Omicron has become the dominant coronavirus variant in France, which joins other European countries like the United Kingdom and Portugal with surging case numbers over the past few days.
In the United States, health experts have urged Americans to prepare for severe disruptions in the first weeks of 2022, as the rising wave of COVID-19 cases led by Omicron threatened hospitals, schools and other sectors affecting their daily lives.
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Here is what happened on Friday, December 31:
Serbians, tourists prepare for New Year’s concert
Tens of thousands of visitors from around Eastern Europe and further afield are expected to attend a large music event and fireworks show in downtown Belgrade.
“We love large public celebrations. We came here from Vienna specifically because here [it feels as if] there is no COVID-19,” one woman said.
Many Belgrade residents appeared to share her sentiment and voiced happiness that their city was the only Balkan capital holding a big celebration to ring in the New Year.
“Why would I be afraid?” one person asked. “We must live our lives.”
Philippines limits mobility, business in capital area
The Philippines will impose tighter curbs in the capital region for the next two weeks, the acting presidential spokesperson has said, to try to limit infections by the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The health ministry recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections, a two-month high, and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 percent.
“In the coming days, we might see an increase in active cases,” acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a televised announcement.
UK approves Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill
The UK has approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill for adults who have mild to moderate infection and are at high risk of their illness worsening, its second easily administered antiviral.
Based on data, the pill, Paxlovid, is most effective when taken during the early stages of COVID-19, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said, recommending it be used within five days of the first symptoms.
Sinovac COVID shot with Pfizer booster less effective against Omicron: study
Sinovac’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine followed by a booster Pfizer-BioNTech shot showed a lower immune response against the Omicron variant compared with other strains, according to a study by researchers.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, was conducted by researchers from Yale University, the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Health and other institutions.
The Sinovac two-dose regimen along with the Pfizer shot produced an antibody response similar to a two-dose mRNA vaccine, according to the study. Antibody levels against Omicron were 6.3-fold lower when compared with the ancestral variant and 2.7-fold lower when compared with Delta.
Akiko Iwasaki, one of the authors of the study, said that CoronaVac recipients may need two additional booster doses to achieve protective levels needed against Omicron.
In terms of public health, CoronaVac 2x is insufficient to neutralize Omicron. Even with CoronaVac 2x plus Pfizer booster, NAb is only 1.4x higher than 2x mRNA alone. Thus, CoronaVac recipients may need 2 additional booster doses to reach levels needed against Omicron. (10/) pic.twitter.com/fkTy9aL6eh
— Prof. Akiko Iwasaki (@VirusesImmunity) December 30, 2021
Morocco’s tough COVID restrictions hammer tourism sector
Businesses working in Morocco’s key tourism sector say the country’s tough COVID-19 restrictions, including a full flight ban, are undermining its competitiveness compared with rival destinations.
“These restrictions are unjustified and they have made Morocco lose tourists to Mediterranean competitors such as Egypt and Turkey,” said Lahcen Zelmat, head of Morocco’s hotel federation.
Tourism generated $8bn, or seven percent of Morocco’s economy, in 2019, but the central bank expects it to have made only $3.6bn this year.
Spain’s coronavirus daily incidence rate passes 1,000 for first time
Despite a vaccination rate of around 80 per cent, Spain will end 2021 with one of the highest incidences of coronavirus in Europe.
The number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants within 24 hours climbed to 1,086, the health ministry announced, the first time the 1,000 mark was exceeded.
Meanwhile, authorities claim that the situation in the hospitals is still largely under control, also thanks to the high vaccination rate, as the vaccine in most cases ensures infection without symptoms or a milder course of the disease.
Philippines on alert as COVID-19 infections hit two-month high
Philippine officials have warned against a rise in COVID-19 cases over the new year period as infections in the Southeast Asian country hit a two-month high.
The health ministry recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections on Friday and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 percent, double the five percent recommended by the World Health Organization.
The Philippines has so far detected four Omicron cases, all of which were in quarantine, although the country’s genome sequencing capacity is limited.
“It is prudent to assume that Omicron is already in circulation, or is already in the community,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque told a separate news conference.
Israel begins administering 4th vaccine dose
Israel has begun delivering a fourth vaccine dose for people most vulnerable to coronavirus, becoming one of the first countries to do so as it prepares for a wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant.
The rollout of the fourth dose began at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center on Friday morning and was administered to heart and lung transplant patients.
Hong Kong says Omicron has spread despite COVID restrictions
Hong Kong’s health officials said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has made its way past some of the world’s toughest COVID 19 restrictions, with the city reporting its first cases outside its strict quarantine system.
Hong Kong’s last COVID-19 case tracked outside its quarantine facilities and hotels was discovered in October. Previous infections with the Omicron variant were discovered during quarantines of people returning to Hong Kong.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan told reporters one of four aircrew members who tested positive after their return to Hong Kong had breached home quarantine rules by going to a restaurant, where he passed the virus to his father and a client sitting at another table.
“Omicron is raging around the world … and it has now found its way into the community,” Chan said.
Omicron is now the main coronavirus variant in France: official
Omicron has become the main coronavirus strain in France where the number of infections has seen a big increase in the last few days, the country’s public health agency has said.
“62.4 percent of tests showed a profile compatible with the Omicron variant” at the start of this week, compared to 15 percent the previous week, the agency said.
The strain has contributed to the current flare-up in cases, which topped 200,000 in the 24 hours from Wednesday to Thursday.
India’s Serum Institute applies for full approval of Covishield vaccine
The Serum Institute Of India has applied to the country’s drug regulator and the health ministry for full approval of its COVID-19 vaccine Covishield, the company’s chief executive said on Friday.
The institute, which produces AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine under the brand name Covishield, has supplied more than 1.25 billion doses of the shot in India.
Supplies of the COVISHIELD vaccine in India, have exceeded 1.25 billion doses. The government of India now has enough data for full market authorisation, and therefore @SerumInstIndia has applied to the @CDSCO_INDIA_INF (DCGI) and @MoHFW_INDIA for this permission.
— Adar Poonawalla (@adarpoonawalla) December 31, 2021
South Africa lifts curfew as it says fourth wave peaks
South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4am curfew on people’s movement with immediate effect, believing the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant, a government statement said.
The country made the changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, minister in the presidency. South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels.
‘People miss travel’: IATA bullish on Asia travel rebound in 2022
Asia will reopen to travel as more is learned about the Omicron variant, with the recent tightening of borders only a “temporary speed bump” on the road to recovery, according to a top airline industry representative.
In an exclusive interview, Philip Goh, regional head of the International Air Transport Association, told Al Jazeera he was optimistic about the resumption of travel in Asia in 2022 despite the region’s doubling down on travel restrictions in response to the variant.
“People miss travel and they want to travel. You cannot substitute a hug, a handshake with a virtual zoom call,” Goh said. “Nor can videos capture and invigorate the senses stimulated by the sights, sounds and scents of the places we travel to.”
Read more here.
Chinese cities on COVID alert as New Year holiday looms
China is on high alert against COVID-19 as the New Year holiday looms, with the city of Xi’an under lockdown while several New Year’s Eve events in other cities have been cancelled and some provinces urged restraint in travel during the festive season.
China reported 166 locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms for Thursday, according to the National Health Commission, with 161 from Xi’an, which is fighting the worst outbreak for a Chinese city this year.
The number of domestically transmitted infections in Xi’an have exceeded 1,200 during the December 9-30 period.
Sydney gears up for New Year’s Eve celebrations despite record Omicron surge
Sydney, the Australian city worst affected by the Omicron wave, will press ahead with New Year’s Eve celebrations on Friday, with authorities encouraging revellers to come out and enjoy the festivities despite a record number of COVID-19 cases.
Thousands are expected to flock to prime harbourside spots to watch Sydney’s famous fireworks, the traditional 12-minute pyrotechnic display to ring in the new year, with queues forming at many vantage points since early morning.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wished people to “enjoy the evening”, while New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet urged everyone to “head out and enjoy New Year’s” as daily infections in the state nearly doubled to a record 21,151 on Friday.
Paediatric hospitalisations in US up under Omicron, but it’s not more severe
New paediatric COVID-19 hospitalisations have hit a record high in the US, as children are increasingly swept up in Omicron’s lightning spread.
While experts are concerned, and stress the need to step up vaccination among kids, early indications suggest that the new variant’s rate of severe disease could be lower, and its extreme contagiousness is behind the rapid rise.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 199,000 children were reported infected with COVID-19 in the week ending December 23, the last week for which data is currently available, and a 50 percent rise on figures earlier in the month.
Health expert warns of increasing COVID paediatric hospitalisation in New York
📍1 YEAR HIGH—Pediatric #COVID19 hospitalizations in New York are now at 1 year high. NY #Omicron ⬆️ was earliest— expecting many states will follow the same trajectory—behind by ~3 weeks. Parents need to send kids to school 🏫 with premium KN95/KF94 masks & vax!
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) December 30, 2021
Canada’s Quebec announces curfew
Canada’s second-most populous province has announced a nighttime curfew will be implemented as coronavirus infections continue to surge.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the 10pm-5am EST curfew would begin on New Year’s Eve on Friday.
In addition, restaurants will no longer be allowed to offer in-person dining, most private gatherings will be banned and all indoor sports activities will be suspended, among other measures.
“Our experts tell us that there’s a risk that we won’t be able to treat all those who need it in the coming weeks. I know we’re all tired, but it’s my responsibility to protect [us] from this,” Legault told reporters during a news conference.
New York’s Times Square show will go on, mayor says
New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square as planned despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the city, the state and around the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday.
“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is on Friday, said on NBC’s Today show.
After banning revellers from Times Square a year ago due to the pandemic, city officials previously announced plans for a scaled-back New Year’s bash with smaller crowds and vaccinations required.
Premier League postpones 17th game this season
The Premier League has postponed an upcoming match between Leicester City and Norwich City – the 17th game of the season to be called off because of COVID-19.
The league said on Thursday that it accepted a request from the visiting team, Norwich, to postpone the match because the club did not have enough available players due to COVID-19 cases and injuries.
The game was set for January 1; the Premier League did not announce a new date for the fixture.
“The League is aware that the recent decisions to postpone matches will disappoint supporters, and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games,” the league said in a statement.
Following a request from Norwich, the Premier League Board met today and regrettably agreed to postpone the club’s away fixture against Leicester, due to be played at 3pm on 1 January
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 30, 2021