reinforced its message for people to work from home, although it did not make home working compulsory after local authorities and business groups objected.

The measures will go into effect on Monday, December 6 and be effective until January 24.

US FDA aiming for speedy review of Omicron vaccines and drugs: WSJ

The US Food and Drug Administration is setting up guidelines to expedite reviews of COVID-19 vaccines and drugs targeting the Omicron variant, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

Companies working on Omicron-tailored vaccines would be expected to meet standards similar to those required for the authorisation of boosters, the report said.

England’s COVID-19 prevalence rises, led by Delta, not Omicron

The prevalence of COVID-19 infections in England rose to around one in 60 people in the week ending November 27, Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said, led higher by the dominant Delta variant rather than newly identified Omicron.

The prevalence was up from one in 65 reported the previous week, the ONS said.

People walk along a platform at Kings Cross Station during morning rush hour, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in London [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Football games in Bavaria without fans from Saturday

Football matches in the German state of Bavaria will be held without spectators for the time being, the Bavarian cabinet has decided amid a fourth coronavirus wave.

The decision applies from this Saturday and affects all “professional sports for supra-regional leagues,” Bavaria’s state premier Markus Soeder said at a news conference.

Russia says collective COVID-19 immunity level at 53.7 percent

Russia has said its level of collective immunity against COVID-19, which the government’s coronavirus task force measures using data on vaccinations and infections, stood at 53.7 percent as of December 3, up from 51.8 percent the previous week.

The level in Moscow stood at 72.1 percent, the task force said.

Passengers wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus ride a subway car in Moscow, Russia [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP]

BioNTech CEO says it can adapt vaccines quickly for Omicron

German company BioNTech should be able to adapt its coronavirus vaccine relatively quickly in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin has said.

Sahin also said that vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease despite mutations in the virus.

“This variant might be able to infect vaccinated people. We anticipate that infected people who have been vaccinated will still be protected against severe disease,” he said.

CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin said vaccines should provide protection against severe disease [File: Michele Tantussi/Reuters]

German health minister: enough vaccines for 30 million booster goal

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has said there are enough vaccines for the country to reach its goal of administering 30 million booster shots by Christmas.

Since a meeting of state leaders on November 18, some 10 million of the 55 million vaccinated adults in Germany have received a booster shot, he added.

People line up for vaccination injections in front of a vaccination centre for the Malteser relief service on the fair grounds in Berlin, Germany [File: Markus Schreiber/AP]

Slovakia reports record 15,278 new daily cases

Slovakia has reported 15,278 new COVID-19 cases, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic broke out, health ministry data showed.

The country of 5.5 million has 3,404 people hospitalised with the illness, including 630 in intensive care. Slovakia has one of the European Union’s lowest rates of vaccination uptake.

Omicron symptoms ‘mild’, says South African doctor

In an interview with Al Jazeera, South African doctor Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of the South African Medical Association, who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain among patients, said what doctors “are seeing at a primary healthcare level [is that] … Omicron doesn’t seem to be more deadly”.

“It seems [it is] very fast-spreading, and the symptoms that we are seeing … are mild,” she said.

“But we still need to be worried because we never know which patient will get [a] severe disease or not. That data will only be available going forward,” Coetzee said.

South Africa hit by ‘unprecedented rise’ in cases

Top scientist Michelle Groome of South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said at a briefing the country was facing an “unprecedented rise” in infections over a short time due to Omicron.

The infections were also moving from the younger age cohort into older people, she said.

It was important for surge preparedness to include paediatric beds and staff as there have been increased admissions among children under four, she said.

Beteko Ngona receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccination Centre of Hope at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in Cape Town [File: Nardus Engelbrecht/AP]

France’s COVID wave could peak in late January: Health minister

French Health Minister Olivier Veran has said the current wave of the country’s COVID-19 disease could peak in late January, with a renewed strain put on the country’s hospital system.

“The fifth wave is spreading quickly (…) It has a very noticeable impact on the hospital system,” Veran told France Info radio.

People wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus walk along a shopping mall in Paris [File: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP]

Geneva places 2,000 people in quarantine after two Omicron cases

The Swiss cantons of Geneva and Vaud have placed 2,000 people, most of them children, into quarantine after two cases of the Omicron variant were detected at an international school.

“Following two confirmed cases of the Omicron variant which attended the Chataigneraie campus of the International School of Geneva this week, the cantonal medical services of the cantons of Vaud and Geneva have jointly taken the decision to quarantine all of the students and campus staff for ten days,” Geneva health authorities said in a statement.

South Africa can manage fourth wave without stricter lockdown: Health minister

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said the country could manage the fourth COVID-19 wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant without invoking stricter lockdown restrictions.

“We can manage this fourth wave, we can manage Omicron. The basic tools we all know. We can still have a reasonably successful festive season,” he told a media briefing.

Pupils wearing masks play study at the Kgololo Academy in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township [File: Jerome Delay/AP]

Euro clubs seek FIFA talks over Omicron fears at Africa Cup of Nations

The European Club Association’s (ECA) board has said it is seeking urgent talks with FIFA over the safety of players set to compete in next month’s Africa Cup of Nations and international games early next year.

“The board agreed to engage urgently with FIFA to ensure all necessary precautions are in place to protect players … as the health situation continues to deteriorate in an alarming manner,” the ECA, which represents over 240 clubs, said in a statement.

Omicron variant creates uncertainty for Norway’s economy

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is increasing the uncertainty for the Norwegian economy, creating downside risks to the outlook, Statistics Norway (SSB) has said.

“Omicron is also a reminder that new mutations can suddenly emerge and plunge us back into a more serious situation. It is still more likely that things will get worse instead of better than what is shown in our forecasts,” SSB said.

Roche develops new research test kits for Omicron variant

Roche’s newly acquired subsidiary TIB Molbiol has developed three new test kits to help researchers detect mutations in the Omicron variant.

“We are able to offer a test that can specifically identify the novel B.1.1.529 Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant to help better understand its spread and behaviour,” Thomas Schinecker, head of Roche Diagnostics, said in a statement.

India says Omicron may be less severe due to vaccination

India’s health ministry has said the severity of the COVID-19 disease from the Omicron variant in the country could be low because of vaccination and high exposure to the Delta variant.

“Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant as evidenced by high seropositivity, the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” it said in a statement. “However, scientific evidence is still evolving.”

Read more here.

A policewoman directs a pedestrian towards a COVID-19 testing booth in Jammu, India [File: Channi Anand/AP]

South Korea widens vaccine pass requirement

South Korea has announced that people visiting restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces will have to show vaccine passes, amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and six confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

The government also reimposed limits on private gatherings, which had been recently relaxed, as the country posted record numbers of new cases this week.

People queue in line to wait for coronavirus testing at a makeshift testing site in Seoul [File: Photo/Ahn Young-joon/AP]

Sri Lanka reports first case of Omicron variant

Sri Lanka’s health authorities said they have identified the first Omicron patient in the country.

The health ministry said the new COVID-19 variant was identified in a Sri Lankan national who had recently returned from South Africa.

“As a result of our vigilance we have been able to identify an Omicron patient following gene sequencing lab tests. There is no need for us to panic over this. We are dealing with the situation,” Dr Hemantha Herath, the deputy director of health services, told reporters.

Nine confirmed cases of Omicron on mainland France

There are currently nine confirmed cases of the Omicron variant on mainland France, the French health ministry has said.

According to the government’s top scientific adviser, the new strain could become the dominant variant of the virus in the country by the end of January.

Beijing Olympic venue could bar spectators over COVID: State media

Spectators attending a major venue for the Beijing Olympics must be vaccinated but fans could be barred from the arena entirely if the coronavirus worsens in China, state media has said.

Unlike the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics, which took place last summer in mostly empty stadiums, organisers of February’s Winter Games have vowed to allow spectators, although only people living in China.

Hello, this is Elizabeth Melimopoulos taking over the live blog from my colleague Ted Regencia.

WHO urges Asia Pacific to ready for Omicron-driven surge in infections

Officials at the WHO on Friday advised the Asia-Pacific region to ramp up their health services and increase inoculation rates ahead of an expected surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron strain.

The new variant started gaining a foothold in Asia this week, with cases reported from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and India. Many governments have responded by tightening travel rules.

“So far the information available suggests we don’t have to change our approach,” Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the western Pacific, told a virtual media briefing as he told countries to prepare for Omicron’s “high transmissibility”.

Philippines reports COVID-19 case from South Africa

The Philippines has reported that one person who arrived from South Africa has tested positive for COVID-19, and the passenger’s test result is undergoing genome sequencing to determine the infection’s variant.

The positive case was detected from 254 passengers who arrived from South Africa. At least 83 of those arrivals have already been tested negative, 134 are still waiting for their results and 35 were not required to take a swab test, according to the health department.

Malaysia detects first case of Omicron variant

Malaysian Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced on Thursday that the country has detected its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Khairy said the case was detected in a foreign visitor from South Africa who arrived in Malaysia through Singapore on November 19.

He said that the eight close contacts of the visitor would undergo PCR swab tests on Friday.

South Korea makes vaccine pass mandatory for many large venues

South Korea announced on Friday that people visiting restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces will have to show vaccine passes starting December 6, amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

The government also reimposed limits on private gatherings, which had been recently relaxed, as the country posted record numbers of new cases this week.

Authorities also halted quarantine exemptions on Thursday for fully vaccinated inbound travellers and made a 10-day quarantine mandatory.

Mexican president’s rally criticised amid threat of Omicron variant

Panama blocks travellers from eight African countries due to Omicron variant

Panama has announced that it would temporarily ban the entry of travellers from eight African countries due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus strain.

The restriction applies to travellers who have been to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe or Malawi within a two-week period, Panama’s government said in a statement.

Panamanians and residents of the country who are vaccinated must present a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arriving in the country, while those who are not inoculated must place themselves in “preventative quarantine,” the government said.

California reports second Omicron case in two days

The US state of California is reporting its second confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in as many days.

The Los Angeles County public health department says a county resident is self-isolating after apparently contracting the infection during a trip to South Africa last month.

Additional cases were reported Thursday in the New York City area, Minnesota, Hawaii and Colorado bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the US to at least 10.

Epidemiologist warns of reinfection risks due to Omicron variant

Australia reports possible community transmission of Omicron mutation

Australia’s state of New South Wales (NSW) has reported its ninth Omicron case, which authorities say could be the first one acquired through community transmission.

NSW Health said the “virus may have been acquired in the community as the case has no overseas travel history or links to people with overseas travel history”.

Authorities said the case involves a student in western Sydney.

Hawaii reports first Omicron variant

The US state of Hawaii has confirmed its first case of the Omicron strain, saying it was a case of community spread and the person had no history of travel.

The person, an Oahu resident, had moderate symptoms. The person had previously been infected with COVID-19 but had not been vaccinated, the Department of Health said in a statement on Thursday.

Hawaii becomes the fifth US state to detect the variant, bringing the total number of cases in the country to nine.

New York finds five Omicron cases

New York has found five cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, according to its governor.

That makes it the fourth US state to detect the variant.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul told the media one of the cases involved a 67-year-old Long Island woman with mild symptoms of a headache and cough who had recently returned from South Africa.

The other four people were New York City residents, but the governor said further information was not yet available.

“No cause for alarm,” Hochul said. “We don’t have more information at this time but we suspect there will be more cases emerging, and the best thing everyone can do is to realise we are not defenceless against this variant at all, that vaccines, we know, are going to ensure there is less severe symptoms.”

mRNA vaccines provide biggest booster effect

A UK study has found the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna provide the biggest boost to antibody levels when given 10-12 weeks after the second dose.

The “COV-Boost” study found that six out of the seven boosters examined enhanced immunity after initial vaccination with Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, while all seven increased immunity when given after two doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

“A third dose will be effective for many of the vaccines we’ve tested and in many different combinations,” Professor Saul Faust, an immunologist at the University of Southampton and the trial’s lead scientist, told reporters.

The study found that a full dose or half dose of Pfizer or a full dose of Moderna gave a very effective boost to antibody and T-cell levels, regardless of whether the person initially received Pfizer or AstraZeneca.

(Al Jazeera)

Click here for all the updates from Thursday, December 2.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies