Covid outbreak hits ship heading to Tonga; South Africa registers 3,197 new cases

Covid outbreak hits ship heading to Tonga; South Africa registers 3,197 new cases
People receive Covid-19 vaccinations at Naledi Vaccination Site in Soweto. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

South Africa registered 3,197 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,585,888. A further 132 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 94,397. A total of 29,540,132 vaccines have been administered.

Pfizer and BioNTech are starting a study of a Covid-19 vaccine that targets the Omicron variant, enrolling participants in a clinical trial that will evaluate the shot’s ability to prompt an immune response in adults.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus moved closer to serving a second five-year term after securing the group’s nomination. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said he wants to take a “second look” at requiring masks in schools.

Goldman Sachs Group is imposing a vaccine mandate on its Hong Kong employees, requiring all staff to get their shots before allowing access to its offices. Beijing is finding the Delta variant spreading more widely than Omicron.

Key developments: 

  • Virus Tracker: Cases top 355 million; deaths pass 5.6 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 9.98 billion shots administered
  • Few employers to drop vaccine mandate after Supreme Court rebuke
  • Olympic athletes use chartered flights to get to China safely
  • Almost half the world trails IMF vaccine targets to end pandemic
  • Is Covid becoming endemic? What would that mean?: QuickTake

Omicron still threatens hospitals, CDC says  

Rates of Covid-19 severe illness and death fell in the US during the Omicron surge compared with the earlier Delta wave as well as last winter’s, although high case counts and deaths continue to threaten patients and health systems, according to a government report.

Even as the proportion of hospital beds used for Covid patients’ treatment rose under Omicron, intensive-care unit admissions for the same patients dipped slightly, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday in a report. The highest seven-day moving average of deaths during Omicron was also lower than any during the two earlier surges, the report said.

DeSantis touts treatments after FDA halt 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is calling on regulators to allow the use of two monoclonal antibody therapies for Covid-19 after the Food and Drug Administration halted their use in a ruling neither manufacturer disputes.

The FDA said on Monday that it was rescinding authorisation for the use of Eli Lilly and Regeneron monoclonal antibody treatments in the US because they aren’t effective against Omicron, which has become overwhelmingly dominant in all regions of the country, including Florida.

The decision, backed by the American Medical Association, comes as other therapies are increasingly available while one other monoclonal remains in use. Several studies have indicated the other two treatments don’t work against Omicron in particular. Eli Lilly went so far as to say it agrees with the FDA, while Regeneron acknowledged the decision and said it’s working on other, newer monoclonal antibody treatments.

New York schools grapple with mask ruling 

Some New York school districts are abandoning mask mandates, hours after a Long Island judge ruled them unconstitutional on Monday.

Nassau Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker said the state’s health commissioner lacked legal authority to issue her 10 December mask-wearing regulation, citing the state legislature’s decision to curtail the emergency powers bestowed on the executive branch during the pandemic.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul filed a notice to appeal against the ruling, but some districts warned they were making mask-wearing optional any way. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said he wants to take a “second look” on requiring masks in schools but that they are still necessary as the Omicron surge continues.

Germany’s Bavaria loosening curbs  

Bavaria has become one of the first of Germany’s 16 states to begin loosening some pandemic restrictions, despite a seven-day Covid-19 incidence rate of almost 1,000 per 100,000 people.

The regional government will allow half capacity at cinemas, theatres and sporting events, up from a quarter now. Testing rules will also be eased, with rapid antigen tests now accepted in some cases where previously PCR tests were required.

Switzerland coping with Omicron

An estimated 100,000 people are infected every day in Switzerland, including unreported cases, according to Patrick Mathys from the Federal Office of Public Health.

The situation in hospitals remains stable, and it’s highly unlikely that Omicron will overwhelm ICU units during this wave. Still, it’s too early to ease restrictions, he said. Switzerland, with a population of about 8.5 million, last week extended a working-from-home requirement until the end of February.

WHO’s Tedros nominated for new term

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus moved closer to serving a second term after securing the group’s nomination.

The WHO’s executive board’s nomination on Tuesday paved the way for his official reappointment in May. A director-general can be reappointed once, meaning Tedros is eligible for an additional term of five years. Tedros was the only candidate to be proposed.

Connecticut to reconsider school masks

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said he wants to take a “second look” on requiring masks in schools in February, but that masks are still necessary as the Omicron surge continues.

He said the state is about “a week or so behind New York, but we’re dropping very fast,” according to a television interview with Fox5. The state, where roughly 11% of tests are coming back positive, now requires staff and residents of nursing homes to get boosted, while requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for visitors.

Pfizer starts trial of Omicron vaccine

Pfizer said it is starting a study of a Covid-19 vaccine that targets the Omicron variant, exploring its use in previously vaccinated younger and middle-aged adults as well as those who haven’t received another coronavirus shot.

The New York-based drugmaker and its German partner, BioNTech, said on Tuesday that they had enrolled the first participants in a 1,420-person clinical trial involving healthy adults aged 18 to 55. The study will also examine the shot’s safety and potential side effects.

Denmark lifts last curbs

Denmark will remove the last of its virus restrictions after the Nordic country’s hospitals proved able to handle a surge in cases, the Jyllands-Posten newspaper reported, citing people in the government it didn’t identify.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is due to unveil a plan to end the lockdown on Wednesday at a presentation in Copenhagen, according to the newspaper.

EU travel rules to focus on vaccinations

The European Union is aiming to make travel within the bloc easier by adopting a new system of Covid-related travel rules based more on a person’s vaccination status than on where they are coming from.

Travellers with a valid digital Covid certificate — showing vaccination, recovery from the disease or a recent test — shouldn’t be subject to additional restrictions, following recommendations adopted by EU member states on Tuesday. Exceptions will still be allowed for travellers from particularly high-risk zones.

Delta spreading in Beijing 

Beijing is finding Delta spreading more widely than Omicron, despite the latter being a more infectious variant.

The cluster set off by Omicron has appeared to be disrupted, with only six infected and no further reported in the past two days, while a Delta cluster originating from a cold chain storage facility continues to fester, with 12 more infections reported in the 24 hours until 4pm on Tuesday, officials said at a briefing.

That brings total infections since earlier this month to 67 in the Chinese capital, which will host the Winter Olympic Games next month.

Israeli panel recommends fourth shot

A panel of Israeli health experts has recommended offering a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine to all adults aged 18 and over.

The dose would be administered only to those who received the vaccine at least five months earlier or recovered from coronavirus at least five months before, the Health Ministry said in a text message. The ministry’s director-general, Nachman Ash, would have to approve the recommendation for it to go into effect.

Goldman imposes vaccine mandate 

Goldman Sachs’ vaccine mandate for Hong Kong employees will come into effect on 24 February, according to an internal memo confirmed by a spokesman.

Hong Kong is in the process of implementing a vaccine mandate, obliging people to have been inoculated before they can enter restaurants and other public venues.

New Zealand plans phased reopening

New Zealand will proceed with plans to start a phased reopening of the border from the end of February as the infectious Omicron variant starts to take hold in the community.

The initial phase will allow New Zealanders living in Australia to return home and undertake self-isolation rather than a lengthy stay in a managed isolation hotel. In December, the government pushed out the original start date of 17 January, citing the need for more people to be boosted to combat Omicron.

Hong Kong hotel quarantine criticised

Hong Kong’s onerous system of hotel quarantine for travellers was meant to stop infection from seeping into a largely virus-free city. Instead, it’s become a spreading ground, seeding an Omicron outbreak that’s led to thousands of people being locked down and calls for reform of the controversial setup.

An outbreak at a public housing estate of more than 200 cases confirmed and preliminarily positive cases on Monday has been 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.

Covid outbreak hits ship heading to Tonga

Almost two dozen crew on board an Australian Navy ship on its way to provide relief to the Pacific island of Tonga have been diagnosed with coronavirus, potentially hampering aid efforts to the Covid-free nation.

Australia’s defence minister, Peter Dutton, said 23 personnel on the HMAS Adelaide had been infected, in an interview on Sky News on Tuesday. The ship left from Brisbane on Friday with a 600-strong crew as well as humanitarian and medical supplies to assist Tonga in the wake of a volcanic eruption.

South Korea sets record as Omicron spreads

South Korea’s daily virus cases exceeded 8,500 for the first time due to a surge in the Omicron variant, which now accounts for more than half of all infections, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said. Deaths and severe hospitalisations have been declining despite the spike in cases.

Health authorities and experts have warned the cases may jump to 20,000-30,000 a day in February and March if Omicron infections continue the current growth rate. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum advised against travel during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Vietnam further eases entry rules

Foreigners and Vietnamese holding permanent or temporary residence cards, visas and visa exemptions may enter Vietnam without prior approval from government authorities or undergoing pre-clearance procedures, the country’s Department of Immigration said in a statement on its website.

Foreign tourists who want to visit Vietnam are still restricted to special tours approved by the government. DM/MC

With assistance from Ainslie Chandler, Swati Pandey, Sangmi Cha, Jeff Sutherland, Ben Westcott, Jinshan Hong, James Mayger, Dong Lyu, Cathy Chan, Kati Pohjanpalo, Claudia Maedler, Skylar Woodhouse, Shelly Banjo and Birgit Jennen.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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