Saudi Arabia confirmed its first case of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant as countries tightened restrictions on international travel in an attempt to slow its spread.
Saudi’s state-run SPA quoted a source from the health ministry as saying the infected individual – a Saudi national who has been isolated – had travelled back from a North African country.
The announcement came as Ugur Sahin, the CEO of COVID-19 vaccine-maker BioNTech, said that while the Omicron variant could lead to more vaccinated people becoming infected, they would likely remain protected against severe illness.
Meanwhile, a panel of US health advisers narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck which could lead to authorisation later this week.
Scientists have been scrambling to learn more about the effects of the Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa last week.
It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged. But nations have rushed to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from Southern Africa, despite the World Health Organization’s call for “rational” measures in response to the new strain.
Here are the latest updates:
21 mins ago (10:35 GMT)
Uzbekistan restricts travel over Omicron concerns
Uzbekistan said it would suspend flights with Hong Kong, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Tanzania and South Africa from December 3 to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
The Central Asian nation’s health ministry said residents of those nations and people who have recently visited them would be unable to enter Uzbekistan, while those arriving from Egypt, Israel, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Czech Republic would be quarantined for 10 days.
1 hour ago (09:41 GMT)
Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
World Health Organization member states agreed to start work on building a new international accord setting out how to handle the next global pandemic.
Countries adopted a resolution at a special meeting in Geneva, launching the process that should result in a new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response coming into force in 2024.
“The text before us is the product of extensive discussions, of frank exchanges and of compromises,” said Australia’s ambassador Sally Mansfield, who co-chaired the working group. “Let us move forward together in solidarity to do the hard work that we have ahead of us.”
2 hours ago (08:54 GMT)
Saudi Arabia confirms first case of Omicron variant
Saudi Arabia said it has detected its first case of the new Omicron variant, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
Quoting a source from the health ministry, SPA said the infected individual has been isolated along with those who were in close contact with them.
It is the first Omicron variant case reported in the Gulf region. The health ministry said the person was a Saudi national who had travelled from a North African country, without giving further details.
The Saudi ministry urged people to complete their vaccination and ordered travellers to respect self-isolation and testing rules.
2 hours ago (08:43 GMT)
Danish concert-goer confirmed infected with Omicron variant
A person infected with the Omicron variant participated in a large concert on Saturday, the Danish Patient Safety Authority said.
The person was one of 1,600 people attending a concert with Danish DJ Martin Jensen in the northern city of Aalborg on Saturday.
Denmark has already confirmed four cases of the new Omicron variant, all of whom had travelled to South Africa.
A spokesperson for the Danish Patient Safety Authority could not verify if the infected concert-goer had been travelling.
2 hours ago (08:42 GMT)
EU launch of Pfizer/BioNTech COVID shot for younger children brought forward to Dec 13
The European Union-wide roll-out of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine version for five- to 11-year-old children will begin December 13, one week earlier than previously planned, Germany’s health ministry said.
Germany is due to receive 2.4 million doses for use as a two-dose regimen, the ministry said, adding it has commitment on the new date from the manufacturer.
“Given the current pandemic situation, this is good news for parents and children. Many are awaiting this eagerly,” acting health minister Jens Spahn said in the statement.
2 hours ago (08:41 GMT)
First two cases of Omicron variant detected in Brazil
The first two cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Brazil, which could also be the first cases in Latin America.
Samples from two Brazilians who tested positive for the variant through the renowned Albert Einstein Hospital would be sent for confirmatory laboratory analysis, a statement from Brazil’s health surveillance agency Anvisa said.
According to the news portal G1, the cases involve Brazilian missionaries living in South Africa.
3 hours ago (08:09 GMT)
UK urges people to book booster shots as Omicron cases grow
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid urged people to book a COVID-19 booster shot as he said there were 22 confirmed cases of the Omicron virus variant in the country.
Javid said the government believed a booster campaign would help protect against severe disease from Omicron, even if it turns out that vaccines are not as effective against the variant as previous strains of the disease.
Britain plans to offer all adults a COVID-19 booster shot by the end of January. Government data shows 81 percent of the population aged over 12 have had two doses of the vaccine while 32 percent have had a booster shot or third dose.
“Our best form of defence still remains our vaccines,” Javid said. “It’s possible of course, it’s possible that it might be less effective. We just don’t know for sure yet. But it’s also very likely that it will remain effective against serious disease.”
3 hours ago (08:06 GMT)
Closing borders not the ‘answer’, WHO’s Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi says
Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi of WHO Africa said they’re trying to warn other countries of the “emergency that might be coming through”, adding that shutting down borders is not the answer.
“Those countries, they’re going to … try their level best to get prepared,” she said.
“But closing the borders, or banning certain countries from entering – I don’t think is the answer.”
3 hours ago (07:55 GMT)
‘If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated’: Anthony Fauci
Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease official, has urged those who are not vaccinated to get the jab, and those who are, to seek a booster shot.
“If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Fauci said. “Get boosted if you are vaccinated,” he added.
He also called on people to continue to use the “mitigation methods”, such as wearing “masks, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces”.
“Choose outdoors rather than indoors, keep your distance, wash your hands, test and isolate if appropriate,” he added.
3 hours ago (07:42 GMT)
France extends suspension of flights from high-risk southern African countries
France has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the Omicron variant, said French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune.
“As of this morning, we have extended the suspension of flights from seven southern African countries until Saturday,” Beaune told RTL radio.
3 hours ago (07:41 GMT)
Air travelers to US set to face tougher COVID-19 testing
The US is moving to require that all air travelers entering the country show a negative COVID-19 test performed within one day of departure in response to concerns about the new Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.
Currently, vaccinated international air travelers can present a negative test result obtained within three days from their point of departure. Nearly all foreign nationals must be vaccinated to enter the United States. Unvaccinated travelers currently must get a negative COVID-19 test within one day of arrival.
The new one-day testing requirement would apply equally to US citizens as well as foreign nationals.
3 hours ago (07:29 GMT)
UK has 22 cases of Omicron, health secretary says
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were 22 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the United Kingdom, and that that figure was set to rise.
Javid added that he expected to know more about the variant within two weeks, as scientists work to understand what impact the new variant will have.
“At this point in time the case numbers are very low,” he told Sky News. “For the UK we’ve got 22 confirmed cases at the moment and that will go up, it will certainly go up.”
3 hours ago (07:28 GMT)
Japan halts new incoming flight bookings over Omicron strain
Japan has asked airlines to stop taking new incoming flight bookings over concerns about the Omicron variant, the transport ministry said.
“We have asked airlines to halt accepting all new incoming flight reservations for one month starting December 1,” a transport ministry official told AFP news agency, adding that existing bookings would not be affected.
4 hours ago (07:04 GMT)
German state reports four fully vaccinated people infected with Omicron
Four people in southern Germany have tested positive for the Omicron variant even though they were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the public health office in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said.
Three of the infected people returned from a business trip to South Africa on November 26 and November 27 respectively, and the fourth person is a family member of one of the returnees, the state public health office said.
“All four people are fully vaccinated. A mutation analysis carried out by the State Health Office has confirmed that all of them are infected with the new variant of concern,” the office said in a statement, adding that all four were in quarantine.
All four showed moderate symptoms.
4 hours ago (06:55 GMT)
Japan finds second case of Omicron variant: media
Japan has found a second person who has tested positive with the Omicron strain broadcaster FNN reported.
The first case of the variant was discovered on Tuesday.
The country expanded its travel ban covering all foreign inbound travellers – including temporary or permanent residents – from South Africa and nine nearby countries beginning on Thursday.
4 hours ago (06:47 GMT)
Nigeria confirms Omicron cases
Nigeria confirmed two cases of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant were detected among travellers who arrived in the country last week from South Africa.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) also said retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed cases among passengers to Nigeria had identified the mutation among a sample collected in October. It did not provide further details.
“Given the highly likely increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, it is imperative to put in place measures to curb community transmission,” the NCDC said in a statement.
5 hours ago (06:06 GMT)
Malaysia to ban travellers from countries with Omicron cases
Malaysia said it will temporarily ban the entry of travellers from countries that have reported cases of the Omicron variant or are considered high-risk, its health ministry said.
It will also delay plans to set up so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with those countries, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said.
5 hours ago (06:06 GMT)
UK reports new cases
The United Kingdom reported eight new cases of the Omicron variant, taking the total number to 13.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a new COVID-19 lockdown was unlikely despite worries about the new variant.
5 hours ago (06:02 GMT)
US panel backs first-of-a-kind COVID-19 pill
A panel of US health advisers narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorisation of the first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel voted 13-10 that the antiviral drug molnupiravir’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy.
“I see this as an incredibly difficult decision with many more questions than answers,” said panel chair Dr Lindsey Baden of Harvard Medical School, who voted in favour of the drug. He said the FDA would have to carefully tailor the drug’s use for patients who stand to benefit most.
Molnupiravir has already been authorised for use in the United Kingdom.