WHO says not yet clear if Omicron causes more severe disease

Members of UN health agency reach draft consensus on future pandemic treaty as UK says it will call urgent G7 meeting over variant.

Travellers read a flight information notice board at Cape Town International Airport as restrictions on international flights take effect [EPA]

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on countries to “urgently” reverse “scientifically unjustified” travel bans linked to the discovery of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron.

“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” he said on Sunday in his first address to the nation following last week’s detection of the new variant.

Dozens of countries have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbours since South African scientists flagged Omicron last week.

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science,” Ramaphosa said.

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” he added.

Omicron cases have already been registered in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the United Kingdom and Australia.

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

Portugal’s football league to investigate COVID-hit match

Portugal’s football league has said it will start a disciplinary process to investigate if this weekend’s match between Benfica and Belenenses SAD – a team hit by a COVID-19 outbreak – complied with health rules.

Saturday’s game was abandoned minutes into the second half amid extraordinary scenes after Belenenses, which reported a total of 17 COVID-19 cases among players and staff, were forced to name a team of nine players – including two goalkeepers – as all others were isolating.

Rwanda halts flights to and from southern Africa

Rwanda has suspended direct flights to and from southern Africa due to the new variant, the prime minister’s office has said.

Edouard Ngirente’s office also said in a statement that it would now be compulsory to be fully vaccinated and tested to attend events such as conferences and concerts.

Dr Katelyn Jetelina: ‘Good science takes time’

Dr Jetelina from the University of Texas Health Science Center says patience will be key in the following weeks.

“I understand the worry, but good science takes time,” Dr Jetelina told Al Jazeera.

“We have to engineer this virus. We have to let it grow in the lab in order to test it against how well our vaccines are going.

“We can’t rush that process … so patience is going to be a virtue these … weeks,” she added.

The UK to call G7 health ministers meeting over Omicron

The UK has said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers to discuss developments on the new variant.

The British government announced new measures on Saturday to try to slow the spread of the strain, toughening rules for people arriving in the UK and ordering the use of masks in retail settings and on public transport in England.

WHO reaches draft consensus on future pandemic treaty

Member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) have reached a tentative consensus to negotiate a future agreement on preventing pandemics, bridging the gap between sides led by the European Union and United States, diplomats have said.

The draft resolution, hammered out in negotiations over the weekend, will be presented for adoption to health ministers at the WHO’s three-day special assembly that opens on Monday, they said.

The diplomatic breakthrough came amid growing international concern over the Omicron variant.

South Africa to enter fourth COVID-19 wave

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that his country should expect a fourth wave of coronavirus infections in the wake of the discovery of the Omicron variant.

But he said authorities would not be considering economic lockdown restrictions for the time being. Ramaphosa also called on countries to “urgently” reverse travel bans.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses a press conference [File: Reuters]

WHO says it is not yet clear if Omicron causes more severe disease

The WHO has said that it is not yet clear if the new variant is more transmissible compared with other SARS-CoV-2 variants or whether it causes more severe disease.

“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron,” it said.

Keep borders open as we tackle new variant: WHO

The head of the WHO in Africa has urged countries to follow the science rather than imposing flight bans in a bid to contain the new Omicron variant.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.

Egypt authorises Pfizer’s vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds

Egypt has authorised Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12-15, the cabinet said in a statement.

The step effectively lowers the minimum age of eligibility to receive the two-shot vaccine in Egypt, which was 15 years old previously.

US prepares for travel bans

US health officials have said they are preparing for the likely appearance of the Omicron variant, with restrictions set to begin on Monday against travellers from eight southern African countries.

“Inevitably, it will be here,” although no cases have been detected yet, the nation’s top infectious disease official, Dr Anthony Fauci, told ABC News programme This Week.

OPEC postpones technical meetings to evaluate Omicron impact: Report

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is moving two technical meetings to later this week in order to give committees more time to evaluate the effect of the Omicron variant, Bloomberg News has reported, citing delegates from some member countries.

