Biden unveils new plan to combat Omicron

US lays out strategy to fight the coronavirus, including booster jabs, free home testing, and new requirements for international travellers.

President Joe Biden speaks about the Omicron COVID-19 variant during a visit to the National Institutes of Health [Evan Vucci/AP]

US President Joe Biden has unveiled new measures to combat COVID-19, saying the emergence of the Omicron variant increases the urgency for booster vaccines. Biden’s plan includes tighter restrictions for international travellers, and expanding access to at-home testing.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that people who are not vaccinated will be excluded from non-essential shops, cultural and recreational venues, and parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate that would come into force from February.

Also on Thursday, India, Finland and Norway became the latest countries to report cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant as regulators in the United Kingdom gave the green light for the use of a monoclonal therapy, called Sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

The news came as South Korea’s daily coronavirus case numbers rose to a new high with authorities halting quarantine exemptions for fully vaccinated inbound travellers for two weeks in a bid to fend off the new variant.

In South Africa, where scientists detected the Omicron variant last week, new infections doubled in a day signalling a dramatic surge in the country.

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

Top US lawmaker calls for ‘vigilance’ against Omicron variant

Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representative, called for “vigilance” against the Omicron COVID-19 variant and urged people to get vaccinated and receive their booster shot, echoing President Joe Biden’s remarks on Thursday.

“We must be vigilant. We urge everyone to be vaccinated. The person who incurred the Omicron in South Africa was vaccinated, but he didn’t have the booster,” she said, referring to the first US Omicron case in California. “And so, if your time is six months since your last shot, we encourage the booster.”

Omicron COVID-19 variant case identified in Colorado

Health officials in the US state of Colorado have identified a case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in a woman who recently travelled to southern Africa, local media reported on Thursday.

Canada records another new case of Omicron variant

The town of Durham in the central Canadian province of Ontario has recorded a case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the local health authority said in a tweet.

The person involved had travelled to one of the 10 countries in southern Africa that Ottawa had identified as high risk. The announcement brings to 10 the number of people in Canada diagnosed with the new variant.

Zimbabwe detects first case of Omicron variant in country

Zimbabwe has detected its first case of the Omicron variant in the country, its Vice President Constantino Chiwenga said on state television.

“We are now in a particularly dangerous period once again, where the fourth wave is slowly visiting us with the identification of the B.1.1.529 or the Omicron variant of COVID-19,” Chiwenga, who is also the country’s health minister said on national TV.

Chiwenga did not give details of how many cases of Omicron infections had been recorded in the country. As of Dec.1, Zimbabwe had reported 4,707 deaths from a total 135,337 cases.

Biden says US COVID response ‘shouldn’t’ be political issue

US President Joe Biden said the United States’ COVID-19 response should not be politically divisive and that he hoped for bipartisan backing for his plan to tackle the pandemic over winter.

“It’s a plan that I think should unite us,” he said, speaking from the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health in a Washington suburb.

“I know COVID-19 has been very divisive. In this country, it’s become a political issue … A sad, sad commentary. It shouldn’t be, but it has been.”

Biden’s winter plan includes ramping up booster shots for all adults, vaccinating children, expanding at-home free testing and stronger travel protocols.

The travel measures will include requiring anyone arriving in the United States to take a test within one day of their flight.

EU regulator begins real-time review of Valneva’s COVID-19 shot

The European Union’s drug regulator said it has started a rolling review of the inactivated-virus COVID-19 vaccine from French biotech firm Valneva, weeks after the EU signed a deal with the company for supplies of the shot.

The decision to start the real-time review – which could speed up approval of the shot – was based on preliminary studies that suggest the vaccine, VLA2001, triggers an antibody response against the coronavirus, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement.

Valneva said it was hopeful its vaccine candidate would cross protect people against variants of the virus, adding it would test it specifically against Omicron.

South Africa’s health body sees threefold higher risk of reinfection

The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus poses a threefold higher risk of reinfection than the currently dominant Delta variant and the Beta strain, a group of South African health bodies said.

The South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis along with National Institute of Communicable Diseases said latest findings “provide epidemiological evidence for Omicron’s ability to evade immunity from prior infection”.

Their statement was issued after a group of South African health organisations published a paper on as a pre-print, meaning the work was not yet certified by peer review.

Israel halts controversial tech to track Omicron variant

Israel said it was halting the use of a controversial phone tracking technology to trace possible cases of the new coronavirus variant.

Earlier this week, the government approved travel restrictions and authorised the country’s internal security agency to use the phone monitoring technology for contact tracing people infected by the Omicron variant in Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in a statement that emergency measures authorising “cellular monitoring” of people who are infected by Omicron, and those who might have been in contact with those cases, would expire at midnight.

Britain reports another 10 cases of Omicron variant

Britain said it had identified a further 10 confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant of concern, bringing the total number of cases to 42.

The UK Health Security Agency said there had been seven more cases of Omicron in England, with three more cases identified in Scotland.

Britain records 53,945 COVID-19 cases, highest since July

Britain recorded 53,945 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily figure since July 17, government figures showed, as the dominant Delta variant spreads and measures come in to curb the Omicron variant of concern.

There were a further 141 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, down from Wednesday.

The rise in COVID-19 cases over the past weeks and the arrival of the new omicron variant have prompted warnings from scientists and doctors [Martin Meissner/AP]

Canada confirms first COVID cases in wildlife

Canada has confirmed its first cases of coronavirus in wildlife – in three white-tailed deer.

The National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease said the samples were collected in early November from the free-ranging animals in the Estrie region of Quebec along the border with the United States.

“Similar to findings in the United States, the deer showed no evidence of clinical signs of disease, and were all apparently healthy,” the agency said in a statement.

The World Organisation for Animal Health was notified on December 1, it added.

To fight Omicron, Biden to add travel rules, make at-home COVID tests free

President Joe Biden will lay out his strategy to fight the Omicron and Delta COVID-19 variants over the winter, including free and insurer-funded at-home testing and new requirements for international travellers.

The US government will require private health insurance companies to reimburse their 150 million customers for 100 percent of the cost of over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 tests, administration officials said, and make millions more tests available free through rural clinics and health centres for the uninsured.

Biden also appealed for Americans to get their boosters.

Women wear mask to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 in Paris [Thibault Camus/AP Photo]

Omicron COVID-19 variant case identified in Minnesota

A case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant was identified in Minnesota, the US state’s health department said.

Norway introduces new anti-coronavirus measures in Oslo

Norway introduced new anti-COVID19 measures in greater Oslo after a suspected cluster of Omicron cases emerged among dozens of vaccinated people.

Face masks will be mandatory in public transport, shopping centres, shops and taxis when social distancing is not possible. People will have to work from home if possible and the number allowed to gather at indoor private events will be limited to 100, the government said.

The announcement came after the Omicron variant was detected in one of dozens of people who tested positive for COVID after a Christmas dinner in Oslo of 120 vaccinated people last week.

Spain detects first domestic case of COVID-19 Omicron variant

Regional authorities in Madrid said they had detected Spain’s first domestic case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in a vaccinated person without links to risk countries, and were investigating two other similar suspected cases.

It was the fourth confirmed case of the variant in Spain, but the first proving that Omicron is already circulating in the country.

The person affected in Madrid had received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and had no history of travel or close contact with another person from countries where this variant has been detected, authorities said.

The coronavirus’s omicron variant keeps a jittery world off-kilter as reports of infections linked to the mutant strain crop up in more parts of the globe [Thibault Camus/AP Photo]

South Africa’s Ramaphosa slams pandemic ‘health apartheid’

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa warned against the risk of “health apartheid” as he took aim at travel bans imposed on his country after it detected the new Omicron variant of Covid.

On a visit to Ivory Coast, he said the curbs, which many countries have also applied to countries across southern Africa, were “regrettable, unfair and unscientific”.

“Given that it was our own African scientists who first detected the Omicron variant, it is also a slap in the face of African excellence and expertise,” Ramaphosa said after meeting his Ivorian counterpart Alassane Ouattara.

“These bans will cause untold damage, in particular to travel and tourism industries that sustain businesses and livelihoods in South Africa and the southern African region.”

Germany slashes sports attendance to maximum 15,000

German politicians agreed to slash the maximum attendance at outdoor sports events to 15,000 people, though some states still plan to have empty stadiums.

The decision to play a Bundesliga football game in Cologne last week in front of a crowd of 50,000 provoked particular ire ahead of plans for 67,000 to attend Borussia Dortmund’s game against Bayern Munich on Saturday.

That game will likely be played in front of a much smaller crowd. Dortmund anticipated that decision and said on Wednesday it would cancel and refund all the tickets it sold, and reissue some of them.

Norway reports large outbreak of omicron variant infections

At least 50 people in and around Norway’s capital have been infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant and the cases are connected to a Norwegian company’s Christmas party in an Oslo restaurant, officials said.

“More cases are expected. Effective tracing is being done to limit transmission routes and prevent major outbreaks,” the Oslo Municipality said in a statement.

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health said that those affected live in Oslo and surrounding municipalities, and “the infection detection team in Oslo has contacted the municipalities concerned to start infection detection.”

Germany to impose sweeping curbs for unvaccinated

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that people who are not vaccinated will be excluded from non-essential shops, cultural and recreational venues, and parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate, as part of an effort to curb coronavirus infections that again topped 70,000 newly confirmed cases in a 24-hour period.

Speaking after a meeting with federal and state leaders, Merkel the measures were necessary in light of concerns that hospitals in Germany could become overloaded with people suffering COVID-19 infections, which are more likely to be serious in those who haven’t been vaccinated.

“The situation is our country is serious,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin, calling the measure an “act of national solidarity.”

Omicron has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year Covid-19 pandemic [Pierre Crom/Getty Images]


Finland body recommends COVID-19 vaccines for at-risk children over 5

Children in Finland aged five and over that are at risk of severe COVID-19 infection due to weak immune systems should be given vaccinations, the Finnish Health Institute recommended, opting not to recommend the shots for all children.

The government is expected to accept the recommendation. The institute said the vaccinations could start as soon as Finland obtains approved shots.

‘No need to panic’ over Omicron variant: Africa CDC

The African Union’s health watchdog appealed for calm over Omicron, the new, heavily mutated COVID-19 variant which has prompted many governments to impose new restrictions.

John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), urged moderation.

“We are very concerned but are not worried that the situation cannot be managed,” he told a press briefing. “There is no need to panic. We are not defenceless.”

Passengers, some wearing masks, line up to board a taxi at the Baragwanath taxi rank in Soweto, South Africa [Jerome Delay/AP]

Croatia unveils heavy fines for failure to apply COVID certificates

Croatia’s government proposed heavy fines for heads of public institutions or municipalities who fail to enforce digital certificates for their employees or visitors designed to help curb a renewed surge of COVID-19.

The European Union certificates, introduced in mid-November, prove that a person is vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 or has tested negative.

Since the certificates were introduced in Croatia, however, the heads of several municipalities have refused to apply them, saying they did not want to create divisions among citizens.

“We propose fines amounting to between 30,000 and 50,000 kuna ($7,537.27),” Health Minister Vili Beros told a cabinet session. Parliamentary approval is expected later this month, given the government’s majority.

Finland discovers first case of Omicron

The first case of the Omicron variant has been discovered in Finland, the Finnish Health Institute said.

The institute had previously said it was investigating cases that had been identified with a PCR test to have a potential mutation to match Omicron.

Where has the Omicron variant been reported so far?

S Africa scientists expect milder reinfection, post-vaccination symptoms with Omicron

South African scientists studying the Omicron outbreak believe symptoms are less severe for those reinfected by the new variant or infected after vaccination, a top scientist said.

“So we believe, I think very much so, that the reinfections (of the) … disease will be less severe,” said Anne von Gottberg, a microbiologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“And that’s what we’re trying to prove and to monitor very carefully in South Africa. And the same would hold for those that are vaccinated.”

US to unveil stricter travel restrictions

The US has announced a raft of new measures aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus and the Omicron variant, including requiring all international travellers to test negative for COVID-19 within a day of their departure. The US had previously required vaccinated travellers to test negative within three days of their departure.

The measures, which President Joe Biden will officially announce in a speech on Thursday, also include an increased push for all US adults to receive booster shots, an extension of mask mandates on public transportation in the country, and a requirement for private health insurance providers to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests.

India confirms first two cases of Omicron

India has confirmed its first two cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the health ministry said.

Two men, a 66 year old and a 46 year old, had both tested positive for the variant in southern Karnataka state, top health official Lav Agarwal said in a briefing.

“All primary contacts and secondary contacts of both the cases have been traced and are being tested,” Agarwal said.

Commuters disembark from a suburban train at a railway station, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Mumbai, India [Hemanshi Kamani/Reuters]

Are governments prepared to deal with a new variant?

Greece reports first Omicron case

Greece has detected its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, in a Greek citizen on the island of Crete who had returned from South Africa last month, its Health Minister Thanos Plevris told reporters.

The man, who has mild symptoms, and all his contacts have been quarantined, the head of Greece’s public health agency EODY Theoklis Zaoutis said.

His contacts have tested negative so far and have been closely watched by Greek authorities, he added.

Surge team deployed in S Africa’s Gauteng: WHO

The UN health agency is deploying a surge team to South Africa’s Gauteng province, the epicentre of the outbreak of the new variant, to help with surveillance and contact tracing.

The WHO’s Regional Emergency Director for Africa, Dr Salam Gueye, also said it was providing technical assistance to boost the production and distribution of medical oxygen in Botswana, where Omicron has also been detected.

Germany to impose restrictions on unvaccinated

As Germany is trying to halt a dramatic surge in daily cases, it is planning to impose restrictions on unvaccinated people.

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz will discuss with leaders of Germany’s 16 states restricting the unvaccinated from access to all but the most essential businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and bakeries.

“Please keep your distance! Mask on!” read a sign on a shopping window of a mall shop in Hamburg, Germany [Fabian Bimmer/Reuters]

Israel’s top court rejects petition against phone tracking

Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition by rights groups seeking to repeal temporary measures allowing the domestic intelligence agency to use mobile phone tracing to curb the spread of Omicron.

Israeli officials say the phone-tracking measure, which is set to expire on Thursday but could be extended, will only be used to locate confirmed or suspected carriers of the new variant.

In their petition, four rights groups cited privacy concerns in arguing that the phone tracking by the Shin Bet intelligence agency, used on and off since March 2020, violates prior court rulings limiting such surveillance.

Majority of 62 flight infected passengers were vaccinated

A “large majority” of 62 passengers on two flights from South Africa who tested positive shortly after arrival in the Netherlands on November 26 had been vaccinated, Dutch authorities said.

Under rules in place at the time, passengers were able to board the flight from Johannesburg and Cape Town with either proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results.

Figure skating-Grand Prix final cancelled

The figure skating’s Grand Prix final, one of the key events leading into the Winter Olympics, has been cancelled after Japan closed its borders to non-Japanese visitors, the country’s Skating Federation said.

The Grand Prix final, which was scheduled for the western city of Osaka from December 9-12, is seen as a key step on the road to the Winter Olympics, set for February 4-20 in Beijing.

Hong Kong to launch ‘health code’ app ahead of China border opening

Hong Kong authorities will launch a new “health code” mobile phone application next week that travellers to mainland China would be required to use as the city prepares for a partial reopening of the border with the rest of the country.

The app will be similar to one in China, storing a user’s name, address and vaccination status, with a function to scan QR codes to enter restaurants and other venues. It also assigns infection risk to users based largely on their past check-ins.

Unlike China’s app, Hong Kong’s will not track a user’s movement, the government said. Only Hong Kong residents who plan to cross the border are required to use the app, which will be available from December 10.

Hong Kong’s Chief Information Officer Victor Lam, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Alfred Sit, and Deputy Government Chief Officer Tony Wong introduce the Hong Kong Health Code’ [Joyce Zhou/Reuters]

France reports first Omicron case

A case of Omicron variant has been detected in the French northern region of Ile de France in a person who recently returned from Nigeria, BFM TV reported, citing local health authorities. The case was asymptomatic when tested on November 25.

Translation: Omicron variant detected in Ile de France: the man tested positive returning from Nigeria

The news comes as the French government’s top scientific adviser Dr Jean-Francois Delfraissy said that while the country was in the midst of the Delta wave, he cautioned the new Omicron variant would progressively take over.

Delfraissy also reaffirmed that authorities were doing all they could to avoid any new lockdowns.

Sweden may impose new measures next week: health agency

The Swedish Public Health Agency said it could impose new COVID-19-related restrictions next week to fight a rising tide of infections.

Sweden, which introduced vaccine passes for indoor events with more than 100 people at the beginning of this month, had flagged potential additional measures might be needed.

UK approves GSK COVID-19 drug, appears effective against Omicron

The UK has approved the use of an antibody-based COVID-19 therapy developed by GlaxoSmithKline in a joint operation with its American partner Vir Biotechnology.

The news came just after GlaxoSmithKline said a pre-clinical analysis of the treatment has indicated that the drug also works against the new Omicron variant.

“To date, sotrovimab has demonstrated ongoing activity against all tested variants of concern and interest defined by the World Health Organization (WHO),” GSK said in a statement.

Testing is ongoing “to confirm the neutralising activity of sotrovimab against the combination of all the Omicron mutations with the intent to provide an update by the end of 2021,” it added.

A single dose of the drug was found to reduce the risk of being admitted to hospital and death by 79 percent in high-risk adults with symptomatic COVID-19 infections, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

The drug is a monoclonal antibody, a type of protein that attaches to the spike protein of the coronavirus, reducing its ability to enter the body’s cells.

Japan retracts flight bookings ban after criticisms

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida admitted that the decision to stop taking reservations for inbound international flights caused public confusion and requested the transport ministry to consider people’s wishes to travel home.

The request was put forward the previous day by the transport ministry as an emergency precaution to defend against the Omicron variant. The decision though was reversed after the government received criticisms that the ban was too strict and tantamount to abandoning its own people.

A man wearing a protective mask, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, makes his way at a restaurant district in Tokyo, Japan [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

Australia’s New South Wales reports seventh Omicron case

Australia’s tally of people with the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 edged higher on Thursday, prompting state governments to bolster domestic border controls.

The country’s most populous state, New South Wales, reported its seventh case of the variant, a person who arrived on November 23 from Doha, Qatar, and noted that the person had not been in southern Africa.

“We know this virus is dangerous, it does come out in some different forms,” New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters on Thursday. “Don’t take it lightly.”

Travellers and flight crew members arrive at the international terminal at Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Indonesia tightens travel curbs as it braces for Omicron arrival

Authorities in Indonesia have tightened border curbs, extended quarantine and limited movement on strategic toll roads, in a preemptive move to limit the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant

New domestic travel measures include limiting the volume of traffic on toll roads to reduce people movement, according to the transport minister.

“This policy … will be evaluated every now and then as we understand and continue digging more information about this new variant,” senior minister Luhut Pandjaitan said in a statement on Wednesday.

Fauci: It could take weeks to gain more insight on Omicron

Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci says it could take two weeks or more to gain an insight into how easily Omicron spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and whether it can evade currently available vaccines.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, which was first detected by South African researchers on November 8 and has spread to at least 24 countries.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said early epidemiological data suggests Omicron was able to evade some immunity, but existing vaccines should still protect against severe disease and death.

Japan’s bank chief warns of slower economic recovery

Bank of Japan board member Hitoshi Suzuki says Japan’s economic recovery may miss expectations if the spread of Omicron hurts consumption, or supply bottlenecks persist.

“If the impact of supply constraints are bigger or lasts longer than expected, there’s a risk economic growth may further undershoot expectations” next year, Suzuki said.

South Korea halts quarantine exemptions for vaccinated travellers

South Korea has halted quarantine exemptions for fully vaccinated inbound travellers for two weeks after reporting a new high of daily coronavirus cases.

South Korea confirmed its first five Omicron cases on Wednesday.

‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best’

“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told reporters amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

Von der Leyen made the statement on Wednesday as the EU brought forward the start of its vaccine rollout for 5-to-11-year-old children by a week to December 13, with the president of the EU’s executive body saying it was in a “race against time” to stave off the new variant.

Britain and the US have both expanded their booster programmes in response to the new variant, although the WHO says wealthy countries should instead share more vaccines with vulnerable people in poorer countries where variants are most likely to emerge as long as inoculation rates are low.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies