UK reports another record daily COVID cases

UK reported 88,376 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, a second consecutive record daily tally.

A woman wears a face mask as she walks in Covent Garden market in London, UK [Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo]

The British government has reported 88,376 new coronavirus cases, a second consecutive record daily tally, as the Omicron coronavirus variant fuels a worrying surge in infections across the country.

France said on Thursday it will tighten restrictions on travellers arriving from the United Kingdom.

The move comes after South Korea announced it will reinstate stricter social distancing rules on January 2, six weeks after easing them, as the numbers of new infections and serious cases spiral.

Omicron has so far been found in at least 77 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with many reimposing travel restrictions to stem the spread.

Here were the updates for Thursday, December 16:

WHO makes interim recommendations for mixing and matching vaccines

The WHO has issued interim recommendations for mixing and matching vaccines from different manufacturers for both the second dose and booster shots.

Depending on availability, mRNA vaccines, such as those developed by Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc can be used as subsequent doses after initial doses of AstraZeneca’s vectored vaccine and vice versa, the global health body said.

AstraZeneca and any of the mRNA vaccines can also be used after initial doses of Sinopharm’s inactivated vaccine, WHO said.

Montpellier handed Champions Cup win after Leinster cases

French club Montpellier have been handed a European Champions Cup win over Leinster after COVID-19 cases were reported in the Irish squad before Friday’s match, tournament organisers EPCR have announced.

“Following a meeting of an independent Match Risk Assessment Committee, EPCR has been advised that the Heineken Champions Cup, Round 2 fixture between Montpellier Herault Rugby and Leinster Rugby cannot go ahead safely,” EPCR said in a statement.

“The Match Risk Assessment Committee advised EPCR of its concerns following new positive COVID-19 test results from the Leinster Rugby playing squad, and regrettably the decision was made to cancel the match.

“The contest in Pool A is therefore cancelled with Montpellier Herault Rugby awarded the match on a 28-0, five match points basis, in accordance with the Tournament Rules.”

CDC panel considers recommending mRNA vaccines over J&J’s

A panel of outside advisers to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been considering whether to recommend that Americans choose to receive one of the two authorized messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines over Johnson & Johnson’s shot, due to rare but sometimes fatal cases of blood clotting.

J&J’s vaccine uses a technology based on a modified version of an adenovirus to spur immunity in recipients, while the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines use mRNA technology.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization practices was expected to vote on the issue on Thursday, after a subcommittee said it supported making the “preferential recommendation”.

Novavax vaccine could gain European, WHO approval next week: FT

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) could approve the Novavax coronavirus vaccine as early as next week, which could also pave the way for emergency use listing from the World Health Organization, the Financial Times has reported, citing sources.

A WHO approval could come once the health body issued its own emergency use listing, or if the EMA gave it a conditional marketing authorisation, the newspaper reported.

Four more Premier League games postponed

The Premier League have postponed four more matches this weekend due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Officials cancelled Southampton’s game against Brentford, Watford’s meeting with Crystal Palace and West Ham’s fixture against Norwich on Saturday.

Leicester’s trip to Everton on Sunday is also off following the late postponement of their Thursday clash with Tottenham.

Manchester United’s scheduled game against Brighton on Saturday was postponed earlier.

UK’s Sunak: We already have support for COVID-hit hospitality firms

British finance minister Rishi Sunak has said the government already has support schemes for hospitality firms hit by the latest surge in COVID cases, but that he understands the difficulties they currently face.

“I appreciate that it is a difficult time for the hospitality industry,” Sunak told reporters during a visit to the US.

“The good news, I would say, is that there is existing support measures in place to help the industry,” he added citing tax reliefs among other examples.

British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the government has support schemes for hospitality firms hit by the surge in COVID-19 cases [File: Tolga Akmen/Pool via Reuters]

Daily infections rise in Italy

Italy has reported 123 coronavirus-related deaths compared to 129 the day before, the health ministry has said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 26,109 from 23,195.

Patients in hospital with COVID-19 – not including those in intensive care – stood at 7,338 on Thursday, up from 7,309 a day earlier.

There were 101 new admissions to intensive care units, up from 84 on Wednesday. The total number of intensive care patients increased to 917 from a previous 870.

Denmark detects 3,000 Omicron cases

Denmark has registered almost 10,000 new coronavirus cases, a new daily record since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Omicron variant was found in about 3,000 of those cases, the director of the disease control and prevention body the State Serum Institute, Henrik Ullum, said at a press conference.

In total, about 9,000 Omicron infections have been detected in Denmark since the end of November.

Especially so-called super-spreader events in nightlife had led to the virus spreading rapidly, he said. “The infection will continue to rise if we do nothing,” Ullum said.

Brazil regulator approves vaccine for children

Brazil’s health regulator has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in children aged five to 11, joining a growing list of countries green-lighting vaccination for kids.

However, it is not clear when the hard-hit South American country will begin vaccinating children, if at all.

The matter now passes to the health ministry, which will first have to decide whether to add COVID-19 vaccines for 5 -11-year-olds to the national immunisation program and acquire child-size doses.

UK relying on antivirals to get through winter

The UK expects to have antiviral COVID-19 pills produced by Merck & Co Inc and Pfizer available over the winter, its Antiviral Taskforce chair has said.

Eddie Gray told reporters he expected both Merck’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s Paxlovid treatments to be available throughout the winter season, which he defined as between now and the end of March. The UK has yet to approve Paxlovid.

People queue to get tested in London, UK on December 16, 2021 [Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo]

English Football League says quarter of players not planning to get vaccine

A quarter of footballers in England’s three divisions below the Premier League do not intend to be vaccinated as a new wave of infections threatens to bring the season to a standstill.

The English Football League (EFL) released vaccination figures, with 10 weekend matches postponed so far in the Championship, League One and League Two due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The latest vaccine data collated for November has shown that 75 percent of players across the EFL are either fully vaccinated, have had a single jab or intend to be vaccinated,” the EFL said in a statement.

“Double vaccinated players total 59 percent, 16 percent are set to get the jab, while 25 percent of players currently do not intend to get a vaccine.”

Omicron in Ontario could soon swamp critical care units: Panel

Omicron is spreading rapidly in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, and could overwhelm intensive care units early next month without prompt intervention, a panel of experts has said.

The panel released modelling which said increased vaccination alone would not be enough to fight Omicron. Instead, it called for public health measures to cut people’s contacts by 50 percent and ensure the rapid rollout of booster doses.

“Omicron transmits very quickly … without prompt intervention, intensive care unit occupancy could reach unsustainable levels in early January,” the modelling said.

Palestinians detect first cases of Omicron

The Palestinian Ministry of Health says it has identified the first cases of Omicron in territory under its jurisdiction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Three cases were detected, and all were individuals who had recently returned to the West Bank from abroad, ministry spokesman Kamal al-Shakhrah said in a statement.

UK’s Sunak cuts short US trip as COVID cases mount again

Finance minister, Rishi Sunak, will return to the UK earlier than planned after a trip to the United States, a government official has said.

Sunak would fly back later on Thursday, the official said. He had originally been due to arrive back on Saturday.

Earlier on Thursday, an official said Sunak was due to discuss possible new support measures for businesses hardest hit by the spread of Omicron.

UK reports record 88,376 new cases

The UK has reported a record 88,376 new cases of COVID-19, up from Wednesday’s 78,610.

The number of deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test was slightly lower at 146, compared with 165 on Wednesday.

The latest data takes the total number of infections during the pandemic to nearly 11.1 million.

Germany getting more vaccines for ‘offensive’ booster drive

Germany is scrambling to procure more vaccines to fuel what the new health minister has called a “very offensive” and fast booster strategy that would leave the country better prepared for the onslaught of the new Omicron variant.

But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters he was not satisfied with an inventory of vaccine delivery plans for the rest of December and next year’s first quarter after he took office last week in the new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, because “it simply isn’t enough for such a vaccination strategy”.

Germany on Wednesday administered nearly 1.5 million shots, its highest one-day total so far. An average of some 988,000 people per day have been vaccinated over the past week.

Malawi makes vaccines mandatory for front-line workers

Malawi will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for front-line staff, including health workers and journalists, Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda has said.

Chiponda told journalists the directive, aimed at public service workers, would be effective from December 20.

“Uptake of [COVID-19] vaccines has not been high enough towards reaching our goal of vaccinating at least 60 percent of eligible Malawians by the end of next year. The vaccine remains our best preventive tool,” she said.

Leicester and Manchester United games postponed

Leicester City’s Premier League game against Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday and Manchester United’s home clash with Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday have been postponed.

The announcements from the Premier League mean five games have been lost in the past week, although the league says it plans to continue with the current fixture schedule.

“While recognising a number of clubs are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, it is the League’s intention to continue its current fixture schedule where safely possible,” it said in a statement. “The health and wellbeing of all concerned remains our priority.”

EU agency backs Pfizer COVID pill for emergency use

The European Union’s drug regulator has approved Pfizer’s COVID pill for emergency use by individual member states, pending formal approval across the bloc.

“The medicine, which is not yet authorised in the EU, can be used to treat adults with COVID-19 who do not require supplemental oxygen and who are at increased risk of progressing to severe disease,” the European Medicines Agency said in a statement.

“The Agency’s advice can now be used to support national recommendations on the possible use of the medicine before marketing authorisation.”

Omicron share of Irish COVID cases doubles in two days

The share of Omicron variant cases in Ireland has almost doubled in two days to 27 percent, Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has told parliament.

“By Tuesday, we were reporting 14 percent of new cases were the Omicron variant … today 27 percent of all new cases” are Omicron, Donnelly said.

Last week just 1 percent of cases were of the Omicron variant, he added.

Japan reports first domestically acquired Omicron infection

Japan has said a staff member at a facility housing people found positive with coronavirus after arriving in the country had tested positive for Omicron, in the first case of a domestically-acquired infection of the variant.

The infected person, a woman in her 30s who belongs to the quarantine station at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, western Japan, has no recent history of travelling overseas, the health ministry said.

“It is strongly suspected that the infection took place within the facility … This woman is now in hospital and her condition is stable,” a ministry official said at a media briefing. The official declined to specify what type of tasks she had performed at the facility.

Jabs, boosters ‘vital’ against Omicron: EU leaders

EU leaders have said vaccinations and booster shots would be vital to counter Omicron as countries stepped up restrictions to slow its startling spread.

The EU summit they were participating in also emphasised the need for “coordinated efforts” based on science, amid go-it-alone measures applied notably by Italy.

The joint conclusion, swiftly adopted at the beginning of the one-day gathering, underlined the urgency Omicron currently has in European policy-making.

Germany betting on booster campaign against Omicron

Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has said the country is racing to secure more COVID-19 vaccines to speed up its booster campaign that was at the centre of its strategy against the new Omicron variant.

Lauterbach said German authorities were negotiating with Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Portugal to buy more shots.

The country also hoped to receive millions of booster shots adapted to the Omicron variant from BioNTech-Pfizer in the first quarter of next year.

EU summit does not rule out new travel restrictions

New travel restrictions this winter have not been ruled out at a European Council summit.

Official conclusions adopted by the EU leaders said “continued coordinated efforts” are needed to respond to COVID-19 developments and that any restrictions adopted should not “disproportionately hamper free movement” within or into the bloc.

AstraZeneca antibody cocktail works against Omicron in study

AstraZeneca has said a lab study of its COVID-19 antibody cocktail, Evusheld, found that the treatment retained neutralising activity against Omicron, showing promise for wider use of the therapy.

The study was conducted by independent investigators of the US Food and Drug Administration, the company said, adding that more analyses of Evusheld against Omicron are being conducted by AstraZeneca and third parties, with data expected “very soon”.

Danish PM warns of further curbs

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has warned that further measures to curb a third wave of the epidemic might be coming after the Nordic country saw yet another record number of daily infections.

“Infection rates are unfortunately as expected very, very high,” Mette Frederiksen said on Instagram. “I have no doubt that new initiatives will be needed to break the chains of infection,” she wrote.

Denmark logged 9,999 new infections in the last 24 hours, the highest yet. But death rates and hospital admissions are still far below the levels seen a year ago.

EU medicines agency backs two COVID treatments

The EU’s medicines agency has recommended two new treatments against COVID-19 for use in the bloc.

The European Medicines Agency said Kineret, an immunosuppressive used to treat inflammatory conditions from Swedish firm Orphan Biovitrum, could “decrease lower airway damage, preventing development of severe respiratory failure”.

