CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL UPDATE
More nations cite endemic phase; South Africa registers 6,762 new cases
South Africa registered 6,762 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,540,891. A further 181 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 92,830. A total of 28,585,930 vaccines have been administered.
Switzerland joined Spain and the UK in suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic may be shifting to an endemic phase. The White House is moving to prevent future shortages of Covid-19 tests by ensuring they continue to be produced in large numbers.
Covid infection rates are falling in London, raising hopes that the Omicron outbreak is in retreat. Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised for attending a gathering during the country’s first lockdown, saying he thought it was a work event.
A South African trial will assess the safety and impact of varying doses of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines as boosters for those infected with HIV. Australia’s cases are surging and worsening worker shortages.
- Virus Tracker: Cases top 313 million; deaths pass 5.5 million
- Vaccine Tracker: More than 9.52 billion shots administered
- Omicron has workers ready to quit rather than return to office
- Hong Kong school shutdown decried by parents as ‘Groundhog Day’
- Covid test makers struggle to cope with whiplash from Omicron
Italy readies pandemic aid package
Italy’s government is working on a spending package that won’t require revising the budget to expand the deficit, people familiar with the matter said.
The measures could be announced as early as next week and would bring targeted relief to sectors hit by the surge in Covid-19 infections, such as tourism, the people said, asking not to be named discussing confidential plans. The package will also be used to refinance furlough programmes for workers hit by the pandemic.
US orders 500,000 more Astra doses
The US government is in talks with AstraZeneca to order 500,000 doses of its coronavirus antibody drug, used by vulnerable people before exposure to the virus to prevent severe illness.
Jeff Zients, Biden’s Covid-19 response coordinator, said on Wednesday that the administration and AstraZeneca are “in the process of ordering” the doses, which are aimed at immunocompromised people. The new order will push the total US purchase to above one million doses, all due by the end of March, Zients said.
Fall in London cases raises hope
Covid infection rates are falling in London, raising hopes that the Omicron outbreak is in retreat.
Infections for the UK increased to 4.3 million in the first week of January, up from 3.7 million a week earlier, the Office for National Statistics said. England accounted for the bulk, at just over 3.7 million, and the highest infection rate at one in 15.
But cases in London, which has been at the epicentre of the UK outbreak, dropped from one in 10 to one in 15. The hotspots are now the northwest of England and Yorkshire and the Humber, where one in 10 people have Covid.
Signs that the virus may be retreating in the capital provide some hope that the worst may soon be over. A short, sharp surge in cases echoes the experience in South Africa, where Omicron was first reported.
Swiss add to talk of endemic phase
Switzerland’s interior minister said the transition from pandemic to a stage where the country learns to live with Covid-19 like the flu may be in sight.
“We may be on the eve of a watershed, the transition from a pandemic phase to an endemic phase,” Alain Berset, whose ministry includes health, said at a media conference Wednesday.
Berset’s comments follow a call by Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday to consider treating the crisis differently, given that the Omicron wave of infections hasn’t led to an equivalent surge in hospitalisations and deaths. Britain’s Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, told the BBC on Sunday the UK is “on a path towards transitioning from pandemic to endemic”.
New York City contact tracing shifts to texts
New York City’s contact-tracing programme is shifting to a text message-based system amid a 960% increase in new Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant, city health officials said on Wednesday.
The nation’s biggest city has thousands of contact tracers who previously made phone calls to infected and exposed people to trace transmission and identify case clusters. Despite the shift in method, the city isn’t shutting down its contact-tracing programme.
Greece extends curbs by one week
Greece is extending measures introduced to stem the spread of Covid-19 and the Omicron variant by one week to 23 January, the country’s health ministry said on Wednesday.
The daily number of new coronavirus cases has fallen over the past week from a record high on 4 January after the introduction on 29 December of the measures that include the compulsory wearing of masks outdoors, and for restaurants, bars, cafes and nightclubs to close at midnight. A €100 fine for every month that people of 60 and over remain unvaccinated enters into force on 16 January.
Novartis seeks Covid drug nod before last test
Novartis will seek to bring its experimental Covid drug to patients without waiting for results from a large clinical trial, CEO Vas Narasimhan said.
The Swiss pharma giant aims to request an emergency-use authorisation for the compound with the US Food and Drug Administration within the next month, Narasimhan said in an interview. A larger study to confirm promising data that emerged this week may be finished by the second half of the year.
“Our aspiration at the moment is to see if we get an emergency-use authorisation and interest from certain governments to even utilise the medicine during these waves that are ongoing,” Narasimhan said.
Scholz says unvaccinated put others at risk
Chancellor Olaf Scholz issued a strong appeal for Germans to get vaccinated, saying failing to do so puts others at risk as the nation grapples with the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Speaking to Parliament on Wednesday, Scholz reaffirmed his support for making shots compulsory for all adults, saying the measure is needed to ensure healthcare services don’t get overwhelmed.
Germany posted a record increase in infections and the seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people climbed back above 400 as the Omicron variant spread in Europe’s biggest economy. The number of Covid patients in ICUs has nonetheless been steadily dropping from the latest peak last month.
Denmark may reopen cinemas, museums
Denmark’s government is set to propose the reopening of cinemas and museums from next week, despite record-high daily infections.
The Nordic country shut down cultural venues before Christmas to halt the spread of the Omicron variant. But with recent data suggesting that patients are less likely to have severe illness, Danish health experts recommend a slow return to normality.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen supported the recommendation, she told reporters in Copenhagen. The government was expected to announce its decision later on Wednesday pending support from a majority in Parliament.
France to ease UK travel restrictions
France plans to ease restrictions at the border with the UK further in the coming days, according to a government spokesman.
The government hopes to make an announcement by the end of the week, spokesman Gabriel Attal said in a briefing. The easing is justified because the Omicron variant is now dominant among newly infected patients in France.
UK’s Johnson apologises about office party
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under scrutiny for office parties that broke Covid rules, apologised for attending a gathering during lockdown on 20 May 2020, saying he thought it was a work event.
Opposition politicians have called for Johnson’s resignation over the event, a “bring your own bottle” party at the height of a lockdown meant to stem the first pandemic wave.
Pfizer says Covid shot safe with other vaccine
Pfizer said its Prevnar 20 pneumococcal vaccine and Covid shot were administered together to older adults in a clinical trial without adverse effects. The responses to Prevnar were similar whether the patients got a placebo or the pandemic injections.
Ireland to ease restrictions for contact cases
People in Ireland who have received a booster shot will no longer need to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone with Covid under changes approved by the government, according to national broadcaster RTE.
Anyone who is positive must now isolate for seven days rather than 10 under the plan due to come into effect from midnight Thursday, RTE said. Close contacts who have not received a booster will have to restrict their movements for seven days.
Pfizer, J&J Shots to be tested in HIV patients
A South African trial will assess the safety and impact of varying doses of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines as boosters for those infected with HIV as well as the wider population.
With about 13% of South Africa’s population infected with HIV, the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines in generating a response in immunocompromised individuals has been a key concern. HIV causes Aids, which weakens the immune system.
Israel sees cases peaking in two weeks
Israel’s latest Covid wave will likely reach its peak — triggering somewhere between 800,000 and two million cases — in about two weeks, according to researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The scientists anticipate about 1,000 to 2,000 severe cases in the heavily vaccinated country. They recommended limiting gatherings in closed places to slow the pace of infections and ensure the continued functioning of the economy, as well as proper treatment of those who are hospitalised.
South Korea may extend distancing rules
South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party and government held a meeting to discuss whether to extend social-distancing rules that are scheduled to expire on Sunday, a ruling party spokeswoman said.
Biden team to prod Covid test production
The White House is moving to prevent future shortages of tests by ensuring they continue to be produced in large numbers even after the surging Omicron variant recedes.
“We’re going to keep moving at this speed, and faster, to get volume up on a monthly basis,” Tom Inglesby, President Joe Biden’s newly appointed testing coordinator, said in an interview.
Biden is under pressure to bolster availability of testing as the highly transmissible Omicron variant fuels a record number of coronavirus cases. Americans are waiting in long lines — sometimes for hours — to be tested, and quickly snap up the limited supply of at-home kits from store shelves, leading to widespread frustration that poses a political risk for the president.
India cases surge over 300% in a week
India reported a more than 300% weekly surge in coronavirus cases on Wednesday to the highest since May last year.
Hospitalisations in the capital Delhi rose to 2,161 from 782 a week ago, according to local government data. The federal government has asked local administrations to ensure hospitals have a 48-hour buffer stock of oxygen supplies.
Omicron worsens Australia worker shortage
Australia was already facing a record shortfall of workers before spiralling Omicron infections triggered widespread absenteeism.
Job vacancies climbed to a record, up 18.5% to almost 400,000 in the three months through November. With the virus now raging, a key industry body is warning that firms in food and logistics are reporting 10%-50% of their workers are sick or in isolation, leaving supermarket shelves empty.
The Omicron variant represents about 90% of cases in New South Wales. DM/MC
— With assistance from Kanoko Matsuyama, Ocean Hou, Mariajose Vera, Archana Chaudhary, Iain Rogers, Morwenna Coniam, Shinhye Kang, Alisa Odenheimer, Antony Sguazzin, Ania Nussbaum, Morten Buttler, Andy Hoffman and Naomi Kresge.
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