India reports first Omicron case: Virus Update

India reports first Omicron case: Virus Update

Singapore, South Korea, Greece, Finland and Ghana also see new cases

Students apply finishing touches to paintings made to create an awareness against the new coronavirus Omicron variant in Mumbai on Nov 29 this year. (Reuters photo)
Students apply finishing touches to paintings made to create an awareness against the new coronavirus Omicron variant in Mumbai on Nov 29 this year. (Reuters photo)

Omicron continued its worldwide spread. India reported its first cases of the variant, but one prominent expert said it may not be as deadly as the earlier Delta surge in the country. Singapore, South Korea, Greece, Finland and Ghana also reported new Omicron cases.

In the US, New York became the fourth state to confirm cases of the Omicron variant, all five in the New York City metropolitan area. Los Angeles International Airport said it will make rapid Covid tests free for all international arrivals.

Alphabet Inc’s Google has delayed its return-to-office plans for workers in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Almost two dozen municipalities in Norway, including Oslo, are requiring remote work, and Switzerland is considering a similar measure. 

Google, Apple delay return-to-office plans

Alphabet Inc’s Google has pushed back the date it will require employees to return to offices in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, executives told employees on Thursday.

Even before Omicron cases were reported in the US, Apple Inc also postponed the return of corporate staff to its Cupertino, California, headquarters from January to Feb 1. 

Companies sticking with their January plans to bring workers back may find their hands tied.

Switzerland is considering a work-from-home mandate as part of its virus response plans. Working from home is also now a required for part of the week in Oslo and 21 other Norwegian municipalities.

Omicron probably less deadly for India

The new variant is likely to be less lethal in India than the Delta-led virus wave earlier this year, given the existing widespread exposure to Covid-19 and reasonably high vaccination rates, one of the country’s prominent epidemiologists said in a Bloomberg TV interview Thursday.

If Omicron proves effective in getting past immune defences, that assumption might change, said Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy.

India confirmed two cases of the Omicron variant in middle-aged males in southern state of Karnataka, home to the nation’s Silicon Valley.

New York reports Omicron as cases surge

New York State has identified five cases of Omicron, governor Kathy Hochul said Thursday, amid a surge of infections overall.

New York reported 11,300 new Covid-19 cases, the most since January, as dozens of hospitals neared capacity.

As of Thursday, 56 hospitals in the state had a bed capacity of 10% or less, according to the state health department.

All of the Omicron cases are in the New York City metropolitan area. Mayor Bill de Blasio also urged anyone who attended an annual four-day anime convention in the city to get tested after Minnesota reported a positive Omicron case in one of the attendees.

LA to offer tests for international arrivals

Los Angeles International Airport will start offering free rapid Covid-19 tests for passengers arriving from overseas destinations, increasing its vigilance in the wake of the Omicron cases in the US.

The tests are recommended for all international arrivals but will be done on a voluntary basis, said Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director. "We have the capacity to test a lot of people," she told reporters. "They are going to make a big difference."

With the return of 1.7 million students and staff after the holidays, the county is expected to keep its indoor masking mandate at schools.

Auckland’s freedom portends wider spread

New Zealand’s largest city has exited lockdown after 107 days, bringing relief to its residents but also signalling the likely spread of Covid-19 to the rest of the country.

Auckland cafes, bars and restaurants opened their doors Friday for the first time since Aug 17, albeit only to vaccinated guests, as the government’s new Covid Protection Framework takes effect nationwide. 

"Life is going to start to feel a lot more normal," Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkinstold Radio New Zealand. However, he said, "Covid is going to spread."

Variant virulence study due next week

Scientists working with the provincial government of Gauteng, the South African province that’s the epicentre of the outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant, aim to complete a study into its virulence by Tuesday. 

"Is this variant less virulent? We don’t have the answers to that yet,"  Bruce Mellado, the chairman of the Gauteng Premier’s Advisory Committee, said in an interview Thursday. "Our advisory committee is doing it as we speak. We will most likely have a presentation to the command council, behind closed doors, on Tuesday."

Biden plans tests, vaccines to fight US surge

US President Joe Biden called on health providers to expand the availability of vaccines and booster shots in a speech at the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, with cases rising in several states.

The seven-day average of hospital admissions with confirmed Covid-19 has climbed 18% in the past two weeks to 6,691, the highest since Oct 13, according to US Department of Health and Human Services data. The numbers are ticking higher in 39 states and the nation’s capital. 

Mr Biden said his administration would also make free home Covid tests more available by requiring insurers to pay for them and "accelerate efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world."

Study: Omicron reinfection risk higher

The risk of reinfection from the Omicron coronavirus variant is three times higher than for any previous variant, according to a South African study of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The finding provides evidence of Omicron’s "ability to evade immunity from prior infection", according to the authors, Juliet Pulliam of the South African Center for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis and Harry Moultrie of the National Center for Communicable Diseases.

Oslo tightens curbs after one case

Home office will now be required for part of the week in Norway’s capital and 21 other municipalities, while face masks must be worn in shops, public transport, bars and restaurants, Health and Care Services Minister Ingvild Kjerkol told reporters on Thursday.

Bars will have to serve customers at tables, guests will need to register to receive notices of infection exposure and limits will be placed on events held inside.

Germany’s unvaccinated face restrictions

Germany imposed nationwide restrictions on people who aren’t vaccinated against Covid-19 and limited attendance at soccer games and other public events to check a brutal surge in infections.

In one of her final acts as chancellor, Angela Merkel held talks with her incoming successor, Olaf Scholz, and Germany’s 16 regional premiers on Thursday, where they agreed on new curbs including allowing only people who are vaccinated or recovered into restaurants, theaters and non-essential stores.

The officials also backed a plan to make Covid shots mandatory, saying that the lower house of parliament would vote on it soon. Mr Scholz said he expects the measure to pass. 

Singapore detects imported cases

Singapore has detected two imported cases who tested preliminary positive for the Omicron variant, after both individuals arrived on a flight from Johannesburg.

They were isolated upon arrival in the island state on Dec 1 and had not interacted in the community. Both individuals, who tested negative during their pre-departure tests, are fully vaccinated and have mild symptoms. 

Glaxo’s treatment effective

GlaxoSmithKline Plc said its Covid-19 antibody treatment appears to be effective against the Omicron variant in early testing.

Lab tests of the mutations found in the variant showed the drug is still active against the virus, Glaxo said. The drugmaker is now conducting in-vitro testing to confirm the response against a combination of all the Omicron mutations.

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