Omicron spreading ‘significantly faster’ than Delta – WHO: Live

WHO chief warns of reinfection from COVID as US health authorities say Omicron variant now accounts for 73.2 percent of new cases.

People line up at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square during the coronavirus disease pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease.

“There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva on Monday.

Meanwhile, Israel has added the United States to its “no-fly” list, citing concerns over the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Acting on health ministry recommendations, Israeli cabinet ministers voted on Monday to put the United States, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland and Turkey on the no-fly roster.

In Europe, Germany has ruled out a Christmas lockdown but warned a fifth COVID-19 wave could no longer be stopped amid the spread of Omicron.

Here are the latest updates:

New Zealand delays re-opening plans over Omicron concerns

New Zealand said on Tuesday that it would delay its re-opening plans until the end of February fearing a rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

New Zealand had previously announced that non-quarantine travel would reopen by mid-January for New Zealand citizens and residents in Australia, and to foreign tourists by April.

“There’s no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans, but it’s important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans,” COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in a statement.

Singapore finds suspected Omicron cluster in gym

Singapore’s ministry of health has announced that it has detected a cluster of three COVID-19 cases linked to a gym, of whom two have tested preliminarily positive for the Omicron variant and the result for the remaining case is pending.

All three cases are fully vaccinated and have mild symptoms.

The health ministry is ringfencing the cases through contact tracing, it added.

Omicron now dominant Covid-19 variety in US: health authorities

The fast-spreading Omicron variant is now the main coronavirus strain in the United States, accounting for 73.2 percent of new cases over the past week for which data is available, according to health authorities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the spike for the week ending on Saturday.

Over the same time period in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Omicron accounted for 96.3 percent of new cases.

Canada’s foreign minister tests positive for COVID-19

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly has said she tested positive for COVID-19 after taking a rapid test and is working in isolation until the results are confirmed.

Joly, 42, was named foreign minister in October and would be one of the most prominent Canadian politicians to come down with the coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly as the Omicron variant picks up speed.

“I have taken a rapid test and tested positive for COVID-19. Following public health guidelines, I am in isolation and will continue my work virtually, as I have been for a number of days, until I get the results of my PCR test,” she tweeted.

US mulls easing travel restrictions on African nations: Fauci

The US is considering easing Omicron-related travel restrictions for southern African countries, top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said.

“We likely are going to pull back on that pretty soon because we have enough infection in our own country,” Fauci said on Monday at the National Press Club. “We’re letting in people from other countries that have as much or more infection than the Southern African countries. So likely we are going to look at that very carefully to see if we can pull back.”

The US on November 29 barred nearly all foreign nationals if they had been in one of eight southern African countries, including South Africa, within the last 14 days.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says rising Omicron cases in the US are causing the Biden administration to rethink a travel ban on several southern African nations [File: Stefani Reynolds/Pool via Reuters]

Oil drops 4 percent on surging coronavirus cases

Oil prices slumped more than four percent on Monday as surging cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Europe and the United States stoked investor worries that new restrictions to combat its spread could put a dent in fuel demand.

Markets face worst day since September on Omicron fears

Investor sentiment sagged as concern about President Joe Biden’s economic agenda and the omicron coronavirus surge dragged down stocks. Traders said lower volume ahead of the holidays exacerbated market moves.

The S&P 500 had its biggest three-day drop since September on Monday, led by losses in financial and material shares. Bonds fell. The dollar was little changed.

Risk of reinfection five times higher with Omicron: UK study

The risk of reinfection with the Omicron coronavirus variant is more than five times higher and it has shown no sign of being milder than Delta, a study by Imperial College London showed.

“We find no evidence (for both risk of hospitalisation attendance and symptom status) of Omicron having different severity from Delta,” the study said, although it noted that data on hospitalisations remains limited.

“Controlling for vaccine status, age, sex, ethnicity, asymptomatic status, region and specimen date, Omicron was associated with a 5.4-fold higher risk of reinfection compared with Delta,” the study, dated December 16, added.

President Biden not ‘locking down’ US despite virus surge: White House

US President Joe Biden does not plan on “locking the country down” in response to a surge in coronavirus cases, the White House said.

Biden, in a speech he is to deliver on Tuesday, will stress the benefits of vaccination against COVID-19, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

“This is not a speech about locking the country down,” Psaki told reporters.

Broadway shows ‘Hamilton’, ‘Aladdin’ cancelled over COVID

Two of Broadway’s biggest musicals “Hamilton” and “Aladdin”  are shuttering their doors during the busy Christmas week after finding breakthrough COVID-19 cases in their companies.

The two hit shows join Mrs Doubtfire, MJ and Ain’t Too Proud, among others, in announcing multi-day cancellations due to the virus.

‘Long lines’ seen in New York City amid virus surge

The steep rise in COVID-19 cases in New York City has led to “long lines” of hundreds of people that “wrap around the block” in an attempt to get tested, Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo reported.

“There’s a new urgency for testing and there simply are not enough testing sites or enough testing materials for people,” he added.

“Scenes of people lining up to get tested haven’t been seen here in New York for almost over a year. Now at this point, the city shut dozens of its testing sites … and now it’s frantically trying to reopen them again.”

Premier League reports record 90 cases in past week

A record 90 new cases of COVID-19 were detected among Premier League players and staff in the past week, the league said.

“The league can today confirm that between Monday 13 December and Sunday 19 December, a record 12,345 COVID-19 tests were administered on players and club staff. Of these, there were 90 new positive cases,” it said in a statement.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has his coronavirus disease pass checked outside the stadium before a match against Newcastle [Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters]

Morocco bans New Year’s parties over COVID fears

Morocco on Monday announced a ban on New Year’s Eve celebrations as part of stepped-up measures against rising coronavirus cases.

The government ordered a ban on all forms of celebration on the evening of New Year’s eve, including parties in hotels and tourist sites.

It ordered restaurants and cafes to close at 11.30pm and said a curfew would be in place from midnight until 6:00 AM on January 1.

Morocco detected its first case of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus on December 15.

Canada’s Quebec shuts bars, gyms, casinos to fight spread of Omicron

Canada’s second most populous province of Quebec is shutting bars, gyms and casinos and ordered people on Monday to work from home to combat the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Health minister Christian Dube said the province has a record 4,500 new cases of the coronavirus a day and urged Quebecers to cut down their personal contacts as the Christmas holiday season approached. The new measures will come into effect at 5pm (22:00 GMT) on Monday.

“The situation is critical … right now we are waging a war against the virus,” Dube told a virtual briefing, saying the health care system was very fragile.

Dube said most schools would be shut down immediately until January 10. Restaurants can only open from 5 pm to 10 pm and all sporting events will be played behind closed doors.

Inside Story: How can Omicron be stopped from spreading?

The global surge in new COVID-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant is forcing some nations to reimpose strict lockdown measures just before the holiday season.

The Netherlands was the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown on Sunday. France, Austria, Cyprus and Germany have tightened travel restrictions – some even cancelling Christmas and New Year celebrations.

And Ireland is among other countries imposing curfews and limiting the number of people allowed in bars and restaurants.

But is it enough?

Queen Elizabeth to spend Christmas at Windsor amid Omicron outbreak

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth will celebrate Christmas at Windsor instead of her usual choice of Sandringham, a palace source told Reuters news agency on Monday, as the Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly.

“The decision was a personal one after careful consideration and reflects a precautionary approach,” the source said. “There will be family visiting Windsor over the Christmas period and all appropriate guidelines will be followed.”

Panama detects first case of Omicron

Panama has detected its first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the Central American country’s health ministry said.

A 50-year-old who works in mining and recently travelled to South Africa was found to have contracted the Omicron variant, said Luis Sucre, Panama’s health minister.

PM Johnson says COVID situation in UK ‘extremely difficult’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that he was looking at all kinds of things to keep the Omicron variant under control as the situation was extremely difficult, cautioning that further restrictions might be needed.

“I have to say to the British public, and I say to everybody, we will not exclude the possibility of going further if we have to do things to protect the public,” Johnson said after a cabinet meeting.

“We will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside a back entrance to 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, December 20, 2021 [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Premier League games to continue despite virus surge

English Premier League teams have agreed to continue playing matches scheduled over the festive period despite a surge in COVID-19 cases postponing several fixtures, the BBC reported.

Ten Premier League games have been postponed this month due to outbreaks amid a busy schedule where teams are set to play three times between Boxing Day and January 3.

Only four of the 10 weekend’s fixtures were played after teams told the Premier League they were unable to name a full strength side.

China must share more data on virus origins: WHO chief

China must be more forthcoming with data and information related to the origin of the coronavirus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that there had been “many failures” during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a lack of rules or obligations under the WHO’s current 2005 International Health Regulations.

“We need to continue until we know the origins, we need to push harder because we should learn from what happened this time in order to (do) better in the future,” Tedros told a news briefing for Geneva journalists.

Omicron spreading faster than Delta and infecting the vaccinated: WHO

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

“There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing for Geneva-based journalists, held at its new headquarters building.

“And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected.”

Double ski world champion Liensberger tests positive for COVID

Austria’s double world ski champion Katharina Liensberger has announced she will not compete at this week’s World Cup meet at Courchevel, after testing positive for COVID-19.

The 24-year-old world champion in parallel giant slalom and slalom joins Swiss star Lara Gut-Behrami in being sidelined due to positive tests.

“As I tested positive for coronavirus I will be unable to ski at Courchevel (two giant slaloms on Tuesday and Wednesday),” she said.

Katharina Liensberger of Austria during a giant slalom training run [File: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters]

Scotland records more than 6,000 new cases

Scotland has recorded its highest test positivity rate since January this year, with 6,734 new coronavirus cases counted in the last 24 hours.

In Monday’s figures, the test positivity rate stood at 15.2 percent, up from 13.9 per cent on Sunday.

French health regulator approves Pfizer for 5-11 year olds

France’s Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS) health regulator approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for all children aged 5-11.

The vaccine, which will be administered in a paediatric formulation when it becomes widely available, showed high efficacy among children, said Lise Alter, one of the doctors charged with the risk evaluation of new drugs.

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker administers a dose of a coronavirus disease vaccine to a child at a vaccination centre in Les Pavillons-sous-Bois, near Paris, France [Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters]

‘Not a need for panic’ over Omicron: Vaccinologist

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Haifa, vaccinologist Ali Fattom said there was little need to “panic” over the Omicron virus as existing vaccines were showing very good protection even against the new strain.

“The only problem we have is losing some efficacy, but not really the whole thing,” he said.

“There are still some specific specific immunity that covers Omicron, and therefore I think that while you raise the immune response, you are going to get coverage for Omicron. So there is no issue with the with having this panic.”

Initial booster data shows good results on new variant: Moderna

Moderna says a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

The company said lab tests showed the half-dose booster shot increased by 37 times the level of so-called neutralising antibodies able to fight omicron.

And a full-dose booster was even stronger, triggering an 83-fold jump in antibody levels, although with an increase in the usual side effects, the company said.

Despite half-dose shots are being used for most Moderna boosters, a full-dose third shot has been recommended for people with weakened immune systems [File: Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo]

EU approves Novavax, fifth COVID-19 vaccine for bloc

The European Union’s drugs regulator gave the green light to a fifth COVID-19 vaccine for use in the 27-nation bloc, granting conditional marketing authorisation to the two-dose vaccine made by US biotech company Novavax.

The European Medicines Agency decision to grant conditional marketing authorisation for the vaccine for people aged 18 and over, which must be confirmed by the EU’s executive commission, comes as many European nations are battling surges in infections and amid concerns about the spread of the new omicron variant.

Dubai airport fully operational for first time since pandemic

Dubai airport, one of the world’s busiest travel hubs, is fully operational for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March 2020, officials said Monday.

The opening of sections closed as the COVID-19 crisis took hold comes as the United Arab Emirates records a rise of infections amid fears of the new Omicron variant.

“Following the opening of the final phase… (the) airport is 100 percent operational with all terminals, concourses, lounges, restaurants, and retail outlets now open,” said a statement carried by the UAE’s official WAM news agency.

Last year, Dubai International Airport reported a 70 percent drop in traffic, from more than 86 million travellers in 2019 to 25.9 million in 2020.

S.Korea’s Moon urges more beds for coronavirus patients in a serious state

South Korea’s hospitals must dedicate more beds and resources for the treatment of coronavirus patients, President Moon Jae-in said, as serious infections hovered near record highs.

“Over the past year, we have prepared for an increase in patients by nearly doubling the number of coronavirus treatment beds and expanding home treatment, but it was not enough,” Moon’s spokesperson, Park Kyung-mee, quoted him as saying.

Over the weekend, the occupancy rate of beds in intensive care for COVID-19 patients stood at nearly 88 percent in Seoul, and more than 79 percent for the country as a whole, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

That figure is above the threshold of 75 percent that health authorities had said would trigger emergency measures.

Spanish Tennis Madrid Open
Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point during the Madrid Open tennis match against Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in Madrid, Spain, Friday, May 10, 2019. [File: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

Tennis player Nadal tests positive for COVID-19 after Abu Dhabi event

Rafa Nadal has tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Spain after making his comeback from injury in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week, the Spaniard said.

“I am having some unpleasant moments but I hope that I will improve little by little. I am now homebound and have reported the result to those who have been in contact with me,” Nadal said in a statement.

Ireland does not expect to impose additional COVID restrictions: deputy PM

The Irish government does not expect to have to impose stricter COVID-19 restrictions in the coming weeks, deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar said, days after the government ordered bars and restaurants to close at 8pm.

“If we have to, we will do whatever is necessary … but we don’t anticipate that will be necessary,” Varadkar told Irish broadcaster RTE.

He said he was “hoping and expecting” that expected high infection rates from the Omicron variant of the coronavirus would not translate into hospitalisations to the same extent as previous waves.

UK’s Omicron deaths rise to 12, no guarantees on Christmas restrictions

Twelve people in Britain have died with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, with another 104 people hospitalized, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said.

Asked whether the government would impose further restrictions before Christmas, Raab told Times Radio: “I just can’t make hard and fast guarantees.”

“In assessing the situation we rely very heavily on the real data coming through and it will take a little bit more time to assess this critical issue of the severity of Omicron,” he said.

People walk across Westminster Bridge, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in London, Britain, December 15, 2021. [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Coronavirus cluster linked to US base in Japan grows to at least 180

A cluster of coronavirus infections linked to a US military base in Japan has grown to at least 180, Japan’s government said, raising fears over the spread of the virus in the community.

A Japanese worker at Camp Hansen on the southern island of Okinawa was found positive with the Omicron variant last Friday, Japanese officials said.

The cluster linked to the base now had 180 cases, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a regular news conference, though it was not clear how many were of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“The Japanese government is urging again the US side to ensure all workers at the US military bases in Japan abide by the instructions and take strong measures if there are any violations,” Matsuno said.

Ramaphosa back at work after COVID-19: presidency

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa wears a face mask as he looks on during a visit with Ivory Coast’s Prime Minister Patrick Achi at the port in Abidjan, Ivory Coast December 3, 2021. [Luc Gnago/Reuters]

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has returned to work after finishing a week of self-isolation due to testing positive for COVID-19, his office said.

Ramaphosa, who was given Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine in February, tested positive for COVID-19 on December 12 and received treatment for mild symptoms.

“The President has returned to duty and will chair the final cabinet meeting for 2021 on Wednesday,” the presidency said in a statement.

Thai agency approves Pfizer vaccine for use in children aged 5-11

Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration said it has approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children between the age of five and 11.

The Comirnaty vaccine, which is the first to be approved in Thailand for that age group, will be given in two 10 microgram doses, 21 days apart, the drug regulator said in a statement.

Israel to ban travel to US, Canada over Omicron variant

Israeli ministers agreed to ban travel to the United States, Canada and eight other countries amid the rapid, global spread of the Omicron variant.

The rare move to red-list the US comes amid rising coronavirus infections in Israel and marks a change to pandemic practices between the two nations with close diplomatic relations. The US will join a growing list of European countries and other destinations to which Israelis are barred from travelling, and from which returning travellers must remain in quarantine.

A parliamentary committee is expected to give the measure final approval. Once authorised, the travel ban will take effect at midnight on Wednesday morning.

Israel on Sunday approved barring entry to foreign nationals and the use of controversial technology for contact tracing as part of its efforts to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant [Ariel Schalit/AP Photo]

Germany tightens restrictions on UK travellers

Travellers from the United Kingdom entering Germany must have a negative test and quarantine for two weeks, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases (RKI) – a federal health agency – announced the new rules as it classified the UK as a virus variant area of concern, the highest COVID-19 risk level.

German nationals and residents will still be allowed to enter from the UK.

EU drug regulator to decide on Novavax vaccine

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said its human medicines committee would hold an extraordinary meeting to decide on whether to approve a COVID jab by Novavax, and “will communicate the outcome”.

Novavax’s jab, a protein-based vaccine of the kind used around the world to protect against many childhood illnesses, would be the fifth coronavirus shot authorised for the European Union.

Novavax says its vaccine showed 90.4 percent efficacy against COVID-19 in a North American trial.

Chief Executive Stanley Erck said the firm “looks forward to providing an additional vaccine option in Europe, built on a proven, well-understood technology platform”.

Sydney resists calls to restore tough curbs

Despite the threat from the more transmissible Omicron variant, life returned to near normal in Sydney last week, with almost all tough curbs lifted ahead of Christmas, as vaccination rates rank among the world’s highest.

“There will always be new variants of this virus,” said Dominic Perrottet, the premier of the most populous state of New South Wales.

“The pandemic is not going away and we need to learn to live alongside it,” he told reporters. “We need to also move away from fear and move to hope and confidence.”

Thailand reports first local Omicron case

Thailand is considering reinstating mandatory quarantine for foreign visitors due to concerns over the spread of Omicron, as the health ministry reported the country’s first case of local transmission of the coronavirus variant.

The Public Health Ministry will propose scrapping a quarantine waiver for vaccinated visitors and revert to hotel quarantine and a “sandbox” programme, which allows free movement in specific locations, its minister Anutin Charnvirakul said.

The proposal was driven by worries over the spread of Omicron, Anutin told the Inside Thailand television show, adding it will be made to the government’s COVID-19 taskforce “soon”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies