S. Africa detects new virus variant with ‘very unusual’ mutations

Health care workers prepare doses of the Pfizer vaccine ahead of a vaccination during the launch of the VaxuMzansi National Vaccine Day Campaign at the Gandhi Phoenix Settlement in Bhambayi township, north of Durban , on Sept 24, 2021. (RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP)

GENEVA / LONDON / PARIS / JOHANNESBURG – South African scientists have detected a new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and are working to understand its potential implications, they said on Thursday.

The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a "very unusual constellation" of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference.

Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant has rapidly increased in the most populated province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country's other eight provinces, they said.

South Africa has confirmed around 100 specimens as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveler from South Africa. As many as 90 percent of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, scientists believe.

"Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be," South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement.

South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organization working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant.

South Africa was the first country to detect the Beta variant last year.

Beta is one of only four labeled "of concern" by the WHO because there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it.

The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant and still only accounts for a small percentage of genomes sequenced in recent months.

A health worker immunizes her colleague with a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Oct 18, 2021. (AIZAR RALDES / AFP)


New COVID-19 cases have jumped 23 percent in the Americas in the last week, mostly in North America where both the United States and Canada are reporting increasing infection rates, the Pan American Health Organization said on Wednesday, warning that the region might be facing a relapse as in Europe.

Canada's Yukon and Northwest territories saw a two- to three-fold increase in new infections over the last week, it said.

In Central America, by contrast, there has been a 37 percent reduction in new infections. In South America, nearly every country except Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela is reporting increasing COVID-19 incidence. The biggest jumps were in Ecuador and Paraguay, PAHO said.

Cases surged 400 percent in Bolivia's Santa Cruz department after recent strikes and protests prevented people from accessing COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites, the health agency said.

While 51 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, there are 19 countries where vaccination coverage is below 40 percent of the population.

PAHO said case surges are mainly in densely populated areas where preventive measures have been lifted or relaxed.

In this file photo taken on Mar 23, 2020,
researchers work on a vaccine against the COVID-19 at the Copenhagen's University research lab in Copenhagen, Denmark. (THIBAULT SAVARY / AFP)


Denmark’s government proposed to make face masks mandatory for people using public transportation in an effort to halt the recent rise in infections.

The country, which has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, had the biggest number of new daily cases on Wednesday since last December, when the government introduced a winter lockdown. Two weeks ago, Denmark reintroduced a so-called corona passport – which shows vaccination, a negative test or immunity – for people attending public events. State workers will have to present the passport to show up physically for work.

European Medical Agency

The EU's drug regulator approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11 on Thursday, paving the way for them to be given a first shot as Europe struggles to contain a surge in infections.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended that Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine, approved for European Union use in teenagers between 12 and 17 years old since May, be given as an injection in the upper arm in two 10 microgram doses, three weeks apart. Adult doses contain 30 micrograms.

The approval comes as Europe is again the epicenter of the pandemic again, accounting for about half of cases and deaths.

Inoculating children and young people, who can unwittingly transmit COVID-19 to others, is considered a critical step towards taming the pandemic. In Germany and the Netherlands, kids now account for the majority of cases.

Pfizer and BioNTech have said their vaccine, which is called Comirnaty, showed 90.7 percent efficacy against the coronavirus in a clinical trial of children aged 5 to 11.

"The benefits of Comirnaty in children aged 5 to 11 outweigh the risks, particularly in those with conditions that increase the risk of severe COVID-19," the EMA said.

While final approval is up to the European Commission, it typically follows EMA recommendations and an EU source told Reuters that a decision would likely come on Friday.

"Today's recommendation (…) is clear the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine is safe and effective for young children, and can offer them additional protection," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said on Twitter.

Countries will not be able to start rolling out the shots among younger children until next month. The first of the low-dose paediatric version will be delivered on Dec. 20, a spokeswoman for BioNTech said.


The European Union will recommend a 9-month time limit for the validity of COVID-19 vaccinations for travel into the bloc and also propose prioritizing vaccinated travelers.

The European Commission will propose that member states should continue welcoming all travelers inoculated with shots approved by the bloc, according to a document seen by Bloomberg. It also calls for countries to reopen as of Jan 10 to all those who have used vaccines approved by the World Health Organization.

The proposed updates introduce the new time limit for the validity of COVID-19 inoculations, suggesting that boosters will be needed beyond the 9-month period.

Countries across the EU are scrambling to counter the pandemic’s fourth wave with varying degrees of restrictions, against a backdrop of uneven vaccination rates

The proposals, which cover travel from outside the EU, are expected to be announced later on Thursday.

EU governments are pushing for the bloc to smooth out differences in rules to help safeguard the ability to travel after governments have employed contrasting approaches to how long vaccinations should last and how to manage booster shots. The commission offers recommendations that could be implemented by member nations.

Shares of Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, fell as much as 1.3 percent on Thursday, while British rival EasyJet Plc and Franco-Dutch flag carrier Air France-KLM also traded lower. Deutsche Lufthansa AG was little changed in Frankfurt after falling as much as 0.8 percent.

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Countries across the EU are scrambling to counter the pandemic’s fourth wave with varying degrees of restrictions, against a backdrop of uneven vaccination rates. Germany is considering compulsory shots for some vulnerable groups, Italy has imposed limits for unvaccinated people, and Denmark is considering mandating face masks in public transport. Austria has restricted leisure travel as part of a three-week lockdown.

As the case numbers continue to rise across Europe, the EU’s executive arm is planning to discontinue its white list of countries from where all travelers are allowed regardless of vaccination status, as of March 1. From that date on, vaccinated and recovered travelers with an EU digital COVID-19 certificate, or an equivalent pass, would be able to enter the bloc.

The revised rules would also allow travel to the EU for children between 6 and 17 years old who have had a negative PCR test done before departure even if they’re not vaccinated. EU countries could require additional testing after arrival, quarantine or self-isolation. The proposals will now go to the members states for approval.

As an additional safeguard, proof of a negative PCR test would be required for all travelers who have been vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine that is not approved by the Europe’s drug regulator, and for recovered travelers, according to the proposals.

Under what the commission calls “a streamlined approach,” as of March 1 the EU would make travel fully dependent on the status of the traveler and not on the country of origin — member states should allow in only vaccinated, recovered or essential travelers. The March timeframe is aimed at giving non-EU countries time to further increase their vaccination rates.

Some of the current thresholds for including countries on the list from which non-essential travel is allowed would be tweaked.

More countries could qualify thanks to a small increase in the threshold of the 14-day cumulative COVID-19 case notification rate, from 75 to 100 cases per 100,000 people. The changes would also include an increase in the weekly testing rate from 300 to 600 tests per 100,000 people.

The travel industry has been watching the bloc’s plans carefully.

After lifting capacity from June through October, European airlines have started to pull back. The number of seats being offered on flights in Austria this week is 39 percent below 2019 levels, a 3 percentage-point drop-off from the start of November, based on data from flight tracker OAG. Similar declines have occurred in France and Germany.

The setback is likely to carry on through Christmas, and could have an impact on summer 2022 holiday planning that typically takes place around year-end, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in an interview this week.

“It’s inevitable that we will undermine confidence between now and Christmas and that will disrupt Christmas and it will also unsettle people between Christmas and New Year, when they normally start booking their summer holidays,” he said, adding that until last week “things were going great.”


France is rolling out COVID-19 booster shots to all adults as it seeks to tackle a fifth wave of the epidemic, Health Minister Olivier Veran told a news conference in Paris on Thursday.

The length of time between primary vaccination and a booster shot will be shortened to five months from six, in line with recommendations from the country’s health authority, Veran added.

Daily coronavirus cases are surging in France, rising above 30,000 for the past two days.

“This fifth wave will be unquestionably stronger and longer than the fourth wave,” Veran said, adding that people staying indoors during the winter months would facilitate its spread.

Veran said, however, that the government didn’t plan to resort to further lockdowns or curfews..

People queue up in front of a coronavirus testing station on Nov 24, 2021 in Berlin, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


Germany passed 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, with new infections still rising and hospitals in some cities becoming overwhelmed.

Olaf Scholz, who will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, said his coalition government would consider vaccine mandates for people who work with vulnerable groups. Scholz said his government, which is expected to be sworn in in early December, will do everything to fight the pandemic.

Merkel asked members of the new coalition to impose a two-week lockdown but officials refused, according to a report by the newspaper Bild.


Italy on Wednesday tightened the screws on people unwilling to take an anti-COVID-19 vaccine, sharply restricting access to an array of services and making vaccines mandatory for a wider group of public sector workers.

Italy acted as much of Europe is increasing restrictions to try to grapple with a new wave of the pandemic. 

Under the Italian measures, which will come into force from Dec 6, unvaccinated people will not be able to enter venues such as cinemas, restaurants and sports events, Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government said in a statement.

The government extended mandatory vaccination, already in force for healthcare workers, to all school staff, police and the military, beginning from Dec 15.

In addition, third doses of the vaccine, so-called "boosters", currently available to those over 40 years of age will be made available to everyone over the age of 18.

The measures tighten the requirements for a Green Pass, a certificate that allowed the vaccinated access to various leisure activities and services, to exclude people who have received a negative test in the past 48 hours but have not had a COVID-19 shot.

For access to public transport the Green Pass will be available to those with a negative test, not just the vaccinated, the government said.


Oslo is recommending that face masks be used again in shops and on public transport after a rise in infections in the Norwegian capital. A balance needs to be found between an open society and measures to limit infection, Governing Mayor Raymond Johansen told a meeting of the city council on Wednesday.

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing its worst spike in cases, with at least five hospitals at over 80 percent capacity – one of several Caribbean countries struggling with an uptick in infections, the Pan-American Health Organization said.

While Central America saw a 37 percent drop in new cases over the past week, in South America almost every country but Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela reported increased rates, with the largest jumps in Ecuador and Paraguay.

“Even though COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly over the last few months, COVID-19 transmission is still active across our region,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said during a weekly press event. “Every time we lower our guard, the virus gains momentum.”

In this file photo taken on Aug 9, 2021,
people pass signs indicating the entrance to the London Bridge Vaccination Center in London. (TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)


Britain registered 43,676 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 9,974,843, according to official figures released Wednesday.

The country also reported a further 149 coronavirus-related deaths. The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain now stands at 144,286, with 8,088 COVID-19 patients still in hospital.

A medical worker fills a syringe with a vaccine against the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Frankfurt am Main on Nov 23, 2021 during an event where people in need are offered the vaccination and a meal. (THOMAS LOHNES / AFP)


Europe is once again the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic amid a "false sense of security" over the protection offered by vaccines, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday.

WHO officials warned that the SARS-CoV-2 virus would keep spreading intensely as societies return to the social mixing and mobility of a pre-pandemic period in the run-up to the year-end holidays.

Last week, more than 60 percent of all reported cases and deaths from COVID-19 globally were in Europe, Tedros told a news conference.

Vaccination, wearing masks and social distancing remain key to halting transmission, WHO officials said."In many countries and communities, we are concerned about a false sense of security that vaccines have ended the pandemic, and that people who are vaccinated do not need to take any other precautions," he said.

"We are back to pre-pandemic levels of social mixing (in Europe)… even in the midst of very strong resurgence in cases and even in the midst of some of those countries under high pressure in health systems," WHO emergency director Mike Ryan said.

"And the reality is the virus will continue to transmit intensely in that environment,” he said.

WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said that it was important to take measures during the holiday period, adding: "Social measures do not mean lockdowns."

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, asked about the European Union's new recommendation for COVID-19 boosters for people over 40, said that the priority should remain inoculating all adults and the most vulnerable groups first.

"Focus on the unvaccinated and high-risk groups," she said.

Tedros voiced hope that a consensus can be found at World Trade Organization ministerial next week for an IP waiver for pandemic vaccines, already supported by more than 100 countries.

He was encouraged about a 'broad consensus' being reached on an international agreement on preventing pandemics at his agency's separate meeting of health ministers from its 194 member states next week.

He stopped short of calling for a "treaty" – as sought by many European Union members and other states but said it should be a "binding pact" to manage future pandemics better.