COVID-19: South Africa to roll out boosters immediately

A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Hillbrow Clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec 6, 2021. (SHIRAAZ MOHAMED / AP)

LJUBLJANA / ROME / TIRANA / VALLETTA / ABUJA / ATHENS / OTTAWA / TUNIS / LONDON / MILAN / BERLIN / PARIS / MADRID / PRAGUE / BOGOTA / MEXICO CITY / TEGUCIGALPA / JOHANNESBURG / MOSCOW / LUANDA – South Africa will start offering booster shots of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine from Friday, the health department said in a statement, following its approval for use as a booster by the health regulator a day earlier.

Both J&J and Pfizer COVID-19 shots have been authorized as boosters by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), but the move opens up boosters to the general public for the first time.

So far, only J&J booster shots have been available for health workers. However the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has heightened the need for people to shore up their protections.

"From 24th December 2021 the National Vaccination Program will provide J&J booster vaccinations to anyone who received their last dose at least 2 months prior," the statement said, adding ideally it would also be within six months of their original shot.

Pfizer booster shots were set to become available in early January. However the health ministry said these would now be offered from Dec 28 for people who had received their second dose at least six months ago.

While SAHPRA had authorised the use of a different booster shot from that delivered for a person's primary vaccination, the health department's statement described boosters as "the same vaccine in the same dose administered to people who have had a primary vaccination series".

A nurse prepares a syringe before jabbing a resident in Sukth village, about 33 kilometers west of Tirana, Albania on Nov 16, 2021. (FRANC ZHURDA / AP)

Albania

The Technical Committee of Experts on the coronavirus situation in Albania confirmed here on Thursday the first two cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in the country.

At a press conference, Deputy Health Minister and committee head Mira Rakacolli cited test results that confirm the infection of two individuals with the new virus variant.

According to Rakacolli, the current epidemiological situation in Albania remains stable.

Eugena Tomini, director of the Albanian Institute of Public Health, said that the Delta coronavirus variant continues to prevail in the country.

A nurse (left) administers a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 to a teenager at the Cultural Paz Flor event in Luanda, Angola on Dec 16, 2021. (OSVALDO SILVA / AFP)

Angola

The Angolan government has announced the re-imposition of tighter restrictions to curb the surge in new COVID-19 cases in the country, cutting on-site workforce and requiring vaccination cards or negative test results for accessing many public and private venues.

Under the measures, which were announced by Minister of State Francisco Furtado on Thursday and will remain in force between Dec 24, and Jan 15 next year, the workforce in public and private services will be cut from 75 percent to 30 percent.

Mothers with children under 12 years, pregnant women and people with disabilities will work remotely.

People must present vaccination certificates or negative results for tests performed within 48 hours before accessing tourist establishments, wedding halls, corporate events, sports venues, restaurants, and casinos.

Angola reported 1,163 positive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, up from Wednesday's 633 confirmed cases.

Medical staff wears PPE on a ward for COVID-19 patients at King's College Hospital in south east London on Dec 21, 2021. (VICTORIA JONES / PA VIA AP)

Britain

There is a lower risk of hospitalization for people with the Omicron coronavirus variant compared to Delta, but the higher transmissibility of Omicron could still lead to significant numbers needing hospital treatment, the UK government said.

Analysis of preliminary data by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) showed an individual with Omicron was estimated to be between 31 percent and 45 percent less likely to attend hospital compared to someone with Delta, and 50 to 70 percent less likely to be admitted.

UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said on Thursday it was "an encouraging early signal that people who contract the Omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalization than those who contract other variants."

"However, it should be noted both that this is early data and more research is required to confirm these findings," she said.

People wear face masks as they walk, in Regent Street, in London on Nov 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Meanwhile, around 1.2 million people in England were likely infected with COVID-19 last week, representing 1 in 45 of the population and a new pandemic record as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly, official estimates showed on Thursday.

London was worst hit with an estimated 1 in 30 people infected with the coronavirus last week, according to the figures from the Office for National Statistics.

In the previous two weeks, an estimated 1 in 60 people in England were infected. The records date back to May 2020, so do not cover the peak of the initial wave of the pandemic.

Omicron is likely by now the dominant variant circulating in England, the analysis suggested.

Modelling from the ONS showed Omicron, as of Dec 16, had already matched the existing Delta variant in terms of the percentage of positive cases in England.

The ONS said the percentage of cases compatible with Omicron had increased in all regions apart from the northeast.

People enter a COVID-19 rapid testing business in Montreal on Dec 4, 2021. (GRAHAM HUGHES / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canada set a new daily record of 20,699 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, bringing the cumulative total number to 1,945,754 cases with 30,131 deaths, according to CTV.

For the first time ever, Canada surpassed 20,000 new cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus outbreak in February 2020. The majority of the new cases are from those fully vaccinated.

Among the new cases, Quebec reported 9,397 and Ontario confirmed 5,790, breaking a record for the highest number of new cases in the two provinces in a day.

The country reported 10,667 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, then a record surpassing 10,000 cases in a single day.

Canadian COVID-19 cases have soared over the past few days due to the fast spread of the Omicron variant. On Wednesday, 14,987 new cases were reported, with 11,692 on Tuesday.

The country's seven-day rolling average for new daily cases has risen to 12,459 on Thursday, also a new high since the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020.

In this file picture taken on Oct 6, 2021, an election committee member wearing a protective equipment as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 disease is pictured at a drive-in polling station for quarantined voters in Prague, ahead of the country's general election. (MICHAL CIZEK / AFP)

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic will require all foreigners visiting the country to have a negative PCR coronavirus test prior to entry starting from Dec. 27, unless they had a booster vaccine dose, Health Ministry said on Thursday.

The measure is aimed at limiting the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant during New Year's celebrations, the ministry said.

The central European country has recorded just dozens of Omicron case while recovering from the latest wave of the Delta variant of the virus.

Prague, usually a popular destination for New Year's parties with crowds drinking in bars and in the streets, will allow celebrations to go ahead this year after a state of emergency that closed pubs at 10 pm expires on Dec 25.

A maximum of 50 people will be allowed to gather for events after Dec 29, except for seated audiences at theatres or other cultural venues. Restaurants will have to limit the number of guests seated at one table to four persons.

A woman gets her shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, in Quito, Ecuador on Dec 23, 2021. (CARLOS NORIEGA / AP)

Ecuador

Ecuador's government said on Thursday it has made it obligatory for eligible people to be vaccinated against COVID-19, amid an increase in cases and the circulation of new variants of the disease.

About 12.4 million Ecuadoreans – or 77.2 percent of those aged 5 and over – have been fully vaccinated against the disease, the health ministry said in a statement.

"Ecuador declares vaccination against COVID-19 to be obligatory. This decision was taken because of the current epidemiological situation: the increase in infections and the circulation of new variants of concern like Omicron," the statement added.

The government, which had previously said it wanted to vaccinate 85 percent of its population this year, added that there are enough vaccine doses to immunize all its 17.8 million people.

The Andean country has confirmed more than 537,000 cases of COVID and linked nearly 33,600 deaths to the disease.

ALSO READ: WHO: Blanket vaccine booster programs may prolong pandemic

A couple holds each other at a COVID-19 intensive care unit of the la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France on Dec 23, 2021. (DANIEL COLE / AP)

France

France's Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS) regulator said on Friday that COVID-19 boosters could be administered three months after the first full course of shots.

Meanwhile, France had its worst-ever day in terms of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, with more than 91,000 new cases being recorded while the number of deaths also climbed, as the country battles against a fifth wave of the virus.

"Today's figures are not good," said Health Minister Olivier Veran.

Veran had earlier told reporters that the case number would stand at around 88,000 for Thursday, but the final official tally from the health ministry showed 91,608 new cases.

Data from the health ministry also showed that France registered a further 179 COVID-19 deaths in hospitals over the last 24 hours, while the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units reached 3,208, up by 61 from the previous day.

Only a few visitors stroll across the "Gro├če Freiheit" on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, in Germany on Dec 23, 2021. (AXEL HEIMKEN / DPA VIA AP)

Germany

Germany's Robert Koch Institute for infectious disease confirmed the country's first death due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Thursday.

The person was between the age of 60 and 79, the institute said.

There were 810 new Omicron cases reported, bringing the total number of cases with the more contagious variant to 3,198.

Meanwhile, Germany is adding the United States, Spain and Portugal to its list of COVID-19 risk areas, it said on Thursday, making it more difficult for unvaccinated travelers to return to Germany from those countries.

It also said it was removing Austria from its list of high-risk areas. The changes take effect from midnight on Saturday.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus walks in front of a mural, at a metro station in Athens, Greece on Nov 15, 2021. (THANASSIS STAVRAKIS / FILE / AP)

Greece

Greece's government announced on Thursday a new set of measures to contain the further spread of COVID-19 during the upcoming holiday season.

In the wake of the emergence of the Omicron variant, the government has decided the cancellation of all public festive events, the mandatory use of a mask indoors and outdoors, and additional protection protocols for travelers, Health Minister Thanos Plevris told a press briefing.

He recommended all travelers entering Greece to repeat tests for COVID-19 on the second and fourth day upon their arrival.

Nicaraguans queue at a customs office in Guasaule, Honduras, on the border between the two countries, to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on Oct 25, 2021. (ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP)

Honduras

Honduras began offering booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to all adults on Thursday as it seeks to counter the threat posed by the Omicron variant of the virus, Health Minister Alba Flores said.

The Central American country had previously only given the third vaccine doses to health workers, people aged over 60 and those with medical conditions that put them at high risk.

"Today we're giving the Pfizer vaccine to the population aged 18 and above who have already had a second dose three months ago. We have not confirmed the presence of the Omicron variant, but we must prevent it," Flores told reporters.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the novel coronavirus infect 378,994 people in Honduras and cause the death of 10,429, official data shows.

People wait at an Italian Red Cross anti COVID-19 vaccination hub, in Rome on Nov 29, 2021. (GREGORIO BORGIA / AP)

Italy

As daily infections hit a record high in Italy, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said mask wearing would be compulsory outdoors again and ordered people to use the more protective Ffp2 face masks on public transport and in public places, such as theatres, cinemas and at sports events.

In addition, concerts and open-air events will be banned until Jan 31, and discos and dance clubs will have to shut their doors until that date, in an effort to prevent mass socializing during the holiday period.

The announcement came on the day Italy registered a record 44,595 new coronavirus cases – an increase of more than 70 percent in just a week, with the infectious Omicron variant starting to flare across the country.

Deaths are also starting to creep up, rising to 168 on Thursday, the largest number since May, but they remain well below rates seen during previous infection surges thanks mainly to the large number of people vaccinated in Italy.

Speranza said almost 89 percent of Italians had been vaccinated, but the government wanted to speed up delivery of third booster shots, seen as the most effective shield against the Omicron variant which is sweeping Europe and the United States.

The government will cut the waiting time for a booster following second vaccinations to four months from five.

The National Health Institute (ISS) said on Thursday that the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly in Italy, releasing preliminary data of a flash-survey showing it accounted for 28 percent of cases on Dec 20.

"Although the results are still preliminary, the estimate confirms the great speed of diffusion of the variant, which is set to become dominant in a short period of time," ISS President Silvio Brusaferro said.

The analysis is based on about 2,000 swabs collected in 18 Italian regions and the final results will be published on Dec. 29, the ISS said, adding a new flash-survey would be carried out on Jan 3.

Malta

Malta has detected the country's first two confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, Health Minister Chris Fearne said here on Thursday.

Fearne announced new restrictive measures that will enter into force next Monday and said that the country registered a new record of 733 coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, likely driven by Omicron.

He insisted that the booster vaccine is effective against the new virus variant and that it remains important for as many people as possible to get a booster shot.

A nurse applies a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 during the first day of the application of the third dose to people over 60 years-old at the Centro de Estudios Superiores Navales (CENCIS) in Mexico City, on Dec 7, 2021. (PEDRO PARDO / AFP)

Mexico

Mexico's health ministry reported 149 new confirmed deaths from COVID-19, according to data released on Thursday, bringing the official death toll since the pandemic began to 298,508.

The ministry has previously said the real number of victims of the coronavirus pandemic is likely significantly higher.

Nigeria

Nigerian health authorities on Thursday said the country recorded 4,035 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday — the highest-ever single day cases of COVID-19 since the index case was reported in February 2020.

In a statement, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) said two deaths were recorded on Wednesday as the figure of new infections was reported across 15 out of the 36 states of the country.

Lagos, the country's commercial hub and the epicenter of the pandemic in Nigeria so far, accounted for a total of 3,393 cases on Wednesday, the NCDC said.

ALSO READ: Astra booster shot works against Omicron, Oxford study finds

Russia

A fire in the intensive care unit of a COVID-19 hospital killed two people on Friday in Russia's southern city of Astrakhan, the TASS news agency said, citing a source in the emergency rescue services.

In a statement, Russia's emergencies ministry said there were casualties, but gave no details.

Protesters walk during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Ljubljana, Slovenia on Oct 27, 2021. (JURE MAKOVEC / AFP)

Slovenia

Outdoor New Year celebrations in Slovenia and Italy will be prohibited for the second year in a row, the governments said on Thursday, in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Before the epidemic most cities in Slovenia organized large outdoor New Year celebrations attended by thousands of people, often with fireworks.

Restaurants will be able to offer New Year's dinners, but guests must present a negative COVID-19 test taken a maximum of 12 hours before, the government said.

The validity of COVID-19 tests has also been shortened from 72 hours to 48. For months, only citizens that have been vaccinated, have recently overcome COVID-19 or tested negative have been able to enter most public institutions.

For private celebrations for Christmas and New Year, gatherings will be limited to people from a maximum of three different households. Moreover, "it is recommended that for all such meetings all people above the age of six take a … (COVID-19) test before the meeting," the government said.

Slovenia has been badly hit by COVID-19, but so far only 56.1 percent of its 2.1 million citizens have been fully vaccinated.

On Wednesday, the country reported 1,124 new COVID-19 cases, compared to 1,255 a day before. Slovenia's first cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed on Dec 14.

A young girl watches as a boy receives a vaccine as children are administered the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Hospital de Henares in Coslada, Madrid on Dec 15, 2022.(BERNAT ARMANGUE / AP)

Spain

The northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia won court approval for a night curfew on Thursday as Madrid pledged to distribute millions more test kits to tackle the Omicron variant that is driving up infections and overshadowing Christmas.

Spain lifted most restrictions over the summer thanks to a high vaccination rate that suppressed infection but Omicron's arrival has sent daily cases soaring to reach a record of more than 72,900 on Thursday.

Adopting the hardest line since Spain emerged from a state of emergency in May, Catalonia, which surrounds the city of Barcelona, will ban residents from leaving their homes between 1 am and 6 am from Thursday night, while other regions took a less stringent approach.

Southern Murcia told non-essential businesses to shut at 1 am, severely curtailing revelry in a country where bars and restaurants routinely stay open until the small hours.

Lopez Miras's administration also banned dancing in nightclubs and limited the size of dinners to 10 people inside and 12 on terraces.

The region of Madrid, whose right-wing regional leader has prioritized the hospitality sector throughout the pandemic, focused on better testing and pledged to distribute 12 million rapid tests over Christmas.

The infection rate as measured over 14 days reached 911,31 per 100,000 people, surpassing the late January peak of 900, although hospitals are at around a quarter of the level seen then.

Resident queue to be vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Assad Iben El Fourat school in Oued Ellil, outside Tunis on Aug 15, 2021. (HASSENE DRIDI / AP)

Tunisia

Tunisia reported five additional cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, bringing the total number of Omicron infections to six, the Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) reported on Thursday.

"The cases were discovered on Dec. 20, after testing positive for the virus at Tunis-Carthage International Airport," Mahjoub Ouni, a member of the Tunisian scientific committee for the fight against the coronavirus, was quoted as saying by the agency. 

The five Omicron cases came from South Africa and quarantine has been applied along with all preventive and health measures, Ouni added.

This undated file image provided by Merck and Co shows their new antiviral medication molnupiravir. (MERCK AND CO VIA AP)

United States

The US on Thursday authorized Merck & Co's antiviral pill for COVID-19 for certain high-risk adult patients, a day after giving a broader go-ahead to a similar but more effective treatment from Pfizer Inc.

The US Food and Drug Administration said Merck's drug could be used when other authorized treatments are not accessible or clinically appropriate.

The drug, molnupiravir, was developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and shown to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by around 30 percent in a clinical trial of high-risk individuals early in the course of the illness.

The authorization allows use of the drug for mild-to-moderate COVID-19 and along with the Pfizer pill, could be an important tool against the fast-spreading Omicron variant, which is now dominant in the United States.

Meanwhile, healthcare workers in the United States who test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic can return to work after seven days in isolation, provided they test negative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

The new guidance cuts the quarantine time from a previously recommended 10 days, which the CDC said was in preparation for an anticipated increase in Omicron cases. Omicron now accounts for 73 percent of coronavirus infections in the United States, the CDC said on Monday.

The CDC said the quarantine time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages due to COVID-19, adding that healthcare workers who have been fully vaccinated, including a booster, do not need to quarantine at home following high-risk exposures.