Covid-19 live updates: Omicron prompts U.S. to prepare tighter travel restrictions – The Washington Post

  1. Covid-19 live updates: Omicron prompts U.S. to prepare tighter travel restrictions  The Washington Post
  2. White House considering stricter international travel testing requirements amid omicron variant  NBC News
  3. Biden will lay down new travel restrictions as Omicron threatens  Politico
  4. Biden administration considering requiring stricter coronavirus testing for everyone traveling to US  CNN
  5. CDC orders airlines to share contact information on travelers from 8 African countries  USA TODAY
  6. View Full Coverage on Google News

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Heathrow reopens dedicated Covid-19 red list terminal | News

Heathrow has reopened its dedicated facility for passengers arriving from red list countries.

From today, Terminal 4 will act as a separate arrivals facility, keeping direct red list arrivals away from passengers in all other operational terminals.

This safety-first approach delivers a more efficient journey for all passengers, alongside a multiple layered approach that will keep passengers and colleagues safe – including mandatory requirement of face coverings, intensive robotic cleaning regimes across the airport, enhanced ventilation in immigration halls and Covid-19 marshals on hand.

As the whole of the UK experiences additional measures, intended to be temporary, Heathrow reassures its passengers that they remain safe and can fly with confidence in coming weeks.

Passengers flying into Heathrow will be able to use PCR testing facilities either on or close to the airport.

Those choosing to test at the airport must pre-book and enjoy a service that will shorten the time needed self-isolate in a move to protect business travel and those reuniting with friends and family for a short time only.

Heathrow chief operating officer, Emma Gilthorpe, said: “We are supportive of measures that protect public health and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“The rapid introduction of restrictions for international travel will nonetheless be a further significant blow for British exporters and those wanting to visit friends and relatives.

“Keeping the changes under constant review and a government commitment to the removal of red list countries, as soon as it is safe to do so, will help.

“Heathrow maintains the highest levels of Covid-secure measures to ensure our passengers, colleagues and partners know that Heathrow is a safe place to travel to and from.”

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Covid-19: Omicron was in Europe before southern Africa travel bans

The knee-jerk response followed the news that the variant had an unusually high number of mutations, which scientists feared could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion.

Much is still unknown about Omicron, including its origin, severity and its transmissibility. Researchers are also racing to discover if it could displace existing variants and become dominant, as Delta has.

Early “indications” show that people who have received the coronavirus vaccine booster are “protected” against the new variant, Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Tuesday.

This comes after anecdotal reports from South Africa suggested that most cases of the Omicron variant have been mild so far. But those South African cases were “mostly [among] young people anyway. So, I would say we just don’t know [if the new variant causes more serious illness than previous strains],” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday.

Scientists say it will take weeks to unearth how dangerous the new variant is. But we do know that Omicron has been found in Europe, with cases of community transmission identified in earlier Covid-19 samples before the travel bans came into place.

Dutch health officials said Tuesday that Omicron was present in the Netherlands a week before two flights arrived from South Africa carrying the virus. At least one of the cases is thought to have been contracted in the Netherlands, RIVM virologist Chantal Reusken told national broadcaster NOS.

Nine cases of Omicron were linked to a private event on November 20 in Scotland, days before South Africa announced the existence of the variant. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Scottish Parliament Tuesday that none of the individuals had a recent travel history or known links to others who had traveled from southern Africa.

These cases have prompted some to question the need for the cascading travel restrictions, which has triggered a wave of resentment on the African continent. Many view the bans as another example of Africans bearing the brunt of hasty pandemic policymaking, which has seen rich countries hoarding vaccine doses and resources to the detriment of poorer nations.

“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” South Africa’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday, adding that the restrictions were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

“Putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said the following day. “Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”


Q: What raised alarms for scientists about Omicron, compared to other variants? 

A: In the case of Omicron, what initially raised alarms for doctors and scientists in South Africa was the rapid rate of spread of this new variant, according to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. 

“It appears to be outcompeting Delta in speed, but whether it will force out Delta and become dominant remains to be seen,” she said. 

“In addition, the large number of this variant’s mutations — over 50 in all — raises the question of immune escape, both to vaccines and treatments like monoclonal antibodies. These are types of information that we will need to obtain through further scientific studies,” she added. 

Send your questions here. Are you a health care worker fighting Covid-19? Message us on WhatsApp about the challenges you’re facing: +1 347-322-0415.


Scientists say it will take weeks to tell how dangerous Omicron really is. Here’s why 

As soon as South Africa announced the spread of a new and troubling variant last week, scientists went to work. By the time WHO had named the new lineage Omicron, multiple teams of researchers had already duplicated the work from South Africa and mapped out the genetic changes that made Omicron the new bad actor of the coronavirus family, Maggie Fox reports. 

Although many of those mutations were familiar from other variants, scientists were still unsure whether they make Omicron substantially different from previous variants — especially the super-dominant Delta variant. 

But it will take weeks of testing to tell what added superpowers, if any, these mutations give Omicron. Researchers must look at what’s happening in the real world by testing samples taken from patients, sequencing their genomes to see if it’s Omicron causing the infections, and see if more samples turn out to be Omicron. 

They’ll also explore whether Omicron infections lead to more severe disease and if fully vaccinated people end up more likely to become infected with the Omicron variant as opposed to other strains. 

Making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory was once unthinkable. European countries are showing it can work 

Earlier this month, Austria took a step once unimaginable for a Western democracy: It announced that Covid-19 vaccinations would become compulsory for its entire population. 

Up until then, governments around the world had rejected the idea of a universal coronavirus vaccine mandate, opting instead for incentives and other “nudges” to motivate people to get shots. Even in authoritarian states, like China, it is not mandatory. 

Now, other European countries are starting to consider similarly drastic measures to persuade more people to be inoculated, despite criticisms that low vaccination rates made them unrealistic and would deprive millions from earning a livelihood, Eliza Mackintosh reports. 

FDA advisers vote to recommend authorization of Merck pill to treat Covid-19

As fears about the Omicron variant mount, advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration voted to recommend emergency use authorization of a pill made by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to help treat Covid-19.

The narrow 13-10 vote endorsed the treatment, called molnupiravir, although members of the committee expressed worries about risks to pregnant women and several said they hoped Merck would be asked to continue gathering safety data on the pill.

If authorization is granted, the drug would be the first oral antiviral treatment to fight Covid-19. It can reduce the relative risk someone will progress to severe disease or death by about 30%. The pills must be taken within five days of the start of symptoms to do much good, and people must take four pills twice a day for five days.


There’s a new variant circulating. Here’s what you can do to stay safe

As the world waits to learn more about the Omicron variant, it’s easy to get caught up in the unknowns. Instead, health officials are reminding us of the simple yet effective tools we all have to combat the virus.


Czech President Milos Zeman formally appointed Petr Fiala as the country's new Prime Minister on Sunday while sat in an acrylic glass box after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier last week.


How do you treat a disease where the cause is unknown and each patient’s symptoms are unique? CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to pain expert Dr. Carmen Green about what causes chronic pain, how it can be treated, and which patients are more likely to get care. Listen Now.

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How Covid-19 Has Changed Where Californians Live

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, we’ve been hearing about Californians abandoning their usual way of life for greener, cheaper pastures.

There are the San Franciscans who weathered lockdown orders in Lake Tahoe, and the Angelenos with new desert cabins in Joshua Tree. Tales abound of Silicon Valley types moving home to Miami and Seattle, or renting acres of land in Idaho.

The story goes like this: The coronavirus and the ability to work remotely have fundamentally reshaped where we want to live — and large California cities, particularly Los Angeles and San Francisco, are not on the list.

But is any of that actually true?

I’ll start with the short answer. There hasn’t been an exodus from California, but pandemic forces have shifted where people reside within the state. Those patterns of relocation mirror what we were already seeing before Covid-19, but on overdrive.

Here’s how this shakes out.

California’s population declined slightly in 2020, but it wasn’t because of a mass migration to other states. To blame are coronavirus deaths, a lower birthrate and fewer international arrivals.

In fact, 82 percent of Californians who moved last year stayed in the state, according to a report from the California Policy Lab. That figure has been basically stable over the past five years.

“A lot more people are moving around within the state than they are out of the state,” Eric McGhee, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, told me. “That movement tends to be within a certain metropolitan area, and a lot of that is people moving to suburbs and exurbs.”

Californians are likely to move from Los Angeles to the Inland Empire or from San Francisco to the fringes of the Bay Area or the Sacramento region, McGhee said. That’s because they want cheaper housing but don’t want to end up so far away that they need to change jobs.

It’s been that way for a long time. These were the largest county-to-county net migrations in California between 2015 and 2019, according to census data:

  • Los Angeles to San Bernardino (20,809 people)

  • Los Angeles to Riverside (13,949)

  • Los Angeles to Orange (11,879)

  • Alameda to Contra Costa (9,246)

  • Orange to Riverside (8,282)

  • Los Angeles to Kern (6,032)

  • San Diego to Riverside (5,892)

  • San Francisco to Alameda (5,469)

  • San Francisco to San Mateo (4,239)

  • Alameda to San Joaquin (4,134)

With the emergence of the pandemic in 2020, some of these trends kicked into high gear.

The Inland Empire tied Phoenix in 2020 for the biggest gain in households from migration nationwide, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. The flow of humanity into Riverside and San Bernardino Counties increased by 50 percent compared with the previous year.

This reflects Californians’ desire to escape the exorbitant home prices of more coastal regions. In Riverside County, the median single-family home price in August was $570,000, compared with $830,070 in Los Angeles County and $1.85 million in San Francisco.

As my colleagues noted in a recent analysis, pricey San Francisco experienced one of the most significant exoduses of the pandemic. While “migration patterns during the pandemic have looked a lot like migration patterns before it,” that wasn’t the case for San Francisco, they wrote.

In the city, net exits — the number of people leaving minus the number of people arriving — increased to 38,800 in the last three quarters of 2020, compared with 5,200 during the same time the previous year, according to the California Policy Lab report. The city lost one-eighth of its total households last year by some estimates.

But perhaps this is good news for those us of fighting the myth of a California exodus: Two-thirds of San Franciscans who fled landed in other parts of the Bay Area and 80 percent stayed in the state.

For more:

Today’s travel tip comes from Curtis Ridling:

“For natural beauty I never get enough of Yosemite during the fall, when colorful leaves add to the experience. The winter with snow puts a different twist on the park with a sense of quiet not available at other times. Summer with its crowds is difficult but the views are still there as you look up and see climbers on El Capitan.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Has your child been vaccinated against Covid-19?

Share stories of your children receiving their coronavirus shots and how it has affected your holiday plans. Please include your child’s name, age and city of residence — and even a photograph, if you’d like.

Email me at [email protected] and your submission may be included in a future newsletter.

One lucky Californian is about to become a multimillionaire.

All six numbers drawn in Saturday’s Super Lotto Plus matched a ticket sold at a gas station in Santa Clarita, KCAL9 reports. The winner will claim $38 million.

Happy holidays, indeed.

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Covid-19 Live Updates: Omicron Variant News, Vaccines and the Latest

ImageThe Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine and booster shots were administered in Rosemead, Calif. on Sunday.
Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prompted by growing concerns about the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said that all American adults “should” get booster doses of the available coronavirus vaccines.

Adults aged 18 and older should get a booster shot when they are six months past the initial immunization with the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or two months after the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the agency said.

The C.D.C. had previously said that Americans over age 50, as well as those ages 18 and older living in long-term care facilities, “should” get booster shots while all other adults “may” decide to do so based on their individual risk.The shift in language signals a growing concern about Omicron, despite the limited information available about the variant.

Scientists do not yet know whether vaccines will continue to protect people from Omicron. The variant contains many mutations that suggest the shots may be less effective against Omicron than against other variants.

Dozens of labs worldwide are now trying to assess exactly how much less effective the vaccines might be. They are not expected to have results for at least two weeks.

“Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the C.D.C., said in a statement.

“I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well.”

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna plan to test whether booster shots of their vaccines will bolster the immune system enough to fend off the new variant. The boosters have been shown to raise antibody levels significantly. Those antibodies may not be able to neutralize Omicron entirely, but having more antibodies is generally beneficial, experts have said.

Dr. Walensky also urged Americans to get tested for the virus if they develop symptoms, and to practice prevention strategies known to limit transmission of the virus.

In just the week after it was first detected, the Omicron variant has been spotted in at least 16 countries. The variant has about 50 mutations, including more than 30 in the spike, a viral protein on its surface that the vaccines train the body to recognize and attack.




Omicron Demonstrates Need for Global Covid Response, W.H.O. Says

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said the new Omicron coronavirus variant underlined a need for better global pandemic cooperation, and that the current system “disincentives” countries from alerting new threats.

If there is one thing we have learned, it’s that no region, no country, no community and no individual is safe until we are all safe. The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is. South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalized. Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics. Our current system disincentives countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores. We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more risk of reinfections or more risk of evading vaccines. Scientists at W.H.O. and around the world are working urgently to answer these questions.

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Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said the new Omicron coronavirus variant underlined a need for better global pandemic cooperation, and that the current system “disincentives” countries from alerting new threats.CreditCredit…James Gourley/EPA, via Shutterstock

The World Health Organization warned on Monday that the global risk posed by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus was “very high.” And despite significant questions about the variant’s possible effects, countries around the world rushed to defend against its spread, with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.

Scotland, Portugal and Spain identified new cases of the highly mutated variant with officials in eastern Germany reporting an Omicron infection in a 39-year-old infected man who had not been to South Africa or anywhere outside of Germany.

More countries responded by restricting travel, with Japan joining Israel and Morocco in banning all foreign visitors, even as scientists cautioned that the extent of the threat posed by Omicron remained unknown — and as the patchwork of travel measures were so far proving unable to stop its spread.

In a technical briefing note to member countries, the W.H.O. urged national authorities to step up surveillance, testing and vaccinations, reinforcing the key findings that led its technical advisers on Friday to label Omicron a “variant of concern.”

The agency warned that the variant’s “high number of mutations” — including up to 32 variations in the spike protein — meant that “there could be future surges of Covid-19, which could have severe consequences.”

Experts including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a top adviser to President Biden, have said that it could be two weeks or longer before more information about the variant’s transmissibility, and the severity of illness it causes, is available. So far, scientists believe that Omicron’s mutations could allow it to spread more easily than prior versions of the virus, but that existing vaccines are likely to offer protection from severe illness and death.

Still, the makers of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, were preparing to reformulate their shots if necessary. And some countries, including Britain, were preparing to expand booster programs to protect more people.

The W.H.O. stressed the need for countries to accelerate vaccinations as rapidly as possible, particularly for vulnerable populations and for those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. It also called on health authorities to strengthen surveillance and field investigations, including community testing, to better determine Omicron’s characteristics.

The recommendation underscored that the steps taken by some countries to wind down testing and tracing capacity in recent months — as the pandemic appeared to be receding thanks to rising vaccination rates — are moving in the wrong direction.

“Testing and tracing remains fundamental to managing this pandemic and really understanding what you’re dealing with,” said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the agency. “We’re asking all countries to really look for this variant, to look if people who have got it are ending up in hospital and if people who are fully vaccinated are ending up in hospital.”

The briefing note adds that P.C.R. tests are an efficient tool for detecting the new variant because they do not require as long a wait for an outcome as genetic sequencing tests that require laboratory capacity not available in all countries.

“It’s very good news,” Ms. Harris said. “You can much more quickly spot who’s got it.”

But while the agency had previously cautioned against imposing travel bans, the briefing note took a more flexible line, calling for a “risk-based approach” to travel restrictions that could include modified testing and quarantine requirements. The agency said it would issue more detailed travel advice in the coming days.

At the same time, W.H.O. member states were beginning a three-day meeting of the World Health Assembly to discuss a global agreement on how to deal with pandemics, a deal long pushed by the agency to address weaknesses in the response to Covid-19. The European Union has argued for a treaty that would require greater information sharing and vaccine equity, but the United States has sought to keep open the option of an agreement that would not be legally binding.




Biden Urges Vaccinations Amid Omicron Variant Concerns

President Biden called the new Omicron coronavirus variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and urged Americans to get vaccinations and booster shots. The variant has not yet been detected in the United States.

The very day the World Health Organization identified the new variant, I took immediate steps to restrict travel from countries in Southern Africa. But while we have that travel restrictions can slow the speed of Omicron, it cannot prevent it. But here’s what it does. It gives us time, gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster. The — sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States. We’ll have to face this new threat just as we faced those that come before it. This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion. In the event — hopefully unlikely — that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool. I want to reiterate: Dr. Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection against the new variant and the boosters strengthen that protection, significantly. We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed, but so that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.

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President Biden called the new Omicron coronavirus variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and urged Americans to get vaccinations and booster shots. The variant has not yet been detected in the United States.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

President Biden sought to reassure the nation on Monday about the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus as crucial questions about it remain, telling Americans that the variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and that his administration was working with vaccine manufacturers to modify vaccines and booster shots should that prove necessary.

“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” Mr. Biden said at the White House, adding, “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”

The president is expected to visit the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, and said he would outline “a strategy for how we are going to fight Covid this winter, not with shutdowns or with lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” The variant has yet to be detected in the United States.

Mr. Biden has already restricted travel from eight nations, including South Africa, a move that experts said would buy the United States time in determining how to respond. But it will likely be a week, possibly two weeks, before experts know more about the new variant. It has mutations that scientists fear could make it more infectious and less susceptible to vaccines, though evidence to support those fears has yet to be established.

Despite significant questions about the variant itself — including whether it causes mild or severe disease — countries around the world have rushed to defend against its spread, with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.

Mr. Biden was elected on a promise to bring the pandemic under control — a task that is proving easier said than done. Viruses are dedicated to ensuring their own survival, and that is especially true of the virus that causes Covid-19. Just as Mr. Biden was about to declare “independence from the virus” on the July 4 holiday, the Delta variant swept across the United States, causing another wave of hospitalizations and deaths.

Now there is Omicron, discovered in southern Africa and designated by the World Health Organization on Friday as a “variant of concern,” popping up just as the holiday travel season gets underway.

Mr. Biden is trying to project calm and keep the country from panicking while also ensuring that Americans get vaccinated and take other precautions, including masking and social distancing. He was joined at the White House by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who said that current P.C.R. tests were able to detect the new variant.

The emergence of the new variant is also increasing pressure on Mr. Biden and his administration to do more to share vaccines with the rest of the world.

South Africa, whose scientists detected the variant, has fully vaccinated only 24 percent of its population, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. It has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent, but has asked vaccine makers to stop sending doses: It is having trouble getting shots into arms, in part because of distribution bottlenecks and in part because many people are hesitant to take them.

Elsewhere in Africa, the vaccination rate is much lower, and in some countries, even health care workers have had trouble getting their shots. The W.H.O. reported last week that just 27 percent of health workers in Africa had been fully vaccinated.

The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than a billion vaccine doses to other nations, and so far it has shipped 275 million doses to 110 countries. The president said, as he has in the past, that the United States has donated more doses than any other nation. He implored other foreign leaders to increase their donations.

“Now we need the rest of the world to step as well,” he said.

But activists and some global health experts said the administration needed to move faster, arguing that vaccine inequities were the reason for the emergence of the variant.

“This is precisely what experts have been predicting was going to happen — that the extraordinary inequities and gaps between low-income countries and high-income countries creates this massive vulnerability, and it’s going to continue to generate these dangerous variants,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That point is glaringly obvious, and it’s painful.”

Mr. Biden’s top health advisers, including Dr. Fauci, spent much of the holiday weekend consulting with their South African counterparts.

Dr. Fauci told the president that it would take approximately two weeks to learn more about the variant’s transmissibility and severity, but that “he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases” of Covid, according to a statement from the White House.

Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.

Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has alarmed many scientists because of the sheer number of genetic mutations it carries — about 50 in all, including at least 26 that are unique to it. But more does not necessarily mean worse: Mutations sometimes work together to make a virus more fearsome, but they may also cancel one another out.

“In principle, mutations can also work against each other,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “However, in this case evolutionary selection is more likely to lead to the spread of a new variant with favorable than unfavorable combinations of mutations.”

Still, this phenomenon, called epistasis, is why scientists are reluctant to speculate on Omicron’s attributes, even though individual mutations in the variant are associated with greater transmissibility or with an ability to dodge the body’s immune defenses.

“It is important to get a sense of the full virus,” said Penny Moore, a virologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa.

Dr. Moore’s team is among dozens worldwide trying to understand whether current vaccines will work against Omicron. The researchers are creating artificial versions of the virus that contain all of Omicron’s mutations, rather than making judgments based on a subset of mutations.

It’s a lesson researchers learned last year, when the Beta variant emerged in South Africa. They estimated that variant’s ability to evade immunity based on one particular mutation, E484K. But Beta also had two other mutations that turned out to affect sensitivity to vaccines.

“The combination of those three mutations was more resistance than a virus that contained only E484K,” Dr. Moore said. Studying the single mutation “turned out to be misleading.”

Omicron carries a mutation called N501Y, which is thought to allow the virus to bind to human cells more tightly. This mutation was also present in the Alpha variant and was linked to its contagiousness.

“Nonetheless, it ended up being Delta, which doesn’t have that particular mutation, that was more even more transmissible than Alpha,” Dr. Bloom said. “That’s because Delta had other mutations that enhance transmissibility.”

A variant’s contagiousness depends on how well the virus binds to receptors on human cells, but also on the stability of the virus, where in the airways it replicates and how much of it is exhaled.

Omicron has a cluster of mutations that are all linked to tighter binding to human cells. “But acting together, they might have a somewhat different effect,” Dr. Bloom said. For that reason, he added, he cannot predict how the variant will act in the body.

That will require laboratory studies, which are underway across the globe.




South African Scientists Advise Against Panic Over Omicron Variant

South African health officials said that while they need more data to be sure, existing precautions and treatments seem to be effective against the new coronavirus variant.

“There is just no basis for some of the leaders of countries which have imposed these restrictions on traveling for us in South Africa, and other countries in southern Africa. There is no basis for South Africans to panic. We’ve been here before. We still have to understand, led by our scientists, such as the transmissibility of this virus, those that matter which our scientists and epidemiologists are working on, whether there’s any age differentiation in terms of its transmissibility and illness, whether there is increased reinfection for those who have already been infected before, and including also breakthrough infections for those who are those of us who are already vaccinated.” “In terms of clinical presentation, there’s not enough data yet. We’ve seen some anecdotal information. We’ve seen clinicians commenting, but you have to understand that patients coming into a clinical setting are biased in terms of their severity, and what we are seeing. What we are seeing is anecdotal information suggest similar presenting illnesses, mainly in younger people for obvious reasons, and that younger people are less vaccinated. So you will see more cases there. But we simply do not have, you know, sound reliable data on the clinical presentation, but we have no red flags that have been raised, so far.”

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South African health officials said that while they need more data to be sure, existing precautions and treatments seem to be effective against the new coronavirus variant.CreditCredit…Jerome Delay/Associated Press

South African health officials urged the public on Monday not to panic over the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which appears to be driving a new wave of cases in the country.

It is still too soon, they said, to make solid assessments of whether Omicron has a higher rate of transmission or will cause more hospitalizations or severe illness.

“We simply do not have sound, reliable data on the clinical presentation,” said Salim Abdool Karim, a leading epidemiologist and H.I.V./AIDS researcher who is part of the country’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. “But we have no red flags that have been raised so far.”

Scientists are racing to understand the effect of the cluster of mutations seen in the Omicron variant. Still, comparing its mutations with those of other “variants of concern” identified by the World Health Organization suggests that Omicron can be expected to have enhanced transmissibility and some level of immune escape, Mr. Karim said.

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 concern in South Africa was prompted in part by a sudden increase in the country’s test positivity rate, which rose to nearly 10 percent from 1 percent, according to data released by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The increase largely stems from cases in Gauteng Province, a densely populated economic hub that is home to Johannesburg, said Michelle Groome, head of public health surveillance and response at the institute. But based on the data, the number of new recorded cases is still lower in South Africa, relative to its population, than in many European countries.

The country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, where 219 people are hospitalized with Covid, is at the center of the new wave, according to data from the institute. But scientists do not yet know how many of these hospitalizations were a direct result of Omicron.

While new hospital admissions are still relatively low, there has been a “steep rise” over the past two weeks, said Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The rate of fatalities has not increased, Ms. Jassat said. While new cases were highest among people under 35, hospitalizations were more common among people over 65 and very young children.

Existing coronavirus treatments seemed to be effective against Omicron, Mr. Karim said, though there was not enough data yet on the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies, which are rarely used to treat Covid-19 in South Africa.

It is also still too early to know whether the potency of the variant warrants tightened precautions like travel bans, scientists said.

In a separate briefing on Sunday, Botswana’s health minister, Edwin Dikoloti, said that most of the 19 Omicron cases that have been detected in his country were “imported,” and that the first four were diplomats who had already left the country.

He criticized early references to Omicron as the “Botswana variant,” saying that “detection was treated as origination.”

Mr. Dikoloti said that new coronavirus cases had been declining in Botswana, and that “the emergence of this variant” threatened “to reverse all gains that we have made over the months.”

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Justice Stephen G. Breyer turned away an emergency application on Monday from workers at a hospital chain in Massachusetts who objected to its requirement that they be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Justice Breyer did not ask for a response to the application or refer it to the full Supreme Court, and he gave no reasons for his ruling. Those were all signs that he viewed the legal question in the case as insubstantial.

The plaintiffs, employees of Mass General Brigham, objected to the hospital chain’s decision not to grant them religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate, saying that the decision violated federal anti-discrimination laws. They sought an injunction that would allow them to continue to work.

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, unanimously rejected the workers’ request, saying that an injunction was not the proper remedy. If the workers were right, the court said, they would receive compensation at the conclusion of their lawsuit.

“Money damages would adequately resolve all of the alleged harms,” Judge Sandra L. Lynch wrote for the panel. “Moreover, as the deadline for being vaccinated has passed, the appellants cannot point to an ‘impossible choice’ as a special factor here; they have already made their choices.”

The Supreme Court has previously rejected challenges to vaccination requirements from health care workers in Maine, students at Indiana University and personnel in New York City’s school system. Two challenges from health care workers in New York are pending.

Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, will tell lawmakers on Tuesday that inflation is likely to last well into next year and that the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus creates more uncertainty around the economic outlook, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

The remarks by Mr. Powell, who will testify before the Senate Banking Committee alongside Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, convey a sense of wariness at a time when price increases are running at their fastest pace in three decades.

“It is difficult to predict the persistence and effects of supply constraints, but it now appears that factors pushing inflation upward will linger well into next year,” Mr. Powell plans to say. “In addition, with the rapid improvement in the labor market, slack is diminishing, and wages are rising at a brisk pace.”

Mr. Powell will also address the new variant, which governments and scientists are racing to assess and contain.

“The recent rise in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation,” Mr. Powell said. “Greater concerns about the virus could reduce people’s willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the labor market and intensify supply-chain disruptions.”

Much is unknown about the new mutation of the coronavirus, but it represents something Fed officials worry about: The possibility that the pandemic will continue to flare up, shutting down factories, roiling supply lines and keeping the economy out of balance. If that happens, as it did with the Delta variant earlier this summer and fall, it could perpetuate high prices.

Inflation has surged in 2021 as strong consumer demand has crashed into the barrier of limited supply. Production line closures, port pileups and part shortages have kept goods from getting onto shelves and to customers, prompting companies to charge more. At the same time, a dearth of labor in certain industries caused by virus wariness and pandemic-related child-care shortages has been pushing up wages and prices for some services.

It’s too early to know if the new virus strain will contribute to those trends, making inflation last longer than it otherwise would. But the new mutation strikes at a delicate moment for monetary policy.

Central bankers are slowing their bond-purchase program, a move that should give them more flexibility to raise interest rates — their more traditional and powerful tool for stoking the economy — if doing so should prove necessary next year.

Several Fed officials have signaled that they may speed up their so-called bond-buying “taper” given how high and how stubborn inflation is proving. Many economists think officials could announce a plan to do so at their meeting in December.

But if the coronavirus again hits the economy, it could make such a decision — and the timing and pace of eventual rate increases — more challenging.

That’s because the Fed balances two goals, controlling inflation and stoking employment, when it sets its policy. A faster and fuller removal of help for the economy might slow down price gains by weighing down demand, but it would likely slow business expansions and hiring in the process.

“We will use our tools both to support the economy and a strong labor market and to prevent higher inflation from becoming entrenched,” Mr. Powell plans to say, after once again acknowledging that the Fed realizes “high inflation imposes significant burdens, especially on those less able to meet the higher costs of essentials like food, housing, and transportation.”

Mr. Powell, whom President Biden plans to reappoint for a second term as Fed chair, will tell lawmakers that the Fed is “committed to our price-stability goal.”

Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

Britain expanded its vaccine booster program to all adults on Monday, stepping up its response to the newly discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The government also announced two new cases of the variant in England, just hours after Scotland said that six cases had been detected there and that contact tracing was being conducted. Nationally, Britain has identified 11 cases.

Scottish officials said that some of the six people infected had not traveled recently — suggesting community transmission in the country — but that there was no evidence of “sustained or widespread” transmission. All of the infected individuals are in isolation, and none have been hospitalized, said Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new mask mandates and testing requirements for travelers to Britain. While the government has not ordered people to work from home where possible, or mandated the use of vaccine passports or masks in English restaurants, officials have not ruled out the possibility.

Jonathan Van-Tam, Britain’s deputy chief medical officer, said that while there was still a high level of uncertainty about the variant, the country would expand the vaccine program right away.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Mr. Van-Tam said, noting that it could take scientists weeks to better understand the variant. “But whilst we wait for the mist to clear on what this concerning variant actually means, there is no time to delay. It’s our opportunity to get ahead, and vaccine boosting is the thing we can do most effectively while we wait for that mist to clear.”

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 British government was widely criticized for a sluggish response to the Delta variant earlier this year, and its reaction to the Omicron variant came markedly quicker.

Britain’s vaccine advisory board, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, advised everyone ages 18 to 39 to get a booster shot; previously, people 40 and over were eligible. It reduced the required waiting period between the initial vaccine series and the booster from five months to three.

The board also said children ages 12 to 15 could receive a booster shot and recommended that those who are severely immunocompromised receive a fourth dose.

The Education Department has advised students in England ages 11 and up to wear face masks in communal areas beginning Monday.

Ms. Sturgeon said she and the leader of Wales, Mark Drakeford, had written to Mr. Johnson to demand that all travelers to Britain be required to take a coronavirus test on the second and eighth day after their arrival, and that they be required to isolate for that whole period. Under the most recent guidance, arrivals will only have to take a test on the second day.

Ms. Sturgeon and Mr. Drakeford have also called for a joint meeting of the British government’s top emergency committee, Cobra, to better coordinate the response to the new variant.

There are no plans for further restrictions on regional travel, Ms. Sturgeon said, but that could change.

“I still hope, really fervently hope, to be having a normal Christmas with my family,” she said. “Can I say that with 100 percent certainty? No, but that’s what I hope, and that’s what I think we should all be hopeful for.”

Unlike many countries in Europe, Britain has had relatively few restrictions in place since the summer, and the government has repeatedly said there are no plans for another lockdown.

Speaking in front of Parliament on Monday, the British health secretary, Sajid Javid, reinforced that philosophy. If Omicron proved to be “no more dangerous” than the Delta variant currently dominant in Britain, he said, then “we wouldn’t keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary.”

Global markets steadied on Monday, with stocks on Wall Street and oil prices gaining, as investors contemplated more carefully the knowns and unknowns of a new Covid-19 variant.

The S&P 500 rose 1.3 percent, rebounding from a 2.3 percent drop on Friday. That was its worst day since February and came after initial news of the discovery in southern Africa of the new variant, called Omicron. The World Health Organization labeled it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category.

Shares of companies in industries that had been bouncing back in recent months, like airlines and other travel firms, took big hits as governments reintroduced limits on movement across borders. Oil prices plunged on concerns about the economic toll of potential restrictions, while government bond yields fell amid an investor flight to the relative safety of sovereign debt.

On Monday, with quick answers about the threat from Omicron hard to come by, investors seemed less focused on potential disaster, and some of Friday’s moves were undone. While the new variant might turn out to be more contagious and vaccine resistant, it could also prove to be less dangerous to the health of the vaccinated or previously infected. Scientists haven’t come to firm conclusions, and it could take up to two weeks before the tests of current vaccines on the new variant have results. And Covid-related stock market drops are getting milder and shorter.

When the virus first emerged in early 2020, the S&P 500 fell for a month and a half before recovering. In October 2020, a resurgence of cases led to a drop of 5.6 percent over a few days, but markets had rebounded within a week. In July of this year, the emergence of the Delta variant triggered a one-day slide of 1.6 percent that was recouped within a few days.

“We don’t know how dangerous it is to health, though early reports that it isn’t very dangerous, while downplayed by the cautious experts, are very seductive,” Kit Juckes, a strategist at Société Générale, wrote in a note to clients. “Against that backdrop, some of Friday’s madness has been reversed, but only part of it.”

Stocks in Europe also rose on Monday, with the Stoxx Europe 600 closing 0.7 percent higher. The FTSE 100 in Britain rose 0.9 percent, while stock indexes in France and Spain were also higher.

Futures of the two major oil benchmarks, Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate, gained 1 percent and 2.6 percent. With crude oil rebounding, shares of energy companies also climbed. Enphase Energy was up 3.8 percent, while Diamondback Energy gained about 2.3 percent.

Government bond yields also climbed. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose 4 basis points, or 0.04 percentage points, to 1.52 percent. On Friday, the yield had dropped 16 basis points, the steepest one-day fall since late March 2020. Concerns over newly imposed travel restrictions mostly eased on Monday, with travel and leisure stocks trading higher as President Biden said on Monday that the administration’s plan to combat Covid in the winter did not does not include “shutdowns or lockdowns,” and would instead rely on more testing, vaccinations and boosters.

Royal Caribbean Group rose 2.8 percent on Monday, while Norwegian Cruise Line was up 0.8 percent. Shares of United Airlines also rose. Moderna, the vaccine maker, rallied more than 10 percent.

Not every market rebounded, however. With Japan sealing its borders just days after reopening to short-term business travelers and international students, shares in Asia tumbled. The Nikkei 225 fell 1.6 percent, while stocks in Hong Kong fell 1 percent.

Carlos Tejada and Stephen Gandel contributed reporting.




N.Y.C. Officials Reinforce Indoor Mask Guidance

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said the city was “doubling down” on its current advice that all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. He also extended the city’s vaccine mandate to all child care workers.

“There are no Omicron cases here in New York City at this moment. It is very likely there will be, but there are no cases at this moment. But nonetheless we are preparing to take action, and our entire focus, once again, is going to be on vaccination.“ “I am also issuing a commissioner’s advisory strongly recommending that all New Yorkers wear a mask at all times when indoors and in a public setting, like at your grocery or in building lobbies, offices and retail stores. This includes those that are vaccinated and those who’ve had Covid-19. Higher quality masks like KN-95s or KF-94s can offer an additional layer of protection, and masks are still required for everyone in public transit, health care settings, schools and congregate settings.” “We’re doubling down on it, basically. We had given that advice a long time ago. Obviously, things had gotten a lot better, and it’s not surprising if people had started to change their habits. It’s time to re-up that advisory and make it very, very clear this is a smart thing to do at this point. Today, we’re announcing an additional vaccine mandate related to child care programs. This is for child care and early intervention programs citywide, a total impact reaching 102,000 employees of these programs. These are all over the five boroughs. There are 90,000 employees who are in child care programs; 12,000 in early intervention programs. So again, 102,000 total. We’re putting this mandate in place with a deadline of Dec. 20 for all those employees to get vaccinated.”

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Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said the city was “doubling down” on its current advice that all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. He also extended the city’s vaccine mandate to all child care workers.CreditCredit…Jason Szenes/EPA, via Shutterstock

With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus appearing likely to be detected in New York City any day now, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that he was strengthening the city health department’s standing advice that New Yorkers — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — wear masks in indoor public settings.

“We’re doubling down on it, basically,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It’s time to re-up that advisory and make it very, very clear this is a smart thing to do at this point.”

Masks are already required aboard mass transit and in hospitals and schools, but Mr. de Blasio stopped short of making them mandatory in all indoor public spaces. He said that indoor dining would continue as before, with vaccinations required for guests, and that the city’s plans for a New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square would still move forward.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear masks in public indoor settings wherever there are high rates of community transmission. All of New York City and its suburbs are in that category.

Separately, Mr. de Blasio said on Monday that he would expand New York City’s vaccine mandate to encompass all workers in child care settings and in the city’s early intervention program, which serves children who are lagging developmentally. The mandate will affect 102,000 workers, who will need to have received at least one dose of a vaccine by Dec. 20. Mr. de Blasio said the mandate extension had been in the works before the discovery of the new variant.

Broadly, the mayor and his advisers struck a vigilant but non-alarmist tone as officials worldwide awaited data showing how readily the Omicron variant spreads, whether it causes more severe illness and how well vaccines protect against it. Evidence to support fears over its possible threat has yet to be established.

No Omicron cases have been identified anywhere in the United States, where the Delta variant remains dominant. Genetic sequencing is required to confirm which variant of the virus a patient has; New York City sequences samples from hundreds of cases a week for that purpose.

“I fully expect it to arrive,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said Monday, adding that the state was monitoring the situation and that the Omicron variant had already been detected in Ontario, which she said could see from her home. “We have some ways to defend against this. We are not defenseless like we were one year ago.”

She noted that a recent executive order goes into effect on Friday, allowing hospitals with limited capacity to pause nonessential and non-urgent procedures. She also encouraged New Yorkers to get vaccinated, to get boosters, to get tested and to wear masks.

There is no statewide mask mandate for the general public, but masks are required in certain areas, regardless of vaccination status, such as inside child care facilities. Ms. Hochul voiced support for county officials who have reinstated mask mandates indoors, regardless of vaccination status, such as in Eerie County.

“I encourage other leaders to do the same,” Ms. Hochul said. “That is something that takes courage, it’s not always the most popular thing to do in certain areas of the state.”

State health officials requested that labs across the state immediately notify the health department if they detect the Omicron variant.

“Covid is going to be with us for the rest of our lives,” said Dr. Mitchell Katz, the chief executive of New York City Health and Hospitals. “It’s not going anywhere, and it’s all about how we learn to live with this virus. And so far, the data do not suggest that this variant is more harmful in terms of hospitalization or in terms of serious illness.”

Credit…Antonio Cotrim/EPA, via Shutterstock

Portugal on Monday said it had identified 13 cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, all tied to Belenenses, a soccer club that was forced to take part in a top-flight game over the weekend that was abandoned while in progress.

The country’s national health institute said that the 13 people were isolating and that they were all players or staff members of Belenenses, which fielded a depleted team of only nine players against Benfica on Saturday after reporting a coronavirus outbreak.

The institute also confirmed that one of the 13 people was a player who had recently returned to Portugal from South Africa, whose scientists helped identify Omicron. Benfica’s players will be tested for the virus, the country’s general health director, Graça Freitas, told the local TSF radio station.

Later in the day, Spain announced its first case of the Omicron variant, contracted by a person who traveled over the weekend from South Africa. The patient, a 51-year-old man, has been quarantined at the Gregorio Marañón hospital in Madrid since Sunday following a trip from South Africa with a stopover in Amsterdam, according to the regional government in the capital. Officials said in statement that the man is showing only mild symptoms of the illness.

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.

Before the game on Saturday, as many as 17 players and staff members of the Belenenses club tested positive for the virus, although it was unclear at the time whether those cases involved the new variant. The Belenenses players sought to have the game canceled, but officials reportedly told them that it had to go on.

Separately, Portugal’s health authorities said they were tracing more than 200 passengers who had arrived in Portugal on Saturday from Maputo, Mozambique. At least two people on the flight had tested positive for the virus, but the authorities said it was too early to confirm whether these were Omicron cases.

Portugal on Monday began suspending all flights to and from Mozambique, which is a former Portuguese colony and shares a border with South Africa, over concerns about the new variant.

Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

Even before concerns about the new Omicron variant arose, China had refused calls to loosen its border restrictions, which are among the strictest in the world.

Now Chinese researchers are offering data to support the government’s decision to maintain its extreme “zero Covid” strategy.

A recent study published on the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention website found that China could face more than 630,000 coronavirus cases a day if it dropped its zero-tolerance prevention measures and lifted curbs on travel, in the way that some Western countries have.

That would be more than five times as many as the total number of cases reported in China, which has a population of 1.4 billion, in the years since the virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, according to a New York Times database. Such an outbreak would put a huge strain on the country’s resources, including its hospital system, said the report, which was published before the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern.”

The authors of the report, who are scholars at Peking University in Beijing, wrote that the findings “raised a clear warning” that the country was not ready to open up.

“More efficient vaccinations or more specific treatment, preferably the combination of both, are needed before entry-exit quarantine measures and other Covid-19 response strategies in China can be safely lifted,” they wrote.

While China has vaccinated more than 75 percent of its population, questions have been raised about the efficacy of the country’s homegrown vaccines.

The Beijing government has staked much of its political legitimacy on controlling the virus better than other countries. The strategy, so far, has worked: China has reported fewer than 5,000 deaths since the pandemic began and has managed to quickly tame sporadic outbreaks through severe, and sometimes impractical, measures. On Monday, China reported just 21 locally transmitted cases, most of which were reported in the northern region of Inner Mongolia.

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.

While some critics have warned that China’s approach could be unsustainable and counterproductive, growing concerns about the new Omicron variant now make it even more unlikely that Beijing will ease its restrictions, which include at least two weeks of mandatory quarantine for visitors as well as snap lockdowns and mass testing campaigns in areas where the virus is detected.

Dr. Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s top infectious disease experts, said on Sunday that the country’s comprehensive approach to fighting the virus made it well placed to confront the evolving threat.

“If we can cope with the Delta variant, we can also cope with Omicron,” Dr. Zhang wrote on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform.

Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

As nations severed air links from southern Africa amid fears of another global surge of the coronavirus, scientists scrambled on Sunday to gather data on the new Omicron variant, its capabilities and — perhaps most important — how effectively the current vaccines will protect against it.

The early findings are a mixed picture. The variant may be more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune responses, both to vaccination and to natural infection, than prior versions of the virus, experts said in interviews.

The vaccines may well continue to ward off severe illness and death, although booster doses may be needed to protect most people. Still, the makers of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their shots if necessary.

“We really need to be vigilant about this new variant and preparing for it,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Even as scientists began vigorous scrutiny of the new variant, countries around the world curtailed travel to and from nations in southern Africa, where Omicron was first identified. Despite the restrictions, the virus has been found in a half-dozen European countries, including the United Kingdom, as well as Australia, Israel and Hong Kong.

Already, Omicron accounts for most of the 2,300 new daily cases in the province of Gauteng, South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday. Nationally, new infections have more than tripled in the past week, and test positivity has increased to 9 percent from 2 percent.

Scientists have reacted more quickly to Omicron than to any other variant. In just 36 hours from the first signs of trouble in South Africa on Tuesday, researchers analyzed samples from 100 infected patients, collated the data and alerted the world, said Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban.

Within an hour of the first alarm, scientists in South Africa also rushed to test Covid vaccines against the new variant. Now, dozens of teams worldwide — including researchers at Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — have joined the chase.

They won’t know the results for two weeks, at the earliest. But the mutations that Omicron carries suggest that the vaccines most likely will be less effective, to some unknown degree, than they were against any previous variant.

Credit…Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

In announcing on Monday that its borders would be closed to travelers from everywhere, Japan adopted a familiar tactic. The country has barred tourists since early in the coronavirus pandemic, even as most of the rest of the world started to travel again.

And it had only tentatively opened this month to business travelers and students, despite recording the highest vaccination rate among the world’s large wealthy democracies and after seeing its coronavirus caseloads plunge by 99 percent since August.

Now, as the doors slam shut again, Japan provides a sobering case study of the human and economic cost of those closed borders. Over the many months that Japan has been isolated, thousands of life plans have been suspended, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in limbo.

Ayano Hirose has not been able to see her fiancé, Dery Nanda Prayoga, in person for the past 19 months, since he left Japan for his native Indonesia, just two weeks after her parents blessed their marriage plans. The couple has made do with multiple daily video calls. When they run out of things to talk about, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese variety shows together online.

“We don’t want to suffer in pain at the thought of not being able to reunite in the near future,” said Ms. Hirose, 21, who has written letters to the foreign and justice ministries asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Dery to come to Japan. “So we will think positively and continue to hold out hope.”

Credit…Pool photo by Vondrous Roman

President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, appointed the country’s new prime minister on Sunday while sitting inside a transparent cube.

Mr. Zeman, 77, was discharged from a hospital in Prague on Saturday and is currently required to isolate. He rolled in a wheelchair into the clear box, pushed by a worker wearing a full protective suit, in order to appoint Petr Fiala as prime minister. He was originally scheduled to take that step on Friday but the event was delayed after he tested positive.

If it had happened two years ago, the sight of a world leader confined to a cube might have been considerable cause for alarm, but on Sunday the event proceeded as normal, with the other participants masked and moving freely around the room. Mr. Fiala and the other speakers stood at a microphone and spoke toward the cube, while Mr. Zeman spoke from inside using another microphone.

Mr. Zeman’s health has been a source of concern and speculation inside the country; he has diabetes and neuropathy in his legs, which caused him to begin using a wheelchair in April. He was hospitalized in October, but the government offered little information on his specific health issues.

He was discharged on Thursday after being treated there for six weeks, only to be readmitted to the hospital hours later after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Like much of Europe, the Czech Republic is dealing with a surge of the virus, setting a record on Friday with nearly 28,000 new cases reported. About 59 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World In Data.

Over the last two years, several other world leaders, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and former President Donald J. Trump of the United States, have contracted the coronavirus and recovered after hospital stays.

Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Israeli domestic intelligence agency has been granted temporary permission to access the phone data of people with confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in order to trace who those people met recently. The agency was given similar powers during earlier waves of the pandemic.

Using emergency legislation, the Israeli cabinet voted on Sunday to permit the spy agency, the Shin Bet, to track Omicron patients’ phones until the end of the day on Thursday — but not to access the phone records of people infected with other forms of the coronavirus.

The Israeli Parliament is expected to vote this week on new legislation that would extend the permission by another two weeks, and allow it to be renewed every two weeks thereafter, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister said.

The government and its supporters said the decision was necessary to quickly identify potential virus carriers who need to be tested and quarantined, in order to curb the spread of the new variant.

“We have indeed reached a point at which we do need a ‘Big Brother’ keeping track of where we go,” Limor Yehuda, a criminology professor, wrote on Monday in Maariv, a centrist newspaper.

Critics said the move infringed civil liberties and contravened a Supreme Court decision last March. The court ruled then that the agency could use phone data in this way only to track people who had refused to comply with contact-tracing procedures.

“No other democratic country has chosen to use its security service to track people,” Gil Gan-Mor, a rights lawyer, wrote in Maariv on Monday. The renewal of Shin Bet tracking was “a terrible, illegal decision,” he added.

Critics of the step pointed to government data showing that, during an earlier wave of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of coronavirus patients were located by human trackers, rather than through the Shin Bet monitoring program.

Other parts of Israel’s response to the Omicron variant were shaped by the experience of a governmentwide coronavirus “war game” earlier in November. In that exercise, senior government officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, tested potential responses to a hypothetical new strain of the coronavirus.

Keren Hajioff, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bennett, said that the participants realized during the latter stages of the drill that they should have closed borders far earlier in the exercise. “So those insights were taken into account when they made the decision to close Israel’s borders to foreign tourists” on Saturday night, soon after the discovery of the Omicron variant was reported, Ms. Hajioff said.

Credit…Peter Dejong/Associated Press

The Dutch military police arrested a couple on Sunday who were about to fly out of the Netherlands when they were supposed to be in quarantine. One of the pair had tested positive for the coronavirus two days earlier after arriving from South Africa, the police said.

The married couple — the husband is Spanish, the wife Portuguese — had left a quarantine hotel and boarded a plane at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport when they were arrested, according to Dutch news media. The plane was bound for Spain.

Marianne Schuurmans, a local mayor and chair of the safety region that includes the airport, told Dutch morning television on Monday that the couple was in isolation at a hospital.

Ms. Schuurmans said that the authorities didn’t anticipate that someone might break quarantine after testing positive. “We were really taken by surprise that people don’t take this seriously,” she said.

Of the roughly 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa that landed in the Netherlands on Friday morning, 61 people tested positive for the coronavirus. Those people were told by officials to quarantine in a designated hotel or at home.

After sequencing the positive tests, scientists found that at least 13 of those people had the Omicron variant, Dutch public health officials said, adding that they expected that number to grow.

Passengers from those flights — negative and positive — spent about 30 hours together on the plane and in poorly ventilated rooms at the airport, according to Stephanie Nolen, a reporter for The New York Times who was on one of the planes. While the infected passengers were told to isolate, those who tested negative were allowed to fly onward or go home, despite their exposure.

Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — About 49 percent of prepandemic moviegoers are no longer buying tickets. Some of them, roughly 8 percent, have likely been lost forever. To win back the rest, multiplex owners must “urgently” rethink pricing and customer perks in addition to focusing on coronavirus safety.

Those were some of the takeaways from a new study on the state of the American movie theater business, which was troubled before the pandemic — attendance declining, streaming services proliferating — and has struggled to rebound from coronavirus-forced closings in 2020. Over the weekend, ticket sales in the United States and Canada stood at roughly $96 million, compared to $181 million over the same period in 2019.

The study, published online on Monday, was self-commissioned by the Quorum, a film research company led by David Herrin, the former head of research for United Talent Agency; Cultique, a consultancy run by the longtime brand strategist Linda Ong; and Fanthropology, which describes itself as a research, strategy and creative agency. They intend to run the survey once a quarter.

“The research clearly shows that theaters are suffering because the pandemic intensified, accelerated, amplified all of the nascent trends that were already underway,” Ms. Ong said. “That is the definition of a perfect storm — not that various problems exist at the same time, but that they have an intensifying effect on each other.”

The nascent trends? Rising ticket and concession prices. Decreasing “experiential value,” including the perception that moviegoing has become a hassle. The run-down state of shopping malls, which house many theaters. A generational shift toward streaming, gaming and other smartphone-based entertainment. “Before, maybe you went every now and again — overlooking the drawbacks,” Mr. Herrin said. “Now you add safety concerns to that mix, and you suddenly become a former filmgoer.”

The research companies surveyed 2,528 people who visited a movie theater in 2019. (Some bought a ticket once a week, while others went once a month. Others went “several” times a year.) About 51 percent of respondents said they had bought tickets in recent months, with some drawn by cinema-chain rewards programs. They are largely white men ages 25 to 45 who live in cities, according to Mr. Herrin. “Once you get outside of that demographic, you’re really starting to lose people,” he said.

The 49 percent no longer buying tickets were more likely to be in favor of a vaccine mandate for attendees. This group, predominantly female, was also more likely to be concerned about price and value, Mr. Herrin said. Still, he noted that roughly a third were “hopeful” about returning to theaters at some point. Among the changes most likely to bring them back: lower prices for classic concessions, newer seats, policing the usage of phones during films.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” Mr. Herrin said. “I don’t know how large a window there is for exhibition to win these people back,” he added, using Hollywood jargon for the multiplex business.

The “likely losts,” as the study identifies 8 percent of respondents who said they have not bought a ticket during the pandemic and can’t see themselves returning, are lower-income consumers. The group has a large proportion of Hispanic, Black and Asian women, the researchers noted.

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Covid-19 Variant Omicron Induces Wave of Travel Restrictions

In the wake of a newly identified Covid-19 “variant of
concern,” a developing list of countries that includes United States, Canada,
United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, India, Morocco, Seychelles,
Singapore, Australia and Philippines have implemented varying degrees of travel
restrictions on South Africa that also affect a cluster of additional southern African
nations, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique
and Malawi. The European Union also said on Friday it would work with member
states to suspend flights to the region. Israel and Japan have implemented temporary
but total travel bans for all foreign nationals, not only those traveling from at-risk nations. 

Going into the Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, infectious
disease experts in South Africa announced they had sequenced a new Covid-19 variant,
B.1.1.529. By Saturday the World Health Organization identified
the strain as a variant of concern due to its multiple mutations from the
original virus structure and what appears to be an aggressive transmission
rate. The WHO named the variant “omicron” from the letter in the Greek alphabet.
Since then, omicron has been identified in Covid-19 patients in the U.K., Belgium,
Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada,
even as countries try to seal themselves off from the variant. Additional
countries are sequencing suspected cases.

Much about the omicron variant is
still unknown, including its transmission rate, severity of disease it may
cause and whether current vaccine formulations are effective in preventing
serious infection. Early reports from South African medical experts closest to
the variant indicate the current vaccines may be enough to prevent serious
illness, according to Reuters. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African
doctor who first identified what seemed like unusual
symptoms for Covid-19, told the BBC on Sunday they were “very mild symptoms”
that included being extremely tired and having a scratchy throat and headache,
but did not include the hallmark loss of smell or taste. No deaths have yet been reported from known omicron cases.

Given the small sample size, however, medical experts aren’t
drawing definitive conclusions about illness severity from these initial
reports. In the U.S., chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci met with President
Joe Biden on Sunday and said it would take “approximately two more weeks
to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other
characteristics of the variant,” according to a White House release. In
the meantime, he agreed with South African experts that existing vaccines are
likely to provide a degree of protection against severe Covid cases from omicron.

Despite this, the world is not waiting to introduce travel
restrictions. The United States, for one, has barred all foreign nationals
arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini,
Mozambique and Malawi.

Experts have questioned the reasoning behind banning
travel from nations in southern Africa when cases now have been identified in a
multitude of countries, from which international arrival volumes are vastly

The WHO urged countries not to act hastily or deploy
“knee-jerk” travel restrictions before data was available. Moreover, a
recent scientific study
in the journal Science has indicated travel bans have done relatively little to
reduce the spread of Covid-19 globally after the initial stages of the pandemic
in 2020. A study
in the Journal of Emergency Management offered similar conclusions.

African officials throughout the region have railed against
the global move toward travel restrictions.

“This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing
South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new
variants quicker,” the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation
said in a statement. “Excellent science should be applauded and not

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwerka who is also the chairman
of the 16-member Southern African Development Community posted on his Facebook
“… the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the
UK, EU, US, Australia and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based
on science, not Afrophobia.”

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Omicron COVID-19 variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

LONDON/AMSTERDAM: The Omicron coronavirus variant spread around the world on Sunday (Nov 28), with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it is not yet clear whether Omicron, first detected in Southern Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.

“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection,” WHO said.

WHO said understanding the level of severity of Omicron “will take days to several weeks”.

The detection of Omicron triggered global alarm as governments around the world scrambled to impose new travel restriction and markets sold-off, fearing the variant could resist vaccinations and upend a nascent economic reopening after a two-year global pandemic.

In its statement, the WHO said it was working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19, including vaccines.

Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the developments.

Dutch health authorities said 13 cases of the variant were found among people on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday.

Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on those two flights and had found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for the new variant.

“This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told reporters in Rotterdam.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” last week by the WHO that is potentially more contagious than previous variants, has now been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands and South Africa.

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New Covid-19 variant Omicron cases, travel updates from around the world

India has revised travel guidelines for all international arrivals in response to the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Beginning December 1, all international passengers must submit a self-declaration form to an online government portal that includes a 14-day travel history and a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to their departure, according to guidelines issued by India’s Health Ministry.

Travelers from countries deemed “at-risk” will also now face further testing and surveillance, including a PCR test on arrival.

They will also have to quarantine at home for seven days.

As of November 26, “at-risk” countries include South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, as well as “countries in Europe including the United Kingdom,” Brazil, Bangladesh, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.

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Holiday Travel Returns as New COVID-19 Variant Emerges – NBC 7 San Diego

According to TSA 2 million people passed through U.S. airport security in the seven days leading up to Thanksgiving, taking a dip on Thanksgiving and the day after, before seeing an uptick again in travelers on Saturday.

Many people said they are happy to once again be visiting friends and family and that they feel safe doing so during an ongoing pandemic.

“Everyone’s masked up, so it feels safe,” Traveler Anjali Naik said.

The holiday travel season comes as a new COVID-19 variant named omicron emerged.

The new variant was first detected in South Africa and has now spread to many European nations and Canada.

Some people interviewed at San Diego International Airport felt that it was too soon to decide if this will change their travel plans in the future.

“I think there is lack of information right now for me to really feel one way or the other,” Naik said.

Some travelers would like to carry on traveling despite the news of a new variant emerging.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our travel, I don’t think it matters will let it play out,” Traveler Marty Douglas said.

The World Health Organization and the Biden Administration consider the omicron variant a “variant of concern.”

The U.S. will suspend travel to many Southern African countries beginning on Nov. 29.

“People will have to do research on how infectious it is and how well it can evade immune responses but what we can see is that the virus has mutated a whole bunch. I think there’s 30 some odd mutations and what we know is that some of those mutations cause the virus to become more infectious,” Chief of Infectious Diseases at UC San Diego Dr. Davey Smith said.

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