It also said GlaxoSmithKline’s Xevudy drug had shown in a study that it “significantly reduces hospitalisation and deaths in patients with at least one underlying condition”.

Hello, this is Mersiha Gadzo taking over the live blog from my colleague Farah Najjar. 

Russian parliament backs draft law for COVID-19 immunity passes

The Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, gave the first nod of approval to a draft law that would require people to show QR codes demonstrating proof of immunity to COVID-19 in order to visit certain public places.

The bill still needs to be approved by the upper house of parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin to come into force.

Earlier this week, the Russian parliament said it would shelve a draft bill that would have required people travelling by plane or train to present QR codes, after strong public opposition to the proposal.

Regeneron says antibody therapy has lower potency against Omicron

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals said its COVID-19 antibody therapy has diminished potency against the Omicron variant.

The drugmaker said the currently authorised therapy, REGEN-COV, is still active against Delta, which currently is the most prevalent variant in the US.

British Port of Dover says French curbs will further dampen tourism

Port of Dover said that France’s new travel curbs on passengers from the UK would further dampen already significantly reduced tourist numbers.

“Due to the existing barrier of COVID-19, tourism volumes through this gateway are already significantly reduced and these recent changes are another dampener on the pre-Christmas getaway period,” a spokesperson for Dover said.

“We urge customers to contact their chosen ferry operator for the latest information and to follow GOV.UK travel advice,” the spokesperson added.

“HGV drivers are exempt from these changes and freight continues to move through the port in order to ensure goods reach their destinations, keeping shelves stacked for Christmas.”

EU agency to decide on Novavax jab next week

The EU’s drug regulator said it would decide whether the Novavax coronavirus jab will become the fifth vaccine approved for the bloc at a meeting next Monday.

The US firm’s shot uses a more traditional technology than current vaccines, which experts hope could ease hesitancy and scepticism among the unvaccinated.

“Our human medicines committee will hold an extraordinary meeting on 20 Dec to review the application for the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Novavax,” the European Medicines Agency said on Twitter.

“We will communicate the outcome of this scientific discussion.”

UK likely to see reliable data on Omicron in January: health official

The UK will most likely only have reliable data on the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in early January and possibly in the week between Christmas and New Year, a leading health official said.

Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, said so far there were 15 proven cases of Omicron in hospitals, but that the number was likely to be much higher.

“I think the earliest that we will have reliable data is the week between Christmas and New Year and probably early January,” she told a parliamentary committee.

Hopkins said experts would need about 250 individuals in hospital to make a severity assessment compared with the earlier Delta variant.

“We start running that assessment when we start having enough cases who have been admitted to hospital to do it and then we run it daily,” she said.

England’s chief medic urges caution as cases surge

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty urged people to “prioritise” social and work interactions before and during Christmas.

“People should prioritise what really matters to them and then cut down on the things that don’t,” Whitty told a panel of lawmakers in parliament.

“It may be that what really matters to them is going to the office party. Fine. But I think it really should be for people to make those choices.”

French citizens in the UK can return home but with ‘extra restrictions’

French citizens in the UK will be able to return to France, but there will be “extra restrictions on their movements”, Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler said from Paris.

“All people will have to have PCR tests before they leave the UK, and then again once they arrive in France – and then they’ll have to quarantine,” Butler said.

“The length of their quarantine will depend on whether or not they are vaccinated,” she added.

The move is going to cause a lot of disruption ahead of the end-of-year holidays, and the French government has advised people to postpone anything that is not essential until “a lot later”, she said.

Passengers arrive at the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord train station, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Paris, France [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

Vaccine hesitancy major issue in Africa

The African continent trails as the lowest vaccinated region in the world against COVID-19 and is struggling to get doses through the UN-backed COVAX scheme.

There is also a major issue of vaccine hesitancy in the region, with many opting not to get the shots, making it harder for governments to control the outbreak.

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Dakar in Senegal, said the first case of the Omicron variant has been detected in the country – but this might be the “tip of the iceberg”.

“The fear of the vaccine is spreading faster than this new variant, and this is having disastrous consequences,” Haque said, adding that the biggest challenge governments are facing is administrating those jabs.

Another challenge is getting those vials that have to be kept at sub-zero temperatures to remote areas, where health workers are already dealing with other outbreaks, Haque added.

Poland reports first case of Omicron variant

Poland has detected its first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, Deputy Health Minister Waldemar Kraska said, state-run news agency PAP reported.

‘War-like situation’ inside Seoul hospitals

Alice Tan, an internist in Seoul, said the situation inside hospitals is like a “mass casualty event” taking place daily.

“Some nurses are describing what they’re seeing as almost a war-like situation in terms of the number of admissions that are coming in every day,” Tan told Al Jazeera.

“Critical care directors are now talking with medical ethicists about which patients to let into their ICUs, and which patients they have to allow to basically die because there is just simply not enough room in ICUs to absorb all of the critically ill patients,” she said.

South Korea said it will reinstate stricter social distancing rules as the number of new infections and serious cases surge. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 7,622 cases for Wednesday, a day after posting a new record daily count of 7,850.

France to ban non-essential travel to and from UK

France will ban non-essential travel to and from the UK from the weekend to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, the government said.

From midnight Saturday (23:00 GMT Friday) there will be a “requirement to have an essential reason to travel to, or come from, the UK, both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated… People cannot travel for touristic or professional reasons,” the government said in a statement.

“Faced with the extremely rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the UK, the government has chosen to reinstate the need for an essential reason for travel from and to the UK,” the statement said. It added that French citizens and EU nationals could still return to France from the UK.

People walk across Westminster Bridge, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in London, UK [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Denmark approves treatment with Merck’s COVID-19 tablet molnupiravir

Danish health authorities approved treatment with Merck & Co Inc’s molnupiravir tablet for COVID-19 patients at risk of serious illness, including the elderly.

The medication has yet to be approved by the European Medical Agency, which in late November started reviewing US drugmaker Merck’s experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill for adults and said it could issue an opinion within weeks.

South Africa retains ‘Level 1’ curbs in Omicron fight

South Africa’s National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) retained its lockdown at “adjusted level one” the lowest of a five-tier system of restrictions, as the country battles the Omicron variant, health authorities said.

“The Council has directed the department to closely monitor the rising COVID-19 infections,” the health department said in a statement, adding that it would track hospital admissions, mortality and recovery rates.

These factors were all largely driven by the Omicron variant, which was contributing to a fourth wave of infections, it added.

Valneva says its booster works as a follow-up to its own COVID-19 shot

French biotech firm Valneva said its COVID-19 vaccine candidate was efficient as a booster for people who had received the same shot as an initial vaccination.

“Initial results confirm that VLA2001 significantly boosted immunity in participants who received VLA2001 as a primary vaccination,” it said in a statement.

The news comes almost two weeks after a British study showed VLA2001 was the only shot out of seven that offered no immunity boost when given to people previously immunised with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Sweden to extend vaccine pass rules to Nordic travellers

Sweden will require visitors from other Nordic nations to have a vaccine pass to cross the border as it gradually tightens restrictions amid rising cases of the Omicron variant, the government said.

“We see an increase in infections in Europe, but also in our neighbours,” news agency TT quoted Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson as saying.

“For visitors from any country except the Nordics, we have a requirement for a COVID pass. Today, the government is going to take the decision that there will be the same requirement also for the Nordic countries.”

The new regulation will come into force on December 21, TT said.

France to restrict travel from UK amid Omicron surge

France is to tighten restrictions on travel to and from the UK to slow the spread of the Omicron variant which is causing record numbers of cases on the other side of the Channel, the government said.

“We will put in place a system of controls drastically tighter than the one we have already,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told BFM-TV, saying returning travellers would need a negative test taken less than 24 hours before travel, a quarantine enforced on return to France and limits on trips for tourism.

South Korea to restore tougher curbs as infections spike

South Korea said it will reinstate stricter social distancing rules a month and a half after easing them under a “living with COVID-19” policy, as the number of new infections and serious cases spirals.

Curbs will return from Saturday to January 2, limiting gatherings to no more than four people – as long as they are fully vaccinated – and forcing restaurants, cafés and bars to close by 9pm and cinemas and internet cafés by 10pm, officials said.

Unvaccinated people can only dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies