AS IT HAPPENED

WHO chief scientist urges 'not to panic' over Omicron as countries ramp up measures

A medical worker administers the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in Marseille, southern France on December 1, 2021.
A medical worker administers the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in Marseille, southern France on December 1, 2021. © Daniel Cole, AP

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan urged people on Friday not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant as various countries ramped up measures to contain it.

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The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa last week, and has since spread to dozens of countries worldwide. The WHO has warned that the new strain poses a “very high” global risk, and has urged governments to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups.

Read FRANCE 24’s live coverage of the day's events as they happened:

22:35 Paris time: France has 12 confirmed Omicron cases, up from 9

The French Health Ministry said late on Friday there were 12 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the mainland of France, up from nine reported earlier in the day.

The new variant could become the dominant strain of the virus in France by the end of January, according to the government's top scientific adviser.

France is currently grappling with a fifth wave of Covid, which has strained the country's hospital system.

22:10 Paris time: Canada reports 12 new Omicron cases

Canada has discovered a total of 12 cases of the new Omicron variant of Covid and severe illness trends across the country could start to rise again, public health officials warned.

The federal government said it backed a recommendation of a national advisory board on immunisations that all adults above 50 should receive a booster shot six months after completion of a vaccine series.

Ottawa announced last week it will require people arriving by air from all nations except the United States to take a Covid test, and it expanded a ban on travelers from southern Africa to cover 10 nations.

"The need for heightened vigilance remains, regardless of which variant is circulating," chief public health officer Theresa Tam told reporters. She announced 11 Omicron cases, all involving people who had recently traveled abroad.

21:40 Paris time: Mexico reports first Omicron case

Mexico announced its first case of the coronavirus Omicron variant, in a traveller from South Africa. But the government said it was not considering border closures as a counter-measure.

The variant was detected in a 51-year-old from South Africa with mild symptoms, under-secretary of health Hugo Lopez-Gatell Ramirez said on Twitter.

An epidemiologist by training, Lopez-Gatell Ramirez said closing borders and blocking the movement of people and goods "are not useful measures for containing variants." Vaccination was key to reducing Covid hospitalisations and deaths, he said.

"We call on you to remain calm and to continue taking measures to prevent infections" such as mask-wearing, social distancing and regular hand-washing, Lopez-Gatell Ramirez tweeted.

20:05 Paris time: Ireland tightens curbs as cases rise

Ireland said it will tighten Covid curbs over Christmas, including closing nightclubs and reintroducing social distancing in some settings, as infections rise and fears over the Omicron variant grow.

The new restrictions, to run from next Tuesday until January 9, include social distancing in all bars, restaurants and hotels, with hospitality outlets required to operate table service only.

As well as nightclubs closing, entertainment, cultural, community and sporting events must be kept at 50 percent capacity and guests will have to wear masks.

Meanwhile visits to private homes should be kept to a maximum of three other households at any one time.

Announcing the new measures, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin insisted the country was not "going back to the days of lockdowns".  

19:00 Paris time: Russia reports deadliest month of pandemic

Russia's Covid death toll has reached at least 578,020, the third worst in the world, according to Reuters calculations based on official statistics for October, the country's deadliest month so far.

Russia ranks behind the United States and Brazil with around 787,000 and 615,000 deaths respectively, according to Reuters calculations, having overtaken India in October.

Figures released on Friday by the official statistics agency Rosstat showed at least 74,893 people died from Covid or related causes in October, exceeding the previous peak of 51,044 in July.

The surge followed the start of the school year and was driven by the Delta variant and a slow vaccination rate, Russian authorities said. Many people are reluctant to trust the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine despite repeated appeals from President Vladimir Putin.

Russia imposed a week-long nationwide workplace shutdown at the start of November to curb infections. On Friday it reported 32,930 new cases and 1,217 deaths in the previous 24 hours - both down from November peaks, but still high.

The country has yet to report an Omicron case; Putin has told the government to draw up an action plan to fight it.

18:40 Paris time: Jab makers could make Omicron booster, Fauci says

Covid vaccine makers have contingency plans to deal with the Omicron variant, including a combination vaccine against the original version and the variant as well as a variant-specific booster dose, top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told reporters at a White House briefing.

The US government is working with Moderna, Pfizer, and J&J on multiple contingency plans, he added.

"One is to rev up the production of the vaccines that they already have. The next is to make, for example, a bivalent, where you have the vaccine against both the ancestral strain and the new variant, and the other is to make a variant-specific boost," said Fauci.

"They are now assuming they may have to do that and are being prepared for that," he continued.

18:25 Paris time: Europe surpasses 75 million Covid cases amid Omicron spread

Europe crossed 75 million coronavirus cases on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, as the region braces for the new Omicron variant at a time when hospitals in some countries are already strained by the current surge.

Over 15 countries in Europe have reported confirmed cases of the new variant that has rattled financial markets. The European Union's public health agency said on Thursday that the Omicron variant could be responsible for more than half of all Covid cases in Europe within a few months.

Even before the discovery of Omicron, Europe was the pandemic's epicentre with 66 out of every 100 new infections each day coming from European countries, according to a Reuters analysis.

Eastern Europe has 33% of the total reported cases and about 53% of the total reported deaths in Europe. It makes up 39% of the region's population.

18:00 Paris time: Omicron is in 38 countries but no deaths reported, WHO says

Omicron has been detected in 38 countries but there are no reported deaths so far from the new Covid variant, said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the virus.

A WHO spokesman told reporters that the UN health agency had "not seen reports of Omicron-related deaths yet".

17:00 Paris time: Belgium tightens curbs as cases peak

Belgium tightened its coronavirus restrictions for the third consecutive week on Friday to fight one of Europe's worst spikes of Covid cases, but stopped short of the strict curbs imposed in the neighbouring Netherlands or Austria.

"We cannot allow the train of infection that is thundering through our country to continue at its current pace," Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told a news conference.

With cases among children rising the most, De Croo said mask mandates will apply from age six. The current requirement to wear a mask is for those aged 10 years and older.

Primary schools will shut for Christmas and New Year holidays a week earlier and secondary schools will shift to a hybrid system, with half of classes from home.

By contrast, bars and restaurants in Belgium, home to EU institutions and NATO, will still be able to open until 11 pm, six hours later than in the neighbouring Netherlands.

16:30 Paris time: Dutch say passengers from S. Africa have Covid despite pre-test flight

Dutch health authorities said on Friday they were worried that  some passengers arriving from South Africa in the past week were testing positive for Covid on arrival despite having been vaccinated and testing negative before their flight departure.

"It shows that the virus is spreading easily and that is worrying," said Bert van de Velden, director of the regional health authority for Kennemerland, which includes Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

"It is of the utmost importance that travellers are properly tested before they fly and that they let themselves be tested after arrival."

Hundreds of passengers arrive on flights from South Africa at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport weekly, and health authorities said about 9% of those who agreed to undergo voluntary testing on arrival - only a third of passengers agreed - turned out to have Covid.

Health authorities began conducting post-flight tests after a complete investigation into two flights from South Africa on November 26. Those flights were mid-air when the Dutch government introduced new travel restrictions in light of worries about the newly detected Omicron variant.

The more than 600 passengers on the flights were kept isolated and were carefully tested, and it emerged that 62 had Covid, of whom 14 had the Omicron variant.

15:25 Paris time: WHO says vaccine makers should prepare to adjust jabs

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a United Nations briefing in Geneva that vaccine makers should prepare for the likelihood of adjusting their products.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of Germany's BioNTech, which makes a Covid vaccine with Pfizer, told the Reuters Next conference the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly.

Sahin also said current vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.

Takeshi Kasai, the WHO's western Pacific director, told a media briefing that vaccines were the solution and that border controls could only buy time.

"People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don't have to change our approach."

15:20 Paris time: WHO chief scentist says not to panic

Speaking in an interview at the Reuters Next conference, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said: "We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation compared to a year ago."

She added that it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain. "Delta accounts for 99% of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it's not possible to predict."

14:10 Paris time: Swiss tighten restrictions amid Omicron worries

Switzerland will expand the requirement to wear masks and produce a certificate to prove a person is vaccinated or has recovered from the coronavirus, the government said.

Masks will have to be worn indoors wherever a certificate obligation applies, it said. The measures will go into effect on December 6.

"The Federal Council currently assesses the situation as very critical," the government said in a statement. "The emergence of the Omicron variant also poses new challenges for pandemic response."

Three cases of the Omicron variant have already been confirmed in Switzerland, according to the Federal Office for Public Health, with persons placed in isolation and their contacts quarantined.

The country of 8.7 million is also battling an increase in infections, with more than 96,000 cases confirmed in the last 14 days. November 29 saw the highest number of infections since the start of the crisis, with 11,340 cases reported.

14:00 Paris time: England’s rising cases led by Delta, not Omicron

The prevalence of Covid-19 cases in England rose to around 1 in 60 people in the week ending November 27, Britain's Office for National Statistics said – noting that this surge was led by the dominant Delta variant rather than the newly identified Omicron.

The prevalence was up from 1 in 65 reported the previous week, the ONS said, adding that 99 percent of all coronavirus infections that were sequenced were genetically compatible with the Delta variant.

"To date, we have not identified any infections compatible with the new Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) among our survey participants," the ONS said.

10:00 Paris time: South Africa sees spike in hospital admissions of young children amid spread of Omicron variant

Doctors in South Africa said Friday there had been a spike in hospitalisations among young children after Omicron swept through the country but stressed it was too early to know if they were particularly susceptible.

In the week since South Africa alerted the world of the new Covid variant, infections have spread faster than in the country's three previous waves.

The first cluster of cases centred around university students, and then spread quicky among young people who seem to have spread it to older people.

But scientists and health officials said they had seen increasing hospital admissions in children under five, along with higher positivity rates among children aged 10-14.

Wassila Jassat, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said: "We've seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, particularly in the under-fives," referring to hospitalisations.

"The incidence in those under-fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60," she told a news conference.

09:45 Paris time: France’s ‘fifth wave’ of Covid-19 could hit high point in mid-January, health minister says

French Health Minister Olivier Véran said the current wave of the country's Covid-19 epidemic could peak in late January, with a renewed strain put on the country's hospital system.

"The fifth wave is spreading quickly ... It has a very noticeable impact on the hospital system," Véran told France Info radio.

France reported on Thursday more than 45,000 new infections of Covid-19 for the third day running.

08:40 Paris time: Australia reports first locally transmitted Omicron cases

Australia on Friday reported three students at a Sydney school have tested positive for the Omicron coronavirus variant, the country's first cases of community transmission of the new strain.

Health officials said there were 10 additional suspected Omicron cases at the school that are urgently being confirmed, raising the spectre of widespread infection.  

The cluster comes despite a ban on noncitizens entering the country and restrictions on flights from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected.

New South Wales Health said the first case had "no overseas travel history or links to people with overseas travel history" raising the alarm.

Australia had previously detected several other Omicron cases, but all were found in incoming travellers who quarantined.

04:40 Paris time: How one French lab is identifying cases of the new variant

On Thursday, France confirmed the first two cases of the Omicron variant on its mainland, adding to a previous case identified on the overseas territory of Réunion. With our colleagues at France 2, Jean-Emile Jammine looks at how one French lab is sequencing Covid-19 samples to identify cases of the new variant.

04:15 Paris time: Nepal to ban travellers from eight African countries, Hong Kong

Nepal will ban the entry of travellers who have been in eight African countries or Hong Kong to curb the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, a government spokesman said on Friday.

The ban, which goes into effect at midnight on Friday, covers people who have been in or were transiting through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi and Hong Kong.

Travellers who have been to these countries in the past three weeks will also not be allowed to enter Nepal, and all other international visitors already in transit must spend seven days at their own cost in hotel quarantine, the government said in a statement.

“Nepali nationals are advised against non-essential foreign travel for fear of the new variant,” home ministry spokesman Phanindra Pokharel told Reuters.

Government employees and delegates to international conferences must obtain prior permission for their visits.

03:55 Paris time: Biden announces measures to combat Omicron variant as new cases detected in New York, Hawaii

Urging the nation – in particular his political rivals – to unite behind the strategy, Biden unveiled a raft of actions designed to tamp down Covid-19 in the coming months, as the Omicron variant spreads worldwide.

Ten cases of the new strain have so far been confirmed in the United States, including five in New York announced Thursday evening by state Governor Kathy Hochul, one in the Pacific island state of Hawaii and a second case in California.

The Hawaii case and one in Minnesota both involved residents with no recent international travel history, signaling the strain is already circulating inside the country.

“This is a case of community spread. The individual has no history of travel,” the Hawaii health department said in a statement about the island’s confirmed Omicron case.

Biden’s updated actions include the requirement that all inbound international travellers be tested within one day of flying. This will apply to all travellers, both American and foreign, regardless of vaccination status, a US official said.

For domestic travellers, Biden will announce he is extending a mask mandate on airplanes, trains and other public transport through mid-March.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters testing and vaccine requirements could eventually be added to domestic flights too. “Nothing is off the table,” she said.

In addition to his public rollout, Biden penned a column for the Friday edition of the large-circulation USA Today national newspaper to assuage Americans’ “unease” about the new variant and Covid-19 in general.

“We will beat it back with science and speed, not chaos and confusion – just as we did in the spring and again with the more powerful delta variant in the summer and fall,” the president wrote.

Biden and his aides have recently stressed there will be no return to mass shutdowns. But the White House also faces the challenge that many Americans are not receptive to Biden’s appeals for collective action.

Despite ever-more creative attempts to encourage people to get their shots, about 40 percent of the country have yet to be fully vaccinated, and booster rates are lagging too.

Biden said a surge in outreach on vaccines and booster shots was being launched, with a nationwide campaign targeting recipients of Medicare public health care. The government will team up with AARP, a large lobbying group representing people aged 50 and over.

At the other end of the age scale, the Biden administration will try to ensure that schools do not return to mass lockdowns.

“We’re expanding our efforts to vaccinate children, ages five and up,” said Biden. “For any parent worried about the Omicron variant or the Delta variant, get your child vaccinated at one of the 35,000 locations in the country.”

In another bolstering of existing policies, the White House will encourage the use of home testing kits by announcing that health insurance must cover 100 percent of the cost.

For those without health insurance, there will be an increase in the availability of free kits.

The kits currently sell for around $25, as opposed to being available either for free or at nominal costs among peer nations in Europe.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)

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