Omicron spreads; threat of new variant questioned: Virus Update

Omicron spreads; threat of new variant questioned: Virus Update

Pedestrians wearing protective masks make their way at the Ameyoko shopping district in Toky on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)
Pedestrians wearing protective masks make their way at the Ameyoko shopping district in Toky on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 continued to spread globally, with new infections discovered in countries including the US, Norway, Ireland and South Korea.

Australia’s chief medical officer said there is no indication that Omicron is deadlier than other Covid strains, as all cases reported so far are very mild or have shown no symptoms at all.

The World Health Organization’s chief scientist said vaccines will likely protect against severe cases of the variant. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to Joe Biden, said fully-vaccinated Americans should proceed with year-end holidays. 

A growing cluster of Covid-19 cases in China’s Inner Mongolia is spreading further afield, with a connected infection found in Harbin in the country’s far northeast.

Japan backtracked on a decision to suspend all inbound flight reservations, sowing confusion among travelers. Indonesia extended quarantine times for arrivals and banned government officials from overseas travel.

South Africa in talks for pills

South Africa is in talks with Pfizer Inc and Merck & Co to gain access to their Covid-19 treatment pills as the Omicron variant spreads across the country and cases almost double.

South Africa wants one of them to potentially produce the therapeutics domestically, said Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-general in the Department of Health.

Enjoy the holidays, Fauci says

The arrival of the highly-mutated Omicron variant in the US shouldn’t cancel end-of-year holiday plans for fully vaccinated Americans, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor said during a CNN Global Town Hall on coronavirus.

"If you are vaccinated and your family is vaccinated, enjoy the holidays," said Anthony Fauci, the head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "I would not do anything different than what we had recommended," he said.  

Japan backtracks on flight ban

Japan won’t suspend all new incoming flight reservations and has asked airlines to take the needs of returning Japanese nationals into consideration, chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.

He was speaking after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said a blanket suspension on bookings announced Wednesday had caused some confusion.

New South Wales Omicron cases at 7

NSW Health confirmed a traveller has been infected with the Omicron variant, bringing total cases of the variant in the Australian state to seven, according to an emailed statement.

The person arrived on flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney on Nov 23 and is isolating in special health accommodation with family.

Inner Mongolia outbreak grows 

China reported 53 new local cases in Inner Mongolia’s Hulunbuir region, while an infection linked to the cluster was detected in Harbin in the country’s northeast, showing it has spread to other provinces. 

Harbin city government offered incentives of 10,000 yuan ($1,570 or 53,000 baht) to people who request Covid tests and are found to be infected, aiming to encourage those who might be connected to the Inner Mongolia flareup to report to municipal authorities.

Taiwan booster shots to health workers

Taiwan will offer booster shots to medical staff and other high-risk workers five months after receiving their second doses, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said. About 60,000 people are qualified. 

Separately, the government signed a deal with AstraZeneca to buy 5 million vaccine doses, TVBS reported, citing Chen. 

No evidence Omicron is deadlier

There’s no indication the Omicron variant of is more deadly than other strains, Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said in a recorded message. In fact, the opposite may be true, he said.

"Of the over 300 cases that have now been diagnosed in many countries, they have all been very mild or in fact had no symptoms at all," he said.

Many of the Omicron infections appearing around the world are in inoculated individuals, but there’s no evidence to suggest that existing Covid-19 vaccines don’t work against the variant.

Indonesia extends quarantine, bans trips

Indonesia is extending quarantine for travellers arriving from overseas to 10 days from seven days to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant, the leader of the pandemic response in Java and Bali said. The new rule will come into effect Friday. 

Indonesian government officials are also banned from overseas travel unless for urgent national business. 

Japan to shorten gap for third shot

To accelerate infection control amid concern over Omicron, Japan plans to shorten the period between second and third vaccine doses to six months from eight, Mainichi reported, citing an unidentified official.

UK secures vaccines to counter Omicron

The UK agreed to buy an additional 114 million Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine doses to secure supplies following the emergence of Omicron.

The contracts, which were accelerated due to the new strain and are for delivery in 2022 and 2023, include access to modified vaccines if they’re needed to tackle Omicron and other future variants of concern, the Department of Health said in an emailed statement.

Avianca exits chapter 11

Avianca, one of Latin America’s biggest airlines, is emerging from bankruptcy protection after raising $1.7 billion in fresh investment. The carrier has "significantly" reduced debt and has more than $1 billion of liquidity, according to a regulatory filing. 

Korea may halt return to normal

South Korea is considering halting a "gradual return to normal life" and tightening social-distancing rules as infections surge and Omicron cases are detected, DongA Ilbo newspaper reported.

Citadel offer for Hong Kong staff

Hedge fund Citadel Enterprise is offering its Hong Kong employees as much as HK$40,000 ($5,133 or 173,600 baht) to cover the cost of hotel quarantine stays after trips overseas, the South China Morning Post reported, citing unidentified people.

Italy approves Pfizer shot for children aged 5-11

Italy’s medicines agency Aifa approved the use of the Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech for children aged 5-11.

The approval follows that of the European Union’s drugs regulator last month. Two shots will be administered at a three-week interval, and the dosage for kids will be a third of that given to adults and adolescents. 

First Omicron case confirmed in US

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first US case of Omicron, in California. 

The infected individual was a traveller who returned from South Africa on Nov 22. The individual was fully vaccinated, had mild symptoms that are improving, is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive. All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative.

US praises global pandemic pact

US health officials praised a new global agreement to strengthen the world’s readiness for future pandemics.

The US will join other nations in a years-long process to negotiate new global rules meant to boost transparency and collaboration in response to health threats.

South Africa’s daily cases almost double

South Africa’s daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases almost doubled from Tuesday as the Omicron variant takes hold.

The country recorded 8,561 infections in the last 24 hours and a positivity rate of 16.5% on tests, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The Omicron variant was found in 74% of the 249 Covid-19 samples that were gene-sequenced in November, the institute said. The delta variant accounted for 22%, compared with 79% in October. Omicron was found in samples in five out of the country’s nine provinces.

WHO: Shots likely to stop severe Omicron

Vaccines will likely protect against severe cases of the Omicron variant, said Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist.

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