First person dies from Omicron variant in United Kingdom

Shoppers, some wearing face coverings, cross Oxford Street in central London on Dec 4, 2021, as compulsory mask wearing in shops has been reintroduced in England as fears rise over the Omicron variant of COVID-19. (DANIEL LEAL / AFP)

JOHANNESBURG / LONDON / TORONTO / WASHINGTON – At least one person has died in the United Kingdom after contracting the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday, warning that the variant now accounted for 40 percent of infections in the British capital.

Since the first Omicron cases were detected on Nov 27 in the United Kingdom, Johnson has imposed tougher restrictions and on Sunday he urged people to get booster shots to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed.

Johnson said there was a spike in Omicron cases in London, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying the variant was spreading at a "phenomenal rate"

Visiting a vaccination center in London, Johnson congratulated those getting shots and handed out stickers before telling reporters that a patient had died from Omicron which he said could overcome those inoculated with two shots.

"Sadly at least one patient has now been confirmed to have died with Omicron," Johnson said.

"So I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus – I think that's something we need to set on one side – and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population."

Asked repeatedly if he could rule out tougher restrictions in England before Christmas, Johnson meandered away from giving a direct answer.

Johnson said there was a spike in Omicron cases in London, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying the variant was spreading at a "phenomenal rate".

Johnson, who is grappling with a rebellion in his party over measures to curb Omicron and an outcry over parties at his Downing Street office during last year's lockdowns, said people should rush to get booster vaccines to protect "our freedoms and our way of life".

He has also been criticized for overseeing mistakes in transferring patients into care homes, and for building a costly test-and-trace system that failed to stop a deadly second wave.

Johnson has repeatedly said that while mistakes were made, the government was making decisions swiftly in the biggest public health crisis for generations and that his government was quick to roll out vaccines.

More than 146,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United Kingdom.

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

Canada

Canada will start recognizing molecular COVID-19 tests conducted at an accredited lab in South Africa for residents returning home, dropping a heavily criticized travel restriction introduced to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant.

Ottawa had faced pressure from doctors, stranded passengers and the World Health Organization to reverse requirements that travelers from 10 southern African countries get molecular PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests in a third country before returning to Canada.

Canada has now dropped the need to obtain a pre-departure negative COVID-19 PCR test from a third country, according to a travel advisory issued on Saturday. The exemption will be in place till Jan. 7 next year and apply to all indirect flights departing from South Africa to Canada, the advisory added.

There is no change to Canada's ban on all foreign travelers from 10 African countries.

Canada, the United States, the UK and other countries have enacted Africa-specific travel bans even as Omicron is detected in more than 50 countries around the world.

But few countries have imposed Omicron restrictions similar to Canada's requirement. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called actions barring southern African countries "disappointing" and "dismaying" in a tweet.

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)

A total of 766 cases of the Omicron variant had been confirmed in 23 European countries as of Sunday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a statement. 

Most of the cases are now local transmissions not related to travel to or from the original epicenter of the new strain in southern Africa, the ECDC said. 

All cases for which there is available information on severity were either asymptomatic or mild and there have been no Omicron-related deaths reported thus far, according to ECDC. “These figures should be assessed with caution, as the number of confirmed cases is too low to understand if the disease clinical spectrum of Omicron differs from that of previously detected variants.”

A woman waits to receive Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site, in Fontainebleau, south of Paris on Dec 6, 2021. (THIBAULT CAMUS / AP)

France

France could be reaching the peak of the fifth viral wave, Olivier Veran, health minister said in tweet Sunday. 

The current wave is reaching a “very high” level but the dynamic is “weakening,” he added. 

He told Le Parisien no lockdown is in sight but recommended to limit contacts as end-of-the-year celebrations approach.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks at a press conference after the federal government's consultations with the state premiers in Berlin, Germany on Dec 9, 2021. (MICHAEL KAPPELER / POOL VIA AP)

Germany

Germany’s new chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government is ready take all necessary measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 if the situation doesn’t improve quickly. 

“There must be no red lines, this pandemic has really shown us that. We must always be prepared to rethink if circumstances demand it. And then act quickly and decisively,” he told the Sunday edition of the Bild newspaper.

New cases dropped under 400 per 100,000 people over the past seven days for the first time since Nov 23. The country recorded 32,646 new cases and 132 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Robert Koch Institute. 

This compares with 42,055 new cases and 94 deaths a week ago. 

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Russia

Russia has detected the new Omicron coronavirus variant in 16 people who returned from South Africa, the Interfax news agency cited Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova as saying on Monday.

Russia reported its first two Omicron cases on Dec 6. It was not immediately clear if the 16 cases announced on Monday included the two reported earlier this month.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during former South African President FW de Klerk's state memorial service at the Groote Kerk church in Cape Town on Dec 12, 2021. (RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is receiving treatment for mild COVID-19 symptoms after testing positive for the virus, said the Presidency in a statement released on Sunday night.

The president, who is fully vaccinated, started feeling unwell after leaving the State Memorial Service in honor of former Deputy President FW de Klerk in Cape Town earlier on Sunday. The president is in good spirits but is being monitored by the Military Health Service of the South African National Defence Force.

Ramaphosa is in self-isolation in Cape Town and has delegated all responsibilities to Deputy President David Mabuza for the next week.

Ramaphosa has just finished his visit from four West African states including Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal. The Presidency said he and the South African delegation were tested for COVID-19 in all countries. The president also tested negative on his return to Johannesburg on Dec 8.

The president said his own infection serves as a caution to all people in the country to be vaccinated and remain vigilant against exposure.

Meanwhile, South African hospitals have 5,563 COVID-19 patients, including 7.3 percent in intensive care units, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a report on Sunday. The numbers compare with 5,434 who were in the hospital a day earlier.

While admissions have risen in the past month, it’s still a fraction of the total at the height of earlier infection waves. The country’s three biggest private hospital groups have said that so far cases appear to be milder than in previous infection waves.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Dec 1, 2021. (SUSAN WALSH / AP)

United States

Three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine is the "optimal care" but two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remains the US government's official definition of fully vaccinated, top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said on Sunday.

Health officials will continue to evaluate what should constitute the official designation, Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden's Chief Medical Advisor, said on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos.

"Well, I certainly think, George, it's the optimal care," Fauci said in response to being asked whether three vaccine doses could be the new standard of care.

"I mean, for official requirements, it's still two shots of the mRNA (Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna) and one shot of the J&J for the official determination of what's required or not. But I think if you look at the data, the more and more it becomes clear that if you want to be optimally protected you really should get a booster," he added.

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It will take months to tell whether annual booster doses of the vaccine are needed, Fauci said, adding that he is hoping from an immunological standpoint that one booster dose will be enough to provide protection greater than just the six months offered by the initial vaccine.

Empty vials of the COVID-19 vaccines against the novel coronavirus of several producers (from left to right) Comirnaty by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen by Johnson & Johnson are seen on a table in a vaccination center in Sonthofen, southern Germany, on Nov 30, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP)

University of Oxford

Two-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimens do not induce enough neutralizing antibodies against the Omicron coronavirus variant, British scientists found, indicating that increased infections in those previously infected or vaccinated may be likely.

Researchers from the University of Oxford published results on Monday from a study yet to be peer-reviewed, where they analysed blood samples from participants who were given doses from AstraZeneca-Oxford or Pfizer-BioNTech in a large study looking into mixing of vaccines.

The results come a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that two shots will not be enough to contain Omicron, following findings from the UK health agency last week that boosters significantly restore protection against the variant. 

The Oxford study said that there was no evidence yet that the lower level of infection-fighting antibodies against Omicron could lead to higher risk of severe disease, hospitalization or death in those who have got two doses of approved vaccines.

"These data are important but are only one part of the picture. They only look at neutralizing antibodies after the second dose, but do not tell us about cellular immunity, and this will also be tested," said Matthew Snape, Oxford professor and co-author of the paper.