CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL UPDATE
Ontario to crack down on doctor misinformation; South Africa registers 4,322 new cases
South Africa registered 4,322 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,568,900. A further 156 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 93,707. A total of 29,164,224 vaccines have been administered.
The UK government is lifting the restrictions it imposed in England in December, when the Omicron variant caused a record spike in infections that now shows signs of easing.
Cases are still soaring elsewhere in Europe, however. France reported a record of nearly 465,000 new infections, while Italy and Germany also registered all-time highs. Switzerland decided to extend a work-from-home order to the end of February as cases surge.
Researchers in South Africa found that booster shots with messenger RNA vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer and partner BioNTech, failed to block infection with Omicron. A separate study showed that the new strain may be more dangerous for children than earlier coronavirus variants.
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Ontario to crack down on doctors over misinformation
The government of Canada’s largest province asked a medical regulatory body to crack down on doctors who are giving out false information about Covid-19 vaccines. Potential measures should include “reviewing the licences of physicians found to be spreading misinformation”, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said at a news conference.
Ontario imposed restrictions on indoor activities on January 3 to curb a spike in hospitalisations. Hospital cases are still rising, but at a much slower rate now. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer, said hospital stays for patients infected with the Omicron variant are about five days, compared with nine days for those with the Delta variant.
New Jersey mandates booster shots for health workers
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is requiring all workers in healthcare settings and high-risk congregate-living facilities to be fully vaccinated and boosted, and is eliminating a test-out option.
New Jerseyans in the healthcare community who aren’t vaccinated have until January 27 to get their first vaccine dose and complete the primary series by February 28. Those in congregate facilities have until February 28 to get the first dose and March 30 for the second shot.
Murphy, a Democrat who began his second term on Tuesday, said the workers will have three weeks from their booster eligibility date to receive the extra shot. About 575,000 New Jerseyans have tested positive for Covid-19 over the past four weeks amid the Omicron-fuelled surge, he said.
American Airlines union proposes reduced beverage service on flights
The union for American Airlines Group flight attendants wants to temporarily reduce onboard food and beverage service to lessen the amount of time passengers go maskless during flights.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (Apfa) is in talks with American about proposals that would help “maintain the highest level of flight attendant and passenger safety as possible onboard planes”, the union told members in a message on Wednesday. Passengers are required by federal mandate to wear masks during flights unless they are eating or drinking.
The union’s proposals include reducing main-cabin beverage service on domestic flights and those to Europe, South America and Asia, and serving entrees at the same time as salad, soup and appetisers in premium cabins when possible, according to the Apfa message. Potential changes are complex due to different aircraft types and possible vendor involvement.
American didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Omicron may be a bigger risk for children
Omicron may be more dangerous for children than earlier coronavirus strains, a study of hospitalisation data from one of South Africa’s biggest medical insurance programmes showed.
Data from the 56,164 Covid-related hospital admissions among the more than two million beneficiaries of the Government Employees Medical Scheme found that the admission rate for children under the age of four was 49% higher during the Omicron wave than Delta.
The results may be skewed by the fact that until early November children between 12 and 17 couldn’t get vaccines in South Africa and those below 12 aren’t eligible for the shots.
Beijing flare-up worsens
China’s capital found a cluster among cold chain workers on Wednesday, the latest sign the country is seeing more infections resulting from a controversial claim of transmission through contaminated goods.
Five people who worked at a cold chain storage facility in the Fangshan district of Beijing tested positive, with genetic sequencing showing three of them were infected by the Delta variant, Beijing officials said at a briefing on Wednesday. The refrigeration facility also deals with imports, and the workers who tested positive hadn’t left the city in the past two weeks, they added.
Switzerland extends work-from-home order
Switzerland decided to extend a work-from-home order to the end of February as cases surge, driven by Omicron. Entry to restaurants, gyms and other public indoor venues, meanwhile, will continue to be restricted to those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from the virus through the end of March, the government said on Wednesday.
UK to ease curbs
People will no longer be asked to work from home as restrictions are eased in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
“People should now speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Rules forcing people to wear face masks in shops and on public transport will be dropped from January 27, as will mandatory Covid passes for businesses, Johnson said. The move unwinds rules put in place in December, when the Omicron variant was spreading rapidly across the UK
mRNA boosters don’t stop Omicron
Booster shots with mRNA vaccines such as those made by Pfizer and BioNTech failed to block infection with the Omicron variant in the first study of its kind, South African researchers said.
Seven German visitors to Cape Town experienced so-called breakthrough Covid-19 infections between late November and early December despite being boosted, the researchers, whose investigation was authorised by the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, said in findings published in The Lancet on January 18.
The report adds to evidence of the ability of Omicron to evade the antibodies generated by vaccines. Still, other protections such as T-cells appear to combat the strain and so far hospital and mortality data have been less severe than with the Delta variant.
Italy extends use of ‘green pass’
As of Thursday, a so-called green pass, which provides proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test, will be required to enter all Italian beauty centres and hair salons. The same certification will be needed, as of February 1, to access all public offices and shops in the country, with few exceptions, such as pharmacies and grocery stores.
Austria weighs vaccine incentives
Austria is turning to a carrot-and-stick approach on its policy of mandatory vaccinations – a measure set to enter force next month, with fines reaching as high as €3,600 for dissenters.
To encourage efforts to raise the vaccination rate from about 75% of the eligible population, the government may hand out restaurant and hotel vouchers in a lottery system to people complying, according to plans seen by the Kurier newspaper. It’s also considering grants for municipalities that reach a certain inoculation rate.
Israel infection cases soar
New daily confirmed cases in Israel rose to a record 71,000 on Tuesday, more than six times the highest number reached in previous waves.
The actual figure is probably between two and three times that amount, when unconfirmed infections are included, Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash said in an Army Radio interview. Israel recently stopped giving PCR tests on demand, so cases are no longer registered as accurately as before.
Still, the number of severe cases has climbed to less than half the level reached during the Delta wave. The country, a leader in vaccination, has already given a fourth dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to more than 500,000 people.
WHO seeks $480m in pandemic funds
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) is asking member states and donors for $480-million in additional funds for its next two-year budget period.
The request includes $430-million for the WHO Emergencies Programme and $50-million for prevention and response to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told delegates in opening remarks on Wednesday at the United Nations organization’s budget meeting.
“Our programme budget for 2020 and 2021 was originally $5.8-billion,” Tedros said. “But with the additional emergency operations and appeals needed for the ongoing pandemic response, we implemented a significantly larger budget.”
Indonesia cases reach highest since September
Indonesia reported 1,745 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the most since September 29, with the capital, Jakarta, accounting for more than half of them. Nine people died from the disease as daily fatalities have remained in single digits so far this year. The government has called on people to avoid gatherings and in-person meetings unless necessary, even as it stops short of imposing tighter restrictions. Hospitalisations are starting to pick up.
Vaccine plant launched in Cape Town
US biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong laid out plans for a plant that will produce a billion vaccine doses in Cape Town by 2025, which would make it the biggest such factory in Africa and could help the least-vaccinated continent tackle the pandemic.
Africa has struggled to secure vaccines while wealthy countries were already giving their populations shots. To date, just 10.1% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are fully vaccinated. That compares with 62% of Americans and 72% of people in the UK
Czech Republic, Hungary report record cases
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia joined Germany and France in reporting a record number of new infections, as Omicron sweeps across Europe.
Poland, where daily cases almost doubled in a week, urged employers to adopt work-from-home where possible. “We’re entering into a dangerous scenario, which requires strict abiding by Covid-19 rules,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said at a press conference in Warsaw.
India cases at highest since May
India added 282,970 cases on Wednesday – the highest since mid-May last year. The country has vaccinated more than half of its population in the age group of 15 to 18 through administering 37.30 million doses, the government said. A total of 1.59 billion shots have been given, including two doses for all adults and boosters, the data show.
Tokyo set to report more than 7,000 cases
Tokyo is set to report more than 7,000 new cases on Wednesday, a daily record, Kyodo news agency reported, citing an unidentified person. The figure would surpass the 5,908 cases Japan’s capital saw on August 13.
Tokyo and other parts of Japan are poised to come under a state of quasi-emergency for three weeks starting on Friday as the government tries to rein in the surging cases. A final decision was to be made on Wednesday for the 13 prefectures including Tokyo.
If approved, the measure will allow the local government to request limits on gathering and hospitality operations. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to ask restaurants and bars to close by 9pm at the latest, Nikkei reported.
New cases in Germany top 100,000
Germany recorded more than 100,000 new infections on one day for the first time, adding to evidence that the highly contagious Omicron variant is spreading fast across Europe’s largest economy.
Another 112,323 infections were registered after 74,405 on the previous day, according to data published by Germany’s public-health institute RKI. France registered 464,769 new infections on Tuesday, far above the previous high of 368,149 recorded a week ago. DM/MC
– With assistance from Shinhye Kang, Archana Chaudhary, Andy Hoffman, Alisa Odenheimer, Antony Sguazzin, Marthe Fourcade, Flavia Rotondi and Sandra Mergulhao.
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