WHO says vaccines will protect against severe Omicron; South Africa registers 8,561 new cases

WHO says vaccines will protect against severe Omicron; South Africa registers 8,561 new cases
A South African health worker holds up her vaccination card after receiving the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine during the roll-out of the first batch of vaccines at Khayelitsha Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, on 17 February 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NIC BOTHMA)

South Africa registered 8,561 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 2,976,613. A further 28 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 89,871. A total of 25,782,259 people have been vaccinated.

The chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO) said vaccines will probably protect against severe cases of the new Omicron variant. As the mutation pops up in locations from the UK and Switzerland to Brazil, countries are readying tighter travel curbs.

Norway found two cases, Ireland recorded its first and Australia’s New South Wales confirmed a sixth traveller infected with the new strain. Travellers are waiting longer to buy airline tickets amid rapidly emerging border restrictions, making it harder for carriers to gauge near-term demand, European airline executives said. 

France will require visitors coming from outside the European Union to provide a negative test carried out in the 48 hours before entry. Japan’s airlines have suspended new inbound bookings for December at the government’s request, while US President Joe Biden is expected to announce fresh pre-boarding testing requirements.

Key developments 

  • Virus Tracker: Cases top 262.8 million; deaths pass 5.2 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than eight billion doses given
  • Omicron’s epicentre in South Africa sees sudden vaccination rush
  • Why we shouldn’t yet write off Omicron cases as “mild
  • European firms skirt vaccine mandates as US pushes ahead
  • Omicron variant reaches at least 21 locations

New York offers perks to hunters to boost vaccinations 

New Yorkers who receive a vaccine could win a lifetime fishing and hunting licence as the state looks to increase vaccination rates in more rural areas. 

The first 2,000 residents to receive the Covid-19 vaccine between Wednesday and December 31 will get a free subscription to the state’s Conservationist magazine, a tree seedling and will be entered into a drawing for a package of prizes tailored to anglers, hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts. 

“The vaccine is our best weapon against this pandemic, and every New Yorker needs to get this vaccine to ensure our great state can continue on its path to recovery,” Governor Kathy Hochul said. 

Coronavirus cases have been rapidly rising upstate, particularly in Western New York. The seven-day average number of cases per 100,000 people was over 50 in the Finger Lakes, Capital Region, Mohawk Valley, North Country and Southern Tier, according to the most recent data. Western New York, which includes Buffalo, has the highest rate in the state with a seven-day case average of more than 66 per 100,000 residents.

South Africa’s daily cases almost double 

South Africa’s daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases almost doubled from Tuesday as the Omicron variant takes hold in the country. The country recorded 8,561 infections in the last 24 hours and a positivity rate of 16.5% on tests, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The Omicron variant was found in 74% of the 249 Covid-19 samples that were gene-sequenced in November, the institute said. The Delta variant accounted for 22%, compared with 79% in October. Omicron was found in samples in five out of the country’s nine provinces, data from the institute showed.

Vaccines will prevent severe Omicron cases, says WHO 

Vaccines will probably protect against severe cases of the new Omicron variant, Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said at a briefing.

The WHO expects more data on Omicron transmission within days, Maria van Kerkhove, the agency’s technical lead officer, said at the same press conference. 

Slovakia giving bonuses to inoculated seniors 

Slovakia will send hospitality vouchers worth €500 to seniors who are fully inoculated against Covid-19 in a bid to increase one of the European Union’s lowest vaccination rates and prevent future lockdowns.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Eduard Heger approved the bonus for all residents over the age of 60 who have received shots, including the booster, the Finance Ministry said on Wednesday. The vouchers will be redeemable at hotels, restaurants, hair salons, gyms and cultural venues.

The nation of 5.5 million is in a full lockdown as its rate of new infections on a per capita basis is among the worst in the world now.

Switzerland considers tighter curbs 

The Swiss government will decide on reintroducing stricter measures by the end of the week, after detecting three cases of the Omicron variant. Measures could include mandatory work from home, reducing the time period a negative Covid-19 test is valid and limiting the number of people allowed at private gatherings. The nation registered more than 10,000 new cases in a single day for the first time this season.

Air travellers wait until last minute 

Travellers are waiting longer to purchase airline tickets amid rapidly emerging border restrictions, making it harder for carriers to gauge near-term demand, European airline executives said. Booking activity reported by Wizz Air Holdings President Robert Carey and EasyJet Chief Executive Officer Johan Lundgren on Wednesday shows a trend seen throughout the pandemic being heightened by the new Omicron variant. 

Denmark new infections at record high

Denmark saw a record number of confirmed cases on Wednesday, as 5,120 people tested positive. The Nordic country, which has detected six cases of the new Omicron variant, has reintroduced some restrictions to cope with the recent spike in infections. 

Masks are mandatory in stores and on public transportation and people are required to present a so-called corona passport proving either vaccination, a recent negative test or immunity through previous infection to attend public events or eat at restaurants.

France tightens rules for visitors 

France will require travellers coming from outside the European Union to provide a negative test carried out in the 48 hours before entry, even if they are vaccinated, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday.

Unvaccinated EU travellers will be asked to provide a test done less than 24 hours before they arrive, and the requirement could be extended to vaccinated travellers by the end of the week, after EU coordination, he said. There are 13 suspected cases of people who could be infected with the Omicron variant in France, Attal said.

Ireland confirms first Omicron infection 

One case of the Omicron Covid-19 variant has been identified in Ireland, the National Public Health Emergency Team said. The case is associated with travel to a country identified as a risk area and was one of eight samples sequenced.

EU may weigh mandatory vaccinations 

The European Union should discuss whether mandatory vaccinations are needed to help fight the spike in cases, as well as the new Omicron variant, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

Germany’s next chancellor, Olaf Scholz, on Tuesday threw support behind making vaccinations compulsory and called for a parliamentary vote on the plan. 

Norway reports first Omicron cases 

Norway’s western municipality of Oygarden has confirmed two cases of the Omicron virus variant, according to a statement. Both of the infected people had been travelling in South Africa.

Poland new infections at highest since April 

Poland reported 29,064 new infections, the highest in almost eight months, and 570 fatalities. The Health Ministry said 25% of the deaths were among vaccinated patients, mostly elderly people with comorbidities. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on the nation to get boosters ahead of Christmas.

WHO to seek deal on future pandemics 

World Health Organization member countries voted to start drafting an international agreement to help avoid future pandemics as more cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19 popped up around the world. The WHO’s members approved a proposal Wednesday that set a deadline of 2024 to try to implement such a measure. They didn’t resolve the biggest disagreement, however: whether the accord should be a legally binding treaty.

It will cost $50bn to vaccinate the world, says OECD 

The emergence of a new coronavirus variant increases the uncertainty already weighing on the global economic outlook and highlights vaccination shortcomings, according to the OECD’s chief economist, Laurence Boone. Boone said it would cost $50-billion to vaccinate the world – a sum that pales in comparison to the $10-trillion the Group of 20 countries have spent mitigating the economic impact of Covid-19.

Three golfers out of South African Open 

Dylan Mostert, Teaghan Gauche and Siyanda Mwandla have been forced to withdraw from this week’s South African Open Championship at Sun City, west of Johannesburg, after testing positive, the organisers of golf’s Sunshine Tour said.

All three professionals are self-isolating and being given support by the tour. South Africa is experiencing a surge in cases and said less than a week ago that it had found a new variant of the coronavirus. Sunshine Tour officials didn’t disclose whether or not the golfers have the Omicron variant.

Israel should weigh mandatory shots, urges nation’s coronavirus czar 

Israel’s coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said the country should look at mandatory vaccination now that the Omicron variant has emerged.

“Mandatory vaccination needs to be considered, whether through legislation or otherwise, especially given the fact that not only is the pandemic here, but I fear it will get worse,” Zarka said on 103FM radio. 

He said he changed his mind following the appearance of Omicron, which has been identified in several Israelis.

EU to propose daily travel rules review 

The European Union is set to recommend that member states review essential travel restrictions on a daily basis in the wake of Omicron, according to a draft EU document seen by Bloomberg. Member states should pursue a coordinated approach and be prepared to impose required controls, the document says. The draft recommendations could change before they are announced.

Japanese airlines halt inbound bookings 

Japan’s largest airline operators halted new inbound bookings for this month following a government request in the nation’s strictest border controls since the pandemic began. Japan Airlines and ANA Holdings’ suspension applies to all inbound flights, meaning overseas Japanese nationals as well as foreigners who currently don’t hold bookings will be barred from entering the country. 

Saudi Arabia reports first Omicron case 

Saudi Arabia said it found one case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the kingdom, according to state-run Saudi Press Agency. The case is a national who arrived from a north African country.

Belgium hospital admissions soar 

Belgium reported 386 Covid-19 patients were admitted to hospitals on November 30, the highest number for any single day in a year. There are now 780 patients being treated in intensive care units, which compares with a peak of 1,474 in November 2020.

German hospitals at risk 

Germany’s hospitals are in a “particularly dangerous situation” and stricter measures to reduce social contact and check the spread of the disease are urgently needed, according to the head of the country’s Divi intensive-care medicine lobby. 

“We have to protect our staff and prevent our clinics from collapsing under the pressure,” Divi President Gernot Marx said in an interview with ZDF television. “We need a general vaccine mandate for adults not just to break the fourth wave but to prevent a fifth and sixth wave.” 

The number of ICU patients with Covid will reach 6,000 by Christmas, exceeding the peak during the second wave of the pandemic last winter, Marx predicted.

Japan says vaccination target reached  

Vaccine minister Noriko Hayashi told reporters that she thinks the government has reached its goal of getting two doses of coronavirus vaccine to everyone in Japan who wanted it by the end of November, according to Jiji. As of Tuesday, 78.8% of Japan’s population had received one shot and 76.9% two, according to data from the prime minister’s office. DM

– With assistance from Seyoon Kim, Josh Wingrove, Emi Nobuhiro, Eduard Gismatullin, Ditas Lopez, Andreo Calonzo, Claire Che, Ragini Saxena, Renee Bonorchis, John Martens, Gwen Ackerman, Dana Khraiche, Isabel Reynolds, Jonas Cho Walsgard, Morten Buttler, Morwenna Coniam, Katharina Rosskopf, Konrad Krasuski, Ania Nussbaum and Keshia Clukey.


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