The joint ministerial monitoring committee, which comprises representatives of the broader oil producing OPEC+ group, will meet on Thursday, the report said.

The UK records 37,681 COVID-19 cases, 51 deaths

The UK has reported 37,681 more COVID-19 cases and a further 51 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to official data.

On Saturday, the country recorded 39,567 new infections and 131 deaths.

Ghana to make vaccine mandatory for targeted groups from January

Ghana will ramp up its COVID-19 inoculation campaign next month and make the vaccine mandatory for targeted groups including all public sector and health workers from January 22, health service director general Patrick Kuma-Aboagye has said.

Ghana, like most African nations, has seen a sluggish uptake in COVID-19 vaccinations despite an increase in supplies. Only 1.4 million people of Ghana’s population of 30 million are fully vaccinated.

Swiss vote to approve COVID restrictions

Swiss voters have backed the government’s pandemic response plan in a referendum by a clear majority, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of cases.

The government’s tally showed a majority of 62.01 percent of voters supporting the law passed earlier this year to provide financial aid to people hit by the COVID-19 crisis and allowing for COVID certificates, which provide proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test and which are currently required to enter restaurants and certain events.

UK records third case of Omicron

The UK has recorded the third case of the Omicron variant, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said, adding that the individual, who was no longer in the UK, was linked to travel to southern Africa.

UKHSA said that while in the UK, the individual was in Westminster in central London.

Djokovic ‘probably won’t’ play Australian Open

Novak Djokovic “probably won’t” play the Australian Open in January over mandatory COVID vaccination rules, the world number one player’s father has said, likening the restrictions to “blackmail”.

The 34-year-old Djokovic, who would be bidding for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title in Melbourne, has refused to say whether or not he has been vaccinated against coronavirus.

But Australian Open tournament chief Craig Tiley has said that all players must be inoculated to take part.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic reacts during his match against Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff [File: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]

Philippines tightens border controls

The Philippines has further tightened border controls to keep out the Omicron variant, adding seven European countries to a travel ban that initially covered seven African nations.

The country’s coronavirus task force placed Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy under its “red list” until December 15, banning the entry of travellers from these countries.

Thousands protest against Czech COVID measures

Several thousand people have protested in Prague against anti-coronavirus restrictions as many Czech hospitals halted non-urgent procedures in the face of one of the world’s fastest rates of new infections.

Gathered in a park overlooking the Czech capital’s centre, protesters waved national flags and carried signs with slogans such as: “Get vaccinated? Over your dead bodies.”

Morocco bans all inbound flights for two weeks

Morocco will ban all inbound international passenger flights for two weeks starting from November 29 due to concerns over the Omicron variant, the Moroccan government has said in a statement.

US should be prepared to do ‘anything’: Fauci

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, has said that Americans should be prepared to do “anything and everything” to fight the spread of the variant Omicron.

It is “too early to say” whether we need new lockdowns or mandates, Fauci told ABC News.

“You want to be prepared to do anything and everything,” he said.

COVID booster advice should come imminently: UK minister

The UK’s health minister, Sajid Javid, has said he expects to receive advice imminently on whether the government can broaden a booster shot programme to try to weaken the impact of the Omicron variant.

The government announced new measures to try to slow the spread of the variant.

But ministers also want to ramp up the offer of booster jabs, saying even if vaccines prove to be less effective against Omicron, they should offer better protection against it and reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths.

Rugby: Ireland’s Munster to remain in Cape Town after positive COVID test

Irish rugby team Munster are to remain in Cape Town after one of the travelling party tested positive for COVID-19, the club has said.

Munster are one of several European rugby union teams that were in South Africa when authorities raised the alarm about the new variant.

Germany confirms third case of Omicron

Health officials in the German state of Hesse have confirmed a case of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of cases in Germany to three.

The Hesse case was confirmed by sequencing, the state’s social affairs minister Kai Klose tweeted.

Indonesia bans arrivals from eight African countries

Indonesia will ban the entry of travellers who have been in eight African countries and extend quarantine times for all arrivals to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, officials have said.

