HONG KONG (AP) — Beijing has reported its first local omicron infection, according to state media, weeks before the Winter Olympic Games are due to start.
The infected person lives and works in the city’s northwestern district of Haidian and had no travel history outside of Beijing for the past two weeks. The individual experienced symptoms on Thursday and was tested on Friday for COVID-19, officials said in a news conference Saturday during which they confirmed the infection.
The infection comes less than three weeks before the Winter Olympic Games’ opening ceremony on Feb 4., and around two weeks before the start of Lunar New Year celebrations in China.
So far, multiple cities in China have reported omicron infections, including Shanghai, the western city of Xi’an, cities in southern Guangdong province such as Zhuhai and Zhongshan, and the city of Tianjin, which is 30 minutes from Beijing by high-speed rail.
Officials across the country have urged residents to stay in their cities for the new year, instead of traveling back to their hometowns. China has adopted a strict “zero-Covid” policy, with authorities locking down residential compounds and even entire cities such as Xi’an when a local outbreak has been discovered in an effort to stamp out community transmission.
The Beijing patient’s residential compound and workplace have been sealed off and authorities are mass-testing people linked to either location for the coronavirus. Some 2,430 people had been tested as of Saturday night, according to The Global Times, a state-owned newspaper.
China reported 119 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, of which 65 were domestic cases. The country has reported 104,864 infections since the beginning of the pandemic.
A late-June sentencing date has been set for British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell after her conviction last month on sex trafficking charges
By LARRY NEUMEISTER Associated Press
January 15, 2022, 2:10 AM
• 2 min read
NEW YORK — A late-June sentencing date was set Friday for British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell after her conviction last month on charges including sex trafficking and conspiracy relating to the recruitment of teenage girls for financier Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse.
U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan announced the June 28 date even as she waits to resolve defense claims that a new trial should be ordered after a juror’s public admissions after the verdict about his childhood sexual abuse.
The juror, who has never been fully publicly identified, told media outlets last week that he told other jurors during a week of deliberations that he was sexually abused as a child and used what he learned about the subject to persuade others to convict Maxwell.
Defense lawyers say the revelations warrant a new trial. The juror has retained a lawyer. And Nathan said she’ll rule at a future date what will happen as a result of the revelations.
Maxwell, 60, was convicted after a month-long trial in which prosecutors maintained that she recruited and groomed teenage girls for Epstein to sexually abuse from 1994 to 2004. Maxwell once had a romantic relationship with Epstein, but later became his employee at his five residences, including a Manhattan mansion and a large estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Epstein, 66, took his own life at a Manhattan federal jail in August 2019 as he awaited a trial on sex trafficking charges.
Maxwell’s lawyers argued at trial that she was made into a scapegoat by federal prosecutors after his death.
Prosecutors say that they’ll drop perjury charges against Maxwell if she is sentenced on schedule.
NSW just recorded its highest ever Covid infection total, but experts fear the alarming figures could be hiding something even worse.
As states record pandemic high daily Covid increases, experts fear the alarming figures could be hiding an even greater number of infections.
This comes as Covid cases in Victoria leapt to 3767 new cases, with NSW recording an almost doubling of infections to 11,201 on Thursday. The states had respectively recorded 2738 and 6062 new cases on Wednesday.
South Australia also saw daily cases surpass 1000 for the first time, with 1471 new infections, with Queensland reporting 1539 new cases – beating their previous day by 381.
However, overwhelmed testing sites turning people away coupled with reporting delays could mean the actual amount of cases circulating in the community are exponentially higher than what is being reported in the daily figures.
Sydney-based doctor, Michael Wu said he’s had first hand experience of patients who are unable to get a PCR test, despite returning positive rapid antigen tests. This has led him to believe that the figures reported by NSW Health are “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“In my Telehealth job I’m taking a lot of calls from people who have tested positive to Covid on rapid antigen tests, but who can’t, for various reasons, obtain a PCR test,” he shared on Twitter.
“The ‘official’ Covid numbers are just the tip of the iceberg …”
It was a sentiment echoed by Dr Kerry Chant on Wednesday. The increased prevalence of Covid, she said testing resources would become more strained.
“We probably are not ascertaining, or getting to all of the cases so there is probably more disease in the community than the numbers reflect,” she said.
Speaking to news.com.au, the Head of Monash University’s Epidemiological Modelling Unit and Associate Professor James Trauer, said underdiagnosing has occurred in every country throughout the pandemic. While Australia’s low case numbers has allowed us to identify most of the cases, “real level of disease or real level of infection” is always a major consideration. Asymptomatic cases and infections which can’t be identified or linked via contact tracing also greatly contribute to underdiagnosis rates.
“It’s hard to know exactly what the level of transmission is at the moment but when you see case numbers jump from 6000 to 11,000 like they did in NSW, you get a sense the positive numbers and not getting us an accurate size of the pandemic,” said Prof Trauer.
“We always know that the observations that we have are a proportion of the true caseload for Covid.
“We know it’s just the tip of the iceberg”.
Case numbers are still important
With state governments trying to shift the discourse around pandemic management from cases to hospitalisations, Prof Trauer said that case numbers are still an important factor which could predict “where the pandemic is headed”.
“I think they’re pretty important,” he said. “They allow us to see where hospitalisations and ICU admissions might be in a week or two from now.”
“They’re also probably the most sensitive and earliest marker of whether the pandemic overall is going up or down.”
The inaugural Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, Professor Catherine Bennett says changes to government restrictions will also affect case figures.
“Things like Queensland no longer requiring PCR testing prior to travel will make a difference,” says Prof Bennett.
“Everything is shifting all the time.”
A “passive system” which relies on people to come forward for testing will also decentivise people from coming forward. This could be people who want to avoid really long queues, or avoid a positive diagnosis going into Christmas.”
The epidemiologist does however say that while Covid case numbers might be subject to underdiagnosing, it’s likely that the hospitalisation rate is “reliable”.
“We’ll know more of the cases involving serious illness because they will eventually contact the health system as they’re unwell and they will be picked up,” she said.
‘Exposure is universal’
When it comes to managing safety, Prof Bennett said that while exposure to Covid pathogens will be “universal,” people do have some degree of control in protecting themselves against infection.
“You won’t be able to avoid it as much as you try but if you’re doing the right things like wearing a mask, maintaining hand hygiene and keeping your distance, you won’t be exposed multiple times and not have an infection,” said Prof Bennett.
Despite this, she recommended people remain vigilant and attempt to protect themselves until they’ve received their vaccine boosters. This would reduce their risks of getting a symptomatic infection, with may also decrease chances of experiencing “long term effects too,” said Prof Bennett.
“I personally would aim to not have an infection and who wants a cold or flu if you can avoid it?” she said,
“At the end of the day, we know what helps reduce transmission. You might not be able to avoid exposure but you can avoid or slow down the risks of getting an infection.
“And if you can at least push it back till after your booster, I think that’s a good thing to do.”
Iran has detected its first case of infection by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The country has vaccinated some 60 percent of its population of roughly 85 million people with two doses of coronavirus vaccines, but officials have urged people to get their third dose as soon as possible.
The announcement comes as Europe tries to rein in the rising number of infections linked to the highly mutated strain.
Germany’s health authority also announced that the United Kingdom had been added to its list of COVID high-risk countries, which will mean tighter travel restrictions.
European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen has warned that the Omicron variant could be dominant in Europe by mid-January.
Many countries are reimposing travel restrictions and other measures weeks after the variant was first detected in South Africa.
Italy eyes new COVID-19 measures amid Omicron worries: reports
Italy’s government is considering new measures to avoid a surge in COVID infections during the holiday period, local newspapers reported, amid worries over the spread of the Omicron variant.
After holding a meeting with ministers on December 23, Prime Minister Mario Draghi could impose an obligation on the vaccinated to show a negative test to access crowded places, including discos and stadiums, daily Corriere della Sera reported.
Under current rules, people who have been vaccinated or have recently recovered from the disease have free access to indoor seating at bars and restaurants, museums, cinemas, clubs and sporting events.
“Some measures, such as making masks compulsory even outdoors … could be taken soon,” Franco Locatelli, one of the government’s main scientific advisors, told the newspaper.
Shopping streets in the Netherlands were closed and people’s Christmas plans were in disarray as the country began a lockdown aimed at limiting an expected COVID-19 surge.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the sudden shut-down on Saturday evening, ordering the closure of all but the most essential stores, as well as restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, museums and other public places from Sunday until at least January 14.
Hospitality workers demanded compensation for lost income in the holiday season, while gym owners stressed the importance of exercise during a health crisis.
“Closing all bars and restaurants in such an important month is incredibly painful and dramatic. We need compensation and an exit strategy”, the Dutch association for hospitality services said.
UK PM’s position not too weak to impose further COVID restrictions: Javid
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not too politically weak to bring in further COVID-19 restrictions if necessary, health minister Sajid Javid said.
Johnson is facing the biggest crisis of his premiership after a litany of scandals and missteps, and earlier this week more than 100 of his own lawmakers voted against the government’s latest measures to tackle the spread of COVID-19.
Asked on BBC Television if Johnson was too weak to bring in any further restrictions, Javid said: “No, I don’t think that’s the case … if the government felt that further action had to be taken of course we would present that to parliament and it would be for parliament to decide.”
Report: Iran announces first case of omicron variant
Iran has detected its first case of infection by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, state TV reported.
Iran has vaccinated some 60 percent of its population of roughly 85 million people with two doses of coronavirus vaccines.
Officials urged people who got two doses of vaccine to get their third dose as soon as possible.
London Mayor: Inevitable we will have more COVID restrictions
New COVID-19 restrictions are inevitable as without them Britain will see public services such as the National Health Service (NHS) on the verge of collapse, London Mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Television.
Khan declared a “major incident” on Saturday to help the capital’s hospitals cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.
“I think it’s inevitable,” Khan told the BBC when asked about the likelihood of further restrictions. “If we don’t bring in new restrictions sooner rather than later you’re going to see even more positive cases and potentially public services like the NHS on the verge of collapse, if not collapsing.”
UK health minister Javid: I understand Frost’s reasons for quitting
British health minister Sajid Javid said he understood why Brexit minister David Frost, who quit over disillusionment with the direction of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, had resigned.
“I do understand his reasons. He is a principled man, principled people do resign from the government,” Javid told Sky News when asked about the resignation.
UK is monitoring COVID data closely, to act if necessary: health minister
The British government is monitoring the latest COVID-19 data on an almost hourly basis and will do whatever is necessary to tackle the spread, health minister Sajid Javid told Sky News.
Javid said analysis of the data suggested around 60 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in England are the fast-spreading Omicron variant, but the country was in a better position than last Christmas thanks to things such as vaccinations and testing.
Asked about reports of possible further measures, Javid said: “We will do what is necessary but it has got to be backed up by the data … we are watching the data, discussing it with our scientists and our best advisers almost on an hourly basis and we will monitor that very carefully we will keep the situation under review.”
China administered total of 2.67bn doses of COVID-19 vaccines
China administered about 12 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines on December 18, bringing the total to 2.67 billion, data from the National Health Commission showed.
Omicron less effective at attacking lungs than other variants: Study
British research has found Omicron might be less efficient at attacking the lungs than earlier COVID-19 variants.
The Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease study concluded mutations on the virus’s spike protein, which makes it able to avoid antibodies, may also reduce how it replicates in the lungs and causes severe disease.
“These observations highlight that Omicron has gained immune evasion properties whilst compromising on properties associated with replication and pathogenicity,” the study’s abstract stated.
Study leader Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge, said there are still challenges ahead despite the seemingly positive findings.
He tweeted: “What does this all mean? Efficient infection of lung cells could correlate with severity of lung disease. Syncitia or fused cells are often seen in respiratory tissues taken following severe disease. Delta was very good at both, in contrast to Omicron. Further work is needed.”
Sharing some potentially significant findings relating to Omicron given the current situation. First of all huge thanks to the team working flat out- Bo Meng, @isabella_atmf and to our collaborators both in G2P, J2P along with @SystemsVirology. Findings as follows:
Biden to deliver Tuesday speech on Omicron variant amid COVID rise
US President Joe Biden will deliver a speech on Tuesday addressing the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, NBC News reported on Saturday, citing a White House official.
Biden is expected to go beyond his “Winter Plan” with additional steps to help communities in need, the report said.
Earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris admitted that the government “didn’t see Omicron coming”.
“And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants,” she said.
Australia says it is well prepared for mounting COVID-19 cases
Australian officials on Sunday said there was no need to clamp down on Christmas festivities even as new COVID-19 infections climbed in Sydney, with the country’s high vaccination rate helping keep people out of hospital.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would not need to follow the Netherlands, which has reimposed a strict lockdown over the Christmas and New Year period to curb the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
“We’re going into summer, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and a very different set of circumstances. So we don’t see that’s a likely situation in Australia,” Hunt told reporters in a televised media conference.
“We’re well prepared and people are overwhelmingly … continuing to do an amazing job,” Hunt said, referring to the more than 90% of Australians over 16 who have been fully vaccinated.
Dutch head into Christmas ‘lockdown’ to stop Omicron
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The state confirmed its first confirmed case of the Omicron variant Thursday and officials said the unvaccinated Oahu resident had no history of travel.
That means there is likely community spread of the worrisome mutation in the islands.
“It’s going to take a layered strategy to combat this,” said state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble, in a news conference. “It’s likely there are more cases.”
She urged residents to continue to wear masks, get vaccinated or a booster shot and take other precautions. “To me, the main thing is don’t rely on your vaccination status alone,” she said.
Kemble said the first Omicron case is an adult under the age of 65 who had previously had COVID.
The person is still be monitored, but so far has experienced mild to moderate symptoms.
Diagnostic Laboratory Services identified the specimen Monday as having a molecular clue that indicated it might be Omicron. The State Laboratory was able to confirm the finding Thursday.
The announcement comes amid growing fears about the Omicron variant, which has been detected in several states. Much remains unknown about the mutation, but scientists are concerned it could be more contagious. They are also studying whether it can thwart vaccines or other therapies.
Omicron is classified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern.”
This story will be updated.
Copyright 2021 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.
“We have worked very closely with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the California Department of Public Health and Color Genomics on genome surveillance of the virus,” Chiu said. “When we identify positive cases, COVID-19 cases in this city and county, we make an attempt to sequence all the cases.”
The UCSF lab received the suspicious positive test from the Color Lab Tuesday evening. The San Francisco resident had fallen ill after returning to San Francisco International Airport after a trip to South Africa — a hotbed of the new strain — on Nov. 23. A sample taken from the patient had tested positive for COVID, but what strain was it?
“This particular sample, I heard about it yesterday at about 3 p.m.,” Chiu said at a morning news conference. “We were able to receive the sample in the laboratory by 8 p.m. We ran a very fast molecular test which looks for spike gene dropout. What this test can tell you that you may have detected omicron, but it’s not conclusive.”
The team then worked well into the early hours of Wednesday morning further testing the sample. They had to sequence the viral genome using a high-tech device known as a nanopore sequencer, a device just slightly larger than a USB stick.
“It’s powered by the USB port in your laptop. It enables us to do very rapid sequencing,” said Chiu. “That’s how we were able to get a result and identify this variant within a few hours. If we had to run this on a traditional instrument, typically it takes at least a day.”
“We were able to confirm the detection of omicron in five hours and had nearly the entire genome in eight hours. At 4 a.m. last night we were able to conclusively demonstrate that this was an infection of the omicron variant.”
In a news release, San Francisco officials confirmed the individual was a traveler who returned from South Africa on November 22.
“The individual, who is a San Francisco resident, is self-isolating and is experiencing mild symptoms,” the officials said. “We are continuing to speak with the individual about any persons with whom they have been in contact.”
The individual, who was not named, fell ill and sought medical treatment that led to the discovery on Monday.
“The patient themselves reached out to San Francisco Department of Public Health as soon as they found out they were positive, because they were concerned themselves,” said Scott Topper, Vice President of Clinical Operations for Color Health.
The World Health Organization designates omicron a “variant of concern.” In a technical brief released this week, WHO noted that the variant poses a “very high” global risk. The variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa and has since been detected in several countries.
Scientists are working to determine how transmissible the variant is, how sick it makes people and how well current vaccines work against it. Until more information is learned about the variant, the United States restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries.
Chiu believes this is not the only case of the omicron variant in the U.S., just the only detected one.
“I’m almost certain that this finding is only the tip of the iceberg and that we will continue to see cases in the United States.”
South Korea identified 5,266 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, a record high for a second consecutive day, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a news release Thursday.
That breaks the previous record of 5,123 new cases, recorded on Tuesday.
Last month, South Korea announced it would start “living with Covid-19” and began easing restrictions. But its reopening has coincided with record new infections, critical cases and deaths. Concerns over the new Omicron variant are also threatening the country’s recovery.
South Korea’s total confirmed cases increased to 457,612, while the death toll rose by 47 to 3,705, according to KDCA. Some 733 patients are in critical condition, KDCA said.
That’s despite high vaccination rates. As of Wednesday, 80.1% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to KDCA.
Travel restrictions: The rise in cases has prompted authorities to mandate a 10-day quarantine for all incoming international travelers, including Korean nationals, starting Friday for two weeks.
The move came as five Omicron cases were reported by the country in travelers arriving from Nigeria.
The mandate applies to travelers from all countries, regardless of their vaccination status, KDCA said.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of the omicron variant Wednesday — a person in California who had been to South Africa — as scientists around the world raced to establish whether the new, mutant version of the coronavirus is more dangerous than previous ones.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, made the announcement at the White House.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” he said.
The infected person was identified as a traveler who had returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. The person, who was fully vaccinated but had not had a booster shot, tested positive on Monday and had mild symptoms that are improving, officials said. ___
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC:
— The world faces weeks of uncertainty as more countries restrict travel
— Spain and Portugal are stepping up efforts to vaccinate residents, despite having inoculation figures that are the envy of the world
— Singapore’s COVID-19 strategy appears to be on track despite the new variant
— U.S. moves to toughen testing requirement for travelers
— More cases linked to the new omicron variant are surfacing, prompting countries to impose restrictions.
Go to https://APNews.com/coronavirus-pandemic for updates throughout the day.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:
UNITED NATÎONS — The United Nations chief is accusing countries that have restricted air travel from some African nations because of South Africa’s discovery of the COVID-19 omicron variant of “travel apartheid.”
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries that have imposed travel restrictions to adopt testing measures instead, saying pre-departure and post-arrival tests have allowed thousands of people to fly in conditions where the transmission of COVID-19 is “highly unlikely.”
What is unacceptable, he said, is to have Africa, “one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy, condemned to a lockout” for revealing a new variant that already existed in other parts of the world.
Guterres spoke at a news conference following a meeting Wednesday with the African Union Commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, who vigorously condemned “the unfair measures” imposed on Africa by a growing number of mainly Western countries which he called “a form of stigmatization” and “injustice.”
The U.N. chief said he was launching a very strong appeal “to common sense: We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable.”
Mahamat echoed Guterres saying: “It’s immoral to condemn Africa in that way.”
BEIRUT— Lebanon has declared a nighttime curfew for the unvaccinated ahead and during the holiday seasons. Its health minister on Wednesday called it one of the measures to stem a recent rise in coronavirus infections and a precaution against the new variant.
Lebanon has not recorded any infections with Omicron, but the small country enduring a severe financial crisis is concerned its health care system won’t be handle a new peak of infections.
Lebanon’s Health Minister Firass Abiad said the COVID committee wants to avoid imposing a full lockdown and hopes to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says travel bans by countries are having an impact on global cooperation against the new omicron variant by causing “challenges” to the sharing of laboratory samples from South Africa that can help get better grips on the new variant.
The comments Wednesday came at the first press briefing by the U.N. health agency since it christened omicron as a “variant of concern” after being brought to light by researchers in South Africa last week. Many countries responded by suspending flights from seven southern Africa countries.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for “tailored” intervention by countries, including testing travelers before and after they arrive in a country, and advised against “blanket travel bans” that “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says at least 23 countries have reported cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, “and we expect that number to grow.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the U.N. health agency “takes this development extremely seriously, and so should every country, but it should not surprise us. This is what viruses do, and it’s what this virus will continue to do as long as we allow it to continue spreading.”
Tedros, citing the early stages of global response to omicron, said efforts were ongoing to determine the severity of disease, transmissibility and the effectiveness of tests, treatments, and vaccines in the face of omicron. He said the delta variant remains by far the most common
RIO DE JANEIRO — Health officials on Wednesday confirmed Brazil’s third known case of the omicron coronavirus variant as the government examined possible new measures to contain the virus, such as suspending some flights and requiring arriving passengers to show proof of vaccination.
A passenger from Ethiopia tested positive for Covid-19 upon landing in Sao Paulo on Nov. 27, the state’s health secretariat said in a statement. The 29 year-old man is vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer shot and is in good health, officials said.
The news came a day after Brazilian health officials reported confirmed cases of the omicron variant in two travelers arriving from South Africa –– the first such cases in Latin America.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s government has proposed a plan to give people 60 and older a 500-euro ($568) bonus if they get vaccinated against COVID-19, the finance minister said Wednesday.
The measure, announced by Finance Minister Igor Matovic, should boost inoculations in the European Union country with one of the bloc’s lowest vaccination rates. So far, only 46.1% of the nation’s 5.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.
The current four-party ruling coalition in Slovakia has been split over the issue. The pro-business Freedom and Solidarity opposed it, saying it was ready to support a 150-euro ($170) bonus only. But the party didn’t veto it, making the approval possible.
The bill will now go to Parliament. It would need some opposition support to be approved.
The bonus would be a voucher that could be used in restaurants, cafes, hotels or to buy tickets for sports, theater, cinema, exhibitions or concerts. It could be also used to pay hairdressers or fitness centers.
BUENOS AIRES — Fear of the new variant also caused a scene reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic: a cruise liner turned away from port.
Argentina’s Ministry of Health said Tuesday it had isolated the German-based cruise ship Hamburg following two confirmed positive cases of the new coronavirus.
The vessel, whose trip originated in Hamburg, Germany, touched in at Africa’s Cape Verde islands en route to South America and Antarctica.
On Wednesday, it was at sea off Argentina’s Buenos Aires province with 285 passengers and 156 crew aboard. Officials said they were waiting for tests to determine what variant of the virus had been detected.
Officials initially had allowed some passengers off the ship when it arrived, causing a local controversy.
Plantours said Wednesday the ship was continuing its planned journey toward South Georgia Island and Antarctica and was not stranded.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Wednesday confirmed its first five cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant in people linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten the country’s borders.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Wednesday the cases include a couple who arrived from Nigeria on Nov. 24 and a friend who drove them home from the airport. The two other cases were women who also traveled to Nigeria and returned to South Korea on Nov. 23.
Health workers earlier said they were conducting genetic sequencing tests on a child of the couple and relatives of the man who drove them home to determine whether they were infected.
Following the confirmation of the omicron infections, South Korea announced it will require all passengers arriving from abroad over the next two weeks to quarantine for at least 10 days, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status.
PARIS — A spokesperson says France’s government will allow flights carrying French and European Union citizens back from Southern Africa to resume under very strict conditions starting Saturday.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the move will lift for “very few” travelers a suspension on flights from the region that France imposed last week as a precaution after the identification of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Trips for family visits, professional reasons or tourism still won’t be allowed, Attal said.
Only passengers who are returning home to France or who work as diplomats or for airlines will be permitted into the country, he said.
Under the rules taking effect Saturday, travelers departing from 10 countries, including South Africa and neighboring nations, Zambia and Mauritius, will need to get tested for the virus both before their flights and after arrival.
MIAMI — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami is making face coverings optional for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students whose parents sign opt-out paperwork.
The archdiocese made the announcement Tuesday, citing community COVID-19 statistics and the advice of physician advisors, the CDC and the Miami-Dade County Department of Health.
The CDC recommends mask-wearing in public indoor settings, including schools, in areas of substantial or high community transmission. As of Wednesday, Florida was the only state in the U.S. where transmission was low in nearly every county, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker.
Face masks were already optional for fully vaccinated students and teachers.
WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s prime minister got a booster shot against the coronavirus and made an emotional appeal to citizens to get vaccinated as 570 new deaths in one day were reported from COVID-19.
Mateusz Morawiecki’s appeal on Wednesday was made to a nation with a vaccination rate of just 54%. The numbers of those fully vaccinated have risen very slowly in recent weeks, though fears of the new omicron variant have appeared to spur some to finally get vaccinated.
Poland also reported over 29,000 new infections, the highest infection rate since a virus wave in the spring made central Europe a global hot spot.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says the rate of increase of coronavirus cases held steady over the last week, though its African, Western Pacific and European regions all reported gains.
At the same time, new weekly deaths linked to COVID-19 fell by 10% worldwide.
The U.N. health agency said in its latest weekly epidemiological report on the pandemic that case counts shot up 93% in Africa, though it cautioned about interpreting too much from that high figure because it was largely due to “batch reporting” of antigen tests by South Africa.
The report, issued Wednesday, referred for the first time to the new omicron variant that WHO named on Friday. WHO said the variant, which was first detected in South Africa and Botswana, had been reported in a “limited number” of countries in four of health agency’s six regions.
As of Sunday, more than 280 million cases and more than 5.2 million deaths have been tallied due to the pandemic, WHO said.
BERLIN — Germany’s intensive care association is calling for nationally uniform restrictions to be imposed immediately and warning that the number of COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care will hit a new high before Christmas.
German federal and state leaders are expected to decide Thursday on new measures to curb a sharp recent rise in coronavirus infections. Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz says he will back a proposal to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for everybody next year.
The DIVI association said Wednesday that more than 6,000 patients with COVID-19 will need intensive care treatment before Christmas and the all-time high from last year will be exceeded. It said that more than 2,300 new patients were admitted to ICUs in the last week alone, and that transferring patients within Germany isn’t a long-term solution.
GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization is hailing steps by its member states to launch work toward an international agreement to help prevent and prepare for future pandemics in the wake of the coronavirus.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the consensus decision during a long-planned special session of the U.N. health agency’s members was “cause for celebration.” It sets off work toward creating an “intergovernmental negotiating body” to draft an agreement, which is likely to take months if not years to be finalized.
“Of course, there is still a long road ahead. There are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain,” he said.
LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is entering a so-called state of calamity — the second this year — to curve an upward trend in coronavirus infections despite having one of the strongest vaccination records in Europe.
The state of calamity is one step below the country’s top level of alert.
The country is tightening passenger control in airports, seaports and land borders, requiring negative coronavirus tests for most incoming visitors as part of the new set of rules that kick in Wednesday.
Face masks are again required in enclosed spaces and coronavirus vaccination or COVID-19 recovery tests are required to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia said it detected its first case of the new coronavirus variant omicron.
The kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency said the case came from a citizen coming from what it described as a “North African country.”
The report said the infected individual and his close contacts had been quarantined.
The case marks the first-known instance of omicron being detected among Gulf Arab nations.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Health officials say a concertgoer who attended a gig in northern Denmark with a local DJ has tested positive for the new coronavirus variant omicron.
The concert was attended by nearly 2,000 people on Saturday in Aalborg. The Danish Patient Safety Authority has urged all those who attended the event to be tested, Danish broadcaster DR said Wednesday.
Statens Serum Institut, another government agency that maps the spread of COVID-19 in Denmark, said Tuesday that four cases of omicron had been reported in the Scandinavian country. It was not immediately clear if the concertgoer was included or if it was a new case.
SAO PAULO — Health officials in Brazil have reported the country’s first confirmed cases of the omicron variant in two travelers arriving from South Africa, the first such cases in Latin America.
The Sao Paulo state health secretariat said Tuesday a 41-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman are in isolation. The two Brazilians had their tests taken on Nov. 25 and showed light symptoms of the disease at the time.
The secretariat statement said both travelers arrived in Brazil on Nov. 23 and took a PCR test before a trip scheduled for two days later. Their positive test results were collected at the Guarulhos international airport, outside Sao Paulo, before a return flight to South Africa.
“After the positive result, the couple was instructed to remain in isolation at home. Both are being monitored by state and municipal (authorities), as well as their respective family members,” said the Sao Paulo health secretariat. It said neither of the two are registered in the state’s vaccination platform.
Another potential case of omicron has been under investigation by Brazilian authorities since Sunday.
The two Brazilians are the first confirmed cases in Latin America, which has suffered heavily from the coronavirus pandemic. Brazil alone has reported more than 600,000 deaths, a figure that analysts believe to be undercounted.
Canada is banning foreign nationals from three more countries because of concerns with the omicron COVID-19 variant and all air travelers coming to the country apart from the United States will have to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and will have to isolate themselves until they get the results of their test.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says Canada is banning all foreign nationals who have travelled through Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt because of concerns with the omicron COVID-19 variant.
Canada already announced a ban on foreign nationals from seven countries in southern Africa. Canadians who have visited the 10 countries will have to be tested and quarantine.
The Canadian province of Alberta also confirmed its first case of omicron in an individual who travelled from Nigeria and the Netherlands. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, says the person is asymptomatic.
Alberta is the third province in Canada to report the presence of the Omicron variant. Ontario announced its first cases on Sunday and Quebec reported its first case on Monday.
MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:
— New information shows omicron spread wider earlier than thought
— The EU’s medical agency says it will take two weeks to have an indication whether the current COVID-19 vaccines will be able to deal with the new omicron variant
— U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says new COVID-19 variant could slow the economy and hiring, while also raising uncertainty about inflation.
— Face masks are again mandatory in England in shops and on public transport due to the new variant
— See all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic
LISBON, Portugal — A hospital in central Portugal says it’s closing its pediatric services after finding out that a health worker who had contact with members of a soccer club affected by an omicron coronavirus variant outbreak was also infected with the same strain.
The Hospital Garcia de Orta in Almada, a town neighboring the Portuguese capital has tested 28 other workers who came into close contact with the positive case and all of them returned as negative, according to a statement released late on Tuesday.
An additional group of 28 hospital users have been identified as at possible risk and authorities were following up with them, it said.
The hospital said it will close both emergency and outpatient pediatric service for two weeks.
Portuguese authorities on Monday reported what appeared to be the first confirmed cases of local omicron transmission in Europe after recording 13 positives among members of the Belenenses SAD professional soccer club, including a player who had returned from South Africa where the strain was first identified.
BERLIN — German vaccine-maker BioNTech said Tuesday that it should be able to begin shipping doses of its coronavirus shot for children under 12 in the European Union a week earlier than previously announced.
BioNTech, which developed the first widely approved COVID-19 vaccine together with U.S. partner Pfizer, said the lower-dosage vials will be delivered to EU countries from Dec. 13.
The 27-nation bloc had previously expected the shipments to begin Dec. 20, causing some concern that the start of the vaccine campaign for younger children might be disrupted by the festive period.
BioNTech will provide up to 13 million such doses to EU countries in December.
GENEVA — Switzerland is putting off a planned party for its next president and considering enhanced restrictive measures amid rising coronavirus case counts and concerns about the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant.
Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters Tuesday that the omicron variant that was brought to international attention last week “appears contagious — very contagious — and potentially could evade the immunity that we have seen in the pandemic up to now.”
The country of about 8.5 million people recorded more than 7,200 new coronavirus cases per day based on the latest 7-day average of daily cases, up from fewer than 900 in mid-October. The all-time high count was just over 8,000 per day, recorded in late October 2020. Hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 have been rising, but remain far below peak levels about a year ago.
The Swiss government said it was considering a new tightening of anti-COVID restrictions such as by requiring all attendees of indoor public gatherings to show a COVID certificate that shows vaccination or recovery from the virus, or a recent negative test, up from gatherings of more than 30 people now.
Other options include requiring people who have not been vaccinated or haven’t recovered from the illness to work from home, or wear a mask at all times in common workspaces.
Meanwhile, the government, citing “the evolution of the health situation,” announced the postponement of a planned Dec. 16 “party” for Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis before he takes up the Swiss presidency next year. It was to take place in his native region of Ticino along the Italian border.
The Swiss presidency rotates every year among the seven members of the executive Federal Council, and Cassis is set to take over from current president Guy Parmelin.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization says “blanket travel bans” will not prevent the spread of a new coronavirus variant, while acknowledging that countries could order quarantines and take screening measures like testing travelers before or after arrival, or both.
The updated travel guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as dozens of countries have barred flights from southern African countries where the omicron variant was brought to international attention last week. WHO says the move unfairly punishes Botswana and South Africa for doing the right thing and being transparent about the emergence of a new variant.
Some health experts have countered that travel restrictions are effective, and many countries have bucked with WHO’s traditional recommendation against travel bans. WHO said that as of Sunday, 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at curbing the spread of omicron.
“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” WHO said, while acknowledging the use of screening measures to help stem the spread of omicron.
In its statement, WHO said that so far, current PCR tests continue to be effective in detecting the variant.
The U.N. health agency also said “essential travel” for emergencies, humanitarian missions and transport of essential supplies “should continue to be prioritized.”
MADRID — Health authorities in the Spanish capital have confirmed a second case of the omicron variant in a 61-year-old woman who had returned from a trip to South Africa on Monday.
The woman, who shows no COVID-19 compatible symptoms and was double-vaccinated, had arrived in a different flight to the first case of omicron recorded in Spain, a 51-year-old man with two doses of coronavirus vaccine who traveled over the weekend.
Both patients remain in isolation, the Madrid region’s health department said Tuesday.
Authorities in northeastern Catalonia said they couldn’t establish yet if two suspected cases of coronavirus were related to the new variant, saying the sequencing of samples would not likely be conclusive until Friday.
BUCHAREST, Romania — A Romanian state-owned aircraft brought 70 passengers from South Africa to Bucharest after concerns about the omicron variant of the coronavirus led to flight cancellations that left people stranded.
Romania’s foreign ministry said 46 of the passengers on the flight that landed Tuesday afternoon were Romanians and included a professional Romanian rugby team.
“European solidarity is a tangible reality,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu wrote online after the aircraft landed, noting that 18 EU citizens not from Romania were on the flight.
Seven Romanian citizens in Cape Town failed to board the repatriation flight due to logistical reasons or lack of a PCR test, authorities said.
The national champion rugby team, from Baia Mare in northern Romania, said authorities had undertaken “sustained efforts” to repatriate 31 team members who had been participating in a tournament in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Romanian authorities said Tuesday that 72 Romanian citizens stranded in Morocco after the North African country canceled almost all flights in response to the omicron variant are to be flown home later this week.
LISBON, Portugal — All air passengers coming to Portugal must board their planes with a negative coronavirus test if they want to enter the country beginning on Wednesday, when Portugal enacts its second state of emergency this year as it tries to stop a surge in new infections, authorities said Tuesday.
The director of Lisbon’s airport, Rui Alves, told reporters that travelers will be given different wristbands depending on where their trip originated to ease their identification during the airport screening process. The new entry rules were drafted before the first cases of the omicron variant were reported in the country in the last few days.
Those who fail to show a negative test face fines ranging from 300 to 800 euros ($340 to $910). Airlines that transport untested passengers could also be fined 20,000 euros ($22,600) per person and, if they persist, could even lose their license.
PCR or antigen test results will be required for those arriving by land from outside of the European Union and from most EU countries considered at high or medium-high risk.
RIGA, Latvia — U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had nothing but praise for South Africa on how it has alerted the world to the new omicron variant of COVID-19.
“I really want to applaud and express gratitude to South Africa and its government for its extraordinary transparency and also the very important work it did in detecting this new variant and in making it known to the world,” he said. “That’s exactly I think, a model of responsibility that South Africa has exhibited that we would hope everyone in the world would show, because we are all in this together.”
Blinken spoke Tuesday at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Riga, Latvia.
LONDON — New measures to combat the new omicron variant of coronavirus took effect in England on Tuesday, with face coverings again compulsory in shops and on public transportation, as the government said it would offer all adults a booster dose of vaccine within two months to bolster the nation’s immunity.
From Tuesday morning, all travelers returning to the U.K. must also take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
The reintroduction of mandatory face masks brings England closer in line with the rest of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — which had kept some restrictions in place after England lifted all mandatory measures in the summer.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new measures will “buy us time in the face” of the new variant. He said that while many people felt an understandable “sense of exhaustion” at the prospect of renewed restrictions, the U.K.’s position is “immeasurably better than it was a year ago.”
The government said Tuesday that 22 cases of the omicron variant have been identified, a number that is expected to rise.
ATHENS — Residents in Greece over 60 years old will have to undergo mandatory vaccinations against coronavirus or face monthly 100-euro ($114) fines beginning next year, the prime minister announced Tuesday, declaring the country’s first general inoculation mandate.
The Greek government decided upon the measure in response to a surge in new daily infections and the emergence of the omicron variant. It will take effect on Jan. 16 and the fines will be added to tax bills, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised statement.
Greece’s overall COVID-19 death toll exceeded 18,000 this week with confirmed new infections at high levels. Roughly a quarter of the country’s adult population remains unvaccinated.
Vaccination mandates were introduced over the summer for health care workers and fire service rescuers in Greece, with those failing to comply being suspended from their jobs indefinitely without pay.
The government has ruled out imposing new lockdowns but says it is targeting the elderly with tougher restrictions to protect the public health service as ICU occupancy is near capacity nationwide.
BERLIN — Germany’s national and state leaders will decide Thursday on new measures to tackle a sharp rise in coronavirus infections, officials said after the country’s outgoing and incoming chancellors conferred with governors.
The measures are likely to include restrictions on shopping for unvaccinated people and limiting crowds at soccer matches, along with possible moves toward a vaccine mandate for all.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her designated successor, Olaf Scholz, held talks with Germany’s 16 state governors on Tuesday, hours after the country’s top court strengthened politicians’ hand by rejecting complaints against curfews and other restrictions imposed earlier this year.
Many states have tightened rules of their own accord, but experts and politicians have called for more coordinated national action as infection rates hit new highs.
MOSCOW — Russian authorities on Tuesday tightened coronavirus restrictions because of the omicron variant, even though the country has yet to report its first confirmed case.
Anna Popova, head of Russia’s public health agency Rospotrebnadzor, announced Tuesday that travelers arriving from countries where the risk of contracting the omicron variant of coronavirus is high will have to quarantine for two weeks. She didn’t specify which countries were on the list.
Popova also said that results of PCR tests for coronavirus, used in many Russian regions to gain access to public places, will remain valid for only 48 hours instead of 72 hours.
“The new variant indeed elicits serious concerns and demands immediate, comprehensive study,” Popova said.
GENEVA — The Swiss government says travelers arriving from Canada, Japan, Niger and Portugal will be required starting Wednesday to present both a negative COVID-19 test and undergo a 10-day quarantine.
The new measures were announced on Tuesday after cases of the newly identified coronavirus variant omicron turned up in those countries.
On Friday, the Swiss government initiated a similar requirement for travelers from Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, and banned all flights from seven countries in southern Africa where cases of the variant were first detected.
WASHINGTON — Drugmaker Regeneron says that its COVID-19 antibody cocktail may be less effective against the omicron variant, though the company says more testing is needed to gauge the effect.
Regeneron’s cocktail is one of three antibody treatments that have become the standard U.S. treatments for COVID-19 patients who do not yet require hospitalization. The federal government has purchased and distributed millions of doses of the drugs, which are infused or injected by health professionals.
Because of mutations in the omicron variant, health authorities have warned that some vaccines and antibodies may lose their potency.
Regeneron says it is doing more analysis to define the variant’s impact on its drug’s effectiveness.
The company also says it is testing alternate antibodies that may be more effective against the new variant.
MADRID — Spain’s government has banned flights connecting air routes from South Africa and six neighboring countries to the European country due to fears of the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The order affects any connecting flights from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Spain has no direct flights to southern Africa. The order will take effect on Thursday.
Spanish health authorities have reported one confirmed case of the omicron strain in a 51-year-old man who flew from South Africa to Madrid via Amsterdam. He was fully vaccinated and is showing mild symptoms. Three more possible cases are under investigation.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, though the World Health Organization warned that the global risk from the variant is “very high” and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
RIGA, Latvia — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, which was discovered in South Africa, underscores the point that “none of us will be fully safe until everyone is.”
Speaking in Riga, Latvia, during a two-day meeting of the NATO foreign ministers, Blinken also noted “a real disparity” between vaccinations in Africa and the United States and Europe.
“We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe of 50, 60, 70%, depending on exactly who you’re counting. And in Africa, it’s more like 14, 15% or less.”
He noted that sometimes the supply of vaccines may actually be sufficient to meet the needs, but the ability to get shots in arms is lacking.
He said the United States was working on a solution that “brings the private sector into the game to help solve these last-mile problems of getting shots and arms. We’re putting that into into motion now.”
BRUSSELS — The omicron variant was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the World Health Organization about it last week, Dutch health authorities said Tuesday, adding to fear and confusion over the new version of the coronavirus.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The WHO said South Africa first reported the the variant to the U.N. healthy agency on Nov. 24.
It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged — but that hasn’t stopped nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa.
Much is still not known about the variant — though the WHO warned that the global risk from the variant is “very high” and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
In the rush to understand the threat posed by the Omicron variant, the worrisome new version of the coronavirus, some experts are pointing hopefully to early signs that it may cause only mild illness, without some of the trademark symptoms of Covid.
But it is far too early to assume that the variant will not cause severe illness, too, warned Dr. Richard Lessells, who coordinates clinical and epidemiological data for the South African Covid Variant Research Consortium.
Many of the early infections in South Africa were spotted among younger people more likely to experience mild illness, he said. The picture may change as the virus spreads through the larger population.
At the moment, the variant has been spotted in at least a dozen countries, including Britain and the Netherlands. Many others are closely monitoring cases. Omicron has not yet surfaced in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Omicron has dozens of new mutations, including many that may enable the virus to be more contagious and to sidestep immune defenses. But Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, noted on Saturday that the nation’s hospitals were not overrun by patients infected with the new variant, and that most were not fully immunized.
Moreover, most patients she had seen did not lose their sense of taste and smell, and had only a slight cough, she told reporters.
But that may not be as reassuring as it sounds. Most of South Africa’s cases were initially found in the Gauteng province, mostly among younger people at universities and higher education institutions, said Dr. Lessells, who is also an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“We would of course expect the vast majority of those to be mild cases anyway, regardless of vaccination status,” he said.
In addition, cases overall have also been rising only in the last two weeks, Dr. Lessells noted: “There’s even barely enough time for infections to have had time to progress to severe disease and hospitalization.”
Should Omicron cause severe illness, that will become apparent if there is a significant rise in hospitalizations over the next week or two, he added.
Scientists have not yet analyzed infections in fully immunized people, but they are already seeing some cases of reinfection that suggest the variant can overcome natural immunity, Dr. Lessells said.
He and his colleagues plan to review the latest data on Monday to spot trends and to plan for Omicron’s spread.
Dutch health officials said on Sunday that they had found at least 13 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant among 61 infected passengers who had arrived in the Netherlands from South Africa on Friday. The new cases were a clear sign that the virus was crossing borders even as governments imposed new travel restrictions and flight bans.
Additional cases could emerge, as health officials were still examining test samples, said Hugo de Jonge, the country’s health minister, adding that the people who tested positive were isolating. The passengers who had tested positive were among more than 500 who arrived on two separate flights.
A growing list of countries is scrambling to respond to the new, highly mutated version of the virus, which was first detected in Botswana and South Africa and which has sent ripples of panic through governments and markets. Health officials in Australia and Denmark on Sunday both confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in travelers recently arriving from southern Africa. Morocco said Sunday it would ban all incoming flights for at least two weeks beginning Monday, according to a government statement on state-run news media. The flight ban prevents both foreign nationals and Moroccan citizens from entering.
And British health officials said Sunday a third case had been detected in an individual who had spent time in central London. They said the case was linked to travel to southern Africa.
In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised address on Sunday that the country was bracing for a fourth wave of infections ahead of the holiday season as new virus cases in general across the country jumped.
Nationally, new infections of the virus overall have more than tripled in a week, he said. . According to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases on Sunday, South Africa recorded a total of 2,858 new virus infections in the last 24 hours, 80 percent of them in Gauteng, the nation’s wealthiest province and home to Johannesburg, the nation’s most densely populated city.
Mr. Ramaphosa did not detail what share of new cases might be of the Omicron variant, but said, without specifics, that the variant appeared to be “responsible” for driving new cases in the Gauteng province.
The variant “is now showing up in all other provinces in our country,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.
Botswana, a country of 2.3 million people, recorded a daily total of 257 new cases of the virus in general, according to the World Health Organization.
The W.H.O. warned on Friday that Omicron was a “variant of concern,” the most serious category the agency uses for such tracking, and said that its numerous genetic mutations could help it spread more quickly, even among vaccinated people.
In an update on Sunday, the W.H.O. said that Omicron may pose an increased risk of reinfection, but it was not yet clear if it causes more severe disease or transmits more easily than other variants. The agency said that numourous studies are underway.
Scientists cautioned that relatively little is known about the variant, and that only a small number of confirmed cases have surfaced globally. Still, there are worries that Omicron could have spread more widely before scientists in South Africa discovered it last week, and the memories of the rampaging spread this year of the Delta variant have prompted new waves of travel restrictions, aimed primarily at southern African countries.
Britain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Israel are among the countries that have identified Omicron cases in recent days and imposed new travel restrictions. In a sign of how seriously the authorities in Europe, which is already battling a surge of coronavirus cases, are taking the new threat, officials in France on Friday also suspended arrivals from seven southern African countries even though the new variant had not yet been detected in France.
“It’s probably a question of hours, let’s be honest,” Olivier Véran, the health minister, told reporters on Sunday at a vaccination center in Paris. But he added that “new variant doesn’t necessarily mean new wave, or that the variant is more dangerous.”
“To be safe, we are acting as though this variant is potentially dangerous,” he said.
The European Union is restricting travel to and from seven countries in southern Africa — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — while the United States and South Korea have targeted those countries and Malawi. Britain has restricted travel with those eight nations and Angola and Zambia.
Israel announced it was sealing its borders to all foreigners for 14 days after one case was confirmed in the country.
Scientists were careful to note that the extent of the threat from Omicron remained unclear, and that existing vaccines were likely to protect against it. Although some variants of concern, like Delta, have lived up to initial worries, others have had a more limited impact.
Some experts, including the W.H.O., said that the rush to reintroduce travel bans and border closures was premature and would unfairly punish African countries that have already suffered from delayed and insufficient vaccine supplies caused in large part by Western countries hoarding doses.
The latest cases include:
Australia placed two people in quarantine after they tested positive for the variant on arrival on a Qatar Airways flight on Saturday from Doha.
Two travelers from South Africa are in isolation after testing positive, Denmark officials said in a statement.
Carl Zimmer, Stephen Castle and Aida Alami contributed reporting.
JERUSALEM — Israel over the weekend became the first country to seal its borders to all foreign travelers in response to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, taking a step that appeared more severe but less discriminatory than other countries’ travel bans.
Only four weeks ago, Israel fully re-opened its skies to vaccinated tourists after it had barred foreign visitors early in the pandemic. But by midnight between Sunday and Monday, its borders are expected to again be closed to foreigners.
The rapid reversal came after a late-night meeting on Saturday of Israel’s coronavirus cabinet and constituted a broader ban than those imposed by most countries so far. The United States, Britain, Canada, the European Union and other nations have all announced bans on travelers from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected.
Those bans have triggered a wave of resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.
Hours after Israel announced its blanket ban, Morocco said on Sunday it would deny entry to all travelers, even Moroccan citizens, for two weeks beginning Monday. The country is banning all incoming and outgoing flights over the two-week period.
In Israel, all foreign nationals will be banned from entering for at least 14 days, except for urgent humanitarian cases to be approved by a special exceptions committee. Returning vaccinated Israelis will be tested upon landing and will have to self-quarantine for three days, pending results of another P.C.R. test. Unvaccinated Israelis will have to self-quarantine for seven days.
Israelis returning from countries classified as “red,” with high risk of infection, including most African countries, will have to enter a quarantine hotel until they receive a negative result from the airport test, then transfer to home quarantine (until they get a 7-day PCR test result).
Ran Balicer, the chairman of an expert panel that advises the Israeli government on Covid-19 response, said the decision was temporary and was taken out of prudence because most nations likely are not yet capable of detecting the variant yet.
Israel has identified at least one confirmed case of Omicron so far — a woman who arrived from Malawi — and testing has provided indications of several more likely cases in the country.
On Sunday, the Israeli Ministry of Health called for all passengers who rode a bus from Tel Aviv to the southern Red Sea resort city of Eilat on Nov. 22 to get a P.C.R. test and self-isolate, after it was revealed that the woman from Malawi was on that bus.
Israel only recently emerged from a fourth wave of the virus that saw one of the world’s highest rates of daily infections from the Delta strain. Officials attributed the containment of that outbreak to a rapid rollout of booster shots that began in August, after Israeli scientists detected waning immunity in people five or six months after they had received their second Pfizer shot.
In an effort to get ahead of the next crisis, the Israeli government held a drill code-named “Omega” this month to test nationwide preparations for the outbreak of a new, lethal Covid variant.
At least 80 percent of people living in Israel over the age of 16 have been vaccinated, but the numbers are lower in younger age groups.
Israel’s Covid policy now revolves around trying to keep the economy fully open and avoid internal lockdowns, while strictly controlling the borders.
But the reimposed entry restrictions have abruptly upended holiday plans for tourists from abroad. Esther Block, from London, has been waiting for the good part of two years to visit lifelong friends in Israel, one of whom is now 87. “We were due to come when Israel first locked down,” said Ms. Block, 57, “and we have been postponing ever since.”
Ms. Block is double vaccinated, was scheduled to get a booster shot next week and also recovered from Covid about four weeks ago. Her teenage son planned to get a second shot next week, so the family had started planning a trip to Israel over the December holidays.
“Now I don’t know when I’ll be able to come,” Ms. Block said. “I feel pretty gutted. But I actually think we should all be doing what Israel is doing,” she added. “It seems sensible to be cautious, in spite of it being incredibly frustrating.”
Aida Alami contributed reporting from Morocco.
Top federal health officials in the United States urged unvaccinated Americans on Sunday to get their shots and for eligible adults to seek out boosters, amid the discovery of a new variant.
Appearing on several morning talk shows on Sunday, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, cautioned Americans that the emergence of Omicron and the uncertainty that surrounds it is a reminder that pandemic is far from over. While the variant has yet to be detected in the United States, maintaining vigilance and safeguarding public health through inoculations, masking indoors and distancing, remains critical, he said.
“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Dr. Collins said. “And it’s shape-shifting itself.”
Currently, much remains unknown about the Omicron variant, which has a concerning number of mutations not seen before. It isunclear whether it causes severe illness or is more transmissible than previous variants. There are also questions around whether Omicron limits vaccine’s effectiveness.
Still, Dr. Collins stressed that inoculation remain the first line of defense, saying that there are “good reasons” to believe, based on previous variants, that current vaccines will provide sufficient protection.
“Please, Americans, if you’re one of those folks who’s sort of waiting to see, this would be a great time to sign up, get your booster,” Dr. Collins said on Fox. “Or if you haven’t been vaccinated already, get started.”
He also underlined other critical mitigation efforts, including indoor masking when around unvaccinated individuals and maintaining social distance, in slowing the spread.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, delivered a similar message, sending a “clarion call” for vaccinations and boosters. It is inevitable that the variant, which has already been detected in several countries, will surface in the United States, Dr. Fauci said.
“The question is, will we be prepared for it?” Dr. Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday morning. “And the preparation that we have ongoing for what we’re doing now with the Delta variant just needs to be revved up.”
President Biden, upon returning to Washington on Sunday from spending the Thanksgiving holiday in Nantucket, Mass., was asked if he was considering imposing new travel restrictions and replied, “I’ll have more to say.”
The discovery the Omicron variant comes at a delicate moment for an airline industry that was just starting to see a rebound.
The question is whether the new coronavirus variant will deter travelers, as the Delta variant did this summer.
Several nations, including the United States, have banned visitors from South Africa and a handful of neighboring countries. Morocco has banned all incoming flights for two weeks, the Philippines has banned visitors from southern Africa and several European countries, and Israel has closed its borders to all foreign visitors for 14 days.
The international travel recovery has been slower than it has been in the United States. President Biden’s decision to ease longstanding restrictions on foreign travelers this month promised to stimulate that rebound. It isn’t yet clear how or whether the Omicron variant will affect travel demand, but if travel bans proliferate and concerns over the variant continue to spread, hopes for an accelerated international rebound could be dashed once again.
Only two U.S. carriers, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, fly out of southern Africa. Both have said that they are not yet planning to adjust their schedules in response to the administration’s ban, which takes effect on Monday and does not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents. Delta operates three weekly flights between Atlanta and Johannesburg. United operates five flights a week between Newark and Johannesburg, and it has not changed its plans to restart flights between Newark and Cape Town on Wednesday. None of the countries that have announced the new travel restrictions are major sources of business for U.S. carriers.
No major American airline has announced any substantive changes to procedures because of the variant. And all passengers flying into the United States must provide proof of a negative coronavirus test, with noncitizens also required to be fully vaccinated.
Within the United States, air travel has nearly recovered, even with many businesses still wary of sending employees on work trips. The number of people screened at airport security checkpoints over the past week was down only 10 percent from the same week in 2019, according to the Transportation Security Administration. And the industry successfully weathered the crush of travelers, avoiding the disruptions that at some airlines lasted for days in recent months.
On the face of it, the emergence of the Omicron variant is the unhappy fulfillment of expert predictions that the failure to prioritize vaccinations for African countries would allow the coronavirus to continue to circulate and mutate there, imperiling the world’s ability to move beyond the pandemic.
But the problem is changing shape. In recent weeks, vaccines have started to flow into Africa, and the new challenge is how to rapidly scale up vaccinations — as South Africa demonstrates.
“We haven’t completely overcome the problem of vaccine supply to lower-income countries,” said Shabir Madhi, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “But where they are available, countries are struggling to scale up.”
Scientists in South Africa, which has the most sophisticated genomic sequencing facilities on the continent, were the first to announce the detection of the new variant, after it wasfound in four people in Botswana.
South Africa has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent: Just under one-quarter of the population has been fully vaccinated, and the government said it has over five months’ worth of doses in its stores. But they are not being administered fast enough.
Vaccinations in South Africa are running at about half the target rate, officials said last week. To prevent vaccines from expiring, the government has even deferred some deliveries scheduled for early next year.
In a briefing on Sunday to announce the country’s response to the new variant, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his cabinet was considering making vaccines mandatory for specific locations and activities. Before enforcing the new rules, though, a task team will investigate “a fair and sustainable approach.”
In a country where vaccines are free, this was a more desirable approach than imposing additional lockdown restrictions as he said that new virus infections in general more than tripled in a week. Masks remain mandatory in public, and a curfew is in place from midnight to 4 a.m.
“We know enough about the variant to know what we need to do to reduce transmission and to protect ourselves against severe disease and death,” said Mr. Ramaphosa. “The first, the most powerful, tool we have is vaccination.”
But the problem is not just a product of the misinformation-driven hesitancy that has plagued vaccination efforts in the West. In fact, some studies suggest it’s a small part of the problem in South Africa.
Instead, the inoculation campaign has been slowed by a complex range of logistical, financial and even political issues. And Western actions are partly to blame.
Many African countries lack the cold storage facilities or logistics chains for a large-scale vaccination campaign. Dilapidated health systems mean a lack of clinics or qualified personnel to administer vaccines.
With Western countries hogging vaccine supplies for most of this year, and doses from India halted as cases surged in there, many African countries have relied on donations. But some of those vaccines have landed close to their expiration date, giving countries a narrow window in which to safely deliver them.
And many Africans are constrained by time and money. They may lack the bus fare to reach a distant vaccination center — or be reluctant to stand in line for hours if there’s a risk of missing work, or losing a job.
Misinformation and cultural factors matter, too. Africa has a long history of vaccinating young children against diseases like polio, but a mass vaccination drive among adults is “very, very unusual” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Africa director, told reporters last week.
Even nurses and doctors are prone to believing false tales of dangerous side effects: Recent studies in Ghana and Ethiopia found that fewer than 50 percent of health workers intend to get vaccinated, Dr. Moeti said.
In South Africa, race is a factor: Researchers at the University of Johannesburg found that white people were more vaccine hesitant than Black people — but were more likely to have been inoculated because they had access to better health care.
The race to vaccinate Africans is progressing. In the past eight weeks, 30 African countries have administered 80 percent of doses received, according to the World Health Organization. Only Djibouti and the Democratic Republic of Congo administered fewer than 20 percent of doses received.
Still, there is a long way to go. So far, wealthy countries have delivered just 14 percent of the 1.7 billion doses promised to low- and middle-income countries by next September, according to data collated by Our World in Data, a project at Oxford University.
And no matter how quickly those doses arrive, experts say African countries need support to help get them into people’s arms.
In Kenya this month, the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken outlined measures to help Kenyans overcome such “last mile” obstacles through the Global Covid Corps, a new public-private partnership aimed at overcoming logistical and delivery hurdles. As fear of the new variant spreads, the sense of urgency around such programs is likely to grow.
A majority of Swiss voters backed the government’s Covid-19 response policy in a referendum held on Sunday, following weeks of vitriolic public debate and protests.
Official government results show 62 percent of voters agreed to keep the amendments parliament made to the nation’s existing Covid law, which includes the introduction of a Covid certificate that shows either proof of vaccination or recovery from the illness and is required to enter public spaces like restaurants or museums.
It is the second time this year that opponents have tried to overturn legislature introduced by the government in response to the pandemic, by collecting enough signatures to bring the matter to a referendum.
This time opposition focused on getting rid of contact tracing and an internationally recognized Covid certificate. Opponents, who organized many protests in the lead up to Sunday, argued they are trying to prevent a split in society between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, with different rules applying to each group.
Josef Ender, the spokesman for the committee opposing the legislation said they acknowledge the result, but “will continue to advocate for freedom in Switzerland.”
In response to the outcome, which saw one of the highest voter turnouts in decades, the Interior Minister Alain Berset commented on the tone of the opposition and its demonstrations that sometimes turned violent. “What does not belong to Switzerland is anger, hatred, intimidation and threats,” he said.
“We all want to end the pandemic as quickly as possible and that can only be done together,” he said.
On Sunday, Swiss voters also approved a proposed constitutional amendment that aims to improve compensation and working conditions for nurses, and meet the growing demand for health care workers.
Although the initiative was launched by the country’s nursing association before the pandemic, it took on a new significance because of the increased reliance on nurses.
“It is an incredible sign of appreciation from the Swiss electorate towards caregivers,” Yvonne Ribi, the director of the country’s nursing association, said to Switzerland’s national broadcaster after the proposal was approved by a 61 percent majority vote.
The results come amid a recent surge in Covid cases in Switzerland, which despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has one of the continent’s lowest vaccination rates.
The Alpine nation has received criticism throughout the pandemic for maintaining looser regulations than much of Europe. It has also been slow to make booster jabs available.
In light of the new Omicron variant, Swiss authorities on Friday decided to ban all direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region. The country has so far not reported any confirmed cases of the new variant.
Visitors from several countries where cases of Omicron have been detected, including Hong Kong, Israel and the United Kingdom, are now required to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival in Switzerland.
On Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York declared a state of emergency partly in response to the emerging Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Most governors did not comment publicly on the threat over the weekend, but some said they were monitoring developments without taking any new steps.
Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut issued a statement on Sunday saying local health officials were paying close attention to the Omicron variant.
“Our team at the Connecticut Department of Public Health, led by Commissioner Manisha Juthani, is following these developments closely,” he said in the statement. “While there have been no cases of the Omicron variant reported here in Connecticut or the United States to date, we still must be vigilant. Given the number of countries where Omicron has already been detected, it may already be present in the U.S.”
Other state leaders took the same tone, urging caution as well as highlighting the resources they had already put in place through the pandemic.
Mr. Lamont pointed to the network of labs sequencing genomes in his state and reminded residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health echoed that message and said in a statement, “More studies are needed to determine whether the Omicron variant is more contagious, more deadly or resistant to vaccine and treatments than other Covid-19 strains.” The department added that people in Los Angeles should adhere to existing mask requirements.
“While we are still learning much about Omicron, we know enough about Covid to take steps now that can reduce transmission as we prepare to better understand the additional strategies that may needed to mitigate this new variant of concerns,” the statement said.
Health leaders in the United States have said that it is all but inevitable that the variant will reach the country and called this a time for caution but not panic.
“We’re going to get better information about this,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” “But there’s no reason to panic. But it is a great reason to go get boosted.”
Some leaders sought to reassure residents. Gov. Dan McKee of Rhode Island said that its health department was not aware of any cases in the state linked to the variant, although he said that the state would continue to be on the lookout.
“The best way to keep RI safe: Get vaccinated. Get your booster,” he said on Twitter.
On Sunday, his office issued a statement saying that the state’s health laboratories already perform genomic surveillance on samples, “which would identify the Omicron variant.”
In New York, under Ms. Hochul’s executive order, all state agencies are authorized “to take appropriate action to assist local governments and individuals” in containing and responding to cases. Although the measures are a far cry from early pandemic rules, they were the nation’s first attempt to accelerate preparation for the arrival of Omicron.
“We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Ms. Hochul said in a release.
Two governors of more conservative-leaning states addressed concerns about the variant, too, but maintained their position that vaccine mandates were off the table for now.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said on “State of the Union” that while a new variant “is a great concern,” encouraging vaccinations would work better than forcing them.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi made similar statements on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We’re certainly monitoring this new variant,” he said. “We don’t have all the data that we need to make decisions at this time.”
The cascade of travel closures sparked by the emergence of the Omicron variant has triggered resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.
Richer countries, having already hoarded vaccines for much of 2021, were now penalizing parts of the world that they had starved of shots in the first place, scientists said.
“Told you so,” said Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, referring to warnings from African researchers that delaying vaccinations there risked the emergence of new variants. “It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support.”
The sense of outrage was most visceral in South Africa, where business leaders predicted that travel bans by Western nations would inflict a dire economic toll, especially on tourism. In the arrivals halls of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International airport, Ronald Masiwa, a tour operator, watched with dread as the information board flipped to red, displaying cancellation notices. Three clients had already canceled trips overnight, and he feared that many more would follow.
In South Africa, December is traditionally the high season for tourism, one of the country’s biggest industries, and operators had been banking on a surge in visitors from Britain, which had removed South Africa from its “red list” only last month.
“This is devastating,” said David Frost, chief executive officer of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association. “Many companies have been hanging on by their fingernails, and this is going to wipe them out. It’s going to be dire for conservation, and it’s going to be dire for people in rural areas where tourism is the only economic generator.”
South Africa’s number of daily infections — 2,828 on Friday — was a small fraction of case counts in countries with similarly sized populations, like Germany and Britain, not to mention the United States. For Mr. Frost, the hurried measures were the mark of a blatant double standard.
In South Africa, most of the 22 cases of the Omicron variant detected as of Saturday were in Pretoria, the capital city north of Johannesburg. With fears growing that the government would announce a new lockdown, a sense of foreboding hung over one shopping mall, festooned with Christmas decorations, where Mary Njuguna sells beaded jewelry and woven handbags.
The pandemic had already caused the price of imports to soar, and goods from Kenya and Malawi that once arrived in one week now took months, she said. Talk of a new lockdown made her fear what might come next.
“It’s a big, big mess,” Ms. Njuguna said.
The travel bans resonated widely in a continent where they were seen as a mark of Western double standards. Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan writer, said that border closures appeared to be dictated by politics and not public health concerns.
“If you look at the way the numbers are going, we should be thinking about bans on Europe and United States,” she said. “But the border closures are not tied to the public health crisis in front of us.”
British health officials said Sunday that a third case of the new Omicron coronavirus variant had been discovered in the country, in an individual who had spent time in central London. The announcement came just hours after the health secretary, Sajid Javid, rejected calls for tougher restrictions on daily life.
The health security agency said the individual had spent time in the Westminster section of London, but was no longer in the country, and that contact tracing was being performed. It said the case was linked to travel in southern Africa.
Dr. Jenny Harries, chief executive of the agency, said it was “very likely’’ there would be more cases in the coming days.
On Saturday, a day after the government learned of the first two cases, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that masks would be mandatory on public transportation and in shops in England starting on Tuesday. Tighter testing rules for travelers arriving from abroad would also go into effect that day.
But the government has rejected the idea of ordering people to work from home where possible, introducing vaccine passports in England or requiring masks in restaurants. “This is about taking proportionate action against the risks we face,” Mr. Javid told the BBC on Sunday, speaking before the third case was confirmed.
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
Britain began suspending flights from six southern African nations on Friday, but some travelers had already arrived in London by the time the measure took effect.
Mr. Javid acknowledged that passengers landing on Friday were not tested at the airport and were able to leave as usual, including by public transport. He said that all travelers who had arrived from southern Africa within the past 10 days were being contacted and asked to take tests.
“We could not have acted more swiftly,” he said.
By contrast, in Amsterdam, Dutch health officials tested more than 500 passengers who arrived on Friday on two flights from South Africa. Those who were negative were allowed to leave the airport and quarantine at home, or to continue their journeys.
Mr. Javid also urged Britons to quickly get booster shots and said he expected advice “imminently” from scientific experts on expanding the scope of the country’s vaccine program, especially with regard to boosters.
Such measures would, he added, help to “protect the progress we have made so we can continue to look forward to Christmas with family and friends.”
Scientific experts at the World Health Organization warned on Friday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa was a “variant of concern,” the most serious category the agency uses for such tracking.
The designation, announced after an emergency meeting of the health body, is reserved for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. The last coronavirus variant to receive this label was Delta, which took off this summer and now accounts for virtually all Covid cases in the United States.
The W.H.O. said the new version, named Omicron, carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.
Independent scientists agreed that Omicron warranted urgent attention, but also pointed out that it would take more research to determine the extent of the threat. Although some variants of concern, like Delta, have lived up to initial worries, others have had a limited impact.
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and other researchers said that vaccines will most likely protect against Omicron, but further studies are needed to determine how much of the shots’ effectiveness may be reduced.
As the coronavirus replicates inside people, new mutations constantly arise. Most provide the virus with no new advantage. When worrisome mutations do emerge, the World Health Organization uses Greek letters to name the variants. The first “variant of concern,” Alpha, appeared in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by Beta in South Africa.
Omicron first came to light in Botswana, where researchers at the Botswana Harvard H.I.V. Reference Laboratory in Gaborone sequenced the genes of coronaviruses from positive test samples. They found some samples sharing about 50 mutations not found in such a combination before. So far, six people have tested positive for Omicron in Botswana, according to an international database of variants.
Around the same time, researchers in South Africa stumbled across Omicron in a cluster of cases in the province of Gauteng. As of Friday, they have listed 58 Omicron samples on the variant database. But at a news conference on Thursday, Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa, said that “close to two or three hundred” genetic sequences of Omicron cases would be released in the next few days.
When the World Health Organization began to name the emerging variants of the coronavirus, officials turned to the Greek alphabet to make it easier for the public to understand the evolution: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on.
Now the alphabet has created its own political headache. When it came time to name the potentially dangerous new variant that has emerged in southern Africa, the next letter in alphabetical order was Nu, which officials thought would be too easily confused with “new.”
The letter after that was even more complicated: Xi, a name that in its transliteration, though not its pronunciation, happens to belong to the leader of China, Xi Jinping. So they skipped both and named the new variant Omicron.
“‘Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” a spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, said on Saturday in an emailed response to questions about skipping the two letters.
The organization’s policy, he went on, requires “avoiding causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”
The organization did not initially explain why it jumped from Mu, a lesser variant first documented in Colombia, to Omicron. The omission resulted in speculation over the reasons. For some, it rekindled criticism that the organization has been far too deferential in its dealings with the Chinese government.
“If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?” Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, wrote on Twitter.
There is no evidence that the Chinese had any say in naming the new variant, known scientifically as the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.529. Some variants have proved less transmissible, but Omicron could be the most worrisome new version since Delta.
Throughout the pandemic, the W.H.O. has sought to avoid the once common practice of referring to health threats with geographic terms: Spanish flu, West Nile virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Zika and Ebola.
That reflected concerns among scientists about the risk of stigmatizing places or peoples, but it was also seen in the early months of the pandemic as deferential to China, which has an influential role in global health affairs.
Chinese officials have reacted angrily to efforts to associate the pandemic with the country or Wuhan, the central city where it first spread in the fall of 2019. China’s fiercest critics in the United States, including then President Donald J. Trump and his aides, persisted anyway, at times using sophomoric and racist slurs.
“The novel coronavirus affects everyone and needs to be tackled with joint efforts, instead of fear-mongering in a xenophobic way,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at the time.
At the first BTS concert of the coronavirus era on Saturday, Maggie Larin, 25, and her three friends were surrounded by a roaring crowd of 70,000 other fans in SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
But when Lee Hye Su, 23, and her two friends go to see the K-pop group The Boyz in Seoul Olympic Park next weekend, she will be seated silently, masked and socially distanced, alongside only 2,100 other fans, according to the venue’s rules.
As K-pop bands start touring the world and performing for live audiences again, fans in their home country, South Korea, are flocking to stadiums. But they must abide by the government’s strict rules: no shouting, chanting or singing along at concerts with 500 or more attendees.
“We’ll only be able to clap when we enter the hall,” said Ms. Lee, who has followed the band since 2018. She said it was unfortunate that the atmosphere on Saturday would be different from that of past concerts, where she could yell all she wanted.
“But I knew I had to go as soon as I found out about it,” she said.
Live K-pop concerts are returning to South Korea as hospitalizations are rising across the country and the spread of a new variant alarms the world. The health minister, Kwon Deok-cheol, said on Friday that the government was considering tightening some restrictions because the number of available beds for critically ill patients in and around Seoul was “reaching a limit.”
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
But there is pent-up demand for live performances. K-pop fan groups have remained active throughout the pandemic, said Kim Hong Ki, chief executive of Space Oddity, a South Korean music collective. Record sales for K-pop groups have even spiked, he said.
“In K-pop, fans aren’t ordinary consumers, but active, evangelistic and dedicated to their fandom, almost religiously,” said Mr. Kim, who has worked in the South Korean music industry for decades. “When the rules are relaxed to some extent, fans will be chasing after live shows.”
Several other bands, like NCT 127 and Twice, have scheduled their first pandemic-era concerts in South Korea for next month. And thousands of K-pop fans in the country are dashing for tickets, even if they know those shows could get canceled.
Pandemic rules in the United States require fans to wear masks in concert halls, and provide proof of full vaccination, negative virus test results and photo identification upon entry. Still, the BTS concert in California this weekend was sold out months in advance.
To catch the show, Ms. Larin took a weekend away from law school in Michigan.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for the actual concert, listening to a lot of their music and learning their fan chants,” she said before the event on Saturday. “It’s going to be a very emotional experience.”
A top-flight soccer game in Portugal produced instead farcical drama on Saturday evening, after one of the teams was forced to field only nine players, including two goalkeepers, because the rest of its squad had been depleted by a Covid-19 outbreak.
In the match between Benfica and Belenenses in Portugal’s top professional league, Benfica’s full-size complement of 11 players dominated, scoring seven goals by halftime. The game was called off during the second half, after one of seven remaining Belenenses players sat down, saying he was unable to continue, reducing his side to six. The rules of the sport require a team to field at least seven players.
Ahead of the game, the virus swept through the Belenenses club, infecting as many as 17 of its players and staff members. One of the players who had tested positive had recently returned from playing in South Africa, where researchers were the first to identify the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
The World Health Organization has labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” saying it could spread more easily than other forms of the virus. It was unclear if the player had been infected with the variant.
The Belenenses players sought to have the game canceled, warning in a joint statement before the match that soccer would have “lost its heart” if they were forced to play such an uncompetitive matchup amid a public health crisis. Officials reportedly told the players that the game must go on.
Players from several other clubs criticized Portugal’s sports authorities for tainting the country’s reputation and that of one of its favorite sports.
The pharmaceutical company Merck said on Friday that in a final analysis of a clinical trial, its antiviral pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk Covid patients by 30 percent, down from an earlier estimate of 50 percent.
The lower efficacy is a disappointment for the drug, known as molnupiravir, which health officials around the world are counting on as a critical tool to save lives and reduce the burden on hospitals. It increases the importance of a similar, apparently more effective, offering from Pfizer that is also under review by the Food and Drug Administration.
A panel of advisers to the F.D.A. is set to meet on Tuesday to discuss Merck’s treatment and vote on whether to recommend authorizing it to treat high-risk Covid patients.
In briefing documents posted to the F.D.A.’s website on Friday, agency reviewers did not take a position on whether the drug should be authorized, though they found that the clinical trial data did not show any major safety concerns and that the drug was effective in preventing severe disease.
The reviewers said they had only become aware of the updated efficacy estimate earlier this week and were still reviewing the data. They said they could update their assessment when the panel meets on Tuesday.
Merck’s initial estimate that the drug reduced hospitalization and death by 50 percent came from an early look at results from 775 study participants. The updated figure announced on Friday came from more than 1,400. In the final analysis, the participants who received molnupiravir had a 6.8 percent risk of being hospitalized, and one patient died. Those who received a placebo had a 9.7 percent risk of being hospitalized, and nine died.
Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Minnesota, said he expected the drug would still receive emergency authorization. If the expert committee endorses it and the F.D.A. heeds the recommendation, the treatment could be authorized in the United States as soon as next week.
“The reduction in hospitalization is a little bit less, but there is still a big mortality benefit if you start early,” he said.
Still, he said, molnupiravir will probably be deemed a lower-tier treatment, an alternative choice for people who can’t get or don’t want more effective treatments.
Monoclonal antibody drugs, which are typically administered intravenously in the United States, have been found to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by at least 70 percent. Pfizer’s antiviral pill, Paxlovid, which was found in a clinical trial to cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent, could become available within weeks. Fluvoxamine, a common and inexpensive antidepressant, appears to be about as effective as molnupiravir.
Meant to be dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home, Merck’s drug is the first in a new class of antiviral treatments for Covid that are expected to reach many more people than other treatments have. Public health experts say that while the pills are no substitute for vaccination, they have the potential to prevent severe illness and save lives.