Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

The Omicron variant has been detected in at least 38 countries, but no deaths have yet been reported, the World Health Organization has said, amid warnings that it could hurt the global economic recovery.

The United States and Australia became the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, as Omicron infections pushed South Africa’s total cases to over 3 million.

The WHO has warned that it can take weeks to determine how contagious the variant is, whether it causes more serious illness, and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it.

“We will get the answers that everyone out there needs,” said WHO’s emergency director, Michael Ryan.

The WHO said on Friday it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to Omicron, but the spread of the new variant has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s Covid cases in the next few months.

The new variant could also slow the global economic recovery, as did the Delta tribe, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, said on Friday.

“Even before the advent of this new variant, we were concerned that the recovery, while it continues, is losing some momentum,” she said. “A new variant that can spread very quickly can weaken self-confidence.”

A preliminary study conducted by researchers in South Africa, where the variant was first reported on November 24, suggests that it is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains.

Omicron Covid variant: premature to say disease severity - video
Omicron Covid variant: premature to say disease severity – video

The emergence of Omicron was the “ultimate proof” of the danger of unequal global vaccination rates, said Red Cross chief Francesco Rocca.

“The scientific community has warned … on several occasions about the risk of very new varieties in places where there is a very low frequency of vaccinations,” he said.

“It’s incredible that we still do not realize how much we are connected. That’s why I call the Omicron variant the ultimate proof.”

People receive Covid vaccines in Lawley, South Africa.
People receive Covid vaccines in Lawley, South Africa. Photo: Jérôme Delay / AP

Uğur Şahin, CEO of BioNTech, which manufactures the Covid vaccine with Pfizer, said the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly. He said current vaccines should continue to provide protection against serious illness despite mutations.

“I believe in principle that at some point we will need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgent it must be available,” Şahin said.

IN USA, six more states confirmed infections of the Omicron variant on Friday.

New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Utah each reported their first case of Omicron. It has also been found in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota and New York. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they were investigating possible cases of the Omicron variant in other states.

Two cases involved residents without recent international travel history – showing that Omicron is already circulating in the country.

Australia on Friday, three students in Sydney who tested positive for the variant reported, despite a ban on non-nationals entering the country and restrictions on flights from southern Africa.

Canada has detected a total of 15 cases of the new Omicron variant. On Friday, the public health chief, Theresa Tam, announced 11 Omicron cases, all involving individuals who had recently traveled abroad.

A few hours after she spoke, the city of York said a child under 12 had been diagnosed with Omicron. The child had recently traveled to southern Africa. Toronto then reported its first three cases of Omicron late Friday, with two of those individuals having recently returned from Nigeria while another person had returned from Switzerland.

IN Norway, officials said that at least 13 people who received Covid-19 after an office Christmas party in Oslo last week had the Omicron variant – although so far they have only had mild symptoms.

But the government imposed restrictions in greater Oslo after fears of the cluster surfaced.

A pedestrian in Seoul walks past an exhibition billboard where it says
A pedestrian in Seoul walks past an exhibition billboard that reads “Our Lives Beyond Epidemics”. Photo: Seokyong Lee / Penta Press / REX / Shutterstock

South Korea again broke its daily records for coronavirus infections and deaths and confirmed three more cases of the new Omicron variant.

The 5,352 new cases marked the third time this week that the daily figure exceeded 5,000. The country’s death toll was 3,809, after a record 70 patients died within the last 24 hours, while the 752 patients under severe or critical conditions were also at a record high.

The country’s Omicron case volume is now at nine, after three more cases were confirmed, linked to a couple who had arrived from Nigeria on 24 November. Officials say the number of Omicron cases may increase as some of the patients had attended a church rally involving hundreds of people on Nov. 28.

On Friday, Malaysia also reported a first Omicron infection in a foreign student who arrived from South Africa on 19 November. Sri Lanka also announced his first case, a citizen returning from South Africa.

Rising Delta cases had already forced European governments to reintroduce mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, curfews or lockdowns, leaving companies fearing another gloomy Christmas.

Belgian authorities said Friday that elementary schools would close a week before the Christmas break.

Of Germany regional leaders agreed on new measures, including a ban on fireworks at New Year’s parties to discourage large gatherings.

Ireland said it will close nightclubs and reintroduce social distancing in some settings over Christmas and New Year.

Meanwhile in Brazil, a Supreme Court judge has ordered that President Jair Bolsonaro be investigated for comments linking Covid-19 vaccines to AIDS – a claim rejected by doctors and scientists.

Alexandre de Moraes instructed the country’s top prosecutor, Augusto Aras, to investigate the charge raised by a pandemic investigation conducted by the Brazilian Senate.

Bolsonaro said in a video in October that “official reports from the UK government suggest that fully vaccinated people … are developing acquired immune deficiency syndrome much faster than expected”. Facebook and Instagram removed that video days later.

The Brazilian president, who remains unvaccinated and has often pressed against vaccine mandates, claimed he was merely quoting an article in Exame magazine and did not make any allegations.

Moraes said in his decision that Bolsonaro “used modus operandi for mass dissemination schemes in social networks”, which requires further investigation.

Aras, however, rarely goes against the president and has not opened an investigation into Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic despite calls from the Senate committee to do so.

With Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Associated Press

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