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WHO classifies renamed Covid strain, Omicron, 'variant of concern'

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WHO classifies renamed Covid strain, Omicron, 'variant of concern'

AFP
26 Nov 2021





GENEVA: The World Health Organization on Friday declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it Omicron.

"Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology... the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named Omicron," the UN health agency said in a statement.
 

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a shopper wearing a protective face masks looks at a poster for a coronavirus disease covid 19 vaccination centre installed inside a supermarket in brussels belgium august 30 2021 photo reuters

A shopper, wearing a protective face masks, looks at a poster for a coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccination centre installed inside a supermarket in Brussels, Belgium, August 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS


Belgium detects first case of new Covid variant in Europe

Infected person had developed symptoms 11 days after returning from a trip to Egypt via Turkey
Reuters
November 26, 2021


BRUSSELS: Belgium detected Europe's first confirmed case of the new variant of Covid-19 on Friday, and at the same time announced measures aimed at curbing a rapidly spreading fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a news conference that a case of variant B.1.1.529 had been found in an unvaccinated person who had developed symptoms and tested positive on Nov. 22.

"It is a suspicious variant. We do not know if it is a very dangerous variant," he said.

The new coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa, has caused global alarm, with the EU and Britain among those tightening border controls as researchers seek to find out if the mutation is vaccine-resistant.

Belgium's national reference laboratory said the infected person was a young adult woman who had developed symptoms 11 days after returning from a trip to Egypt via Turkey. She had flu-like symptoms, but no signs to date of severe disease.

None of her household members developed symptoms, but were being tested.

The new variant has emerged as Belgium and many other European countries are battling a surge in coronavirus infections.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced that nightclubs would close and bars and restaurants would have to shut by 11 p.m. for three weeks from Saturday, and have a maximum six people per table.


The strain on the health service was mounting, De Croo told a news conference, adding, "If we did not have such a high rate of vaccination today, we would be in an absolutely drastic situation".

A previous package of coronavirus restrictions imposed a week ago included enforcing wider use of masks and more working from home.
Under the new rules, private parties and gatherings are also banned, unless they are for weddings or funerals, and Belgians will have to do shopping on their own.

The country's health ministers will meet on Saturday to discuss accelerating the roll-out of vaccine booster doses.

Belgium, home to European Union institutions and the headquarters of NATO, has the sixth-highest number of cases per capita rate in Europe, behind the likes of Austria and Slovakia that have re-entered lockdowns.

The fatality rate though is just below the EU average, with 75% of the population vaccinated against Covid-19.
 

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Threat of new Covid variant Omicron causes worldwide scramble

AP
November 27, 2021

Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is racing to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fuelled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) panel named the variant “Omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant Delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

Omicron’s actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted Covid-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union (EU) in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning on Monday. Biden issued a declaration later on Friday making the travel prohibition official, with exceptions for US citizens and permanent residents and for several other categories, including spouses and other close family.

Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than five million people around the globe.

“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

Omicron has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant Omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the Beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3 per cent, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13pc.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.

Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions on Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked why the US was waiting until Monday, Biden said only: “Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.”

The White House said government agencies needed the time to work with airlines and put the travel limits into effect.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules".

She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”

“It’s a suspicious variant,” said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first EU country to announce a case of the variant. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.

Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was “a great concern” that “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations”.

He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.

Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced on Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers’ exact vaccination status.

After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway on Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.

“It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bug before, we’re catching it now,” said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6pc of people in Africa have been fully immunised against Covid-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up the spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses”.

The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing Covid-19 could be reversed.

“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have “not yielded a meaningful outcome”.

The US restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions will mirror an earlier pandemic policy that banned the entry of any foreigners who had travelled over the previous two weeks in the designated regions.

The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have travelled to southern Africa in the last two weeks.

The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals travelling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take three Covid-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective from Sunday.
 

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So, what do we know?

The variant has been named Omicron by the World Health Organization, following the pattern of Greek code-names like the Alpha and Delta variants.

It is also incredibly heavily mutated. Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said there was an "unusual constellation of mutations" and that it was "very different" to other variants that have circulated.

"This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected," he said.

In a media briefing Prof de Oliveira said there were 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body's cells.

Zooming in even further to the receptor binding domain (that's the part of the virus that makes first contact with our body's cells), it has 10 mutations compared to just two for the Delta variant that swept the world.
This level of mutation has most likely come from a single patient who was unable to beat the virus.

A lot of mutation doesn't automatically mean: bad. It is important to know what those mutations are actually doing.



How variants happen



But the concern is this virus is now radically different to the original that emerged in Wuhan, China. That means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain, may not be as effective.

Some of the mutations have been seen before in other variants, which gives some insight into their likely role in this variant.

For example N501Y seems to make it easier for a coronavirus to spread. There are some in there that make it harder for antibodies to recognise the virus and might make vaccines less effective, but there are others that are completely new.

Prof Richard Lessells, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said: "They give us concern this virus might have enhanced transmissibility, enhanced ability to spread from person to person, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system."
There have been many examples of variants that have seemed scary on paper, but came to nothing. The Beta variant was at the top of people's concerns at the beginning of the year because it was the best at escaping the immune system. But in the end it was the faster-spreading Delta that took over the world.

Prof Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, said: "Beta was all immune escape and nothing else, Delta had infectivity and modest immune escape, this potentially has both to high degrees."


Why do new variants of Covid-19 keep appearing? BBC's health reporter Laura Foster explains
Scientific studies in the laboratory will give a clearer picture, but answers will come more quickly from monitoring the virus in the real world.

It is still early to draw clear conclusions, but there are already signs that are causing worry.

There have been 77 fully confirmed cases in Gauteng province in South Africa, four cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong (which is directly linked to travel from South Africa). Israel and Belgium have also reported cases.

However, there are clues the variant has spread even more widely.

This variant seems to give quirky results (known as an S-gene dropout) in the standard tests and that can be used to track the variant without doing a full genetic analysis.

That suggests 90% of cases in Gauteng may already be this variant and it "may already be present in most provinces" in South Africa.

But this does not tell us whether it spreads faster than Delta, is any more severe or to what extent it can evade the immune protection that comes from vaccination.

It also does not tell us how well the variant will spread in countries with much higher vaccination rates than the 24% of South Africa that is fully vaccinated, although large numbers of people in the country have had Covid.
 

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Vaccine inequity and hesitancy made the Omicron variant more likely, scientists say

By Ivana Kottasová, CNN
November 28, 2021


(CNN) Many of the world's richest countries have spent the past year hoarding coronavirus vaccines, buying up enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times over and consistently failing to deliver on their promises to share doses with the developing world. The World Health Organization said the approach was "self-defeating" and "immoral."

It might be starting to bite. A new and potentially more transmissible variant of the virus likely emerged from a region with low vaccination rates.


The new variant, known as Omicron, was first identified in South Africa, although it is unclear whether it originated there or whether it was brought into the country from elsewhere in the region.

What scientists do know is that the virus is much more likely to mutate in places where vaccination is low and transmission high.

"It has probably emerged in another country and has been detected in South Africa, which has very, very good genomic sequencing capacity and capability ... it might well be a consequence of an outbreak, probably in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where there's not a huge amount of genomic surveillance going on and vaccination rate is low," Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told CNN in a phone interview.

Head said the emergence of new variants was "a natural consequence of being too slow to vaccinate the world."
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"We still have large unvaccinated populations, like we have across sub-Saharan Africa, and these are susceptible to big outbreaks," he said.

New variants of the virus that have caused problems in the past, Head added, have all emerged from places that experienced big, uncontrolled outbreaks, such as when the Alpha variant was first detected in the UK last December, or the Delta variant that was first found in India in February.

The Omicron variant is already spreading across the world -- as of Sunday, it has been detected in a number of countries including South Africa, Botswana, Australia, the UK, Germany, Italy and Belgium.

Many countries across the world have reacted to the news that South African scientists discovered the new variant by swiftly shutting their borders to travelers coming from countries in the region, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

But scientists and public health experts and advocates have warned that the huge gap between vaccination rates in the developed and developing world is likely to blame.

Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, a health research charity, said the new variant shows why the world needs to ensure more equitable access to vaccines and other public health tools.

"New variants are a reminder, if we needed it, that the pandemic is far from over," he said on Twitter. "Inequity is what will extend the pandemic."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 7.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Across the eight countries most affected by the travel bans related to the Omicron variant, the proportion of populations that have had at least one vaccine dose ranges from 5.6% in Malawi to 37% in Botswana.

The new Omicron variant is a pandemic gut check

Meanwhile, 63.9% of people in high-income countries have received at least one shot, according to WHO. In both the European Union and the United States, around 70% of people have received at least one shot, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While there are many reasons why a country might have a lower inoculation rate -- vaccine hesitancy remains a big problem in many countries, including South Africa -- Head said the lack of access to doses is a major problem.
"One contribution to this is the richer countries hoarding doses above and beyond of what we actually need and not following through on commitments to donate vaccines to COVAX or directly to countries themselves," he said.
COVAX is WHO's global vaccine-sharing program. As of last month, 537 million doses have been shipped through the scheme to 144 countries -- a small proportion of the 7.9 billion doses have been administered globally so far.



WHO's target of having 40% of population of all countries vaccinated by the end of 2021 and 70% by the middle of next year appears to be out of reach, with only two African countries -- Morocco and Tunisia -- currently on track to reach the goal.

Writing in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday, Gordon Brown, WHO's ambassador for global health financing and former UK Prime Minister, said that the world's "failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned -- and yet here we are."

"In the absence of mass vaccination, Covid is not only spreading uninhibited among unprotected people but is mutating, with new variants emerging out of the poorest countries and now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people in the richest countries of the world," he wrote.

Omicron concerns should spur millions of unvaccinated Americans to get their Covid shots, experts say
Head agreed with that assessment. "It's totally coming back to bite us ... until the pandemic is settled ... and that involves vaccinating every corner of the world, then it may well rebound, we saw that with Delta in India."


And Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said the reaction of the rich world to the news that South African scientists discovered a new variant was an example of its own selfishness.

"What I found disgusting and really distressing ... was not just the travel ban being implemented by the UK and Europe but that that was the only reaction, or the strongest reaction.

"There was no word of support that they're going to offer to African countries to help us control the pandemic and particularly no mention of addressing this vaccine inequity that we have been warning about all year and [of which] we are now seeing the consequences play out," he told CNN.
 

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Australia detects first Covid Omicron infections

Health officials in Australia have said they had detected the Covid Omicron strain in the country for the first time in two passengers who were tested after flying into Sydney from southern Africa, Reuters reports.

The eastern state of New South Wales' health authority said it had conducted urgent genomic testing and confirmed the new strain was present in the two people who landed in Sydney on Saturday.

Both passengers came from southern Africa and arrived in Australia on a Qatar Airways flight via Doha, NSW Health said in a statement. “The two positive cases, who were asymptomatic, are in isolation in the special health accommodation. Both people are fully vaccinated,” NSW Health said.
 

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(CNN) Omicron, the newest coronavirus variant, is also the quickest to be labeled a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization because of its seemingly fast spread in South Africa and its many troubling mutations.

Its emergence has already led to travel restrictions, high-level government meetings and promises by vaccine makers to start working on strain-specific vaccines just in case.

But it has a long way to go to take over from Delta, the variant that dominates all over the world. And the long list of variants that at first frightened the world before falling off the map can be a reminder that viruses are unpredictable.


Here's a look at the named coronavirus variants.

Variants of concern

WHO designates coronavirus variants as either variants of concern -- meaning they look dangerous enough to bear close scrutiny and continual updates -- or as variants of interest, or variants under monitoring. Only five currently meet the definition for variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.

Omicron

The first sample of the Omicron or B.1.1.529 lineage was taken November 9, according to WHO. It got noticed because of a surge of cases in South Africa.

"This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick!" Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa's Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation, and a genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, said on Twitter.
Also, genetic sequencing showed it carried a large number of troubling mutations on the spike protein -- the knoblike structure on the surface of the virus that it uses to grapple onto the cells it infects.

Some of those mutations were already recognized from other variants and were known to make them more dangerous, including one called E484K that can make the virus less recognizable to some antibodies -- immune system proteins that are a frontline defense against infection and that form the basis of monoclonal antibody treatments.

It also carries a mutation called N501Y, which gave both Alpha and Gamma their increased transmissibility. Just last week, Scott Weaver of the University of Texas Medical Branch and colleagues reported in the journal Nature that this particular mutation made the virus better at replicating in the upper airway -- think in the nose and throat -- and likely makes it more likely to spread when people breathe, sneeze and cough.
Like Delta, Omicron also carries a mutation called D614G, which appears to help the virus better attach to the cells it infects.

"The number of mutations per se does not mean that the new variant will cause any problems; although it may make it more likely to look different to the immune system," Dr. Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association's Public Health Medicine Committee, said in a statement.

What worries scientists is the number of mutations affecting the spike protein. That's because most of the leading vaccines target the spike protein. Vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and other companies all use just small pieces or genetic sequences of the virus and not whole virus, and all of them use bits of the spike protein to elicit immunity. So a change in the spike protein that made it less recognizable to immune system proteins and cells stimulated by a vaccine would be a problem.

So far, there's no evidence this has happened but there is no way of knowing by looking at the mutations alone. Researchers will have to wait and see if more breakthrough infections are caused by Omicron than by other variants.

The other fear is that the mutations might help make the virus less susceptible to monoclonal antibody treatments. However, WHO says it's unlikely these mutations would affect other Covid-19 treatments, including antiviral drugs in development and the steroid dexamethasone.

So far, Omicron has been detected in a handful of countries, including South Africa and Botswana, and among travelers to Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, the UK, Italy, Israel and Austria, according to the GISAID database, as well as Canada, according to officials.

It takes an extra layer of testing above and beyond standard tests to detect infection to tell which variant of coronavirus has infected someone. Genetic sequencing must be conducted and that takes longer than a quick antigen test or a PCR test.

It's also too soon to tell whether Omicron causes more severe disease, although one doctor who treated some patients in South Africa told Reuters her patients had only mild symptoms. "The most predominant clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days, with then the headache and the body aches and pain," Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of the South African Medical Association, said.

But doctors agree that vaccination is likely to provide a great deal of protection against Omicron and urge people to get vaccinated if they are not already. Of note: Just under 24% of South Africa's total population is vaccinated. Just 35% of adult South Africans are fully vaccinated, the country's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said Sunday. And South Africa has many people infected with HIV -- which suppresses the immune system -- who are currently unable to get treatment, and who may be more susceptible to infection.

Those factors may influence the rise of the variant in South Africa as opposed to countries where more people are vaccinated and fewer have immunocompromising conditions.

Physical barriers also will work against any mutant virus. These include masks, handwashing, physical distancing and good ventilation. "Much uncertain but we know what works vs. CoV-19: - improving indoor ventilation - quality masks/respirators - avoid indoor crowds - distancing - test, isolate, quarantine - vax + booster now for Delta," Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Seattle & King County, tweeted Sunday.
https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/28/...-omicron-coronavirus-variant-cnntv/index.html
 

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The new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, was present in the Netherlands earlier than previously thought, officials say.

It was identified in two test samples taken in the country between 19 and 23 November, which is before the variant was first reported by South Africa.
It is not clear whether those who took the tests had visited southern Africa.


It was previously thought that two flights that arrived from South Africa on Sunday had brought the first cases of the variant to the Netherlands.

Fourteen people on the flights to the capital, Amsterdam, tested positive for Omicron, among 61 passengers who were found to have coronavirus.

However, while the two new samples reveal Omicron was in the Netherlands earlier than thought, they do not predate the cases in southern Africa. The variant was first found in a specimen collected on 9 November, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Early evidence suggests Omicron has a higher re-infection risk. But scientists say it will take about three weeks before it is known how the heavily mutated variant impacts on the effectiveness of vaccines.

"In a special PCR test, the samples showed an abnormality in the spike protein," the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) which announced the earlier cases, said on Tuesday.

"This raised the concern that the Omicron variant... might be involved. [Health officials] will notify the people involved and start source and contact tracing," it said.

The RIVM also said that a number of different strains of Omicron were found among the passengers on board the two flights on Sunday.

"This means that the people were very probably infected independently from each other, from different sources and in different locations," a spokesman said.
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The Frontier Post

Harriet Baskas


News of the omicron variant of the coronavirus and a growing list of new restrictions is putting a crimp in freshly made travel plans.

Thanksgiving leftovers are still in the fridge, Cyber Monday and Travel Tuesday sales are in play, and this week many fully vaccinated people were hoping to get deals for Christmas travel, spring break, and reunion and bucket list trips.

Cases were first reported in South Africa and soon surfaced in other countries, including Israel, Belgium, and Canada. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Saturday on NBC’s “Weekend TODAY” that the variant could already be in the U.S.

In Monday remarks about the omicron variant, President Joe Biden said it is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

The U.S. is currently restricting travel for non-U.S. citizens from South Africa and seven other countries. Many other countries have put restrictions on flights from some southern African nations. Israel, Japan and Morocco have already put flight restrictions in place for all foreign nationals, and Australia is delaying plans to reopen its borders to some foreign nationals.

Delta Air Lines, which operates flights between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Atlanta three times weekly, says it currently has “no planned adjustments to service at this time” and that customers traveling through Dec. 31 who need to alter their travel plans can do so without change fees. The airline is also offering a fare difference waiver for customers booked through Dec. 12.
United Airlines, the only other U.S. carrier with flights to and from Africa, said in a statement it “continues to follow all government requirements related to international travel” and “will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments to our schedule as necessary.”

While U.S. citizens are allowed to travel back to the United States, it is “more complicated than ever before and we’re seeing it in real time, once again,” said Erika Richter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents. “There are logistical hurdles any time borders shut down because of the rush to rebook flights and the capacity of airlines’ available flights.”

With travel bans being updated hourly, in some cases, travelers are likely to find it challenging to get timely information and definitive answers — and that’s not to mention “the strain on customer service with the airlines,” Richter added. Using an airline’s online chat feature can often be faster than waiting on hold on international customer service lines, Richter said.

For those with travel plans now and in the next few weeks, “we’re expecting to see more of a ripple effect in the coming days,” said Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights. “This has been happening each time there’s Covid-related news and we’re already seeing early signs of that for international travel.”

The flexible cancellation and refund policies airlines and hotels adopted during the initial phases of the pandemic are generally still in place and many airlines will likely extend the time that travelers will be able to use their credits, Orlando said.

However, “when news gets bad, prices get low,” he added. “It can be a good time to buy if you’re vaccinated and traveling to countries that are open — but be conscious of the airline policies,” he said. “Just don’t book willy-nilly.”
 

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Omicron variant: South Africa sees spike in child hospitalisations

Doctors stress it was early to know if children were particularly susceptible of the new COVID-19 variant

By AFP
December 03, 2021



Health workers at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. PHOTO: AFP


Health workers at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. PHOTO: AFP

JOHANNESBURG: The doctors in South Africa said that there had been a spike in hospitalisations among young children after the Omicron variant popped up in the country, but stressed it was early to know if the children were particularly susceptibl
e.
In the week since South Africa alerted the world of the new COVID-19 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 quickly 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.

Scientists cited several possible reasons. One is that children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines in South Africa. Doctors have reported anecdotally that both children and parents testing positive have not been vaccinated, she said.

NICD's head of public health Michelle Groome said the virus was spreading faster than at any point in the pandemic in Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria are located.

"Preliminary data suggests Omicron is more transmissible and has some immune evasion," she said.

South African scientists on Thursday reported that the reinfections were three times as likely with Omicron, compared to the Delta or Beta strains.

Although generally patients are showing milder symptoms, Groome cautioned that the onset of serious illness would only be expected over the coming two weeks.

The country recorded 11,535 new cases Thursday, mostly in the epicentre Gauteng.

That is five times more than the reported cases just one week ago, when South African scientists alerted the world to the new variant.
 

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WHO chief scientist urges people to not panic over Omicron


The World Health Organization’s chief scientist urged people not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and said it was too early to say if COVID-19 vaccines would have to be modified to fight it.

Speaking at the Reuters Next conference, Soumya Swaminathan also said it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain.

New York has confirmed five cases of Omicron, its governor said on Thursday, bringing to five the number of U.S. states having detected the variant, with 10 reported infections nationwide.

South Africa is being hit by a fourth wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant which has been detected in seven of the country’s nine provinces, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

Malaysia has detected its first case of Omicron in a foreign student who was quarantined after arrival from South Africa two weeks ago, its health minister said on Friday.

Australia reported its first community transmission of the new variant, but authorities held steady on a plan to reopen the economy amid hopes it would prove to be milder than previous strains.

India expects the Omicron variant to cause less severe disease, the health ministry said on Friday, thanks to vaccinations and high prior exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70% of the population by July.

Roche’s newly acquired subsidiary TIB Molbiol has developed three new test kits to help researchers detect mutations in the Omicron variant, Roche said on Friday.

Study finds mRNA vaccines provide biggest booster impact
 

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Vaccine makers could make Omicron-specific booster, says Fauci

Covid-19 vaccine makers have contingency plans to deal with the Omicron variant that include a combination vaccine against the original version and the variant as well as a variant-specific booster dose, a top US health official said on Friday.

The US government is working with Moderna, Pfizer, and J&J on multiple contingency plans, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told reporters at a White House briefing.

"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.
 

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Omicron reported in 57 countries, hospitalisations set to rise, WHO says

The Omicron variant has been reported in 57 nations and the number of patients needing hospitalisation is likely to rise as it spreads, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

The WHO, in its weekly epidemiological report, said more data was needed to assess the severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant and whether its mutations might reduce protection from vaccine-derived immunity.

"Even if the severity is equal or potentially even lower than for Delta variant, it is expected that hospitalisations will increase if more people become infected and that there will be a time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an increase in the incidence of deaths," it said.

Reuters
 

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