WHO says Europe entering new phase; South Africa registers 1,332 new cases

WHO says Europe entering new phase; South Africa registers 1,332 new cases
A citizen receives the Covid-19 vaccine at Naledi Vaccination Site on 26 November 2021 in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

South Africa registered 1,332 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,582,691. A further 88 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 94,265. A total of 29,452,653 vaccines have been administered.

Pfizer and BioNTech said a pair of laboratory studies confirmed that three doses of their Covid-19 vaccine produce antibodies that can neutralise the Omicron variant.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Europe is entering a “new phase” of the pandemic, driven by Omicron’s milder symptoms, lower risk of hospitalisation and the efficacy of vaccines.

The UK will stop requiring vaccinated travellers to take a Covid-19 test after arriving in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. Meanwhile, an Israeli study found that a fourth vaccine dose for older adults leaves them better protected against coronavirus infection. 

Beijing eased a testing requirement for the Winter Olympics even as a growing number of cases associated with the Games are being found.

Key developments  

  • Virus Tracker: Cases top 351.4 million; deaths pass 5.5 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 9.92 billion shots administered
  • Bars and gyms are bustling as Americans learn to live with Covid
  • Beijing tests shoppers to root out Covid cases
  • Living with Covid proving tough for a gridlocked world economy
  • Is Covid becoming endemic? What would that mean?: QuickTake

New Jersey cites outbreaks in nursing homes 

Omicron has led to an increasing number of severe cases of Covid-19 among children in New Jersey and has fuelled new outbreaks in nursing homes and other long-term facilities, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.

While cases and hospitalisations in the state probably peaked two weeks ago, the number of critically ill patients remains high, Persichilli said. Six children are currently hospitalised with Covid, and there have been four paediatric deaths – including three infants – since Christmas, she said. New Jersey has had 12 paediatric deaths from Covid since the pandemic began.

At nursing homes, healthcare workers have fallen ill, fuelling 560 outbreaks last week – 10,500 cases among residents and 12,800 among staff, Persichilli said. While 81% of residents at the facilities have received their booster shot, just 44% of staff have got the extra shot, she said.

Statewide, booster rates are “unacceptably low” at 49.4%, Persichilli said. “We must do better.”

Governor Phil Murphy last week ordered workers in healthcare and at long-term care facilities to get vaccinated and boosted, and eliminated a test-out option. Murphy said on Monday that he has no plans to expand that mandate to other workers, such as teachers.

WHO: Europe entering ‘new phase’ 

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Europe is entering a “new phase” of the pandemic. Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for the continent, said that Omicron offers “plausible hope for stabilization and normalisation” but that it’s “far too early to relax”. 

Citing Omicron’s milder symptoms, lower risk of hospitalisation and the efficacy of vaccines, Kluge said he is still concerned about the number of unvaccinated people across the globe who are “helping to drive transmission”. 

He said 2022 must be the “year of vaccine equity in the European Region and beyond”. The WHO’s European region encompasses 53 countries with varying vaccination rates and healthcare systems. 

FDA to halt use of two therapies for Omicron 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is poised to restrict two monoclonal antibodies, saying the Covid-19 treatments shouldn’t be used in any states because they are ineffective against the dominant Omicron variant, the Washington Post reported, citing two senior administration health officials.

The Biden administration will pause distribution of the therapies, manufactured by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly, to the states, the newspaper said.

Several therapies remain effective against Omicron, including sotrovimab – a monoclonal antibody made by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology – and antiviral pills by Pfizer and by Merck and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, the article said, citing administration officials.

Schools sue Virginia governor for lifting mask mandate 

Seven Virginia school districts sued new Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin over his executive order lifting a K-12 mask mandate. The districts argue that school boards have the right to enact health policy at the local level. Youngkin, a former co-chief executive officer of Carlyle Group, issued the order on January 15 shortly after taking office.

Palin tests positive before defamation trial 

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin tested positive for Covid just before trial in her defamation suit against The New York Times was set to begin on Monday.

The judge announced Palin’s positive result in court on Monday, noting that the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee was unvaccinated. He said she was due to take another Covid test at 10.15am. If she tests positive again, the trial will be postponed until February 3. If she continues to test positive, it may be months before the trial can be rescheduled, the judge said.

Palin sued the Times over an opinion piece that incorrectly described an ad by her political action committee to connect them to the 2011 shooting of former US Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona.

UK to end tests for vaccinated travellers 

The UK will stop requiring vaccinated travellers to take a Covid-19 test after arriving in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. 

The new rules are part of a general easing of Covid-19 restrictions as the UK starts to treat the virus as endemic. 

“So, what we’re doing on travel, to show that this country is open for business, open for travellers, you will see changes so that people arriving no longer have to take tests if they have been vaccinated, if they have been double-vaccinated,” Johnson told broadcasters Monday in a pooled interview.

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said that the airline is looking ahead to what it believes “will be a strong summer.”

Pfizer, BioNTech: Three doses neutralise Omicron 

Pfizer and BioNTech said a pair of laboratory studies confirmed that three doses of their Covid-19 vaccine produce antibodies that can neutralise the Omicron variant.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, the studies also indicate that immunity provided by T-cells after two shots of the vaccine may still protect against severe disease.

A third study published on the pre-print server bioRxiv without peer review also showed restoration of antibodies, but indicated that their ability to neutralise Omicron decreases by as much as two times over four months.

The partners said they’re now planning human trials of an additional dose of the original shot as well as a vaccine express-designed for the Omicron variant.

WHO needs more funds, says director-general 

The World Health Organization (WHO) can’t do its job if member states and donors don’t agree to a proposed funding increase giving the international health body more autonomy to fight pandemics, its chief said.

“If the current funding model continues, the WHO is being set up to fail,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told delegates in Geneva on Monday.

The organisation is asking for an additional $480-million.

Iran cases surge most since November 

Iran on Monday reported its highest daily coronavirus infections since November 10, with 7,691 cases, bringing the country’s total tally to more than 6.2 million. 

Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Iran have been on the rise since the start of the new year, after the health ministry confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant in December.

Hong Kong hotel quarantine criticised after outbreak 

Hong Kong’s onerous system of hotel quarantine may have seeded an Omicron outbreak that’s led to thousands of people being locked down, prompting calls for reform of the controversial setup. 

An outbreak of more than 200 cases at a public housing estate was confirmed, and the preliminarily positive cases on Monday were traced to a traveller who caught Omicron while undergoing 21 days of isolation at a hotel in Kowloon. While she entered the hotel Covid-free, the pathogen was transmitted to her from an infected person staying at the same hotel. 

Czech cases touch pandemic Sunday high 

The Czech Republic had 12,889 new cases of Covid-19 in the 24 hours through Sunday, the highest number for a Sunday since the beginning of the pandemic. 

As the highly infectious Omicron variant rages through the nation of 10.7 million, 1,448 patients were hospitalised with coronavirus, according to the health ministry data.

Beijing eases Olympics tests to cap disruption 

Beijing eased a Winter Olympics testing requirement even as a growing number of cases associated with the Games are being found, underscoring China’s challenge in trying to keep the Omicron variant at bay while minimising disruption to the massive sporting event.

With less than two weeks to go before the opening ceremony, about 78 cases among Olympics participants – including “stakeholders” such as marketing and other support staff – have been reported since January 4.

Olympics officials said that they would amend the rules to lower the threshold for participants to be considered virus-free, and cut in half the number of days to seven that someone is designated a close contact.

Fourth vaccine shot gives protection, says Israel health ministry 

A fourth vaccine dose for older adults leaves them better protected against coronavirus infection than peers who received three shots, a study released by Israel’s health ministry found. 

The preliminary analysis compares data from about 400,000 people aged 60 and over who received a fourth dose in January and some 600,000 people in the same age group who got only three doses – with the third shot administered four months or more previously. 

The researchers found that those who had the fourth dose had twice the protection from infection as the others, and at least three times the protection from severe illness. The great majority of people in Israel have received the Pfizer vaccine. 

Singapore vaccine demand for kids rises 

About 70% of Singapore’s primary school students have signed up to be vaccinated, with more than 60% having had their first vaccines, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said in a Facebook post.

Overall 160,000 aged 5-11 have had a first dose, and 13,000 have had their second dose, according to the ministry. 

India wave may have peaked 

India’s current wave of infections may have peaked on January 23 after surging more than 40-fold within a month, according to a note by Cambridge University’s India Covid-19 tracker. The country added 306,064 new cases on Monday, taking total infections since the start of the pandemic to 39.5 million.

India has stepped up screening for all Omicron lineages and threat levels remain high in view of increasing hospitalisations and patients needing intensive care, the government said on Sunday. Reported deaths rose by 439 to a total of 489,848 since the pandemic started.

China lifts Xi’an lockdown  

The Chinese city of Xi’an lifted a month-long lockdown after a Covid outbreak was stamped out. Capacity limits will still apply at restaurants, tourism sites and theatres, and family dinners will be capped at 10 people. The city of 13 million people was plunged into lockdown last month as China adheres to a strict Covid-zero policy. 

But even as the Delta flare-up in Xi’an eases, Chinese authorities are now having to turn their attention to containing the highly transmissible Omicron variant. The strain has been reported in seven out of 31 provinces and all of China’s biggest cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. 

China reported 18 local confirmed Covid-19 cases on Saturday, with six in Beijing, three in Hebei and three in Yunnan, the National Health Commissions said. 

Thailand rolls out fourth dose 

Thailand is ramping up the roll-out of fourth vaccination shots to residents in tourism-dependent regions as the nation prepares to reopen its borders next month. 

Authorities are offering AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines in Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi and seven other provinces to people who received their third dose at least three months ago. Starting on February 1, Thailand will resume its quarantine-free tourism programme that helped bring in some 350,000 visitors in two months, before the plan was temporarily suspended due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant.

Cathay Pacific says cash burn will widen 

Cathay Pacific said its monthly cash burn will widen to as much as HK$1.5-billion ($193-million) from February as Hong Kong’s tighter restrictions on aircrew and travel throttle capacity. 

The airline is operating at about 2% of its pre-pandemic capacity on passenger flights and 20% for cargo, a side of the business that helped it generate money in the second half of last year thanks to strong demand for airfreight. Cathay expects to report a loss of between HK$5.6-billion to HK$6.1-billion in 2021, compared with a deficit of HK$7.5-billion in the first half last year. 

Hong Kong reported 140 confirmed Covid-19 cases on Sunday, the highest number in about a year.

US vaccinations slow 

The US reported on Sunday 694,000 vaccine new doses administered, the lowest number since October, amid a general decline in vaccinations despite near-record high infections and hospitalisations. 

Vaccinations peaked last April at more than 4.5 million daily shots, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, and have largely been on the decline since. The availability of booster shots, the expansion to younger age groups and vaccine mandates briefly boosted numbers that are now dropping toward the lowest points since vaccinations were rolled out in December 2020.

Of the eligible populations, 67.4% of Americans are fully vaccinated and 43% have received booster shots, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DM/MC

With assistance from Stacie Sherman.


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