Omicron travel bans harming global cooperation, WHO warns

UN warns travel bans are hindering the sharing of samples from South Africa that could shed light on the new variant.

Men wearing protective suits make their way at a bus stop at Narita international airport on the first day of closed borders to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan, November 30, 2021 [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

The World Health Organization has said travel bans are having an impact on global cooperation against the Omicron coronavirus variant by delaying the sharing of laboratory samples from South Africa that could help research into the new strain.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said that South African researchers have been keen to share information, data, and samples, but that travel bans “have caused some challenges for those samples to actually be shipped out of the country”.

Scientists have been scrambling to learn more about the effects of the Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa last week. It has now been reported in at least 24 countries.

While remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged, nations have rushed to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from Southern Africa, despite the WHO’s call for “rational” measures in response to the new strain.

The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States has been detected in a person in California, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.

This blog is now closed. Here were the main updates from Wednesday:

Portuguese league orders players to get tested before every match

Portugal’s football league said that all professional players must get tested for COVID-19 beforeevery match after a game had to be abandoned last week due to an outbreak.

The league said in a statement that it had informed clubs that all players must take an antigen test 48 hours before a match and said masks must be used on the bench.

Lisbon club Belenenses SAD started with only nine players in their Primeira Liga match against Benfica on Saturday, with the rest of the squad isolating at home after a number of players and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Brazil reports third Omicron case

Health officials confirmed Brazil’s third known case of the Omicron coronavirus variant as the government examined possible new measures to contain the virus.

A passenger from Ethiopia tested positive for COVID-19 upon landing in Sao Paulo on November 27, the state’s health secretariat said in a statement.

The 29-year-old man is vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer shot and is in good health, officials said.

Brazil has reported over 22 million deaths and more than 615,000 death since the pandemic began [File: Pilar Olivares/Reuters]

Lebanon declares nighttime curfew for the unvaccinated

Lebanon will impose a nighttime curfew starting on December 17 for non-vaccinated people for three weeks and will make full vaccination mandatory for all workers in several sectors due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, the COVID-19 committee said on Wednesday.

Vaccination will be mandatory for all civil servants and workers in the health, education, tourism and public transport sectors as of January 10, the committee said.

Lebanon has not recorded any infections with Omicron, but the small country enduring a severe financial crisis is concerned its healthcare system will not be able to handle a new peak of infections.

Lebanon’s Health Minister Firass Abiad said the COVID committee wanted to avoid imposing a full lockdown.

UAE announces its first case of the new COVID-19 variant: Local media

The United Arab Emirates has announced its first case of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron. The state news agency WAM reported that the infected person was an African woman arriving from an African country through an Arab country.

UAE is the second Gulf country to detect an Omicron case after Saudi Arabia announced its first case earlier on Wednesday.

South Africa reports surge in COVID cases

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 8,561 new cases were reported nationwide across 24 hours, up from almost 4,400 on Tuesday and 2,300 on Monday.

There had been an “exponential increase” over the past two weeks, from a weekly average of around 300 new cases per day to 1,000 last week and most recently 3,500, said Michelle Groome of NCID noted.

A healthcare worker collects a swab from a passenger for a PCR test at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 28, 2021 [Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]

First confirmed Omicron case detected in US

Health officials in California have detected the first confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the United States. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the case involved a traveller who returned from South Africa on November 22.

“The individual, who was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving, is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive. All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative,” the CDC said.

Read more here.

Travel bans over Omicron ‘unfair,’ ‘ineffective’: Guterres

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said travel restrictions imposed over COVID-19 that isolate any one country or region as “not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective”.

“With a virus that is truly borderless, travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective,” Guterres said at a news conference, calling instead for increased testing for travellers.

Guterres said countries that had reported the emergence of the new strain should not “be collectively punished for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.”

Passengers from Doha or Dubai must take mandatory COVID test: Denmark

All airline passengers entering Denmark from Doha or Dubai must take a mandatory COVID-19 test, a move aimed at delaying the spread of the new Omicron variant, Danish health minister Magnus Heunicke said.

“People who land from Dubai and Doha must have a test before they leave the airport,” Heunicke told a news briefing.

UK records more than 48,000 new COVID cases

The United Kingdom reported 48,374 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and 171 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, official data showed.

The total number of deaths has now reached 145,140 while there have been 10.2 million positive cases, the figures showed.

People walk through the City of London financial district, amid the COVID outbreak in London, UK, December 1, 2021 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Italy reports 103 coronavirus deaths

Italy reported 103 coronavirus-related deaths against 89 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 15,085 from 12,764.

The count marks the first time Italy reported more than 100 daily coronavirus deaths since June 8.

Travel bans having an impact on global cooperation against new variant: WHO

The World Health Organization says travel bans by countries are having an impact on global cooperation against the new Omicron variant by causing “challenges” to the sharing of laboratory samples from South Africa that can help get better grips on the new variant.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for “tailored” intervention by countries, including testing travellers before and after they arrive in a country, and advised against “blanket travel bans” that “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

Omicron present in five out of nine South Africa provinces: Institute

The Omicron variant has been detected in five out of nine South African provinces and accounted for 74 percent of the virus genomes sequenced in November, data from the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed.

Passengers walk from a COVID -19 testing tent at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo’s airport [Jerome Delay/AP Photo]

WHO expects to have more information on Omicron transmission ‘within days’

The UN agency WHO expects to have more information on the transmissibility of the Omicron strain within days, its technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said in a briefing.

That was faster than the “weeks” the WHO had predicted last week that it would take to assess the data available on the variant after designating it a “variant of concern”, its highest rating.

She said one possible scenario was that the new variant, which was first reported in southern Africa, may be more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant. She said it was not yet known if Omicron makes people more ill.

WHO warns of ‘toxic mix’ of low vaccine coverage and testing

The World Health Organization warned a “toxic mix” of low testing rates and vaccination coverage was creating fertile breeding ground for new coronavirus variants.

The WHO said measures to stop the globally dominant Delta variant would also hinder Omicron, first discovered in November in southern Africa and which has since rattled countries around the world.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on countries to optimise their public health and social measures to control the spread of COVID-19.

EU chief calls for ‘discussion’ on mandatory COVID jabs

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU should hold discussions on mandatory vaccinations against COVID-19.

Even though it is up to individual member states to decide whether to make vaccines mandatory, von der Leyen called for a common approach and a discussion at the EU level.

“I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now, how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union, this needs discussion,” she said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen [File: Yves Herman/Pool/Reuters]

South Korea reports first five cases of Omicron

South Korea confirmed its first five cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in people linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten the country’s borders.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said the cases include a couple who arrived from Nigeria on November 24 and a friend who drove them home from the airport.

The two other cases were women who also travelled to Nigeria and returned to South Korea on November 23.

German ICUs expect COVID surge to hit hospitals at Christmas: Health association

Germany is likely to reach a peak of its fourth wave of COVID-19 infections by mid-December and this could mean 6,000 intensive care beds occupied by Christmas, the country’s association for intensive care medicine (DIVI) said.

Andreas Schuppert, a forecaster for the DIVI association, told a news conference he was “moderately optimistic” the peak in new cases would come in the next two weeks, but warned this would take time to have its full impact on hospitals.

“It is an ominous situation,” DIVI president Gernot Marx told reporters. “We would be well advised to react immediately. We must get ahead of the situation.”

Germany has recorded more than 5.9 million cases since the start of the pandemic [File: Thomas Kienzle/AFP]

Hello. This is Usaid Siddiqui taking over from my colleague Farah Najar in Doha, Qatar.

France to lift ban on Southern Africa flights from Saturday

France has said it will start allowing flights from Southern Africa to land on its territory from Saturday, but with “drastic” restrictions allowing only French and European Union residents to disembark, along with diplomats and flight crews.

These travellers must undergo a COVID test upon arrival, with a negative result still requiring a seven-day quarantine, while a positive test will require a 10-day quarantine, said government spokesman Gabriel Attal after a weekly cabinet meeting.

Vietnam to suspend flights to, from seven African countries

Vietnam will suspend flights to and from seven African countries over concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant, state media reported.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam has approved the suspension, the Lao Dong newspaper reported, without saying when the move will come into effect.

All travellers from outside EU need negative COVID test: France

Travellers reaching France from outside the EU will be subject to the obligation of a negative COVID-19 test, regardless of their vaccination status, French government spokesman Gabrial Attal has said.

Talking to journalists after a government meeting, Attal said decisions regarding intra-EU travel would be coordinated by European leaders later this week.

Portugal will tighten COVID curbs around Christmas if needed: PM

Portugal’s government will not hesitate to impose restrictions during the Christmas festival if they are needed to control a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Antonio Costa has said.

Despite having one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, a recent uptick in infections and the emergence of the Omicron variant has prompted the government to reimpose some restrictions since Wednesday.

When asked if the government might take further restrictive measures during Christmas, Costa said, “We all wish that these measures are not necessary, but if they become necessary, we will take these measures.

“We must always be vigilant to take new measures, if necessary. That’s how we’ve been living for the past two years and we’ve managed to prevail, although it’s been hard for everyone,” Costa told reporters.

Ghana records first cases of Omicron variant

Ghana’s health ministry has detected the country’s first cases of the Omicron variant in passengers who arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra following sequencing that was carried out on November 21, the director general of the Ghana Health Service said.

EU pushes for daily travel reviews, mass booster shots

The EU needs daily reviews of its travel restrictions and rapid deployment of vaccine booster doses to limit entry and protect its citizens from the Omicron variant, the European Commission has said.

Europe is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases and a growing number of infections by the Omicron variant.

“We are now facing a double challenge in the fight against COVID-19,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet. “The rapid resurgence of Delta across Europe and a new variant of concern: Omicron.”

Norway detects its first two Omicron cases, municipality says

Norway has identified its first two cases of the Omicron variant, the west coast municipality of Oeygarden said.

The two infected people had been on a trip to South Africa. Both of them are currently recovering from the infection, Mayor Tom Georg Indrevik said in a statement.

Norway on Friday decided to impose a quarantine on any travellers arriving from South Africa or neighbouring countries, following a similar decision by Denmark.

Uzbekistan restricts travel over Omicron concerns

Uzbekistan has said it would suspend flights to and from Hong Kong, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Tanzania and South Africa from December 3 to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Central Asian nation’s health ministry said residents of those nations and people who have recently visited them would be unable to enter Uzbekistan, while those arriving from Egypt, Israel, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic would be quarantined for 10 days.

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

World Health Organization member states agreed to start work on building a new international accord setting out how to handle the next global pandemic.

Countries adopted a resolution at a special meeting in Geneva, launching the process that should result in a new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response coming into force in 2024.

“The text before us is the product of extensive discussions, of frank exchanges and of compromises,” said Australia’s ambassador Sally Mansfield, who co-chaired the working group. “Let us move forward together in solidarity to do the hard work that we have ahead of us.”

Saudi Arabia confirms first case of Omicron variant

Saudi Arabia has detected its first case of the new Omicron variant, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) has reported.

Quoting a source from the health ministry, SPA said the infected individual has been isolated along with those who were in close contact with them.

It is the first Omicron variant case reported in the Gulf region. The health ministry said the person was a Saudi national who had travelled from a North African country, without giving further details.

The Saudi ministry urged people to complete their vaccination and ordered travellers to respect self-isolation and testing rules.

A man displays his details on his mobile phone using the Tawakkalna app, which was launched by Saudi authorities to track people infected with the coronavirus, as he enters the Al-Othaim market in Riyadh [File: Ahmed Yosri/Reuters]

Danish concert-goer confirmed infected with Omicron variant

A person infected with the Omicron variant participated in a large concert on Saturday, the Danish Patient Safety Authority has said.

The person was one of 1,600 people attending a concert with Danish DJ Martin Jensen in the northern city of Aalborg on Saturday.

Denmark has already confirmed four cases of the new Omicron variant, all of whom had travelled to South Africa.

A spokesperson for the Danish Patient Safety Authority could not verify if the infected concert-goer had been travelling.

EU launch of COVID shot for younger children advanced to Dec 13

The EU-wide rollout of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine version for five- to 11-year-old children will begin on December 13, one week earlier than previously planned, Germany’s health ministry has said.

Germany is due to receive 2.4 million doses for use as a two-dose regimen, the ministry said, adding it has a commitment on the new date from the manufacturer.

“Given the current pandemic situation, this is good news for parents and children. Many are awaiting this eagerly,” acting Health Minister Jens Spahn said in the statement.

First two cases of Omicron variant detected in Brazil

The first two cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Brazil, which could also be the first cases in Latin America.

Samples from two Brazilians who tested positive for the variant through the renowned Albert Einstein Hospital would be sent for confirmatory laboratory analysis, a statement from Brazil’s health surveillance agency Anvisa said.

According to the news portal G1, the cases involve Brazilian missionaries living in South Africa.

UK urges people to book booster shots as Omicron cases grow

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid has urged people to book a COVID-19 booster shot as he said there were 22 confirmed cases of the Omicron virus variant in the country.

Javid said the government believed a booster campaign would help protect against severe disease from Omicron, even if it turns out that vaccines are not as effective against the variant as previous strains of the disease.

Britain plans to offer all adults a COVID-19 booster shot by the end of January. Government data shows 81 percent of the population aged above 12 have had two doses of the vaccine, while 32 percent have had a booster shot or third dose.

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk along Regent Street in London [Alastair Grant/AP Photo]

Closing borders not the ‘answer’, WHO’s Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi says

Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi of WHO Africa has said they are trying to warn other countries of the “emergency that might be coming through”, adding that shutting down borders is not the answer.

“Those countries, they’re going to … try their level best to get prepared,” she said.

“But closing the borders, or banning certain countries from entering – I don’t think is the answer.”

If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated: Fauci

Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease official, has urged those who are not vaccinated to get the jab, and those who are, to seek a booster shot.

“If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Fauci said. “Get boosted if you are vaccinated,” he added.

He also called on people to continue to use the “mitigation methods”, such as wearing “masks, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces”.

“Choose outdoors rather than indoors, keep your distance, wash your hands, test and isolate if appropriate,” he added.

France extends suspension of flights from high-risk Southern African countries

France has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from Southern African countries which have been hit hard by the Omicron variant, said French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune.

“As of this morning, we have extended the suspension of flights from seven Southern African countries until Saturday,” Beaune told RTL radio.

Air travellers to US set to face tougher COVID-19 testing

The US is moving to require that all air travellers entering the country show a negative COVID-19 test performed within one day of departure in response to concerns about the new Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

Currently, vaccinated international air travellers can present a negative test result obtained within three days from their point of departure. Nearly all foreign nationals must be vaccinated to enter the United States. Unvaccinated travellers currently must get a negative COVID-19 test within one day of arrival.

The new one-day testing requirement would apply equally to US citizens as well as foreign nationals.

Japan halts new incoming flight bookings over Omicron strain

Japan has asked airlines to stop taking new incoming flight bookings over concerns about the Omicron variant, the transport ministry said.

“We have asked airlines to halt accepting all new incoming flight reservations for one month starting December 1,” a transport ministry official told the AFP news agency, adding that existing bookings would not be affected.

German state reports four fully vaccinated people infected with Omicron

Four people in southern Germany have tested positive for the Omicron variant even though they were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the public health office in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said.

Three of the infected people returned from a business trip to South Africa on November 26 and November 27 respectively, and the fourth person is a family member of one of the returnees, the state public health office said.

“All four people are fully vaccinated. A mutation analysis carried out by the State Health Office has confirmed that all of them are infected with the new variant of concern,” the office said in a statement, adding that all four were in quarantine.

All four showed moderate symptoms.

Japan detects second case of Omicron variant

Japan has found a second person who has tested positive with the Omicron strain, broadcaster FNN reported.

The first case of the variant was discovered on Tuesday.

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

Nigeria confirms Omicron cases

Nigeria has confirmed two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant among travellers who arrived in the country last week from South Africa.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) also said retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed cases among passengers to Nigeria had identified the mutation among a sample collected in October. It did not provide further details.

“Given the highly likely increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, it is imperative to put in place measures to curb community transmission,” the NCDC said in a statement.

Malaysia to ban travellers from countries with Omicron cases

Malaysia will temporarily ban the entry of travellers from countries that have reported cases of the Omicron variant or are considered high-risk, its health ministry has said.

It will also delay plans to set up so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with those countries, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said.

UK reports new cases

The United Kingdom has reported eight new cases of the Omicron variant, taking the total number to 13.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a new COVID-19 lockdown was unlikely despite worries about the new variant.

US panel backs first-of-a-kind COVID-19 pill

A panel of US health advisers narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorisation of the first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel voted 13-10 that the antiviral drug molnupiravir’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy.

“I see this as an incredibly difficult decision with many more questions than answers,” said panel chair Dr Lindsey Baden of Harvard Medical School, who voted in favour of the drug. He said the FDA would have to carefully tailor the drug’s use for patients who stand to benefit most.

Molnupiravir has already been authorised for use in the United Kingdom.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies