Omicron symptoms mild so far; South Africa registers 2,858 new cases

Omicron symptoms mild so far; South Africa registers 2,858 new cases
A citizens at Gold Reef City Pop-Up Vaccination Site on 13 November 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

South Africa registered 2,858 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 2,961,406. A further six Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 89,797. A total of 25,288,417 people have been vaccinated.

Symptoms linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant have been mild so far, said South African health experts, including the doctor who first sounded the alarm about the new strain. But the World Health Organization cautioned there is “no information” symptoms caused by Omicron are different from other strains. 

The 13 Omicron cases identified in the Netherlands on Sunday suggest the new variant already has a strong foothold in Europe, with more countries reporting cases. It will “inevitably” arrive in the US, Anthony Fauci said, and that Americans should get vaccines and boosters as prevention. Airline travel is beginning to recall the first days of the pandemic.

Moderna Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said, though, he suspects Omicron may elude current vaccines and, if so, a reformulated shot could be available early next year. 

New York City may already be seeing signs of a winter spike in Covid-19 even though holiday travel, gatherings and colder weather are just getting started. 

Key developments  

WHO warns of ‘no information’ on severity of Omicron 

The World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned that there is “no information” that infections caused by the Omicron variant are different from those of other variants.

“Initial reported infections were among university studies – younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease – but understanding the level of severity of the omicron variant will take days to several weeks,” the WHO said in a statement on Sunday. It noted that hospitalisations in South Africa, where the new strain was identified, are rising. 

Several South African health experts said that cases associated with omicron so far appeared to be mild.

Airlines scramble after restrictions return 

Airlines, passengers and businesses scrambled to respond to a deluge of travel restrictions announced over the weekend to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. 

An initial spate of flight bans from southern Africa, where Omicron was first detected, gave way to more wide-ranging measures that will make travel more expensive and less convenient – if possible at all – recalling earlier days in the pandemic. 

New York City may be at start of winter surge  

New York City may already be seeing signs of a winter spike in Covid-19 even though holiday travel, gatherings and colder weather are just getting started. 

The city’s positive test rate rose to a two-month high as hospitals admitted more than 100 new virus patients on Friday, contributing to a 25% jump in hospitalisations in just two weeks.

The city has 463 people in the hospital for Covid-19, up from 370 on Nov. 12. The seven-day average of residents testing positive for the virus – the lowest in the state of New York – has climbed above 2% for the first time since the end of September. That metric doesn’t include rapid antigen test results.

Swiss vote to keep health pass 

Swiss voters backed the government’s use of Covid-19 certificates for entry into theatres and restaurants despite vociferous campaigning by sceptics, who consider them an infringement of civil liberties.

Support for the measure was at 62%. Polls for the broadcaster SRF had indicated the law, which also covers financial aid to pandemic-stricken companies, was supported by a comfortable majority. 

Botswana identifies more cases 

Botswana has identified 15 more cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the total detected to 19, Health Minister Edwin Dikoloti told a televised briefing on Saturday. 

Preliminary analysis suggests most of the infections were imported, Dikoloti said. Four cases were truck drivers crossing from neighbouring South Africa, while another was a South Africa resident who visited Botswana to see his family. 

Fauci stresses need for vaccination 

Covid-19’s Omicron variant appears to be more transmissible, reinforcing the need for Americans to get vaccinations or booster shots, US health officials said. 

Omicron “is a clarion call” for people to be vaccinated, Anthony Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, said on NBC’s Meet the Press. Infections in the US are already rising and stepped-up prevention with the emergence of the new variant will affect whether Americans are “headed into a bleak or bleaker winter,” he said.

“Inevitably it will be” in the US, Fauci said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “The question is, will we be prepared for it?”

Omicron so far ‘mild’, say South African experts 

Symptoms linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant have been mild so far, according to a Covid-19 adviser to the South Africa government and the Pretoria doctor who first sounded the alarm about the new strain. 

While South Africa, which first identified the new variant, currently has 3,220 people with the coronavirus infection overall, there’s been no real uptick in hospitalisations, Barry Schoub, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, told Sky News on Sunday. 

“The cases that have occurred so far have all been mild cases, mild to moderate cases, and that’s a good sign,” said Schoub, adding that it was still early days and nothing was certain yet. 

Germany has more suspected Omicron cases 

Germany has more suspected cases of infections with the Omicron variant, this time in Essen and Dusseldorf, Rheinische Post reported, citing a spokesman for the state government of North-Rhine Westphalia.

Half of Germany’s intensive care beds are now taken by patients with Covid-19. The nation’s state governments are planning to postpone all elective operations, Business Insider reported, citing a draft decision to be adopted at the national conference of health ministers scheduled for Monday.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi giving booster shots 

Dubai and Abu Dhabi started administering booster shots of the coronavirus vaccine as countries across the world seek to check the advance of a new strain.

In Dubai, booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be available for those who are 18 years and older, and can be taken six months after the second dose, the emirate’s health authority tweeted on Sunday. Neighbouring Abu Dhabi also asked the public to take the booster shots, according to a tweet from the emirate’s media office. It didn’t specify the type of vaccine.

Dutch cluster suggests Omicron foothold in Europe 

The 13 Omicron Covid-19 cases identified in the Netherlands on Sunday suggest the new variant already has a strong foothold in Europe. Dutch authorities said they found the cases among 61 people who tested positive for Covid on two flights that arrived from southern Africa on Friday.

“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference in Rotterdam. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”

The Netherlands cases mark the most widespread incidence of the new strain in Europe found so far, but the variant has been confirmed or is suspected in the UK, Italy, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic. Australia, Hong Kong and Israel have identified cases, too. 

US virus tracker: New York has most deaths 

Coronavirus cases in the US on Sunday were little changed as compared to the same time on Saturday at 48.2 million, as of 4.45am New York time, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg News.

New York saw the largest number of deaths reported in the last 24 hours, with 58 lives lost. California had the largest number of confirmed cases at 5.06 million, little changed from the same time the previous day. Maryland experienced a 0.5% increase in the number of cases from the same time on Saturday.

Mideast stocks nosedive after oil slump 

Middle East stocks took their cue from last week’s global sell-off as the emergence of a worrying new coronavirus variant reverberated through markets, sending every major index into retreat.

Dubai’s benchmark gauge dropped the most, tumbling 5.2% as of 3.40pm local time, its sharpest loss since March 2020. Saudi Arabia’s main index fell 4.2%, the most since October 2020. There were declines in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. 

Moderna vaccine for Omicron may be ready in 2022 

Moderna Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said he suspects the new Omicron coronavirus variant may elude current vaccines, and if so, a reformulated shot could be available early in the new year.

“We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks,” Burton said Sunday on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities.”

Merck Covid pill set for authorisation despite concerns, says Morgan Stanley  

Merck’s Covid-19 pill will likely still get US authorisation despite disappointing efficacy data and concerns raised by regulators, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted.

Merck shares fell 3.8% Friday after the release of data showing molnupiravir was less effective than previously reported, and as the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about its safety and long-term effectiveness.

UK: No need for work-from-home mandate 

There’s no need to impose a new work-from-home rule or other draconian steps now that the new coronavirus variant has spread to the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

Moves taken on Saturday by the government will buy scientists “precious weeks” to evaluate the Omicron strain and work on new vaccine formulations if needed, Javid said. In interviews with Sky News and the BBC, he cited the “heavy cost” of lockdowns on the economy and mental health.

Scotland restrictions looming, says Minister Sturgeon 

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that additional travel restrictions may be needed to combat the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which made its way into the UK.

“We might have to go further on restricting travel in the days to come,” the leader of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government said. Advising against travelling across the border with England would be a last resort, but “we need to be open-minded to doing anything to keep the population safe”.

Philippines imposes Europe travel curbs 

The Philippines won’t welcome travellers from some European countries for the next several weeks.

Travellers who have been to Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands and Switzerland in the past 14 days aren’t allowed entry until at least December 15, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said in a statement. The Philippines earlier blocked the arrivals of travellers from some southern African countries.

China detects Covid flare-up at border 

China’s Inner Mongolia region confirmed 19 local Covid-19 cases as of Sunday afternoon, according to a report by CCTV. One asymptomatic case was reported. The National Health Commission sent a work group to the region to guide the virus control work, the state-run broadcaster said.

The report comes a day after Manzhouli, a city in the northern region bordering Russia, detected three asymptomatic infections. The broader Hulun Buir region, which governs Manzhouli, is now looking for people that have been to the border town in the past two weeks and will place them under quarantine for 14 days and test them five times for Covid, according to the local government’s website.

Europe starts restricting UK travellers 

Countries across Europe are tightening travel requirements for the UK as suspected Omicron cases rapidly emerge.

Beginning on December 1, Spain will only accept travellers from the UK who can show proof of vaccination. Also, passengers coming from countries deemed to be at high risk of the new variant are required to produce a negative test, even if they have a vaccine certificate, according to an order published in the government gazette.

The moves come after Switzerland started requiring passengers coming from the UK to show proof of vaccination and negative Covid-19 tests upon arrival.  

Australia confirms Omicron in two travellers 

Two people in Australia’s New South Wales state have tested positive for the Omicron variant, the state government confirmed. Both had arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday evening, and are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.

Earlier on Sunday, NSW reported 185 new Covid cases in the previous 24 hours. Victoria state reported 1,061 cases. DM 

– With assistance from John Liu, Dong Lyu, Claudia Maedler, Siegfrid Alegado, Alastair Reed, Sungwoo Park, Diederik Baazil, Catherine Bosley, Simone Stern, Shaji Mathew, Loni Prinsloo, Joe Easton, Ros Krasny, Stacie Sherman and Karin Matussek.

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