Latest COVID updates: WHO chief warns Omicron not ‘mild’

COVID news from January 6: WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says Omicron variant appears to produce less severe disease than the globally dominant Delta strain but should not be categorised as ‘mild’.

A woman is getting a nasal swab to test for the coronavirus disease in Chennai, India
A health worker performs a COVID-19 coronavirus screening of a woman at a round the clock testing facility in Chennai on January 06, 2022. [Arun Sankar/AFP]

The more infectious Omicron coronavirus variant appears to produce less severe disease than the globally dominant Delta strain, but it should not be categorised as “mild”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Governments across the world are tightening restrictions as the Omicron variant continues to drive up COVID-19 cases globally.

Election rallies have been cancelled in India as its megacities experience a surge in cases.

The number of people in hospital with coronavirus is at its highest in Britain since February last year, new figures show, amid increasing pressure on health services.

The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for January 6:

Mexico nears 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 as cases surge after holidays

Mexico is likely to surpass 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week – the fifth highest death toll worldwide – as infections rise after the holiday season, fueled by the Omicron coronavirus variant and largely unrestricted tourism.

Infections have more than doubled to 20,000 during the last week when many tourists visited Mexico from the United States and Canada. Eleven of Mexico’s 32 states decided not to resume in-person school classes this week with cases climbing fast.

“Since December, a lot of people started to go out and there are many who no longer wear face masks,” said Isauro Perez, a 53-year-old taxi driver in Mexico City. “If we don’t take care of ourselves, the government won’t take care of us.”

Italy’s coronavirus cases hit new daily record of 219,441

Italy reported a record daily number of new COVID-19 cases at 219,441 against 189,109 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of coronavirus-related deaths fell to 198 from 231.

Italy has registered 138,474 deaths linked to the virus since its outbreak emerged in February 2020, and has reported 6.975 million cases to date.

Chile to become first country in Latin America to offer fourth COVID shot

A group of people wait to receive the vaccine
People wait to receive China’s Sinovac vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lloncao, Chile February 5, 2021. [File: Jose Luis Saavedra/Reuters]

Chile will begin offering a fourth shot of the coronavirus vaccine next week to immunocompromised citizens, the government said , the first country in Latin America to offer the extra dose.

“Starting next Monday, January 10, we are going to start a new mass vaccination process with a fourth dose or a second booster dose,” said President Sebastian Pinera in a press conference.

Chile has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates and has been hailed as a model for its response to the pandemic, having administered two doses to more than 85 percent of the population. About 57 percent have received a third booster shot, according to Our World in Data.

Brazil’s Sao Paulo carnival canned over COVID-19

Sao Paulo, Latin America’s most populous city, cancelled its annual street carnival for the second year in a row due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cities of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia have also scrapped their carnivals as infection rates soared after Christmas and New Year’s celebrations and with the arrival of the Omicron variant in hard-hit Brazil.

“The Sao Paulo street carnival is cancelled due to the epidemiological situation,” mayor Ricardo Nunes of the city of 12 million told reporters.

Like Rio, Sao Paulo hopes to maintain the colorful parade by samba troupes in its “Sambadrome” outdoor venue, though strict virus-control protocols would apply.

Peru raises COVID-19 alert, tightens curbs amid Omicron wave

Peru, which has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rates per number of inhabitants, raised its pandemic alert level in various cities and tightened some restrictions due to a third wave of infections caused by the spread of the Omicron variant.

Health Minister Hernando Cevallos said that some 24 provinces, including Lima, went from “moderate” to “high” alert as the average number of daily cases has increased 25 percent from the previous week.

“We’re at a level of infections that’s rising more and more quickly,” Cevallos said in a press conference. The minister said that in Lima, where close to a third of the country lives, “Omicron is the prominent (variant),” causing half of all new cases.

Beijing Winter Olympics Covid plans look strong: WHO

Zhangjiakou Winter Olympic Village athletes' village for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in China
An aerial view shows the Zhangjiakou Winter Olympic Village athletes’ village for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, China, November 20, 2021. [File: Thomas Suen/Reuters]

Beijing’s plans to ensure next month’s 2022 Winter Olympics go ahead safely during the Covid-19 pandemic look strong, the World Health Organization said.

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said the UN health agency had worked with the International Olympic Committee to provide technical advice on the safe hosting of the Games.

“The Chinese authorities have very strict measures in place, and they’ve released a series of different playbooks. We continue to review those playbooks with the IOC,” he told a news conference.

“I’m confident that given the information we have, that the measures that are in place for the Games are very strict and very strong and we don’t, at this point, see any increased risk of disease transmission in that context.”

Austria makes medical grade masks obligatory outside

Austria’s government said it was making medical grade masks compulsory outside to ward off a new lockdown as Omicron variant cases of COVID-19 rise.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer revealed the decision, telling reporters the situation was “very serious” with Omicron’s degree of contagion posing “a new challenge”.

Medical grade FFP2 face coverings, offer better filtration than their surgical equivalent and cover the face more effectively, had already been compulsory on Austrian public transport and in enclosed spaces since last January.

Belgium suffers record COVID cases, adapts quarantine strategy

Belgium’s daily cases of COVID-19 reached a new peak this week, with health experts warning of between 30,000 and 125,000 cases a day by mid-January in the nation of 11 million.

“The fifth wave has started. The weekly average has risen by 82 percent,” virologist Steven Van Gucht told a news conference following a government meeting on the coronavirus situation.

The number of people in hospitals in also rising, especially in the Brussels region by 60 percent. Between 2,500 and 10,000 beds could be occupied by COVID patients by the end of January, Van Gucht said, without giving estimates for patients in intensive care units (ICUs).

Omicron may be less severe, but not ‘mild’ – WHO chief

While the Omicron coronavirus variant appears to produce less severe disease than the globally dominant Delta strain, but it should not be categorised as “mild”, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Speaking at a media briefing, director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also repeated his call for greater global equity in the distribution of and access to coronavirus vaccines.

He warned that based on the current rate of vaccine rollout, 109 countries will miss the WHO’s target for 70 percent of the world’s population to be fully vaccinated by July. That aim is seen as helping end the acute phase of the pandemic

Israel to cancel high COVID-risk designation of US and 7 other countries

Israel is cancelling its designation of the United States and seven other countries as high COVID-19 risks, as the fast-spreading but relatively low-morbidity Omicron variant prompts reviews of restrictions.

On Thursday morning, the United States, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Turkey, Tanzania, Mexico and Switzerland were on the “red” list. Health ministry director-general Nachman Ash said the list would be scrapped at midnight (2200 GMT), subject to approval by the Cabinet and a parliamentary panel

Manchester City manager Guardiola tests positive for COVID-19

Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola raises his hands to his face
Soccer Football – Champions League Final – Manchester City v Chelsea – Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal – May 29, 2021 Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts during the 2021 Champions League final between his club and Chelsea on May 29 [File: Carl Recine/Reuters]

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola tested positive for coronavirus, the English Premier League club said.

In a statement, the club said the 50-year-old will not be able to manage the team for the FA Cup match against Swindon Town on Friday. Assistant coach Rodolfo Borrell will fill in instead.

Guardiola’s assistant Juanma Lillo also tested positive for coronavirus, and both are isolating, along with as many as 21 club staffers – including seven players – who tested positive.

Portugal adds virus booster jab incentives, cuts isolation

Portugal’s government announced new incentives for people to get COVID-19 booster shots and said new rules will require people to isolate only if they live with someone who tests positive.

People who had a booster jab two weeks previously will from next Monday no longer need to show a negative coronavirus test result to attend events and enter places where it otherwise would be required, Prime Minister António Costa said.

“This is an incentive … to get a booster,” he said, adding that the alterations will take effect next week.

Philippines’ Duterte threatens unvaccinated people with arrest

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said people who have not taken COVID-19 shots will be arrested if they disobeyed stay-at-home orders as infections hit a three-month high.

Duterte in an televised address to the nation said he was asking community leaders to look for unvaccinated people and make sure they were confined to their homes.

“If he refuses, if he goes out his house and goes around the community, he can be restrained. If he refuses, the captain is empowered now to arrest recalcitrant persons,” Duterte said.

Daily coronavirus infections in the Philippines hit the highest since September 26 at 17,220 cases on Thursday, the health ministry said, including those caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Qatar reports increase in new daily cases

Qatar has reported 2,053 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the community and 726 among travellers.

New daily cases have been increasing in recent weeks, driven by the Omicron variant. About 86 percent of the total population is now vaccinated with two doses.

The Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) has stressed that recent studies indicate the effectiveness of the booster dose in preventing severe infection against the new Omicron variant.

Chinese official apologises after woman miscarries outside lockdown hospital

A top health official in China’s locked down Xi’an city has apologised over the miscarriage of an eight-month pregnant woman after footage went viral of a hospital refusing her entry without a COVID test.

“I deeply apologise to this patient on behalf of the city’s health commission,” Xi’an health commission director Liu Shunzhi told reporters, before standing and bowing to the audience.

Liu said the hospital had been told to “compensate” the woman and said he apologised that the “access to medical care was not smooth during the epidemic”.

The hospital’s general manager has been suspended over the incident, as have “responsible persons” at the outpatient department.

Thailand reports biggest spike in virus cases in weeks

Thailand has reported its biggest spike in coronavirus cases in weeks after the holiday season, amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Officials recorded 5,775 new cases, prompting the Ministry of Public Health to raise the official warning level to 4 on a scale of 5, permanent secretary Kiatiphume Wongrajit said.

The warning level had been at 3 since the end of December.

Under level 4, the ministry recommends closing high-risk venues, including those with poor ventilation, increasing restrictions on interprovincial travel, limiting group sizes in public places and lengthening quarantine requirements for travellers entering Thailand.

Africa CDC says lockdowns no longer tool to contain coronavirus

Africa’s top public health official has said severe lockdowns were no longer the best way to contain the virus, citing South Africa as an example.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), told a news conference that “the period where we are using severe lockdowns as a tool is over”.

Nkengasong added South Africa experienced a steep rise of the more infectious Omicron variant from late November, but also a sharp decrease. “I think that is a lesson that we all should learn from what the South Africans have done to manage this,” he said.

Britain’s COVID hospitalisation highest since last February

A total of 17,276 people were in hospital in the UK with COVID-19 as of January 4, government figures show, the highest number since February 19.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country is seeing its fastest growth in cases, as more than 20 hospital trusts declared a critical incident.

Johnson said hospital admissions were “doubling around every nine days” and the country was “experiencing the fastest growth in COVID cases we’ve ever known”.

Survey: 85 percent of Indonesians have antibodies

More than 85 percent of Indonesia’s population has antibodies against COVID-19, a government-commissioned survey shows.

The study, which covered some 22,000 respondents and was conducted by researchers at the University of Indonesia, found Indonesians had developed antibodies from a combination of COVID-19 infections and vaccinations.

Epidemiologists have warned it was not clear whether this immunity could help contain a fresh wave of coronavirus infections.

Nadal scores first win after COVID recovery

Tennis star Rafael Nadal has won his first singles match after being “very sick” with the coronavirus.

The Spaniard beat Lithuanian qualifier Ricardas Berankis at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament. The 35-year-old had tested positive last month after an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi.

Nadal had also been recovering from a foot injury last year and sat out Wimbledon and the US Open.

Speaking of longtime rival Novak Djokovic, whose visa to Australia was cancelled for failing to meet vaccine-entry requirements, Nadal said Djokovic must face the consequences for not being vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Pharmaceutical companies asked to promote vaccine access

A group of institutional investors representing $3.5 trillion in assets under management has called on pharmaceutical companies to adopt the World Health Organization’s plan for achieving equitable vaccine access.

Sixty-five asset managers, pension funds and insurance companies signed a letter dated January 4 asking the boards of Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc and AstraZeneca PLC to link their executives’ pay to making COVID-19 vaccines available around the globe.

They have also called for the licensing and sharing of technology so countries can produce vaccines locally.

Omicron spreads in India’s big cities

Indian megacities Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, although without a corresponding rise in hospitalisations.

India reported 90,928 new daily cases, up nearly fourfold since the start of the year, mostly from cities where health officials say the Omicron variant has overtaken Delta.

The federal health ministry has identified Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru as some of the main regions of concern, although state officials worry the disease will soon spread to the countryside where health facilities are weaker.

New cases nearly doubled in a day in Delhi to 10,665 on Wednesday, but the state said only 7 percent of its COVID beds were occupied. Federal health officials have warned even a large number of mild cases could put pressure on the health system.

Election rallies for next month’s polls in Uttar Pradesh have been cancelled.

Read more here.

China’s Henan imposes new restrictions as cases spike

More cities in central China have resorted to tough curbs as new coronavirus infections in Henan province rose sharply.

Although the numbers are tiny compared with many places in the world, and no cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant have been reported so far, several cities have imposed new limits as part of China’s national policy of stamping out clusters as they appear.

Gushi, a county in Henan of one million residents, has stopped people from leaving town and dissuade others from coming. In Yuzhou city, one million residents are already under lockdown, with people in some areas unable to leave their homes.

The city of Xuchang has rolled out mass testing on its more than four million residents.

Henan reported 64 domestically transmitted local infections with confirmed symptoms for Wednesday, up from just four a day earlier, official data showed.

French parliament approves vaccine pass

The French parliament has approved the government’s latest measures to tackle the coronavirus, including a controversial vaccine pass.

The legislation comes after French President Emmanuel Macron was criticised for saying he wanted to “piss off” unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said making vaccination compulsory would not be very helpful, as that move would bring more problems than solutions.

The measures still need to be approved by the Senate.

Thailand raises alert level due to Omicron spread

Thailand is raising its COVID-19 alert level amid rising infections driven by the Omicron variant, giving officials the authority to close high-risk areas and place curbs on travel.

“Thailand has entered a new wave of infections, where new cases will be rising fast,” said Kiattiphum Wongrajit, permanent secretary of the health ministry.

The change from level three to four “means we may close high-risk places and announce more measures,” he said.

Thailand reported 5,775 new cases on Thursday, a 48 percent rise on the previous day and nearly double the number on January 1.

California to extend indoor mask mandate

The US state of California is extending its indoor mask mandate into mid-February amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases that officials say could overwhelm hospitals.

California’s confirmed cases have shot up nearly 500 percent in the last two weeks, and hospitalisations have doubled since Christmas to more than 8,000.

State models forecast hospitalisations could top 20,000 by early next month, a level nearly as high as last January, when California experienced its deadliest surge.

Anger in China after woman miscarries outside lockdown hospital in Xi’an

Chinese authorities are under fire after footage went viral of an eight months pregnant woman miscarrying in the locked-down city of Xi’an when a hospital refused her entry without a coronavirus test.

The city’s government says the hospital’s general manager has been suspended and added that the local health bureau has launched an investigation.

US Forces Japan announces ‘more stringent measures’ amid virus surge

United States Forces Japan says it is establishing “more stringent mitigation measures” to prevent COVID-19 transmissions at its bases in the country.

The measures include requiring US military personnel to wear masks while off base and stricter testing mandates.

Moves come amid a surge in infections in Okinawa, which is host to 70 percent of US military facilities in Japan. The prefecture leads the country in new infections and is considering imposing quasi-emergency measures.

The US military in Okinawa reported six new cases on Wednesday, down from a high of 235 on Sunday. A total of 3,868 cases have been reported by US Forces Japan, according to local media.

Macau bans international flights

Following Hong Kong’s lead, the Chinese territory of Macau has also announced a ban, albeit stricter, on inbound international passenger flights.

Macau’s Health Bureau said it will ban “civil aircraft from carrying passengers from places outside China to Macau” for two weeks starting from midnight on Sunday.

Sebastian Korda tests positive for COVID-19 in Australia

US tennis player Sebastian Korda has tested positive for COVID-19 after landing in Australia.

Korda had already withdrawn from the Adelaide International, a warm-up event, but the world number 41 is in the main draw for the Australian Open.

“No symptoms and two negative results since testing positive,” he wrote on Twitter alongside a video of him hitting a ball against the hotel room wall.

“Thank you Tennis Australia for all the equipment!”

‘Stop counting cases’: Expert says focus needs to change

The world should stop focusing on the daily case count and turning to lockdowns to limit the spread of what is now a highly transmissible virus, Lawrence Gostin, professor of medicine at Georgetown University in the US, has told Al Jazeera.

Governments should instead look to implement the measures that will keep people out of hospital should they catch COVID-19.

“Lockdowns and school closures are rapidly becoming a thing of the past – at least I think they should be,” Gostin said. “I have no objection to them as a temporary emergency measure, but I would be dismayed if went well into 2022 seeing countries locking down. That’s not the way to live with COVID-19. The best way is to vaccinate, get enough anti-viral medicines and therapeutics and just keep people out of hospital because we are not going to stop COVID from spreading. We have got to stop counting cases and start preventing hospitalisation.”

CDC in United States recommends boosters for young people

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending young people between the ages of 12 and 17 get an additional shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“It is critical that we protect our children and teens from COVID-19 infection and the complications of severe disease,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “I encourage all parents to keep their children up to date with CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine recommendations.”

The initiative covers about 10 million adolescents and teens.

Morrison says Djokovic did not have evidence for medical exemption

Scott Morrison has been talking about Australia’s move to bar entry to tennis star Novak Djokovic.

He told reporters at a press conference in Canberra that the Serb failed to provide enough evidence to secure a medical exemption to COVID-19 vaccination.

“All I can say is that the evidence [for] medical exemption that was provided was found to be insufficient,” Morrison said, adding Djokovic had not been “singled out” for scrutiny.

Djokovic has been taken to a quarantine hotel pending his deportation.

Australian PM Scott Morrison holds his hands out as he speaks to reporters in Canberra
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra after Novak Djokovic was denied entry to the country [Lukas Coch/EPA]

Japan asks US to tighten COVID rules for bases

Japan has asked the United States to strengthen COVID-19 measures at its military sites, including restrictions on people leaving US bases, according to the Kyodo news agency.

Kyodo said the request was made during a phone call between Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Japan has been keeping COVID-19 in check, but the southern island of Okinawa, where there is a large US base, has emerged as a new hotspot.

Read all the updates from January 5 here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies