Fauci says he doesn’t expect more travel restrictions even if Omicron variant proves more contagious and deadly


President Joe Biden announced last week that the US would restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi in response to the new and potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first identified by South African scientists. Several other nations have followed suit in restricting travel from southern Africa nations.

Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday whether he expects more travel restrictions should Omicron prove to be more contagious and deadly, Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, replied, “I don’t think so, Jake.”

“I think what was done about the restrictions from South Africa and neighboring countries was merely because when the information came out about the molecular makeup of this virus with all of the mutations that were of concern, we felt that we needed to do something right away,” Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Tapper on “The Lead.”

“Hopefully those restrictions are not going to be a very long duration until we get a handle as to what’s going on. But we do not anticipate any further restrictions,” he added.

Fauci also said that the travel restrictions are not going to have much of an impact “in the big picture of whether (the Omicron variant) gets here or not.”

“But … it will provide us maybe a couple of weeks of getting better prepared,” he added.

Fauci said US health officials should know the severity of Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant in about a week or two and that they are getting their information from counterparts in South Africa, whom the officials have been in near constant contact with.

“They have a number of patients that they’re following in the medical facilities, and they assured us that they would know probably in a matter of a week, a week and a half, as to whether or not we’re dealing with something that, for the most part is more severe, equally as severe or less severe. It could be either of them,” Fauci said. “Right now, it does not look like there’s a big signal of a high degree of severity, but it’s too early to tell.”

It’s unclear if Omicron will become the dominant strain in the US, but that’s another reason officials are watching cases in South Africa closely.
Pfizer expected to seek FDA authorization for boosters for those ages 16 and 17

“You know, it’s unfortunate that South Africa has been sort of the epicenter, or at least a recognition of it, but the good news is they are as good as it gets when it comes to scientists and public health people, so they’ll be able to give us some very important information, hopefully within the next week or two,” Fauci said.

In the meantime, he told Tapper, “the unvaccinated need to get vaccinated and those who are eligible to get boosted should get boosted because we know from experience … that even with variants that are not specifically directed at by the vaccine, such as the Delta variant, if you get the level of antibody high enough, the protection spills over to those other variants.”

Earlier Monday, Biden urged American not to panic over the new variant and encouraged those who have not yet gotten a booster but are eligible to do so.

“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,” the President said.



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Fauci says he doesn’t expect more travel restrictions even if Omicron variant proves more contagious and deadly – KION546


By Maegan Vazquez, CNN

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said Monday that he doesn’t anticipate the United States will implement additional travel restrictions even if the Omicron variant proves worse than previous strains of Covid-19.

President Joe Biden announced last week that the US would restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi in response to the new and potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first identified by South African scientists. Several other nations have followed suit in restricting travel from southern Africa nations.

Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday whether he expects more travel restrictions should Omicron prove to be more contagious and deadly, Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, replied, “I don’t think so, Jake.”

“I think what was done about the restrictions from South Africa and neighboring countries was merely because when the information came out about the molecular makeup of this virus with all of the mutations that were of concern, we felt that we needed to do something right away,” Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Tapper on “The Lead.”

“Hopefully those restrictions are not going to be a very long duration until we get a handle as to what’s going on. But we do not anticipate any further restrictions,” he added.

Fauci also said that the travel restrictions are not going to have much of an impact “in the big picture of whether (the Omicron variant) gets here or not.”

“But … it will provide us maybe a couple of weeks of getting better prepared,” he added.

Fauci said US health officials should know the severity of Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant in about a week or two and that they are getting their information from counterparts in South Africa, whom the officials have been in near constant contact with.

“They have a number of patients that they’re following in the medical facilities, and they assured us that they would know probably in a matter of a week, a week and a half, as to whether or not we’re dealing with something that, for the most part is more severe, equally as severe or less severe. It could be either of them,” Fauci said. “Right now, it does not look like there’s a big signal of a high degree of severity, but it’s too early to tell.”

It’s unclear if Omicron will become the dominant strain in the US, but that’s another reason officials are watching cases in South Africa closely.

“You know, it’s unfortunate that South Africa has been sort of the epicenter, or at least a recognition of it, but the good news is they are as good as it gets when it comes to scientists and public health people, so they’ll be able to give us some very important information, hopefully within the next week or two,” Fauci said.

In the meantime, he told Tapper, “the unvaccinated need to get vaccinated and those who are eligible to get boosted should get boosted because we know from experience … that even with variants that are not specifically directed at by the vaccine, such as the Delta variant, if you get the level of antibody high enough, the protection spills over to those other variants.”

Earlier Monday, Biden urged American not to panic over the new variant and encouraged those who have not yet gotten a booster but are eligible to do so.

“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,” the President said.

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Experts say ‘wait and see’ for air travel as omicron variant surfaces


Just as things were getting on a roll for the Thanksgiving holiday, passenger traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport more than doubled than it was at this time in 2020, and now people are looking forward to end-of-year trips.But with the uncertainty of the omicron variant, many people are left wondering if they should take their trips. Unfortunately, according to the experts, it is still a wait-and-see situation.|| COVID-19 updates | Maryland’s latest numbers | Get tested | Vaccine Info ||People heading home from the Thanksgiving holiday spoke with 11 News Monday saying they still feel comfortable traveling.”I don’t mind traveling as long as we’re all being pretty safe. Every time I’m in the airport, everyone has their mask on unless they’re eating. Most people are vaccinated and even if they aren’t, they do at least adhere to the rules, keeping their mask so I’m not too worried about traveling,” traveler Gladys Kanu said.According to the Transportation Security Administration, during the 10-day Thanksgiving travel rush from Nov. 19-28, almost 21 million passengers went through TSA checkpoints. Last year, that number was almost 10 million. At BWI-Marshall, just over 257,000 passengers compared to more than 118,000 a year before.”People who hadn’t traveled in quite some time or probably not a custom to seeing some of the changes that have been implemented as a result of the pandemic,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said.| LINK: BWI-Marshall Holiday Travel Guide 2021TSA officials said things went smoothly as officers are now all wearing masks and gloves, using acrylic shields for protection and passengers can now scan in their own IDs and boarding passes, but there are concerns going forward concerning the omicron variant.”We are monitoring the situation with the new COVID variant. We take our cues from the CDC,” Farbstein said.So, what are travelers to do? Travel agent Dilworth Daley said, “Wait and see.” Daley said for those who haven’t made plans yet get “cancel for any reason” travel insurance.”So, if you decide to change your mind or something comes up you don’t want to go, you’ll lose the cost of the travel insurance, but you’ll get your money back,” he said.| RELATED: Maryland monitoring COVID-19 omicron variant; Hogan urges vaccinationFor those who have already booked, it gets more tricky. Daley said you should check with your credit card and or airline to see if they can offer any credits as many did at the beginning of the pandemic.”They were pretty flexible. They were giving credits, sometimes a year in advance, a year and a half-supplied people had plenty of time to hopefully use those credits at another destination in the future,” Daley said.| RELATED: Federal officials bracing for first detection of omicron variant in USSo far, the United States has halted travel to eight African countries. Travelers coming to the U.S. from out of the country do need to show a negative COVID-19 test.It is not clear at this point whether more travel restrictions will be put in place soon.

Just as things were getting on a roll for the Thanksgiving holiday, passenger traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport more than doubled than it was at this time in 2020, and now people are looking forward to end-of-year trips.

But with the uncertainty of the omicron variant, many people are left wondering if they should take their trips. Unfortunately, according to the experts, it is still a wait-and-see situation.

|| COVID-19 updates | Maryland’s latest numbers | Get tested | Vaccine Info ||

People heading home from the Thanksgiving holiday spoke with 11 News Monday saying they still feel comfortable traveling.

“I don’t mind traveling as long as we’re all being pretty safe. Every time I’m in the airport, everyone has their mask on unless they’re eating. Most people are vaccinated and even if they aren’t, they do at least adhere to the rules, keeping their mask so I’m not too worried about traveling,” traveler Gladys Kanu said.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, during the 10-day Thanksgiving travel rush from Nov. 19-28, almost 21 million passengers went through TSA checkpoints. Last year, that number was almost 10 million. At BWI-Marshall, just over 257,000 passengers compared to more than 118,000 a year before.

“People who hadn’t traveled in quite some time or probably not a custom to seeing some of the changes that have been implemented as a result of the pandemic,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said.

| LINK: BWI-Marshall Holiday Travel Guide 2021

TSA officials said things went smoothly as officers are now all wearing masks and gloves, using acrylic shields for protection and passengers can now scan in their own IDs and boarding passes, but there are concerns going forward concerning the omicron variant.

“We are monitoring the situation with the new COVID variant. We take our cues from the CDC,” Farbstein said.

So, what are travelers to do? Travel agent Dilworth Daley said, “Wait and see.”

Daley said for those who haven’t made plans yet get “cancel for any reason” travel insurance.

“So, if you decide to change your mind or something comes up you don’t want to go, you’ll lose the cost of the travel insurance, but you’ll get your money back,” he said.

| RELATED: Maryland monitoring COVID-19 omicron variant; Hogan urges vaccination

For those who have already booked, it gets more tricky. Daley said you should check with your credit card and or airline to see if they can offer any credits as many did at the beginning of the pandemic.

“They were pretty flexible. They were giving credits, sometimes a year in advance, a year and a half-supplied people had plenty of time to hopefully use those credits at another destination in the future,” Daley said.

| RELATED: Federal officials bracing for first detection of omicron variant in US

So far, the United States has halted travel to eight African countries. Travelers coming to the U.S. from out of the country do need to show a negative COVID-19 test.

It is not clear at this point whether more travel restrictions will be put in place soon.



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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Omicron: WHO warns COVID variant risk ‘very high’ – Live | Coronavirus pandemic News


A three-day special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) has kicked off on Monday to discuss pandemic preparedness and response, amid concerns over the spread of the new Omicron variant.

The WHA normally meets in May but a special session was called for in a decision adopted by the World Health Organization member states.

A draft resolution currently under review stops short of calling for the establishment of a “pandemic treaty” or a “legally binding instrument”, which proponents say would beef up the international response to pandemics.

The WHO has warned against countries hastily imposing travel curbs. However, bans have been introduced in recent days including by the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States.

Here are the latest updates:


Hospitalisations in Michigan surge

Michigan’s number of hospitalized adults with confirmed COVID-19 cases reached a new pandemic high of nearly 4,200 as the state continued to confront surging infections.

The total of 4,181 surpassed the previous record of 4,158, which was set seven months ago during the state’s third wave.

Only Minnesota had a higher seven-case case rate than Michigan as of Sunday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State health officials are urging people to get vaccinated and to wear masks in public settings to limit the spread of the coronavirus amid the fourth surge. The federal government has deployed military medical staffers to help Michigan hospitals cope.

The federal government has deployed military medical staffers to help Michigan hospitals cope [File: Emily Elconin/Reuters]

Cuba tightens restrictions on eight African nation

Cuba will ratchet up restrictions from December 4 on passengers from certain African countries over concerns about the Omicron coronavirus variant, the country’s Communist-run government said on Monday.

Travelers arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, and Mozambique will be allowed to enter Cuba, the country’s health ministry said, but will be required to comply with multiple precautionary measures, including proof of vaccination, three PCR tests and a seven-day quarantine.


France reports biggest jump in hospital patients since spring

France registered its biggest jump in coronavirus-related hospital admissions since the spring, health ministry data showed.

The number of patients in intensive care units with COVID-19 jumped by 117 to 1,749 people, the biggest increase since March-April, when the ICU number rose by more than 100 per day on several days.

The French health minister last week said that France has entered a fifth wave of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The French health minister last week said that France has entered a fifth wave of the COVID-19 epidemic [File: Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

WHO warns that new virus variant poses ‘very high’ risk

The World Health Organization says the global risk from the omicron variant of the coronavirus is “very high” based on early evidence, and it could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”

The UN health agency, in a technical memo to member states, says “considerable uncertainties” remain about the new variant that was first detected in southern Africa. But it says the likelihood of possible further spread around the world is high.


Canada’s Quebec province discovers first case of Omicron

Quebec has discovered its first case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, the Canadian province’s health minister said on Monday, bringing Canada’s total number of cases to three.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube also told reporters at a briefing that 115 travellers from countries affected by the new variant, primarily South Africa, were called and asked to take a new PCR test for COVID-19.


Omicron ‘not a cause for panic’: Biden

President Joe Biden in a televised address from the White House said the Omicron coronavirus strain “is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic”.

“We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before,” he said, while adding that his chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci expected current vaccines would remain protective, with boosters enhancing protection.

The US president appealed to the roughly 80 million unvaccinated Americans aged five and up to get their shots, and for the rest of the country to seek out booster shots six months after their second dose.

Biden also urged Americans to get back to wearing face masks in all indoor public settings – a pandemic precaution that has fallen out of use across much of the country.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Omicron COVID-19 variant following a meeting with his COVID-19 response team at the White House on November 29, 2021 in Washington, DC [Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images via AFP]

Sweden reports first confirmed case of Omicron

One case of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been detected in Sweden, the Public Health Agency said.

The case was detected in a test taken just over a week ago from a person who had travelled from South Africa, the agency said in a statement.


Omicron: Are gov’ts prepared to deal with a new COVID variant?

Countries around the world have reimposed travel restrictions in response to new Omicron variant.

They were starting to reopen their borders and lift COVID-19 restrictions. But a new variant is now threatening to derail the progress made in the past few months.

Several nations have already imposed travel restrictions to and from Southern Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected.

Watch here.


UN’s Gutteres ‘deeply concerned’ by curbs on Southern Africa

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was “deeply concerned” as countries around the world imposed travel restrictions on Southern Africa in an attempt to stop the spread of a worrying new COVID-19 variant discovered there.

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” the UN chief said in a statement.

“I am now deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries due to new Covid-19 travel restrictions,” Guterres added.


Spain detects first case of Omicron variant

Spain has detected its first case of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in a traveller coming from South Africa, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported.

The case of the new variant was sequenced by Madrid’s Gregorio Maranon hospital, according to a tweet by its microbiology unit, adding that the patient was in a fair condition.

Spain has recorded at least 5.1 million cases since the pandemic began [File: Javier Barbancho/Reuters]

Moderna says Omicron vaccine could be ready by early 2022

Moderna Inc is having its best two-day rally in a year after the company said a new vaccine to fight the Omicron strain of the coronavirus could be ready by early 2022 if required.

The stock soared as much as 14 percent to the highest level in two months, after jumping 21 percent during Friday’s global risk-asset sell-off, to reclaim its place as top performer on the S&P 500 year to date. The company mobilised hundreds of workers on Thanksgiving Day last Thursday in order to start work on Omicron, Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said over the weekend.

Read more here.


US stocks rebound after Friday’s Omicron-fuelled sell-off

The major stock indexes in the United States rebounded on Monday after fears about the potential economic effects of the Omicron COVID-19 variant triggered a steep sell-off on Friday.

At the opening bell, the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 118 points or 0.34 percent at 35,017.71, according to Refinitiv data.

Read more here.


‘Highly transmissible’ Omicron requires ‘urgent action’: G7

The Omicron variant is highly transmissible and requires “urgent action,” G7 health ministers said, while applauding South Africa’s “exemplary work” for both detecting the strain and alerting others to it.

“The global community is faced with the threat of a new, at a first evaluation, highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, which requires urgent action,” the health ministers said in a statement following an emergency meeting.

Underlining the “strategic relevance of ensuring access to vaccines”, they pledged to hold to their donation commitments, as well as to provide support to research and development.


UK vaccine advisers say all adults to receive boosters

Britain will offer a COVID-19 booster vaccine to all adults and give second doses to children aged between 12 and 15, the UK’s top vaccine advisers said on Monday, accelerating shots in light of concern about the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said that all adults between 18-39 years old could receive shots, extending a programme that is already open for over 40s.

“Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant,” said Wei Shen Lim, the JCVI’s Chair for COVID-19 immunisation.

JCVI advised a largely age-based approach to the booster programme, with older adults as well as vulnerable people prioritised for shots [File: Neil Hall/EPA]

Dutch find 14 Omicron cases among passengers from South Africa

Netherlands health authorities say they have found another case of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant among passengers arriving from South Africa, bringing the total to 14.

“With the help of sequencing, it has now been confirmed in 14 people that it is the Omicron variant,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said in a letter to parliament.

