EU reports mild Omicron symptoms; South Africa registers 4,373 new cases

South Africa registered 4,373 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 2,968,052. A further 21 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 89,843. A total of 25,619,891 people have been vaccinated.

EU reports mild Omicron symptoms; South Africa registers 4,373 new cases
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The European Union has recorded at least 44 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in 11 countries, though it said all of the people infected are asymptomatic or showing only mild symptoms.

The current generation of vaccines probably will still protect against severe disease in people infected by the variant, BioNTech Chief Executive Officer Ugur Sahin said. Oxford University said there’s no evidence Omicron defeats the vaccine it developed with AstraZeneca. That contrasted with statements from shot-maker Moderna, which predicted vaccines will struggle with Omicron. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering tightened travel recommendations and rules. Germany took a step closer toward making vaccinations compulsory.

The United Arab Emirates topped Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, while European nations accounted for eight of the biggest drops this month. Austria plummeted 31 places after it became the first on the continent to re-enter a national lockdown. 

EU reports mild Omicron symptoms; South Africa registers 4,373 new cases
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Key developments

 Texas border hotspot sees ICU beds dwindle 

The Texas border town of El Paso is running out of intensive care unit beds as virus cases surge less than a year after the region became one of the state’s worst hotspots.

The El Paso area’s ICU wards had room for just two adults and five children in a region with almost 900,000 residents, state health department figures showed. Covid-19 cases accounted for more than 15% of overall hospitalisations for a third consecutive day, making it Texas’s hardest-hit trauma service area.

Capacity to handle the sickest patients also are being stretched in Amarillo in the Panhandle region of far north Texas. The region that’s home to meatpacking plants that were ravaged by the virus last year had zero paediatric ICU beds available for an area with a population of more than 400,000. Available adult ICU capacity stood at 14 beds, state figures showed.

Finland tightens restrictions 

Finland is set to mandate social and healthcare staff to take vaccinations against the coronavirus and plans to widen the use of Covid passports beyond bars and restaurants, Krista Kiuru, the minister overseeing the pandemic response efforts, told reporters in Helsinki on Tuesday. 

The government also told regional authorities to boost test-and-trace efforts and to recommend remote work in areas where the virus is spreading, she said.

Finland has already ordered bars to stop alcohol sales at 5pm unless they require customers to present a Covid passport, and the Helsinki region last week recommended a return to remote work as well as widespread mask use.

US may tighten travel rules  

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering tightened travel recommendations and rules as health officials try to slow the Covid-19 Omicron variant’s entry to the US.

The agency is looking at measures such as narrowing the testing window for travellers into the country and adding quarantine requirements in certain cases, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Tuesday on a call with reporters. It’s also expanding surveillance programmes at four major airports to test for Covid from specific international arrivals.

Germany moves towards mandatory shots 

Germany took a step closer towards making Covid-19 vaccinations compulsory as the incoming chancellor threw his support behind the move, part of a tougher line by European leaders as the pandemic spirals out of control.

Olaf Scholz called for a parliamentary vote on the step before the end of the year, saying on Tuesday that he would allow lawmakers to make the decision.

Ireland to require negative test for arrivals 

Ireland will require all people arriving from abroad to provide a negative Covid-19 test starting on Friday, including those arriving from Great Britain, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Travellers arriving into Ireland must provide a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before travel or a negative antigen test taken no more than 48 hours ahead, said the person, who asked not to be named as the information is not yet public. Unvaccinated people must provide a PCR test, they said. A formal announcement may come later today.

Switzerland considers work-from-home rule 

Switzerland is considering reintroducing a work-from-home mandate as part of policies to tackle the latest wave of the coronavirus.

The government is in talks with regional authorities on a number of options, including forcing the unvaccinated to work from home. Another option is to require workers in indoor settings to wear masks.

Authorities may increase the use of the Covid certificate, which shows if someone has been vaccinated, tested or recovered.

Also up for debate is reducing the number of people allowed at private gatherings without a certificate and cutting the time period under which Covid tests are valid to 24 hours, in the case of rapid antigen tests. Any measure should end on January 24.

BioNTech says the vaccinated are probably protected 

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus could lead to more infections among vaccinated people, but they will most likely remain protected from a severe course of illness, Dow Jones reported, based on an interview with the inventor of one of the first Covid-19 vaccines.

While the new variant might evade the antibodies generated in reaction to the vaccine, the virus is likely to remain vulnerable to immune cells that destroy it once it enters the body, BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin said.

Merck says pill likely to fight Omicron 

Merck expects its Covid-19 antiviral molnupiravir is likely to be active against the Omicron variant, based on the treatment’s mechanism of action and currently available genomic information, according to a Tuesday statement from the drugmaker.

However, Merck hasn’t yet done specific research studying the antiviral’s effect against Omicron. The company has previously found that the drug works for the Gamma, Delta and Mu variants. 

Studies of the antiviral have found that the pill reduced the risk of hospitalisation or death for individuals with mild to moderate disease by 30%. 

Europe finds only mild, asymptomatic cases 

The European Union has recorded at least 44 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in 11 countries, but so far all of those are asymptomatic or people with mild symptoms, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“So far, no severe cases or deaths have been reported among these cases,” the ECDC said Tuesday in an update on the variant, based on information from public sources.

It added that Omicron cases have also been identified in nine additional countries and territories. 

Earlier, the European Medicines Agency said it would use expedited procedures to approve new vaccine versions in three to four months should the current ones prove insufficient to fight off Omicron.

Oxford University can rapidly update vaccine 

The University of Oxford said it can quickly update its Covid-19 vaccine if necessary. 

“Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different,” the university said. 

Greece to fine some unvaccinated people 

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced mandatory Covid-19 vaccination for all Greeks above 60 years of age. Those who refuse will have to pay a fine of €100 for each month they don’t get jabbed, starting on January 16.

Drug challenges flagged 

Preliminary tests indicate Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ antibody drug cocktail loses effectiveness against Omicron, Dow Jones reported, citing the company. Separate testing of an authorised antibody drug cocktail from Eli Lilly indicates it isn’t as effective against the variant, DJ cited outside scientists as saying. 

EU could clear Omicron shot in three to four months 

The European Medicines Agency would use expedited procedures to approve new versions of vaccines to address the Omicron variant should the current ones prove insufficient to fight it off.

Emma Cooke, the agency’s director, told the European Parliament that regulatory approval could be completed in three to four months from when the companies are ready to move forward, but that testing is ongoing to evaluate how the variant responds to the current vaccines.

German leader wants lockdown for the unvaccinated 

Germany’s incoming vice-chancellor called for a nationwide “lockdown for the unvaccinated” to check the latest surge in infections.

Ahead of Tuesday’s talks between federal and regional officials on pandemic strategy, Robert Habeck, a co-leader of the Greens, said only people who are inoculated or recovered should be allowed into non-essential stores and “public settings” across the country, rather than just in virus hotspots.

 Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz expressed support for a general vaccination mandate in discussions with state leaders, Bild reporter Paul Ronzheimer said, without specifying where he got the information.

Moderna sees variant challenge 

Existing vaccines will be less effective at tackling Omicron than earlier strains of Covid-19 and it may take months before pharmaceutical companies can manufacture new variant-specific jabs at scale, Moderna Chief Executive Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times.

The high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, and the rapid spread of the variant in South Africa, suggested the current crop of vaccines may need to be modified next year, Bancel said. 

Bancel said data giving an indication of how the existing vaccines perform against the variant should become available within two weeks. Moderna said last week that it has already been studying booster shots that were designed to anticipate mutations and will rapidly advance a candidate targeting this new strain specifically.

Omicron lands in Japan 

Japan has found its first case of the Omicron variant, with a man who returned from Namibia confirmed to have been infected, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said. 

SA unions mull over vaccine mandates 

The Federation of Unions of South Africa has endorsed the government’s plans to investigate the feasibility of making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory and barring unvaccinated individuals from accessing specific facilities and areas.

“Countries will continue to renew their travel bans until South Africa’s vaccination rate increases significantly to between 70% and 90% of the population, pushing the hospitality and tourism sectors further into the doldrums,” Fedusa said.

Two of the biggest union groupings in South Africa have now endorsed the idea of investigating the use of mandates for vaccinations; their backing gives the government a stronger footing if it does decide to mandate shots for certain industries and areas. 

Singapore border tests 

Singapore is stepping up testing at its border to stave off the new Omicron variant and will freeze its so-called vaccinated travel lanes that allow entry for fully inoculated people. Any further relaxation on social distancing measures will also be halted, officials said during a briefing on Tuesday, just as rules were recently eased to allow five people to gather.

China’s Omicron diagnostics 

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has come up with a diagnostic method for detecting the Omicron variant, China’s National Health Commission said. It is monitoring genomes of imported infections to help it track any incursion of the variant in China early. 

The country added 21 local confirmed cases to its Covid tally on Monday and said all these local cases were in Inner Mongolia. DM

– With assistance from Chris Bourke, Iain Rogers and Joe Carroll.

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