S. Africa readies hospitals as Omicron drives new virus wave

People wait to be tested for 'COVID-19 at a facility in Soweto, South Africa, on Dec 2, 2021. (DENIS FARRELL / AP)

BRUSSELS / BERLIN / LONDON / MOSCOW / DAKAR / HAVANA / OTTAWA / JOHANNESBURG – South Africa is preparing its hospitals for more admissions, as the Omicron coronavirus variant pushes the country into a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday.

Omicron was first detected in southern Africa last month and has triggered global alarm as governments fear another surge in infections.

South Africa's daily infections surged last week to more than 16,000 on Friday from roughly 2,300 on Monday.

Ramaphosa said in a weekly newsletter that Omicron appeared to be dominating new cases in most of the country's nine provinces and urged more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"South Africa now has sufficient supplies of vaccines, … vaccination is essential for our economic recovery because as more people are vaccinated more areas of economic activity will be opened up," he said.

The government would soon convene the National Coronavirus Command Council to review the state of the pandemic and decide whether further measures are needed to keep people safe, Ramaphosa said.

A military personnel inoculate a dose of SinoVac vaccine to a citizen at a mobile clinic in Emganwini township, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on 3 Aug 2021. (ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

Africa

Africa has little chance of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic unless 70 percent of its population is vaccinated by end-2022, yet "extreme vaccine discrimination" is leaving the continent behind, a report published on Monday said.

Only five of Africa's 54 countries are on track to reach a World Health Organisation target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of the population by end-2021, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation said in a report on COVID-19 in Africa.

One in 15 Africans has been fully vaccinated, against nearly 70 percent in the G7 group of richer nations, according to data from the foundation, which was set up by the Sudanese telecoms billionaire to promote better governance and economic development in Africa.

"From early in this crisis, our Foundation and other African voices have been warning that an un-vaccinated Africa could become a perfect incubator for variants," its chair Mo Ibrahim said in a statement.

"The emergence of Omicron reminds us that COVID-19 remains a global threat, and that vaccinating the whole world is the only way forward," he added. "Yet we continue to live with extreme vaccine discrimination, and Africa in particular is being left behind."

Vaccines have been in short supply in Africa after developed countries secured initial orders from pharmaceutical companies and the global vaccine-sharing program, COVAX, got off to a slow start.

Deliveries of vaccines to Africa have picked up in recent months, but weak healthcare systems and limited infrastructure are holding back rollouts once they arrive, according to the report.

Austria

Austrians who reject mandatory coronavirus vaccinations face 600-euro ($677) fines, according to a draft law seen by the Kurier newspaper.

Penalties may be assessed every three months, putting vaccine deniers on the hook for as much as 2,400 euros a year, according to the newspaper. The amount is lower than earlier projections suggested by some officials.

Riot police police use a tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against coronavirus measures in Brussels, Belgium on Dec 5, 2021. (GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT / AP)

Belgium

Police fired teargas and used water cannons on Sunday to disperse protesters pelting officers with cobblestones and fireworks as a demonstration in Brussels over government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions turned violent.

A few thousand protesters marched peacefully through the centre of the Belgian capital to the neighbourhood which hosts the headquarters of European Union institutions, where the demonstration reached its end point.

In the EU quarter a group of protesters wearing black hoods and chanting "liberte" (freedom) started to throw stones at the police, who reacted with teargas and water cannons, according to footage and reports from Reuters journalists present.

Demonstrators were protesting rules imposed in October that oblige people to show COVID-19 passes to access bars and restaurants.

Riot police officers clash with demonstrators during a protest against coronavirus measures in Brussels, Belgium on Dec 5, 2021. (GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT / AP)

"I can't bear discrimination in any form, and now there's the vaccine pass which is discriminatory, sanctions for (unvaccinated) carers which are discriminatory too, there's mandatory vaccination which is heading our way," one protestor, martial arts teacher Alain Sienaort, said.

"That's all discrimination, so we have to fight it. We don't want a dictatorship."

The protest followed new measures announced on Friday to curb one of Europe's highest infection rates, including mandatory mask wearing for most primary school children and a lengthening of the school holidays.

In late November, a much larger number of demonstrators clashed violently with the police in Brussels. That led to dozens of arrests, injuries among police officers and widespread property damage.

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

Britain

A further 86 cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant have been reported in Britain, taking the total to 246, British health authorities confirmed Sunday.

This compares with a total of 160 on Saturday, an increase of more than 50 percent, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Britain registered 43,992 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 10,464,389, according to official figures released on Sunday.

The country also reported a further 54 coronavirus-related deaths. The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain now stands at 145,605. These figures only include the deaths of people who died within 28 days of their first positive test.

Canada

Canada's populous provinces saw increasing daily COVID-19 cases recently, as more people gather indoors in the winter.

Ontario, the most populous province with a population of 14 million, reported 1,184 new COVID-19 cases Sunday morning.

It is the highest number in a single day since May 28. The province's rolling seven-day average of COVID-19 cases now stands at 926, up from 760 at this point last week.

The cumulative caseload of the province has risen to 623,497, including 10,024 deaths.

Of the reported cases on Sunday, 557 are people who were fully vaccinated, 536 are unvaccinated, and 22 have received one vaccine dose.

"Individuals who are not fully vaccinated represent 23.4 percent of Ontario's total population," Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Twitter Sunday.

Meanwhile, Quebec, the second most populous province, with a population of 8.4 million, reported 1,256 new COVID-19 cases Sunday morning, raising the cumulative caseload to 454,636, including 11,587 deaths.

According to the Quebec government, 81 percent of eligible Quebecers aged five and up are now fully vaccinated, with 86 percent having received at least one dose.

Children attend a ceremony to mark the resuming of the 2020-2021 school year at the educational centre Ciudad Escolar Libertad in Havana, on Nov 15, 2021. (Yamil LAGE / AFP)

Cuba

Cuba registered 88 cases and two deaths from COVID-19 over the past day, bringing the total to 963,090 confirmed infections and 8,309 fatalities, the Ministry of Public Health (Minsap) reported on Sunday.

Minsap said that 549 people were currently hospitalized with the disease, the lowest figure in months.

The central province of Camaguey registered the highest number of infections over the past day with 22, followed by Holguin with 15, and Villa Clara with 11.

Denmark

Denmark had as of Sunday registered 183 cases of the Omicron variant, up from 135 a day earlier, SSI, the country’s institute for infectious diseases, said in a statement. 

The number of infections is rising at a “worrying” pace, Henrik Ullum, the head of SSI, said in the statement. 

“We now see infection chains among people who haven’t been traveling or have had connections with travelers,” he said.

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An SOS message can be read on the facade of the Ostallgoeu-Kaufbeuren hospitals in Kaufberen, Germany on Dec 5, 2021 to draw attention to the critical situation in the hospitals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (KARL-JOSEF HILDENBRAND / DPA VIA AP)

Germany

The incoming German government wants to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory from March 16 for people working in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical practices, according to a copy of draft legislation seen by Reuters on Sunday.

Germany has been reticent about making vaccines compulsory for fear of exacerbating a shortage of medical and nursing home staff, but support has grown for the idea as the country has faced surging infections in a fourth wave of the pandemic.

The Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, which are set to form the new German government on Wednesday, are set to present the legislation to parliament in the coming week.

The draft seen by Reuters said staff working in these areas would have to prove that they are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 or present a medical certificate to show they cannot be vaccinated by March 15.

As the country seeks to vaccinate or offer boosters to 30 million people before Christmas, the draft legislation also grants permission for dentists, veterinarians and pharmacists to be allowed to give shots for a temporary period with the appropriate training.

The proposed legislation extends until Feb 15 temporary measures that would allow Germany's federal states to introduce more drastic lockdown measures if needed.

In this file photo taken on Aug 6, 2021, a
visitor shows his COVID-19 certificates for scanning before entering the Vatican Museums in the Vatican. (ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Italy

Italy is cracking down on the small minority that has so far refused the shot. 

As of Monday, a “green pass” – proof of vaccination, recovery or a recent negative test – will be required for buses, metro, local trains and hotels. It’s already compulsory for working, long-distance travel and most indoor venues.

The new “reinforced” green pass will also be needed for many leisure activities, including eating inside restaurants, going to theaters, cinemas, sporting and other public events.

This photo shows a view of vials of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, at the Assad Iben El Fourat school in Oued Ellil, outside Tunis on Aug 15, 2021. (HASSENE DRIDI / AP)

Moderna Inc

Moderna Inc President Stephen Hoge said there’s a clear risk that existing COVID-19 vaccines will be less effective against the Omicron variant, though it’s too early to say by how much.

An updated formulation would be probably be needed if effectiveness is shown to drop by something like half, Hoge said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

“I think that there’s a real risk that we’re going to see a decrease in the effectiveness of the vaccines,” Hoge said. “What I don’t know is how substantial that is.”

“Are we going to see something more like a 50 percent decrease in efficacy, which would really mean we’d probably need to reboot the vaccines and update them?”

Roche Holding AG

Roche Holding AG plans to introduce a test next month in Europe that can differentiate between SARS-CoV-2 and flu viruses, the Swiss drugs and diagnostics maker said on Monday.

The test will deliver results within a half hour and will help doctors figure out quickly which virus is causing a patient’s symptoms, Roche said. 

The company aims to bring the test to the European market in January and seek US emergency use authorization in early 2022.

Russia

Russia confirmed 32,602 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 9,801,613, the official monitoring and response center said on Sunday.

The national death toll grew by 1,206 to 281,278, while the number of recoveries increased by 30,593 to 8,502,406.

Segenal

Senegal has recorded its first case of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in a tourist who attended a demonstration in the capital Dakar last month with about 300 people of varying nationalities, testing lab IRESSEF said on Sunday.

The 58-year-old man was visiting from another West African country and tested positive when leaving Senegal on Friday. He is under quarantine and has no symptoms, the lab said in a statement.

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People wait in line outside a COVID-19 walk-in testing site on Dec 5, 2021, in Cambridge, Massechusetts. (MICHAEL DWYER / AP)

United States

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread to about one-third of US states, but the Delta version remains the majority of COVID-19 infections as cases rise nationwide, US health officials said on Sunday.

Though the emergence of the new variant has caused alarm worldwide, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease official, told CNN "thus far it does not look like there's a great degree of severity to it." He added that it was too early to draw definitive conclusions and that more study is needed.

Despite several dozen Omicron cases, the Delta variant still accounts for 99.9 percent of new COVID cases in the United States, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told ABC News in an interview.

"We are everyday hearing about more and more probable cases so that number is likely to rise," she said.

Louisiana currently has one Omicron case from an individual who traveled within the United States, its health department said on Sunday.