Coronavirus infections have begun rising again across the six Gulf Arab states after months of low or falling figures. The resurgence comes as the UAE is welcoming millions of visitors to the Expo 2020 Dubai world fair and other seasonal events.
As the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread around the world, AstraZeneca has said its booster is effective against the new coronavirus variant, citing data from an independent Oxford University lab study.
Two studies in the UK provided some early hints that Omicron may be milder than the Delta strain. Any reductions in severity will need to be weighed against the fact Omicron spreads much faster than delta and is more able to evade vaccines, the studies say.
Here are the latest updates:
Omicron wave forces Lufthansa to axe 33,000 flights
German national carrier Lufthansa will cut its winter flight plan by “around 10 percent” as the spread of the Omicron variant fuels uncertainty about travel, chief executive Carsten Spohr said.
“From the middle of January to February, we see a sharp drop off in bookings”, leading the airline to cancel “33,000 flights or about 10 percent” of its flights this winter, Spohr said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS).
“Above all we are missing passengers in our home markets of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium, because these countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic wave,” Spohr said.
Europe’s largest airline was currently running “about 60 percent” of flights compared with the pre-pandemic year 2019, carrying “roughly half” the number of passengers, the CEO said.
Zambia to introduce COVID-19 booster jabs next week
Zambia will introduce COVID-19 booster vaccines as it battles the respiratory disease which has infected over 200,000 people and killed more than 3,000, Health Minister Sylvia Masebo said.
The southern African nation also plans to start vaccinating children aged 12-17, who until now have not been eligible for the COVID-19 jab, Masebo said at a media briefing.
“Zambia will begin to administer the booster vaccines for COVID-19 commencing on 27th December, 2021,” Masebo said.
US FDA authorises Merck’s at-home antiviral COVID-19 pill
The US Food and Drug Administration authorised Merck & Co’s antiviral pill for COVID-19, after giving the go-ahead to a similar treatment from Pfizer Inc. a day earlier.
Merck’s drug, molnupiravir, developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, was shown to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by around 30 percent in a clinical trial of high-risk individuals early in the course of the illness.
The agency authorised the oral drug for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in adults who are at risk for severe disease.
UK government rules out new restrictions before Christmas
The British government said it won’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions until after Christmas.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said two studies suggesting omicron carries a significantly lower risk of hospitalisation than the previously dominant delta strain was “encouraging news.” But he said it was “not very clear yet … by how much that risk is reduced.”
The UK Health Security Agency is due to publish new data on omicron later Thursday. It follows two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, that found patients with omicron were between 20 and 68 percent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with delta.
GSK-Vir antibody COVID-19 therapy to be tested in large UK study
GSK and Vir Biotechnology’s antibody-based COVID-19 drug is being studied as a possible treatment for hospitalised patients in a large British study looking into coronavirus therapies, researchers said.
The recovery trial will test sotrovimab as the Omicron variant spreads, its website said, with an “urgent need to evaluate alternative therapies.”
Laboratory studies have shown that sotrovimab is effective against all mutations of Omicron, GSK said this month, citing new data from early-stage studies.
“We hope to begin testing sotrovimab next week,” said Peter Horby, joint chief investigator of recovery and an Oxford University professor. “We lack good antivirals, and hope that we will be able to add other antiviral treatments to the trial”.
Lebanon’s tourism ministry imposes new coronavirus restrictions
Lebanon’s tourism ministry ordered restaurants, hotels, fitness centres and entertainment venues to require visitors to present either a certificate of COVID vaccination or a negative PCR test before entering, it said in a statement.
The ministry said it is requiring such establishments to enforce the new rules until January 9.
Germany reports first death with Omicron variant
Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious disease confirmed the country’s first death due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The person was between the age of 60 and 79, the institute said.
There were 810 new Omicron cases reported, bringing the total number of cases with the more contagious variant to 3,198.
The only cases counted are those that are detected by a whole genome sequencing or a diagnostic suspicion based on a variant-specific PCR test.
Italy set to tighten COVID curbs to rein in infections
The Italian government will tighten restrictions in an effort to curb a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, including making mask wearing mandatory outdoors again, the prime minister’s office said.
Among other measures that look set to be approved when the cabinet meets later in the day are a reduction in the validity of COVID-19 health certificates, that give access to an array of places and services, to six months from nine months.
The statement said Italy was also considering closing discos and clubs up until New Year’s Eve.
Egypt’s central bank extends measures to ease pandemic impact
The Central Bank of Egypt said it had extended measures to ease the impact of the coronavirus until June 2022.
The measures that were previously announced included exempting customers from expenses and commissions related to making transfers in Egyptian pounds.
Malta tightens restrictions as COVID-19 cases spike
The Mediterranean islands of Malta became the latest European nation to tighten COVID-19 restrictions as virus numbers hit a new record for a second successive day.
Health Minister Chris Fearne said events where people could not be seated were being banned from December 27 while sports events would have to be held behind closed doors. All venues have to close by 1.00 a.m.
An open-air New Year’s Eve celebration in the capital, Valletta, was cancelled.
Fearne said all those aged over 18 will be able to apply for vaccine booster shots from Dec. 27, and vaccination certificates will be necessary for entry to most venues from January 17.
Spain’s Catalonia to reimpose curfew to fight COVID surge
Spain’s Catalonia will reimpose a night-time curfew starting Christmas Eve to fight a record spike in COVID-19 infections.
A court on Thursday approved with a request from Catalonia’s regional government to impose a nightly curfew between 1:00am and 6:00am. The measure will start on Friday and will last 15 days.
COVID-19 infections on the rise across Gulf states
Coronavirus infections have begun rising again across the six Gulf Arab states after months of low or falling figures, data from health ministries has shown.
The United Arab Emirates has seen a particularly sharp increase in COVID-19 infections since announcing the arrival of Omicron early this month, with 1,002 cases of coronavirus recorded on Thursday, up from 68 on December 2.
The resurgence comes as the UAE is welcoming millions of visitors to the Expo 2020 Dubai world fair and other seasonal events.
The Gulf’s most populous country, Saudi Arabia, registered 252 new infections on Thursday, up from daily tallies of around 50 recorded since late September.
Oman, Qatar and Bahrain are also seeing cases pick up, although less dramatically. Kuwait reported 143 new cases on Wednesday, its highest daily count since late August.
Omicron spreading in Italy, set to be dominant, health body says
The highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly in Italy, the National Health Institute (ISS) has said.
Preliminary data from a flash-survey showed the Omicron variant accounted for 28 percent of cases on December 20.
A previous survey on December 6 found Omicron to be present in just 0.19 percent of cases.
The government was expected to decide at a cabinet meeting later on Thursday on new measures to tackle the pandemic.
Putin hopes Russia will reach COVID-19 herd immunity in 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped Russia could vaccinate enough people to reach collective COVID-19 immunity next year, as he urged more Russians to get inoculated.
Speaking at his annual news conference on Thursday, Putin also complained about the lack of international recognition for Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am talking about the need for mutual recognition of vaccines and for these vaccines to be spread around the world as quickly as possible in as large a quantity as possible,” he said.
“Otherwise, we will not be able to cope with this problem globally.”
China’s Sinovac COVID-19 booster weaker against Omicron, study finds
Three doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine do not produce adequate levels of antibodies to fight the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, researchers from Hong Kong have said in a statement.
The analysis, conducted by researchers from the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, revealed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was more effective.
The statement issued on Thursday did not say how many samples were used in the analysis. It was unclear if the analysis had been peer-reviewed. Sinovac did not immediately issue a response.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have said their three-shot course was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test.
South Africa Omicron data should not be extrapolated to all countries, Africa CDC says
Data from South Africa suggesting the Omicron coronavirus variant is 70 to 80 percent less severe than Delta should be interpreted “with a lot of caution”, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has said.
“Let’s be careful not to extrapolate what we are seeing in South Africa across the continent, or across the world,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, told an online media briefing on Thursday.
A South African study published on Wednesday had found people with the Omicron variant in October and November were 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital than those diagnosed with another variant in the same period.
Nkengasong said that factors such as the young median age of the South African population could be playing a part in what was being observed in the country, and that differing vaccination rates between countries could also lead to different outcomes.
Bulgaria offers cash reward to boost vaccination rates among pensioners
Bulgaria will offer a cash reward to elderly people who get vaccinated against COVID-19, in an attempt to boost vaccination rates among the lowest in the European Union.
Bulgarian Minister Kiril Petkov, who took office this month, said on Thursday that every retired Bulgarian will get 75 levs ($43.40) in addition to their pension in the next six months when vaccinated with a first or second dose.
Pensioners who have already taken three shots will also be eligible for the add-on.
Only 27 percent of Bulgarian adults are fully vaccinated, compared with an average 68 percent in the EU.
South African health regulator approves Johnson & Johnson booster
South Africa’s health regulator has approved the use of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine for a second dose or booster, paving the way for the shot widely used in South Africa to shore up protection against the Omicron variant.
The South African Health Products Authority (SAPHRA) said in a statement on Thursday that it had approved J&J shots for use as a second dose or booster at least two months after the completion of the person’s primary vaccination, with either J&J’s single-shot course or another approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
The country already announced in December that it was preparing to offer people booster doses of both the Pfizer and J&J shots, but it did not specify when J&J boosters would be available.
German health minister expects virus surge around New Year’s
Germany is expecting a surge in coronavirus cases around New Year’s, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has said.
The country has largely been spared from the rapid wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant, unlike some other European countries.
“That will change around New Year and in the first week of January,” Lauterbach said on Thursday.
The government is urging Germans to limit their contacts over the holiday period and to get vaccinated, including with booster shots.
Official figures show 70.7 percent of the population have received a full course of vaccine, while 35 percent have had boosters.
China locks down city as COVID cases surge around the world
China has shut down a city of 13 million in a bid to extinguish a tiny COVID-19 outbreak and chase its zero-case goal, as other nations around the globe battled huge infection surges driven by Omicron.
China on Thursday locked down the northern city of Xi’an, home to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors, where Omicron has not yet been reported. Dozens of the less infectious Delta cases have been detected in the city in recent days.
The move is reminiscent of similar measures adopted in central city of Wuhan in January 2020, when the virus first emerged.
The Chinese government is attempting to maintain a zero-case strategy in advance of the Winter Olympics in February. Only one person per household is allowed leave home every two days to buy necessities, while non-essential businesses are closed.
Oxford study suggests AstraZeneca vaccine booster effective against Omicron
A three-dose course of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the Omicron coronavirus variant, the pharmaceutical company said on Thursday, citing data from an independent Oxford University lab study.
The results, yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, suggest neutralising levels against Omicron were similar to those against the virus’s Delta variant after two doses.
Antibody levels against Omicron after the booster shot were higher than antibodies in people who had been infected with and recovered naturally from COVID-19, the company added.
Read more here.
Australia reinstates COVID-19 curbs as Omicron cases jump
Australia has reintroduced COVID-19 curbs including mandated mask wearing indoors, capacity limits and QR code check-ins to cover most of the population, as daily infections hit a fresh record on Thursday.
Hospitalisations and deaths remained low, but the explosion of infections driven by the spread of the Omicron variant created a risk of healthcare workers being furloughed by testing positive, the authorities said.
“Today’s changes are modest, cautious and take a precautionary approach as we move through this holiday period to the end of January,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, who had steadfastly refused to re-introduce mandated indoor mask wearing, told reporters.
The country recorded more than 8,200 new cases, by far its biggest daily rise since the pandemic began, from a previous record of 5,600 a day earlier, mostly in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.
Australian state offers clues on Omicron variant
Hospital data from the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has offered tentative evidence the Omicron variant is milder than previous coronavirus strains.
Early admission figures suggest Omicron could be half as likely to put people in hospital as the Delta variant, according to an analysis by Andrew Lilley, an economist at Diem Association.
Lilley, a PhD candidate at Harvard University who created a “hazard rate” for admissions using official statistics on hospital stays, estimated the hospitalisation rate for COVID-19 had fallen from 6.9 percent to 3.6 percent in recent weeks as Omicron became the dominant strain in the state.
Although a growing body of evidence from South Africa, Denmark and UK shows Omicron results in milder disease, scientists are divided on whether that is due to the variant being inherently milder or because it is more often associated with breakthrough infections.
Read more here.
China expects surge in COVID cases due to Olympic Games
Organisers of the Beijing Winter Olympics said they expect a surge in COVID-19 cases in China due to foreigners arriving for the Games, and strongly urged participants to get vaccination boosters due to the spread of the Omicron variant.
“A large number of people from different countries and regions will come to China and the flow of people will increase. Consequently, a certain number of positive cases will become a high probability event,” Han Zirong, vice president and secretary-general of the Beijing organising committee, told a press briefing on Thursday.
The Games, set to run from February 4-20, will take place with all athletes and related personnel and staff in a “closed loop”.
China has all but shut its borders during the pandemic and will not allow overseas spectators.
South Korea reports deadliest day of pandemic as Omicron looms
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported on Thursday that the country has set a new record of 109 COVID-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, as officials warned that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could soon become the dominant strain.
In recent weeks, South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths after it significantly relaxed restrictions in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
Health officials said the number of patients in serious or critical conditions also hit a fresh high of 1,083, while an additional 6,919 people have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Delta variant is currently accounting for a vast majority of the newly reported cases in South Korea.
Philippines approves Pfizer vaccine for young children
The Philippines’s Food and Drug Administration has announced that it has granted an emergency use authorisation for use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for young children.
Chief regulator Eric Domingo made the announcement on Thursday as the country continues to ramp up its vaccination to cover children five to 11 years old.
An estimated 45 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated. The country has a population of more than 110 million.
US authorises Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill as Omicron surges
The United States has authorised Pfizer’s anti-COVID pill for high-risk people aged 12 and up, as a surge of cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron coronavirus variant threatened holiday plans and Americans struggled to find tests.
Paxlovid, which comprises two types of tablets, was granted an emergency use authorisation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a clinical trial showed it to reduce the risk of hospitalisations and deaths among at-risk people by 88 percent.
The US has spent $5.3bn procuring 10 million courses of the treatment, with the first 265,000 to be delivered in January and the rest by late August, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters.
About 150,000 Americans are getting infected every day, with 7,800 being hospitalised and 1,200 are dying, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.
The highly mutated Omicron variant accounts for 90 percent of all cases in some US regions, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters.
Scotland reports fewer COVID-19 hospitalisations with Omicron
In Scotland, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus appears less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalisation than Delta, according to an analysis of early data that was posted ahead of peer review on Wednesday.
The updated statistics agree with data released earlier on Wednesday from South Africa and the UK, also in advance of peer review.
At the University of Edinburgh, researchers suggested the risk of hospitalisation was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. The national investigation tracked nearly 152,500 patients diagnosed with COVID-19, including 22,205 infected with the Omicron variant. Half of the Omicron-infected patients were under the age of 40.
The number of Omicron patients who needed to be hospitalised was 68 percent lower than what the researchers would have expected, based on the rate of patients infected with Delta.
A separate study from the Imperial College London found people infected with the variant are around 20 percent less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the Delta variant, and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalised for a night or more.
Biden welcomes approval of Pfizer oral COVID-19 pill
United States President Joe Biden has welcomed the US authorisation of Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill — the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus — calling it “promising”.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised the drug for emergency use on Wednesday.
We received good news today in our fight against COVID-19. The FDA granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer antiviral pill, a promising new treatment option that will significantly reduce hospitalization and death as we battle the more transmissible Omicron variant.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 22, 2021
US expert Fauci warns against large gatherings
Top United States infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has warned against attending large gatherings during the holiday season, saying that they are not considered safe even for vaccinated people and those who have received a booster dose.
“There are many of these parties that have 30, 40, 50 people in which you do not know the vaccination status of individuals. Those are the kind of functions in the context of COVID — and particularly in the context of Omicron — that you do not want to go to,” Fauci said at a White House briefing.
“So to the extent possible, we urge you to stay away from those situations that could put you at a higher risk.”
Fauci had said that small family gatherings “in the setting of the home” remain safe for vaccinated people.