Latest COVID updates: US to add 500 million rapid tests

COVID news from January 12: Biden says gov’t will double the number of at-home testing kits to be given to Americans.

People line up for a COVID-19 test outside Grand Central Terminal during the coronavirus pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

US President Joe Biden has announced his administration’s procurement of 500 million additional rapid COVID-19 tests to better tackle the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant which is straining hospitals and overwhelming healthcare workers.

Meanwhile in Europe, France will no longer require proof of an essential reason for travellers from the United Kingdom and it will lift a requirement to self-isolate upon arrival. The decision comes as French teachers launched a strike over the government’s “chaotic” virus strategy for schools and the Senate approved a controversial vaccine pass to access public places.

And the World Health Organization (WHO) has said it will consider whether to extend a global public health emergency it declared over the coronavirus, which has been in place for nearly two years.

Also, the Africa Centres for Disease Control is seeking to work with Pfizer to bring its treatment pill for COVID-19 to the continent, where less than 15 percent of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

This live blog is now closed, thanks for joining us. Here are the updates for January 13:

Supreme Court halts vaccine rule for US businesses

The US Supreme Court has stopped an effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to enforce a rule that would require employees at large businesses to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the court wrote in its opinion.

The court, which has a conservative majority, found the administration overstepped its authority. The decision affects 80 million people.

Norway to ease some COVID rules

The Norwegian government will partly reverse a ban on serving alcohol in bars and restaurants as part of efforts to relax COVID-19 restrictions, the prime minister said.

Bars and restaurants will be able to serve alcoholic drinks until 11 pm local time (22:00 GMT) in a partial reversal of the total ban introduced in December which has hit the Nordic country’s hospitality industry hard.

Biden to procure 500m rapid tests

US President Joe Biden announced the latest federal efforts to confront a “surge” in Omicron cases, including doubling the procurement of rapid tests.

The initial order was for 500 million tests, but amid rising demand, he said, the federal government will purchase a total one billion at-home testing kits.

“In addition to the 500 million that are in the process of being acquired to ship to your homes for free, today I’m directing my team to procure an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free,” he said.

The announcement came as Biden has come under criticism for not focusing more on testing as part of his strategy for fighting the pandemic. A nationwide shortage of tests has plagued the response in recent weeks during the rampant spread of Omicron.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the December 2021 jobs report during a speech in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S.
US President Joe Biden Biden has come under criticism for not focusing more on testing as part of his strategy for fighting the pandemic [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Germany to recommend booster for 12 to 17-year-olds

Germany’s STIKO vaccine committee recommended that all children between the ages of 12 and 17 receive a booster shot as the country reported a new daily record of more than 81,000 infections.

The move on booster shots makes Germany among the first countries in the world to make such a recommendation, following the United States, Israel and Hungary.

The third dose should be an mRNA shot from BioNTech/Pfizer and should be given, at the earliest, three months after the child had their second shot, the committee said in a statement. While data on the effectiveness and safety of the booster vaccination for 12- to 17-year-olds remains limited, the risk of severe side effects is estimated to be very low, it added.

French PM to meet with teachers’ unions following strike

France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex will meet French teachers union representatives later in the day, according to its office.

The meeting comes as tens of thousands of French teachers walked off the job over what they say is the government’s failure to adopt a coherent policy for schools to manage the pandemic and protect pupils and staff against infection.

Netherlands to ease restrictions

Coronavirus restrictions in the Netherlands will be eased from Saturday despite Omicron, Dutch media reported.

Non-essential stores, hairdressers and gyms will be allowed to reopen for a limited number of customers, broadcasters NOS and RTL said, citing government sources. Students will be welcomed back to their colleges and universities. Bars, restaurants, theatres, museums and other public places will remain closed.

The government will decide formally on the changes on Friday.

More US medical teams to bolster states as Omicron surges

Another 1,000 federal health workers are deploying to six states to help alleviate overwhelmed hospitals amid the US surge in Omicron-related cases, the White House said.

The teams of between seven and 25 military doctors, nurses and other personnel will head to New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and New Mexico to support emergency departments and allow hospital staff to continue with other care, a White House official said.

Africa has passed 10 million COVID-19 cases: WHO

The African continent has exceeded 10 million confirmed COVID-19 cases as the world enters the third year of the pandemic, according to the WHO.

Speaking at a virtual panel, the UN agency’s Regional Emergency Director Abdou Salam Gueye said “more than 230,000 people have sadly died” in Africa so far.

Death rates have risen by 64 percent during the past week, “mainly due to infection among people at high risk” but deaths and hospitalisations remain low compared with previous virus waves on the continent.

Africa has received more than 660 million doses of vaccines, with only about 340 million doses administered so far.

Ivory Coast fans wearing protective masks stand in line as they arrive to watch the Africa Cup of Nations soccer match between Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast on a big screen in Abidjan
Africa has exceeded 10 million confirmed COVID-19 cases as the world enters the third year of the pandemic [Luc Gnago/Reuters]

Tokyo’s new cases jump to four-month high, forecast to triple

Tokyo has recorded a new four-month high in COVID-19 infections, and experts forecast the spread of the Omicron variant will cause the daily count to triple by month’s end.

Omicron now accounts for more than 80 percent of new infections in Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.

Japan’s capital had 3,124 new coronavirus cases, the most since September 1. The daily tally will likely exceed 10,000 by the end of January, according to projections announced at a municipal government meeting.

Hungary to offer fourth shot as Omicron cases spike

Hungary is to make a fourth shot available to people who ask for it, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, told a news conference.

“Anyone can get a fourth COVID-19 shot based on a consultation with a doctor, the [government] decree about this will be published this week,” Gulyas said.

The European Union’s drug regulator has expressed doubts about the need for a fourth dose and said there was no data to support this approach as it seeks more information on the fast-spreading variant. Chile and Israel have already begun a rollout.

More than 100 million vaccines rejected by poorer nations: UNICEF

Poorer nations last month rejected more than 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines distributed under the global programme COVAX, mainly due to their rapid expiry date, a UNICEF official said.

“More than 100 million have been rejected just in December alone,” Etleva Kadilli, director of supply division at UN agency UNICEF told lawmakers at the European Parliament.

Supplies have also been rejected because of insufficient storage facilities, Kadilli said, including a lack of fridges for vaccines.

Read the full story here.

Tunisia’s Ennahdha urges Friday protests despite COVID ban

Tunisia’s Ennahdha party has reiterated calls for demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the country’s revolution on Friday, defying tightened coronavirus restrictions which it says are politically motivated.

President Kais Saied, who suspended parliament in July 2021, announced new measures against mounting coronavirus cases on Wednesday, including a ban on public gatherings starting Thursday evening.

Ennahdha accused the government of “utilising the coronavirus crisis for political ends, targeting what remains of the margin of freedom” in Tunisia.

Final of 2022 Asian Champions League set to move to 2023

The winners of the 2022 Asian Champions League are set to be decided in 2023 with a big split in match schedules for the east and west regions, the Asian Football Confederation said.

The two reasons cited for the new plan, which would see the 2022 league final played in February 2023, were travel challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and the unusual scheduling of the World Cup in Qatar during November and December.

Surge in Middle East cases likely driven by Omicron: WHO

A “shocking” surge in COVID-19 cases across the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region is probably due to the Omicron variant, a WHO official said, warning that some countries in the group still have very low vaccination rates.

Reported cases in the region rose 89 percent in the first week of January from a week earlier but deaths fell by 13 percent, WHO Regional Director Ahmed al-Mandhari said.

Out of 22 mostly Middle Eastern countries in the region, 15 have officially reported cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

Al-Mandhari said six countries in the region – Afghanistan, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – have vaccinated less than 10 percent of their populations despite having enough vaccines available to protect up to 40 percent.

South Africa still seeing serious COVID in unvaccinated

A South African pulmonologist said unvaccinated patients are still contracting severe COVID-19 disease, despite evidence suggesting the Omicron coronavirus causes milder symptoms.

“We are still seeing very serious infections and admissions in patients who are unvaccinated and also in patients who have comorbidities and this includes the elderly population,” pulmonologist Anita Graham told a news conference organised by the WHO’s Africa office.

Finland cuts quarantine length to five days

Finland has cut the length of its COVID quarantine from 10 days to five for most cases, its public health authority said.

With the Omicron variant, “the progress of infection development has speeded up and therefore the quarantine length of 10 days is no longer justifiable the way it was before”, public health authority THL’s chief physician Otto Helve told reporters.

Finland reported 53,600 new COVID cases across a week, up by more than 27 percent from the week before, but authorities said the numbers were no longer reliable due to a lack of testing capacity.

Africa CDC talking to Pfizer about importing COVID pill

Africa’s top public health body is in talks with Pfizer about bringing its treatment pill for COVID-19 to the continent, its director said.

“We are in really close discussions with Pfizer to see what can be done to make the drugs available on the continent and accessible on the continent,” said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control.

UK’s Johnson cancels trip after lockdown apology

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cancelled a trip to northern England after a relative came down with COVID, officials said, a day after he apologised for a lockdown-breaking party.

“The prime minister will no longer be visiting Lancashire today due to a family member testing positive for coronavirus,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

“He will follow the guidance for vaccinated close contacts, including daily testing and limiting contact with others.”

In the UK, fully vaccinated people no longer have to self-isolate after coming into contact with an infected person. But they are advised to “limit close contact with other people outside your household”.

UAE’s Ajman warns of pay cuts for exposure to COVID twice

The emirate of Ajman has warned government employees that they will be penalised for coming into contact for a second time with anyone who has contracted COVID-19, UAE media have reported.

Federal employees in Ajman will not receive paid sick leave for quarantine if they come into close contact with infected people outside the workplace or home for a second time.

Ajman’s human resources department has issued a circular with a list of infractions that would lead to salary deductions, ranging from a one-day pay cut to a 10-day pay cut for repeat offenders.

The list includes failure to wear masks, being in crowded areas, shaking hands with others and going to the office after being in contact with someone who has contracted the coronavirus.

India’s big cities could see COVID cases peak next week

Indian cities could see new COVID-19 infections peak next week, experts said, as the country reported the highest number of daily cases since late May.

Total infections have reached 36.32 million, behind only the United States.

“Our modelling, and those of others, suggests that the big Indian cities should see their peaks in cases close to January 20, while the overall peak in India may be shifted a bit later, to early February,” said Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University.

Read more here.

South Korea to become first Asian country to use Pfizer pills

South Korea will become the first Asian country to treat coronavirus patients with Pfizer’s antiviral pills starting on Friday.

Some 630,000 Paxlovid pills, enough for 21,000 people, have arrived and will be distributed to 280 pharmacies and 90 residential treatment centres, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

“In light of Omicron’s much higher infectiousness, the medication should play a meaningful role in restraining the number of patients who would develop critical symptoms even if the strain is relatively less severe,” Kim Ki-nam, a KDCA official, told a briefing.

France slightly eases travel protocols for trips from UK

France has announced it was slightly easing COVID-19 protocols for travellers from the UK, saying that the proof of an essential reason for the trip and a requirement to self-isolate upon arrival would no longer be required.

The requirement for a negative COVID-19 test, conducted 24 hours before a trip, remains in place.

Preliminary data suggests booster generates higher antibodies

AstraZeneca said data from a trial it conducted on its COVID-19 vaccine, Vaxzevria, showed it generated a higher antibody response against Omicron and other strains when given as a third booster dose.

The increased response was seen in people who were previously vaccinated with either Vaxzevria or an mRNA vaccine, the drugmaker said, adding that it would submit this data to regulators worldwide given the urgent need for boosters.

‘50,000 deaths a week is not something we can accept’: WHO

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told Al Jazeera that attention on the spread of the new coronavirus variant must remain high, dismissing recent calls to debate the possibility of treating COVID-19 as an endemic illness akin to the flu.

Jasarevic said, “50,000 deaths a week is not something we can just accept,” adding that while the quarantine period can be reduced provided adequate testing, measures including wearing masks in public places must be upheld.

Jasarevic said more efforts must be made to reach the unvaccinated, especially in the 36 countries that have vaccinated less than 10 percent of their total population.

“We really need to close the gap in vaccination,” Jasarevic said.

French Senate approves COVID vaccine pass

France has approved new measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, including the requirement for residents to prove their vaccination status to access restaurants and bars, cultural venues, or interregional public transport.

The Senate backed the legislation for a COVID vaccine pass by 249 in favour, versus 63 against. The legislation had already been approved earlier this month by France’s lower house of parliament.

The proposal encountered some opposition among the public after President Emmanuel Macron told Le Parisien paper that he wanted to “p*** off” unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would get the COVID vaccine.

Djokovic included in Australian Open draw

Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one male tennis player, was included in the Australian Open official draw, despite ongoing uncertainty about whether he will be allowed to remain in the country.

He was drawn to play fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic in the first round of the tournament.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government had yet to decide on cancelling Djokovic’s visa.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s earlier statement that he is pondering whether to tear up the visa “has not changed”, Morrison told a news conference in Canberra.

Read more here.

Cannabis compounds may prevent COVID, study says

A new laboratory study says cannabis compounds show the ability to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from entering human cells.

