Covid Omicron variant summary: 30 November 2021
Biden's new US travel restrictions amid Omicron threat
President Joe Biden will soon announce tighter Covid restrictions for people flying into the United States, including requiring a negative covid test just one day prior to travel, as the world races to confront the new Omicron variant.
Three White House officials confirmed that a tightened testing window, first reported by The Washington Post, is coming. One official said Biden himself will soon announce the new requirements, ahead of another busy holiday travel period looming in mere weeks.
In addition, the officials acknowledged that additional quarantine measures are under consideration but said there are no current plans to implement any.
The WHO is running out of letters for variants
There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi, omega. So far there have been 13 variants that have received a letter from the Greek alphabet to make them easier to pronounce due to the need to inform the public about their potential risk and avoid associating them with anyone country.
Two letters though were skipped over to get to the fifteenth letter Omicron, leaving just nine more and the pandemic not looking likely to go away as soon as everyone would hope.
Omicron prompting tougher testing requirements for travelers to the US
The new covid-19 variant has prompted the Biden administration to toughen testing requirements for international travelers to the US. The window to get a covid-19 test before boarding a plane is expected to be reduced from three days prior to just one for those who are vaccinated. Currently, just the unvaccinated were required to provide proof of a negative test taken one day before traveling to the US.
President Biden plans to address the nation on Thursday to inform about plans for winter in the nation's fight against covid-19 where the new testing requirements will be officially unveiled.
Viruses are constantly mutating as they reproduce inside a host trying to become more efficient at spreading to new ones while evading immune system defenses. The original strain of covid-19 has gone through a similar process with multiple variants on the global watchlist.
In the method of naming covid-19 variants, it should have been 'Nu' as the variant which is causing all the concern, but the WHO decided against the name.
Fans of the Ancient Greek alphabet were aghast at the latest covid-19 variant, not least because of the apparent mistake in leaving out two letters, Nu and Xi, when naming it.
Being vaccinated is best defense against the Omicron variant
The appearance of the Omicron variant has health experts racing to study the new strain to analyze the effectiveness of the current vaccines against it. There are worries that the number of mutations may allow this variant to bypass the immunity givien by the vaccines in use but it is too soon to tell and health officials are recommending caution. Speaking to Lestor Holt, former acting director of the CDC Dr Richard Besser said "clearly, right now, being vaccinated is the best situation to be in until we have further information."
Canada adds three countries to travel restriction list
Canada have added Nigeria, Malawi, and Egypt to the list bof countries from which travellers will be denied access due to the surge in Covid-19 Omicron varient cases. Seven African countries were already on the blacklist -South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini.
Omicron cases detected in Latin America
Brazil has reported two cases of people who have tested positive for the Omicron varient - the first in Latin America. The patient is a man who had recentlt returned from a trip to South Africa with his wife. Brazil has tightened travel restrictions for entering the country.
CDC urges Americans to avoid travel to Niger and Poland
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising Americans against travel to Niger, Papua New Guinea, Poland, and Trinidad and Tobago, citing Covid-19 concerns. On Saturday, the CDC added seven southern African countries to its 'Level 4: Very High' classification after the White House announced new travel restrictions in response to the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
Vaccines modified for Omicron varient could be approved in 3-4 months
The European Medicines Agency could authorise revised vaccines to treat the Omicron Covid-19 varient within 3-4 months.“We need to prepare in case there’s a need to change the current vaccines and that’s work that the companies will do. We could be in a position to have those approved within three to four months,” EMA CEO Emer Cooke explained.
Second Omicron case confirmed in Madrid, two possible cases in Catalunya
Madrid's autonomous community confirmed a second case of the Covid-19 omicron varient on Tuesday, just 24 hours after news of the first Spanish case - a 51-year-old man who had just returned from a trip to South Africa. The new case is a 61-year-old woman who had also returned to the capital on a flight from South Africa via a connecting flight to Amsterdam. Both patients are fully vaccinated with the Astra Zeneca vaccine and do not show symptoms.
Meanwhile two suspected cases are being monitored in Catalunya - both recently returned from a trip to South Africa.
UK PM Boris Johnson says new lockdown unlinkely
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that a new Covid-19 lockdown was unlikely despite worries about the new Omicron coronavirus variant, after eight new cases were identified in England, taking the total number to 13.
The Omicron coronavirus variant is raising concern worldwide because of a high number of mutations compared with other variants, which might help it evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination. "I think another lockdown of the kind that we've had before is extremely unlikely," Johnson told a press conference. "But we keep everything under constant review."
BioNTech CEO says vaccine likely to protect against severe Covid-19 from Omicron
BioNTech and Pfizer's established Covid-19 vaccine will likely offer strong protection against any severe disease from the new Omicron variant, BioNTech's Chief Executive told Reuters.
Lab tests are underway over the next two weeks to analyse the blood of people who had two or three doses of BioNTech's Comirnaty vaccine to see if antibodies found in that blood inactivate Omicron, potentially shedding light on whether new vaccines are needed.
"We think it's likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron," said BioNTech CEO and co-founder Ugur Sahin. He specified severe disease as requiring hospital or intensive care. Sahin told Reuters he expects the lab tests to show some loss of vaccine protection against mild and moderate disease due to Omicron, but the extent of that loss was hard to predict.
The biotech firm is speedily working on an upgraded version of its vaccine, although it remains unclear whether that is needed, he added. Sahin said getting a third vaccine shot known as booster will likely confer a layer of protection against Omicron infection of any severity compared to those with just the initial two-shot course. "To my mind there's no reason to be particularly worried. The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people that have not been vaccinated at all," Sahin added.
BioNTech's guarded confidence contrasts with a sense of alarm conveyed by the chief executive of rival vaccine maker Moderna, Stephane Bancel. In a Financial Times interview, he raised the prospect of a material drop in protection against the new coronavirus lineage from current vaccines, sparking fresh worry in financial markets about the trajectory of the pandemic.
Regeneron says its covid-19 antibody drug could be less effective against Omicron
Reuters - Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc's covid-19 antibody treatment could be less effective against Omicron, the drugmaker said on Tuesday, adding to fears about the efficacy of existing treatments after Moderna's top boss raised similar concerns about the company's vaccine.
Omicron variant was in Europe before South African scientists detected and flagged it to the world
CBS - Dutch health authorities announced on Tuesday that they found the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in cases dating back as long as 11 days, indicating that it was already spreading in western Europe before the first cases were identified in southern Africa. The RIVM health institute said it found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23.
Those findings predate the positive cases found among passengers who came from South Africa last Friday and were tested at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
"It is not yet clear whether the people concerned [in the earlier cases] have also been to southern Africa," the RIVM said, adding that the individuals had been informed of their Omicron infections and that local health services had started contact tracing.
On Friday 26 November, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it would classify Omicron as a "Variant of Concern." This news rocked the world as the variant had been identified and reported to the WHO two days earlier on 24 November.
The WHO warned and explained the reclassification saying that the "variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa."
Oxford University: no evidence yet that vaccines won't protect against severe disease from Omicron
Reuters - The University of Oxford on Tuesday said there was no evidence that vaccines would not prevent severe disease from Omicron, but that it was ready to rapidly develop an updated version of its vaccine developed with AstraZeneca (AZN.L) if necessary.
Scientists working to find out more about the Omicron variant
The New York Times - The story of the Omicron variant began a week ago when researchers in southern Africa detected a version of the coronavirus that carried 50 mutations.
Thirty of these mutations are on the spike protein — arguably the most important part of the virus — and of those, 26 were unique mutations we hadn’t seen before. By contrast, the Delta variant had 10 unique mutations and Beta had 6.
When scientists look at coronavirus mutations,they worry about three things: Is the new variant more contagious? Is it going to cause people to get sicker? And how will the vaccines work against it?
Omicron doctor plays down "hype" over variant
Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chair of the South African Medical Association who first identified the Omicron variant in patients at her Pretoria practice, says the "hype" over the new strain is unfounded.
"Patients I've seen had mild symptoms and recovered. None were admitted and no oxygen was needed. The hype makes no sense to at all," Dr Coetzee said.
13 cases of Omicron variant confirmed at top flight Portuguese club
Portugal detected 13 cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Monday, all involving players and staff members of Lisbon soccer club Belenenses SAD, after one player recently returned from South Africa, health authority DGS said.
The new variant was found after Belenenses played a Primeira Liga match against Benfica on Saturday.
The game started with only nine Belenenses players on the pitch because the rest of their squad were isolating and only seven returned to the field after halftime. The match was abandoned two minutes into the second half with Benfica leading 7-0.
"We're all in isolation except for the youth team that didn't play on Saturday, 44 people are in isolation at home," a club spokesman said on Monday.
Covid omicron variant linked to vaccine inequality, experts say
NBC - For almost as long as Covid-19 has been around, scientists, academics and campaigners have called on wealthy nations to share vaccines around the world — not only to protect people in those countries, but also to reduce the risk of new mutant variants emerging that could evade vaccines for everyone.
Those sounding the alarm have repeated the same mantra: No one is safe until everyone is safe.
Spain confirms first covid-19 Omicron case
Spain confirmed its first case of the covid-19 Omicron variant on Monday. The Microbiology Department at Madrid's Gregorio Marañón hospital announced on Twitter that a 51-year-old patient had tested positive for the Omicron variant. The patient returned from a trip to South Africa with a connecting flight in Amsterdam on Sunday. Hospital officials say that the patient is showing light symptoms and is otherwise, feeling well.
Why might new variants like Omicron spread more easily?
The Economist - Mutated viruses which survive and thrive are called variants. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19, these started to spread in earnest in November 2020, with the appearance of the Alpha variant, first spotted in Britain. The Delta variant, which is the dominant global strain, was first detected in India in late 2020. The latest, Omicron, was first identified in South Africa in November 2021.
Airline easyJet sees softening in demand as new strain clouds outlook
British airline easyJet said on Tuesday it had seen some softening of trading in the first quarter following covid outbreaks including the Omicron variant, but it remained well placed to handle uncertainty through its financial year.
The group, which has cut costs and prioritised the strongest routes, said it had seen an encouraging start to the year, with strong demand returning for peak winter holiday periods, and increasing demand for summer bookings.
Airlines have been on a roller-coaster of a ride this year, steadily recovering in the first half as first Europe and then Britain reopened for travel, before fears started to grow about the pace of the recovery, and as new covid outbreaks emerged.
Airline shares plunged on Friday as news of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus broke.
Case of new Omicron variant found on French territory of Reunion
A person has tested positive for the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, official researcher Dr. Patrick Mavingui said on Tuesday. Mavingui said the person was a 53-year old man who had traveled to Mozambique and made a stop-over in South Africa.
The patient who returned to La Reunion some two weeks ago is currently in isolation, Mavingui told local French media.
Omicron - first reported in southern Africa and which the World Health Organization (WHO) said carries a "very high" risk of infection surges - has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from a two-year pandemic.
Japan closes its borders
Japan has put a blanket ban on travelers entering the country unless they are Japanese residents.
The US will not lockdown to tackle Omicron, says Biden
Joe Biden says the US will not have lockdowns this winter despite the risk posed by the new Omicron variant, as the president pledged to tackle any new surge with more vaccinations.
He described Omicron as “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic”, and said that he would unveil a plan on Thursday for tackling the virus “not with shutdowns and lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more”.
He added, “If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there’s no need for lockdowns.”
Covid-19: Omicron variant live blog - welcome
Hello and welcome to our live feed on the Omicron covid-19 variant on Tuesday 30 November.
The World Health Organization announced that it is classifying Omicron as a 'Variant of Concern' as it drives an alarming surge in cases in South Africa.
Many experts believe the strain is already spreading in the United States and numerous cases have already been identified across Europe and beyond.
We will be bringing you live updates on what we know about the variant so far including if it is more transmissible, new symptoms, as well as information about the newly announced travel ban from seven African countries to the US.