De Jonge had on Sunday announced 13 Omicron infections. They were among 61 passengers who were confirmed with coronavirus, out of 624 travellers who arrived in Amsterdam on two KLM flights from South Africa on Friday.


Biden to provide update on Omicron, US response: AJ correspondent

United States President Joe Biden is expected to give a speech on Monday to address the Omicron variant and measures required to curb its spread.

“What we expect is that the president will be urging the 80 million Americans still not vaccinated to get vaccinated, to get a booster,” Al Jazeera’s correspondent Kimberley Halkett reported from the White House.

“But what we think is the president will stop short of putting in place further travel restrictions with respect to international travel as well as domestic travel,” she added.

INTERACTIVE- COVID19 - How Omicron comparesAl Jazeera

Poland announces new curbs amid Omicron concerns

Poland said it would ban flights to seven African countries, extend the quarantine period for certain travellers and reduce limits on numbers allowed into places like restaurants.

“We must appreciate the importance of this phenomenon and the risk that a new mutation emerging poses,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told a news conference.


China’S Xi pledges 1bn Covid vaccine doses for Africa

President Xi Jinping has offered one billion coronavirus vaccine doses to Africa, in a speech made via videolink to a China-Africa summit in Senegal’s capital Dakar.

The Chinese leader said that his country would donate 600 million doses directly. Meanwhile, a further 400 million doses would come from other sources.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (on the screen) delivers his speech during the China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Dakar, Senegal, on November 29, 2021 [Seyllou/AFP]

Ukraine orders self-isolation for travellers from countries with Omicron cases

Ukraine has introduced mandatory 14-day self-isolation for travellers returning from countries where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected, the health ministry said.

“Travellers who have spent more than seven days in the Republic of South Africa, the Republic of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Kingdom of Eswatini, and the Republic of Mozambique must complete 14 days of self-isolation,” it said in a statement, adding that the list would be expanded soon.

Health Minister Viktor Liashko told a televised briefing earlier on Monday that cases of the Omicron variant had not been registered in Ukraine yet.


Vaccines should give good protection against Omicron: South African expert

Existing COVID-19 vaccines should be highly effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation from the newly identified Omicron variant, a top South African infectious disease expert said.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who served as the government’s chief adviser during the initial response to the pandemic, also said it was too early to say whether Omicron led to more severe clinical symptoms than previous variants.

However, he said it did appear more contagious and more likely to infect people with immunity from vaccination or prior infection, and he was expecting it to drive new daily infections in the country above 10,000 before the end of the week, from 2,858 on Sunday.

“Based on what we know and how the other variants of concern have reacted to vaccine immunity, we can expect that we will still see high effectiveness for hospitalisation and severe disease, and that protection of the vaccines is likely to remain strong,” Abdool Karim told a news conference.

Preventing severe disease is mainly a function of T-cell immunity, different from the antibody immunity that often blocks infections, “so even if there’s some escape from antibodies it’s very hard to escape T-cell immunity”, he said.


South Africa says travel ban by African nations ‘regrettable’

South Africa says it is “regrettable” that fellow African nations have joined a rush to impose travel bans over the new Omicron variant.

“It is quite regrettable, very unfortunate, and I will even say sad, to be talking about travel restrictions imposed by a fellow African country,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said on Monday.

Angola, Mauritius, Rwanda and the Seychelles have halted flights from South Africa in a bid to shield themselves from the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.

Monyela said South Africa had recently made “substantial donations” of vaccines to some of the countries that were now imposing flight bans.

“When a fellow African country does that, especially in the context where most of these countries are beneficiaries … it doesn’t make sense,” he told an online news conference organised by the health ministry.

“That’s why we think these decision must be reversed immediately.”

A healthcare worker assists a traveller to obtain his test results after conducting a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 27, 2021 [Phill Magakoe / AFP]

Portugal probes local transmission of Omicron among football team

Portuguese health authorities have identified 13 cases of Omicron among members of a top football club and have ordered those who have been in contact with the positive cases to isolate and be regularly tested.

The national health institute said on Monday that one of those who tested positive was a player from the Lisbon-based Belenenses SAD football club who had recently been to South Africa, where Omicron was first identified. The others had not travelled to South Africa.

Portuguese health authorities are investigating whether this is one of the first cases of local transmission outside of Southern Africa.

Portugal also found two positive coronavirus cases when it screened 218 passengers arriving in Lisbon from the capital of Mozambique on Saturday. One of the cases was the Delta variant and the other one could not be established, authorities said.


WHO chief calls for ‘legally binding’ agreement to help prevent future pandemics

The WHO chief says the spread of Omicron is a “test of our collective ability to respond to future pandemics” and called for a “legally binding” agreement to coordinate collective action.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the WHA opening session: “Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics,” adding that “courageous and compassionate leadership” and an “unshakeable commitment to solidarity” will be fundamental.

Tedros said “our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores” after many countries announced travel restrictions to and from Southern Africa.

He also criticised the inequitable distribution of vaccines, saying access for all was necessary to limit the spread of the virus and its mutations.


Germany’s Angela Merkel calls for funding increase to WHO

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for a 50-percent increase in funding to the WHO.

Speaking at the opening session of the WHA, Merkel called for a binding international accord on preventing pandemics.

Germany’s outgoing chancellor added that a global approach was needed to prevent the spread of a virus that “knows no borders”.


South Africa ramping up to cope with Omicron

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla says the government is doing everything possible to prepare health facilities to cope with Omicron and scientists are working to establish whether it is more transmissible and whether vaccines can protect against severe illness.

Phaahla also said, at the news conference on Monday, officials are engaging with countries that imposed travel restrictions on Southern African countries to try to get them to reverse them.

South African epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim also said on Monday that not enough data had been collected to determine the clinical implications of Omicron compared with previous variants, and that reinfections are likely but that vaccinated people had less probability of developing serious symptoms.

“Based on what we know and how the other variants of concern have reacted to vaccine immunity, we can expect that we will still see high effectiveness for hospitalisation and severe disease, and that protection of the vaccines is likely to remain strong,” Abdool Karim told a news conference.


WHO says Omicron poses ‘very high’ global risk, countries must prepare

The WHO says “the overall global risk related to … Omicron is … very high” and that it is likely to spread internationally with “severe consequences” in some areas.

In technical advice to its 194 member states, the UN health agency on Monday urged them to accelerate the vaccination of high priority groups and to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.

Further research is needed to better understand Omicron’s potential to evade the immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections. More data is expected in the coming weeks.


Six cases of Omicron identified in Scotland

Six cases of Omicron have been identified in Scotland, the Scottish government says, adding that public health officials are working to investigate.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said at a press conference on Monday that not all of the identified cases had a recent travel history or known links with others who have travelled to the countries in Southern Africa where the variant was originally detected.

“This suggests that there might already be some community transmission of this variant in Scotland,” Sturgeon said. “But again, let me stress, there is no evidence yet that this is sustained, nor any evidence from the enhanced surveillance that it is widespread at this stage.”


Britain to unveil new booster guidance as Omicron spreads

Britain is set to unveil new guidance on extending the rollout of COVID-19 booster shots to those under 40 on Monday, in light of the rapid spread of Omicron.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has restricted travel to Southern Africa, tightened testing rules and made mask-wearing compulsory in shops and on transport.

He also asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to urgently review boosters for under-40s, and look at reducing the gap between second doses and boosters.

Britain, which currently holds the G7 presidency, has called for an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the new COVID strain.


Dr Angelique Coetzee: Omicron causing ‘very mild symptoms’ in people who are vaccinated

Dr Angelique Coetzee, who first spotted the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa, says that so far, people infected with Omicron have “very mild symptoms”, especially those who were inoculated after August.

Coetzee, of the South African Medical Association, said Omicron had raised concerns due to its more than 30 mutations, which might hinder vaccine effectiveness.

While it might take weeks for scientists to understand the implications of the new variant, hospital admissions in South Africa remain low, raising hopes that the new variant will not lead to increased hospitalisation rates.

Speaking to Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, Coetzee said the travel bans imposed on South Africa were “extremely premature”.


Dutch police arrest couple attempting to flee quarantine for Spain

Dutch police have arrested a married couple attempting to flee the country after testing positive for COVID-19. It was unclear whether the couple had tested positive for Omicron.

The Spanish man and Portuguese woman had left a quarantine hotel and were trying to fly to Spain. They were arrested “in an aeroplane that was about to depart,” the military police said in a statement.

Dozens of passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving on two flights from South Africa on Friday are being kept in quarantine at a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.


Singapore, Malaysia reopen land border

Singapore and Malaysia have reopened one of the world’s busiest land borders, allowing vaccinated travellers to cross after nearly two years of being shut due to the pandemic and amid concerns the border might close again due to Omicron.

Under the latest arrangement, up to 1,440 travellers from either side can cross the land border per day without quarantine, if they hold citizenship, permanent residency or long-term visas in the destination country.

Travel requirements include testing negative for COVID-19 before departure and an on-arrival test. Malaysia’s Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said a traveller had tested positive to a rapid antigen test, and that some COVID cases were inevitable.


Singapore blocks Middle East airlines

Singapore has deferred the start of vaccinated travel lanes with Middle Eastern countries, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in view of their role as “transport nodes” for affected countries, its health ministry says.


US scientist Fauci defends travel ban on African countries

US infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, has defended the Biden administration’s travel restrictions in response to Omicron.

The US plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other Southern African countries starting from Monday. Fauci stressed the purpose of any travel ban was to buy time to ramp up preparedness, urging not to let the measure “go without a positive effect”.


First suspected case of Omicron detected in Switzerland

Switzerland’s first probable Omicron case has been detected, as the country tightens its entry restrictions to check the spread.

The case is a person who returned to Switzerland from South Africa a week ago, the Federal Office for Public Health said on Twitter. Testing will clarify the situation in the coming days, it added.

Switzerland has said travellers from 19 countries must present a negative test when boarding a flight to the country and must quarantine for 10 days on arrival. The list includes Australia, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Israel, and South Africa.


New variant not stopping New Zealand reopening

The emergence of Omicron has not changed New Zealand’s plans to ease restrictions in Auckland and move into a new, more open phase of its pandemic response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

Bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland can reopen from late Thursday, ending a coronavirus lockdown that began in August.

Around the country, a new “traffic light” system will bring an end to lockdowns, but people will need to be fully vaccinated in order to do anything from getting a haircut to watching a concert.


Japan to bar foreign arrivals over virus variant

Japan says it will bar entry to foreigners, joining Israel in the strictest border measures yet since the discovery of Omicron.

Tokyo already announced it would require travellers permitted to enter Japan from six Southern African countries to quarantine in government-designated facilities for 10 days on arrival.

Japan’s borders have been almost entirely shut to overseas visitors for most of the pandemic, with even foreign residents at one point unable to enter.

No Omicron cases have been detected in the country so far. One traveller from Namibia tested positive for the coronavirus, and further tests were being conducted to find out if it was from the new variant, Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto said.

Read the previous live blog here





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New Omicron COVID Variant, Travel Restrictions – NBC Chicago


A new COVID variant has sparked global concerns and travel restrictions, but what could it mean in the U.S. and Chicago?

Plus, what should you know about COVID testing after Thanksgiving holiday gatherings?

Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic across Illinois today:

Watch Live: President Biden to Address Omicron Variant

President Joe Biden is scheduled to make remarks on Omicron, the new COVID variant of concern.

NBC News will offer a special report of the address beginning at 10:45 a.m. CT. Watch live in the player above.

Omicron COVID Variant Symptoms, Cases and More: What We Know So Far

A new variant, named B.1.1.529, was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization and given the name “omicron” from the letter in the Greek alphabet.

A new COVID variant dubbed omicron sparked global concerns and travel restrictions for several countries over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but what makes it so troubling and what symptoms should you watch for?

The global risk of omicron is “very high,” the World Health Organization said Monday, as more countries reported cases of the variant that has led to worldwide concern that there is more pandemic suffering ahead.

Here’s a breakdown of what we know about the new omicron variant, its symptoms and where cases have been discovered so far.

When Will Illinois’ Mask Mandate End? Here’s What We Know

Mask requirements have been lifted in dozens of states, causing some to wonder when Illinois will follow suit.

Of the six states where mask mandates remain in effect – Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington – Illinois is the only one east of the Mississippi River.

An analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that of the five aforementioned states excluding Washington, which didn’t have data listed, Illinois had the second lowest positivity rate – between 3 and 4.9%.

Read more here.

United Airlines Monitoring Omicron Variant-Driven Restrictions, but Hasn’t Adjusted Schedules

Officials with United Airlines say that new travel restrictions imposed on flights to several African nations have not yet led to any adjustments to the airline’s schedule, with the company set to operate new flights to those countries in coming days.

In recent days, President Joe Biden announced new restrictions on travel from several African countries as a result of the emergence of the omicron COVID variant. As of Monday, the U.S. will reinstitute a ban on travel for foreign nationals from a total of eight countries, including South Africa.

United States citizens and lawful permanent residents will be exempt from the Level 4 travel restriction, according to the State Department.

In a statement to NBC 5, United Airlines says that it is monitoring how the new travel restrictions will impact demand for flights, but says that it has not made any adjustments to its schedule.

Read more here.

Chicago-Area Health Officials Watching New Omicron Variant ‘Very Closely’

Chicago health officials say they are keeping a close watch on the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, after a panel of the World Health Organization called the concerning threat “highly transmittable.”

Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead and senior medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, issued a statement Friday saying officials are unaware whether or not the variant has reached the U.S., but will continue to follow health recommendations.

“We are watching the Omicrom variant very carefully. We don’t know if the variant has reached the United States, but given the global concern about the virus, it is more important than ever to continue to follow public health recommendations: Mask Up, Wash Your Hands, Stay Physically Distant, and most importantly, get vaccinated and get your booster as soon as you are eligible. The longer people do not get vaccinated, the risk of deadlier variants increases,” Rubin said in a statement.

Read more here.

Omicron: What Is the Difference Between ‘Variant of Interest’ Vs. ‘Variant of Concern?’

As the World Health Organization announces that omircon has been classified as a “variant of concern,” many are asking about the difference between this categorization and a “variant of interest.”

WHO Health Emergencies Programme COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said early evidence on omicron, known by the technical term B.1.1.529, shows that the variant has a large number of mutations, some of which have concerning characteristics.

Omicron has also shown to have an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID and recovered could be more subject to catching it again with this variant.

Read more here.

How Accurate Are At-Home COVID Tests? What to Know After Thanksgiving Gatherings

After spending time close with family and friends at Thanksgiving gatherings this week, more people are searching for ways to easily test for a COVID-19 infection at home.

But how accurate are the at-home coronavirus tests?

There are a number of at-home options now available, the most recent of which received authorization from the Food and Drug Administration last month. Concerns were sparked, however, after some tests were recalled due to false-positive results.

Here’s what you should know.



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Latest news updates: J&J starts work on vaccine targeting Omicron coronavirus variant


Japan will ban foreign citizens from entering the country, reversing a three-week old relaxation of its rules, as Tokyo responds to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Prime minister Fumio Kishida on Monday announced the decision, which will take effect at midnight on Tuesday.

“We’re handling the Omicron variant with a strong sense of crisis,” Kishida told reporters. “It appears to be spreading around the world so we continue to look at further strengthening our border control measures.”

The new ban covers foreign students, trainees and workers moving to Japan and business travellers on short trips. Under the relaxation announced three weeks ago, vaccinated business travellers could visit Japan with a quarantine as short as three days.

Japanese nationals returning from South Africa, neighbouring countries and other nations with Omicron cases would have to quarantine at government controlled facilities, Kishida said.

Traders in Tokyo said that despite the Omicron news over the weekend, Tokyo’s morning session had been relatively positive, with opening dip pared back before the lunch break as NY futures continued to trade positively.

However, the headlines regarding Japan’s new policies on foreign arrivals hit sentiment hard, driving down stocks that had previously been trading higher on expectations of a gradual return to the tourism market.

Shares in Japan Air Terminals and several of the large railway companies fell sharply.

“Japan had just started to open up for short-term visitors and this looks like a step back,” said CLSA head of execution services Takeo Kamai. “There is a lot of uncertainty and the Tokyo market is always going to trade conservatively at a time like that.”



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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
greater.

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
punished.”

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwerka who is also the chairman
of the 16-member Southern African Development Community posted on his Facebook
page
“… 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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