UK, Germany and Italy detect Omicron variant cases, Israel closes borders


  • Britain, Germany, Italy say Omicron cases detected
  • UK PM Johnson unveils new measures to try to stop spread
  • Many states announce travel curbs, bans on southern Africa
  • Dutch authorities test air passengers for Omicron variant

LONDON/BERLIN/AMSTERDAM, Nov 27 (Reuters) – Britain, Germany and Italy detected cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant on Saturday and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new steps to contain the virus, while more nations imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa.

The discovery of the variant has sparked global concern, a wave of travel bans or curbs and a sell-off on financial markets on Friday as investors worried that Omicron could stall a global recovery from the nearly two-year pandemic.

Israel said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant. read more

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The two linked cases of Omicron detected in Britain were connected to travel to southern Africa, British health minister Sajid Javid said.

Johnson laid out measures that included stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country but that stopped short of curbs on social activity other than requiring mask wearing in some settings. read more

“We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” Johnson told a news conference.

People who had come into contact with people testing positive for a suspected case of Omicron would have to self-isolate for 10 days and the government would tighten the rules on wearing face coverings, Johnson said, adding the steps would be reviewed in three weeks.

The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant. The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on Nov. 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had travelled from South Africa. read more

In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.

Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, said at the same news conference as Johnson that there was still much uncertainty around Omicron, but “there is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant”.

The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

FLIGHTS TO AMSTERDAM

Dutch authorities said 61 of around 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday had tested positive for the coronavirus. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant. read more

One passenger who arrived from South Africa on Friday, Dutch photographer Paula Zimmerman, said she tested negative but was anxious for the days to come.

Digital display boards show cancelled flights to London – Heathrow at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham/File Photo

“I’ve been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It’s a little scary the idea that you’ve been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive,” she said.

Financial markets plunged on Friday, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel.

It could take weeks for scientists to understand fully the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it.

TRAVEL CURBS

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations – announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department added on Saturday to Washington’s previously announced travel restrictions, advising against travel to eight southern African countries.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on Saturday that the administration will take it “one step at a time,” when asked about additional travel restrictions. “For now we’ve done what we think is necessary,” Harris said.

Also on Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there. read more

Japan and Britain said they were extending travel curbs to more African countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Kuwait and Hungary announced new travel restrictions.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry said on Saturday, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider. read more

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.

VACCINATIONS

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world’s population is vaccinated. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

“While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said in a statement to Reuters.

“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts.”

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Reporting by Toby Sterling, Bart H. Meijer, Costas Pitas, Promit Mukerjee, Stephanie Nebehay, Madeline Chambers, Robert Muller and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Alexander Smith, Nick Macfie and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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South African scientists detect new variant amid spike: COVID updates


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Thousands of people traveling for the holidays this week will first test themselves for COVID-19 without a doctor, lab or any medical oversight.

While quick home tests are hailed as a major convenience and a smart way to protect loved ones, they’ve also raised a significant challenge for public health officials. How can agencies comprehensively track cases and trends when many consumers don’t report home test results?

Federal and state health officials have worked since March 2020 to build capacity to test, report and keep tabs on COVID-19 cases. Public health officials say reporting cases is critical for spotting trends and detecting surges so hotspot communities can lessen risk and prepare hospitals for a rush of people seeking care.

But it’s unclear how often customers report results from the dozen authorized home coronavirus tests that typically deliver results in 15 minutes outside a lab or doctor’s office. And public health’s data blind spot is poised to grow larger.

Private test manufacturers already make more home antigen tests than standard laboratory tests — and the gap could nearly double next month as new home tests flood the market.

— Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

Also in the news:

►Beginning Monday, Massachusetts hospitals will have to cut back on non-urgent scheduled procedures due to staffing shortages and longer patient stays, according to the state’s health authorities.

►The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and auto club AAA predicts48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday period.

►More than 100 children at a vaccination event in Iowa on Saturday were given the incorrect dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, according to a statement from the hospital. A MercyOne spokesperson said there are no significant health risks associated with the larger dose, just a likelihood the children will have more severe versions of the common vaccine side effects.

►France has launched a plan Thursday to give COVID-19 booster shots to all adults, as it opted against a further lockdown or curfew to help combat a worrying uptick in infections in the country.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 775,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 259 million cases and 5.1 million deaths. More than 196 million Americans — 59.1% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘What we’re reading: During COVID-19, they believed home was safer than school. Now some NYC parents are accused of neglect.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

The WHO’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

— Associated Press

Just over nine out of ten federal employees have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the required deadline, the Biden administration announced Wednesday when releasing agency-by-agency vaccination rates.

Those rates were as high as 97.8% at the Agency for International Development. Workers at the Agriculture Department had the lowest rate: 86.1%.

Federal employees had until the end of Monday to get vaccinated or request a medical or religious exemption. Unlike a rule the Biden administration wants to impose on private employers, federal workers are not allowed to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they agree to weekly testing.

Workers who are not in the process of getting vaccinated or seeking an exemption will begin a “period of education and counseling, followed by additional enforcement steps,” according to the White House.

— Maureen Groppe and Michael Collins, USA TODAY

European Unions’ drug regulator approves Pfizer vaccine for young children

The European Union’s drug regulator cleared the way for children ages 5 to 11 to begin receiving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Thursday amid a new wave of infections across the continent.

The European Medicines Agency’s human medicines committee, an EU agency in charge of the evaluation and supervision of medicinal products, concluded that the benefits of vaccinating children outweigh the risks. The European committee will send its recommendation to the European Commission next, which will issue a final decision.

Germany has been facing its worst surge of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, reporting more than 333,000 cases the week of Nov. 15, according to the World Health Organization. That’s nearly double the weekly rate reported during a prior surge in December 2020.

— Celina Tebor, USA TODAY

German Chancellor Angela Merkel labeled Thursday “a very sad day” and backed calls for more restrictions, as her country became the latest to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

The national disease control agency said it recorded 351 deaths in connection with the coronavirus over the past 24 hours, taking the total toll to 100,119. In Europe, Germany is the fifth country to pass that mark, after Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

The longtime German leader, who is currently in office as caretaker until her successor is sworn in, warned that hundreds more deaths were already looming.

“(The deaths) correlate very clearly with the number of infections that are occurring,” she said. “We know how many people on average do not survive this disease.”

The Robert Koch Institute, a federal agency that collects data from some 400 regional health offices, said Germany set a record for daily confirmed cases — 75,961 — in the past 24-hour period. Since the start of the outbreak, Germany has had more than 5.57 million confirmed cases of COVID-19.

— Associated Press

Despite early signs that suggested the U.S. may have avoided another winter surge, COVID-19 cases are rising again.

The country reported 665,420 cases in the week ending Monday, more than a 30% increase from the pace of cases reported about a month ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

As cases rise in 39 states, U.S. Health and Human Services data show hospitals in 32 states admitted more patients in the latest week than the week before.

“Quite frankly, I’m really concerned,” said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “I would say we are better off than we were last year, but cases are starting to tick up and that is something that we really need to keep an eye on.”

After nearly two years of combating COVID-19, health experts thought the U.S. would have been in a better position to control the pandemic. Instead, many people remain unvaccinated and ignore mitigation measures, slowing the pace of progress and burning out health care professionals. 

— Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press



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Carbon nanotube-based sensor can detect SARS-CoV-2 proteins | MIT News


Using specialized carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have designed a novel sensor that can detect SARS-CoV-2 without any antibodies, giving a result within minutes. Their new sensor is based on technology that can quickly generate rapid and accurate diagnostics, not just for Covid-19 but for future pandemics, the researchers say.

“A rapid test means that you can open up travel much earlier in a future pandemic. You can screen people getting off of an airplane and determine whether they should quarantine or not. You could similarly screen people entering their workplace and so forth,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study. “We do not yet have technology that can develop and deploy such sensors fast enough to prevent economic loss.”

The diagnostic is based on carbon nanotube sensor technology that Strano’s lab has previously developed. Once the researchers began working on a Covid-19 sensor, it took them just 10 days to identify a modified carbon nanotube capable of selectively detecting the viral proteins they were looking for, and then test it and incorporate it into a working prototype. This approach also eliminates the need for antibodies or other reagents that are time-consuming to generate, purify, and make widely available.

MIT postdoc Sooyeon Cho and graduate student Xiaojia Jin are the lead authors of the paper, which appears today in Analytical Chemistry. Other authors include MIT graduate students Sungyun Yang and Jianqiao Cui, and postdoc Xun Gong.

Molecular recognition

Several years ago, Strano’s lab developed a novel approach to designing sensors for a variety of molecules. Their technique relies on carbon nanotubes — hollow, nanometer-thick cylinders made of carbon that naturally fluoresce when exposed to laser light. They have shown that by wrapping such tubes in different polymers, they can create sensors that respond to specific target molecules by chemically recognizing them.

Their approach, known as Corona Phase Molecular Recognition (CoPhMoRe), takes advantage of a phenomenon that occurs when certain types of polymers bind to a nanoparticle. Known as amphiphilic polymers, these molecules have hydrophobic regions that latch onto the tubes like anchors and hydrophilic regions that form a series of loops extending away from the tubes.

Those loops form a layer called a corona surrounding the nanotube. Depending on the arrangement of the loops, different types of target molecules can wedge into the spaces between the loops, and this binding of the target alters the intensity or peak wavelength of fluorescence produced by the carbon nanotube.

Earlier this year, Strano and InnoTech Precision Medicine, a Boston-based diagnostics developer, received a National Institutes of Health grant to create a CoPhMoRe sensor for SARS-CoV-2 proteins. Researchers in Strano’s lab had already developed strategies that allow them to predict which amphiphilic polymers will interact best with a particular target molecule, so they were able to quickly generate a set of 11 strong candidates for SARS-CoV-2.

Within about 10 days of starting the project, the researchers had identified accurate sensors for both the nucleocapsid and the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. During that time, they also were able to incorporate the sensors into a prototype device with a fiber optic tip that can detect fluorescence changes of the biofluid sample in real time. This eliminates the need to send the sample to a lab, which is required for the gold-standard PCR diagnostic test for Covid-19.

This device produces a result within about five minutes, and can detect concentrations as low as 2.4 picograms of viral protein per milliliter of sample. In more recent experiments done after this paper was submitted, the researchers have achieved a limit of detection lower than the rapid tests that are now commercially available.

The researchers also showed that the device could detect the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein (but not the spike protein) when it was dissolved in saliva. Detecting viral proteins in saliva is usually difficult because saliva contains sticky carbohydrate and digestive enzyme molecules that interfere with protein detection, which is why most Covid-19 diagnostics require nasal swabs.

“This sensor shows the highest range of limit of detection, response time, and saliva compatibility even without any antibody and receptor design,” Cho says. “It is a unique feature of this type of molecular recognition scheme that rapid design and testing is possible, unhindered by the development time and supply chain requirements of a conventional antibody or enzymatic receptor.”

Quick response

The speed with which the researchers were able to develop a working prototype suggests that this approach could prove useful for developing diagnostics more quickly during future pandemics, Strano says.

“We’re able to go from someone handing us viral markers to a working fiber optic sensor in an extremely short amount of time,” he says.

Sensors that rely on antibodies to detect viral proteins, which form the basis of many of the rapid Covid-19 tests now available, take much longer to develop because the process of designing the right protein antibody is so time-consuming.

The researchers have filed for a patent on the technology in hopes that it could be commercialized for use as a Covid-19 diagnostic. Strano also hopes to further develop the technology so that it could be deployed quickly in response to future pandemics.

The research was funded by a National Institutes of Health Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) grant.



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