The ban extends to people who have been in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini or Nigeria in the past 14 days.

Delegates attending G20 meetings, which Indonesia chairs, will not be affected.

Hello, this is Elizabeth Melimopoulos taking over the live blog from my colleague Tamila Varshalomidze. 

Denmark registers Omicron variant in two travellers

Denmark has registered two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in travellers from South Africa, according to the country’s infectious disease authority.

“This was to be expected, and our strategy is therefore to continue intensive monitoring of the infection in the country,” Henrik Ullum, CEO of the Statens Serum Institute, said in a statement.

The two people, who travelled to Denmark by plane, have been put in isolation and authorities are tracing any close contacts.

‘Absolute chaos’ in South Africa as flights grounded

Disbelief and confusion washed over South Africa as the announcement of the discovery of the Omicron COVID-19 variant grounded flights and raised fears of a hard lockdown in Africa’s most developed economy.

Flights from the country to the United States, United Kingdom and nations in Europe were swiftly banned after South African scientists officially announced the discovery of the virus strain on Thursday.

Read more here.

Shoppers wearing face masks on a crowded footpath in Pretoria, South Africa [Denis Farrell/AP]

Dutch authorities find 13 cases of Omicron variant

Dutch health authorities have said that 13 cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant have been found in the Netherlands among passengers who were on flights from South Africa earlier this week.

The National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) confirmed the cases in a statement.

Travellers arrive in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands [Eva Plevier/Reuters]

UK to enforce new COVID rules from Tuesday

Britain’s government has defended the pace and scale of its response to the new Omicron strain of COVID-19 against criticism that it was again falling behind the curve.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said mandatory mask-wearing will return to shops and public transport in England on Tuesday, and told families to plan for Christmas “as normal”, despite new rules to tackle the Omicron variant.

Also from Tuesday, all passengers arriving in Britain are being instructed to take a PCR test for COVID-19 and self-isolate until they register negative.

Dozens on South Africa flights test positive for COVID in Netherlands

Dutch health authorities say they have detected 61 COVID-19 cases among people who flew in from South Africa.

In a statement on Saturday, the Dutch Health Authority (GDD) said that the cases were discovered among 624 passengers who arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on two flights on Friday.

Read more here.

Israel tightens travel restrictions over new COVID variant

Israel says it will ban the entry of all foreigners into the country, making it the first nation to shut its borders completely in response to a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days.

Read more here.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man exits Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Swiss voters look set to back COVID-19 response plan

Swiss voters looked likely to back the government’s pandemic response plan in a referendum, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.

Early government tallies of Sunday’s polls showed a little more than 60 percent of the votes so far supporting the law passed this year to provide financial aid to people hit by the COVID-19 crisis and to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination, recovery or a negative test to enter bars, restaurants and certain events.

Restrictions to public life to curb coronavirus infections have sparked opposition in Switzerland, triggering a binding referendum under the country’s system of direct democracy, even as cases have risen to levels the government this week deemed “critical”.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan ban flights from African countries

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have suspended flights with a number of African countries due to Omicron.

Saudi state news agency SPA, citing a source with the interior ministry, said direct flights with Angola, Comoros, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles and Zambia had been suspended.

On Friday, the kingdom banned flights from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe amid Omicron fears.

Bahrain also banned passengers from Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, according to the state news agency, BNA. Bahraini nationals and holders of valid visas to Bahrain, however, were allowed to enter.

Health authorities in Sudan also banned flights from Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe over the variant.

Omicron variant likely in France: Health minister

Omicron is probably already circulating in France, its health minister said, adding that the government was tightening restrictions to contain it.

“Once the variant is circulating in England, in Italy, in Belgium, it is probable that there are already cases in circulation here. We will identify them and (…) we will slow down its spread as much as possible,” Olivier Veran told reporters at a vaccination centre in Paris.

France is in the midst of a fifth wave of the virus. It recorded more than 37,000 positive cases on Saturday and a sharp rise in the number of patients in intensive care.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies