France says Omicron to be dominant soon, resists new curbs

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)

PANAMA CITY / LONDON / LISBON / BERLIN / WASHINGTON / GENEVA / ABUJA / NICOSIA / OTTAWA / TUNIS / RABAT / HELSINKI / PARIS / WARSAW – France could soon see 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day due to the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant but the government does not plan to introduce new restrictions for the time being, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Wednesday.

President Emmanuel Macron is counting on an accelerated vaccine booster program to keep the virus in check. Veran said he expected 22-23 million booster doses will have been administered by Christmas, up from 20 million as of Wednesday.

“The objective is not to reduce the speed of the virus’ spread because the variant is too contagious. The objective is to limit the risk of serious cases overwhelming hospitals,” Veran told BFM TV.

“This is why we are moving fast on booster shots.”

France is reporting about 70,000 coronavirus infections a day as it battles a fifth wave of the epidemic.

The Omicron variant will be the dominant strain of the virus in France by early January, Veran said.

France has for months required a health pass for people to enter bars, restaurants, museums and other entertainment venues. In recent days it has closed night clubs and cancelled New Year's Eve firework displays.

However, Veran said there were no plans at this stage for further restrictions or an extension of school holidays, though he cautioned nothing could be ruled out.

France registered a 210 COVID-19 deaths in hospitals on Tuesday, taking the country's total death toll to 94,913.

This photo shows a general view of the offices of British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca PLC in Macclesfield, Cheshire on July 21, 2020. (PAUL ELLIS / AFP)

AstraZeneca Plc

AstraZeneca Plc said on Tuesday it is working with Oxford University to produce a vaccine for the Omicron coronavirus variant, joining other vaccine-makers who are looking to develop the variant-specific vaccine.

"Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an Omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed and will be informed by emerging data," a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.

The Financial Times first reported the news, citing Sandy Douglas, a research group leader at Oxford.

"Adenovirus-based vaccines (such as that made by Oxford/AstraZeneca) could in principle be used to respond to any new variant more rapidly than some may previously have realized," Douglas told FT.

A lab-study last week found that AstraZeneca's antibody cocktail Evusheld retained neutralizing activity against the Omicron variant.

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

Britain

Britain has signed contracts to buy a further 4.25 million courses of antivirals for its health service to help combat the new Omicron variant of coronavirus, it said on Wednesday.

Antivirals are treatments used to either treat those who are infected with a virus or sometimes protect exposed individuals from becoming infected.

The government said the two new contracts are for 1.75 million courses of Merck Sharp and Dohme’s molnupiravir and 2.5 million additional courses of PF-07321332/ritonavir from Pfizer which will be available from early next year.

Meanwhile, the government said that from Wednesday it was reducing the COVID-19 self-isolation period to seven days from 10 days for people in England who get a negative result on a lateral flow test two days in a row.

With the Omicron variant spreading rapidly in Britain and record levels of cases over the past week many industries are struggling with staff shortages, including hospitals who have warned of the risk of an impact on patient safety.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said its analysis suggested a seven-day isolation period alongside two negative lateral flow test results had nearly the same protective effect as a 10-day isolation period without testing.

Rapid lateral flow tests, which are provided free by Britain's National Health Service, can be self-administered by people at home and give a result in 15 to 30 minutes.

Those who receive a negative lateral flow result on day six and day seven of their self-isolation period, with tests taken 24 hours apart, will no longer have to isolate for 10 days, the government said.

The UKHSA said it "strongly advised" those who leave their self-isolation after seven days to limit contact with others in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, work from home and minimize contact with those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

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

Canada

Canada's Quebec province reported 5,043 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, breaking its record of new COVID-19 infections again.

It was the highest single-day total reported in the country since the pandemic began.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault tweeted on Tuesday that his government is considering tightening restrictions further, just one day after announcing sweeping measures that suddenly closed schools, bars and movie theaters.

Meanwhile, the city of Montreal in Quebec announced to reinstate a state of emergency in an effort to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said on Tuesday that "with the number of cases going up with the Omicron variant, we want to be ready if there's an outbreak in a shelter, for example. We will need to isolate people, we will need more beds, more sites."

Up to date, Quebec's total number of COVID-19 cases has hit 495,337 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Quebec government on Tuesday. On this day last year, Quebec had 2,116 new cases of COVID-19, less than half the amount recorded Tuesday.

Canada reported 9,597 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday afternoon, bringing the cumulative total to 1,907,180 cases with 30,082 deaths, according to CTV.

A rapid coronavirus test is taken in a temporary facility outside a pharmacy in Lakatamia a suburb of Nicosia, Cyprus on Dec 13, 2021. (PETROS KARADJIAS / AP)

Cyprus

Faced with spiraling COVID-19 infections and the spread of the new Omicron variant, Cyprus' Health authorities on Tuesday announced fresh anti-coronavirus restrictions for the eighth time in a month.

As of Wednesday, all employed people, except those who have received a booster dose, will have to present a negative weekly PCR or rapid test before being allowed into their workplace, said Health Minister Michalis Hadipantelas.

From Jan 31, 2022, the validity period for a SafePass issued after recovery from a COVID-19 infection is to be halved from six to three months.

The Council of Ministers, which met earlier in the day, also decided to push back the reopening of schools after the two-week Christmas holiday from Jan 7 to Jan. 10, Hadjipantelas said.

On returning to class, all pupils and school staff must present a 72-hour negative rapid antigen test.

As of Wednesday and until Jan 6, unvaccinated children aged 12 to 17 will be required to have a 72-hour negative test before being allowed into restaurants, cafes, and bars, as well as wedding parties. They must also be accompanied by a vaccinated parent or guardian.

This file photo dated April 20, 2021 shows an exterior view of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (PETER DEJONG / FILE / AP)

European Medicines Agency

The European Union's drug regulator said early data shows a boostEuropean Medicines Agencyer dose of a COVID-19 vaccine helps restore some protection against the new Omicron variant, although there is no evidence yet that tweaks to existing shots will be necessary.

"Data is showing that indeed there is a drop in the ability of the (COVID-19) vaccine to exert good neutralization for Omicron," said Marco Cavaleri, head of biological health threats and vaccines strategy at the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

"A booster dose is indeed able to restore quite (a) high level of protection from symptomatic disease," he said later in the same briefing.

EMA Executive Director Emer Cook said the watchdog is prepared for the possibility that COVID-19 vaccines may be tweaked to fight the variant. "There is no answer whether we will need to adapt vaccines," she said in the briefing.

A picture taken on June 16, 2021 in Brussels shows a passport behind a mobile phone whose screen bears a EU Digital COVID-19 certificate. The European health certificate, which Belgium began using on June 16, 2021, will become operational across the EU on July 1, 2021. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

European Union

The European Commission on Tuesday adopted rules that will make the European Union COVID-19 certificate valid for travel nine months after the completion of the primary vaccination schedule.

The proposal comes as several EU states introduce additional requirements on travelers in a bid to reduce the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told Reuters the EU Commission was against additional requirements, and was assessing the measures.

The new rules will be binding on the 27 EU states from Feb 1. The rule can be blocked by a qualified majority of EU governments or a simple majority of European Parliament members, but officials have said there is sufficient support for it. read more

The rule replaces a non-binding recommendation the EU Commission put forward in November.

Once the rule is effective, EU states will be obliged to let fully vaccinated travelers with a valid pass access their territory. However, as an exception justified by a deteriorating situation, they could still impose further requirements, such as negative tests or quarantines, as long as they are proportionate.

Seven EU states are currently requiring fully vaccinated travelers from other EU countries to also show a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival, measures some see as damaging the credibility of the EU pass.

The states are Italy, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Latvia, Cyprus and Austria.

The national measures are mostly limited to the Christmas period, although Italy's extend until the end of January.

The new rules apply only for international travel.

ALSO READ: 2022 must be year to end COVID-19, says WHO

People wearing face masks walk in the city center in Helsinki on Jan 12, 2021. (ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO / AFP)

Finland

Finland will restrict restaurants' opening hours to curb rising COVID-19 infections and the spread of the new Omicron variant, the government said on Wednesday.

Starting on Christmas eve, bars will have to stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m. and close at 10 pm. From Dec 28 onwards, alcohol can only be served until 5 pm and bars need to close by 6 pm and restaurants by 8 pm, the government said in a statement.

Bars are also allowed to take in only 50 percent of maximum customer capacity and restaurants 75 percent, it added.

The government also decided university and other adult students would shift to remote schooling after the Christmas holidays and foreign travellers coming to Finland would need a proof of vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 and a recent negative test result.

Finland has so far allowed restaurants and events to sidestep COVID-19 restrictions based on certification showing proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a recent negative test.

The government has also proposed that COVID-19 certification would be required from healthcare professionals working with people at risk of severe illness due to weakened immunity, and that home test kits would be exempted from value added tax to make them more affordable.

While Finland remains among the countries least affected by the pandemic, its infection rate has been on the rise in recent weeks.

Last week, the Nordic nation of 5.5 million people recorded approximately 13,400 new cases compared to a week earlier when the figure stood at 10,600, according to statistics by the Finnish Health Institute. About 83.3 percent of its people aged 12 and over have now received two vaccine doses.

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 will introduce new measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus including limiting private gatherings for vaccinated people to a maximum of 10 people before New Year's Eve, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday.

Scholz also agreed with the premiers of Germany's 16 federal states that big events, including football matches, would take place without spectators.

Although the steps already introduced, aimed mainly at encouraging people to get vaccinated, were having an effect, a fifth wave threatened Germany, especially due to the omicron variant, Scholz told reporters.

Morocco

Morocco on Tuesday announced that the total number of infections by the Omicron COVID-19 variant rose to 28 in the country.

"Since December 15, when the first case of Omicron was confirmed in the country, the total number of infections by the new variant rose so far to 28," the health ministry said in a statement.

In the confirmed Omicron cases, 13 are concentrated in the Casablanca region and 11 in Rabat, it added.

During the last 24 hours, the North African country registered 381 new COVID-19 cases, including 38 suspected Omicron cases, the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases in more than two months.

A Nigeria civil servant is administered the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, in Abuja, Nigeria on Dec 1, 2021. (GBEMIGA OLAMIKAN / AP)

Nigeria

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday received a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, becoming one of the first recipients of a booster jab in the most populous African country.

Buhari's personal chief personal physician Suhayb Rafindadi administered the vaccine to the president at the state House in Abuja, during a low-key meeting of senior officials.

Faisal Shuaib, head of the country's National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), told reporters at a press briefing in Abuja on Tuesday Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, as well as other top officials, including the Minister of Health Osagie Ehanire, have also received the booster jab.

Meanwhile, Nigeria is now experiencing a fourth COVID-19 wave, health authorities in the country have said, attributing it to the rise in Delta and Omicron variants infections.

The most populous African country has recorded a 500 percent increase in infections in the past two weeks, Ifedayo Adetifa, head of the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), said in a statement sent to Xinhua Tuesday.

"The country is now in a fourth COVID-19 wave," Adetifa said, noting as of Sunday, Nigeria had recorded 223,887 cases and 2,985 deaths in the 36 states and Health authorities in the country are intensifying risk communication efforts to remind Nigerians of the risk and the need to take collective responsibility to reduce transmission of the virus, the senior public health official said.

This file photo taken on Nov 17, 2020 shows vials with COVID-19 Vaccine stickers attached and syringes with the logo of US biotech company Novavax. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Novavax 

Novavax said on Tuesday the World Health Organization's panel of experts had recommended a third dose of its vaccine, NVX-CoV2373, for immunocompromised persons.

The WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, known as SAGE, issued a series of recommendations, including the use of the vaccine in persons with comorbidities, breastfeeding women, and those living with HIV.

After reviewing Novavax data the independent experts said the vaccine could be used in pregnant women if the benefits of vaccination to the pregnant woman outweigh the potential risks.

On Friday, the WHO issued an emergency use listing to Novavax's vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, paving the way for its use in low- and middle-income countries where rollout has been much slower than in Europe. 

ALSO READ: Germany eyes contact restrictions to soften COVID-19 wave

A woman is inoculated with the second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, in Taboga Island, Panama on May 21, 2021. (LUIS ACOSTA / AFP)

Panama

Panama will cut the rollout time for COVID-19 vaccine booster doses in half, the government said on Tuesday, a day after the Central American country said it had detected its first case of the Omicron variant of the virus.

A third vaccine dose will be administered in three months, instead of the six months planned previously, President Laurentino Cortizo said on Twitter.

"Vaccines save lives," he said. "I approved reducing the time of the application of the booster dose to 3 months for the population 16 years and older in nationally authorized centers."

Booster doses by US pharmaceutical company Pfizer will be distributed regardless of whether citizens were previously inoculated with vaccines by Pfizer or AstraZeneca.

At least 6 million vaccines doses have been administered in Panama to its population of about 4.2 million people, according to government data.

To date, 90 percent of the target population in Panama has had at least one vaccine dose and 80 percent has had a second dose.

A woman receives a vaccination certificate after receiving a booster shot against COVID-19, in Warsaw, Poland on Dec 7, 2021.  (CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI / AP)

Poland

Poland reported 775 COVID-19-related deaths on Friday, the highest daily number in the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the data from the health ministry showed.

Poland has been dealing with persistently high daily case numbers in a fourth wave that has forced authorities to tighten restrictions. On Friday Poland reported 18,021 new coronavirus cases with the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic crossing 4 million.

"Unfortunately, (deaths) dominate among the elderly and the unvaccinated… we do not get vaccinated and we go to hospitals too late," ministry's spokesman Wojciech Andrusiewicz told reporters.

The ministry also said that almost 83 percent of 775 people who died last day were over 65 years old, while 73 percent of dead were not vaccinated.

A woman wearing a face mask crosses a street in Lisbon on Nov 25, 2021. (ARMANDO FRANCA / AP)

Portugal

Portugal on Tuesday ordered nightclubs and bars to close and told people to work from home for at least two weeks starting on Saturday to control the spread of COVID-19 over the holiday period.

"This still isn't the normal Christmas we are used to," Prime Minister Antonio Costa told a news conference. "If we do not adopt these measures now, the consequences on everyone's lives will be much worse after Christmas and the New Year."

Costa also announced capacity restrictions at stores and said a negative coronavirus test would now be required to stay at hotels or go to events.

Authorities will also limit outdoor gatherings to 10 people per group on New Year's Eve, when a negative test will be needed to enter restaurants, casinos or attend parties in public spaces, Costa said.

Most of the measures announced by Costa were initially meant to come into force in early January but the current pandemic situation forced the government to implement them ahead of time, he added.

Tunisia

A compulsory vaccine passport will be required to access public spaces from Dec 22 in Tunisia, the Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) reported.

In order to enter structures and offices under the jurisdiction of the state, companies and public, educational and university establishments, kindergartens, cafes and restaurants, a vaccine passport will be mandatory, according to a presidential decree dating from Oct. 22, 2021.

For those who have completed their vaccination, the vaccine passport is available on the country's electronic vaccination platform Evax.

Patients wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot at a mobile vaccination station on 59th Street below Central Park on Dec 2, 2021, in New York. (JOHN MINCHILLO / AP)

United States

US President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday more federal vaccination and testing sites to tackle a surge in COVID-19 driven by the Omicron variant, and said 500 million free at-home rapid tests will be available to Americans starting in January.

Biden offered both a warning to the unvaccinated, who he said have "good reason to be concerned," and reassurance that those who are inoculated can gather for the holidays despite the new variant sweeping the country.

"No this is not March of 2020," Biden told reporters at the White House. "Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated, we're prepared, we know more."

Biden's remarks came as some cities and states imposed new measures aimed at protecting the public, including stricter vaccine mandates.

Striking a dire tone about the risks to the one-in-four American adults who are not fully vaccinated, Biden said they "have a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital or even dying."

Biden noted that former president Donald Trump has also received his booster shot. "Maybe one of the few things he and I agree on," he said.

The measures laid out on Tuesday include activating new pop-up vaccination clinics run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and federal testing sites starting this week, including in hot spot New York City.

This March 30, 2021 photo shows an exterior view of the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (CHEN JUNXIA / XINHUA)

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization's European head on Tuesday warned countries to brace for a "significant surge" in COVID-19 cases as Omicron spreads, and advised the widespread use of boosters for protection.

Since it emerged in late November, Omicron has been detected in at least 38 of the 53 countries in the WHO's European region and is already dominant in several of them including Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, Hans Kluge told a news conference in Vienna.

"We can see another storm coming," said Kluge. "Within weeks, Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink."

The WHO's Europe region includes Russia and other former Soviet republics, as well as Turkey.