Researchers from the Oregon State University in the US said they found that a pair of cannabinoid acids – called cannabigerolic acid or CBGA and cannabidiolic acid or CBDA – can bind to the spike proteins on the SARS-CoV-2, blocking a critical step in the process the virus uses to infect people.

The study was published in the Journal of Natural Products.

US to increase support for COVID testing in schools

The White House says it will increase federal support for COVID-19 testing in schools in order to keep them open amid the Omicron surge.

Jeff Zientis, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said a dedicated stream of five million rapid tests and five million lab-based PCR tests will be made available to schools starting this month.

The initiative comes after Chicago public schools closed for days amid an impasse between teachers and officials over reopening policies.

Australian Open draw delayed amid uncertainty over Djokovic

The Australian Open tennis draw has been postponed until further notice, organisers say, amid uncertainty about whether the government will cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time.

The draw was scheduled to start at 3pm local time (04:00 GMT) in Melbourne, but a tournament official told waiting media that the ceremony had been delayed indefinitely.

That is because the Australian immigration minister was still considering whether to deport the nine-time and defending Australian Open champion, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, on public interest grounds.

Unvaccinated father in Canada temporarily loses visitation rights

A Canadian father, unvaccinated against COVID-19 and “opposed to health measures”, lost the right to visit his 12-year-old after a Quebec judge ruled his visits would not be in the child’s “best interest”.

The decision was rendered on December 23, the AFP news agency reported, and suspends the father’s visitation rights until February, unless he decides to get vaccinated.

Australia’s Victoria exempts more workers from quarantine rules

The Australian state of Victoria is exempting more workers from quarantine requirements for being close contacts.

The decision came amid pressure on supply chains and will apply to staff in emergency services, education, and transport.

Australia’s COVID cases hit record high

Australia is reporting its biggest caseload since the pandemic began, logging more than 147,000 new cases on Thursday.

A total of 53 deaths were also reported, but the death rate during the Omicron wave is lower than prior outbreaks in Australia.

More than 92 percent of people above the age of 16 are double-dosed in the country.

Net new hospital admissions and people admitted to intensive care are at their highest in the pandemic but authorities say the health systems can cope with the rising cases.

Omicron will become dominant variant in Americas shortly, says PAHO

The Pan American Health Organization says it expects Omicron to become the predominant coronavirus variant in the Americas in the coming weeks.

“While Delta is still causing new infections in the Americas, based on current trends, Omicron is on track to become the dominant strain in our region,” said Carissa Etienne, director of the agency known by its initials, PAHO.

The Omicron variant, which spreads more easily, has been detected in 42 of the 56 countries and territories of the Americas.

WHO to discuss extending global health emergency

With the help of an independent committee of experts, the WHO will consider later on Thursday whether to extend a global public health emergency it declared over the coronavirus.

The current “public health emergency of international concern” has been in place for nearly two years now.

Whether the committee recommends declaring the coronavirus emergency over or not, there would be few practical consequences.

However, many experts are concerned that ending it could send the wrong signal as cases surge across the globe.

Australian Open crowds capped at 50 percent

Authorities say crowds at the Australian Open will be capped at 50 percent capacity as COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions continue to rise in Melbourne.

Jaala Pulford, Victoria State tourism minister, said in a statement that face masks will also be mandatory at the opening Grand Slam of the year, which starts on Monday.

Spectators will be required to socially distance while indoors, she added.

French teachers to strike over ‘chaotic’ COVID strategy

French teachers are set to walk off the job over what they say is the government’s failure to adopt a coherent policy for schools to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, or properly protect pupils and staff against infection.

“The exhaustion and exasperation of the entire educational community have reached an unprecedented level,” 11 unions said in a joint statement.

“The responsibility of the minister and the government in this chaotic situation is total because of incessant changes of footing, unworkable protocols and the lack of appropriate tools to guarantee [schools] can function properly.”

The strike comes as teachers, parents and school administrators struggle to keep up with new testing rules, announced before the end of the Christmas holidays but changed twice since, following criticism.

Dutch foreign minister has COVID-19

Wopke Hoekstra, the Dutch foreign minister, says he has tested positive for COVID-19 and will be quarantining at home for the next few days.

He made the announcement on Twitter.

Hoekstra, who was only sworn in Monday, had been in Brussels on Tuesday where he met with the EU’s foreign policy chief Joseph Borrel and Belgian foreign minister Sophie Wilmes.

Hello and welcome to Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m Zaheena Rasheed in Male, Maldives.

Read all the developments from January 12 here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies