WHO: Omicron variant less severe but not 'mild'
As the omicron variant of the coronavirus drives up infections worldwide, cases do not initially appear as severe as with the delta variant, the World Health Organization said on Thursday. Still, the global health body warned against categorizing omicron as "mild."
"Just like previous variants; Omicron is hospitalising people and it is killing people," said a WHO tweet quoting its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick, that it is overwhelming health systems around the world."
A record 9.5 million cases of COVID-19 were confirmed around the world over the last week, a 71% surge in the weekly count of infections, the WHO reported at the Thursday press conference.
WHO emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, said speculation that omicron might be the last variant of the pandemic was "wishful thinking." He added that "there still is a lot of energy in this virus."
Here are the latest major developments on coronavirus from around the world:
Austria announced stricter mask-wearing rules to start on Saturday as the omicron variant spreads across the country. Medical masks will have to be worn in crowded areas outdoors whenever people cannot stay 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) from each other. The new rules also require retail store owners to check shoppers' vaccination or recovery status.
France recorded 332,200 new infections in a 24-hour period on Wednesday, which is Europe's highest single-day number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. It was also the first time that French infections breached the 300,000-mark as the country continues to break daily case records during an omicron-driven surge.
The number of COVID hospitalizations has seen an uptick, with 72% of French ICU beds occupied by people with the virus, The Associated Press reported. While hospitals prepare for a potential surge in patients, authorities remain hopeful that France's high vaccination rate of around 90% will prevent many people from developing severe infections.
Italy has approved mandatory COVID vaccinations for people over the age of 50 as the country struggles with a new surge of infections fueled by the omicron variant of the virus.
"We want to put the brakes on the growth of the curve of contagion and push Italians who are still not vaccinated to do so," Prime Minister Mario Draghi reportedly told his ministers at a cabinet meeting.
Germany is looking at cutting self-quarantine times of those who test positive for COVID-19 in order to keep critical services up and running.
Under draft proposals being considered by regional leaders, workers in critical sectors, like hospitals and public utilities, could end their isolation after five days if they test negative on a PCR test.
Isolation for the general population could also be reduced to seven days with a negative PCR test.
Currently, the government has a 14-day isolation policy.
Meanwhile, Germany reported 64,340 new COVID infections on Wednesday, taking the country's total tally to 7,361,660, according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases. With 443 deaths over the past 24 hours, the total toll has risen to 113,368.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the arrest of unvaccinated people who go outside in violation of a stay-at-home order intended to slow coronavirus infections driven by the omicron variant. Unvaccinated people in Manila were ordered to stay home after infection numbers tripled in the last two days.
New infections surged to more than 17,000 on Thursday, rising more than threefold from Tuesday's toll, according to Health Department data. The disease has infected 2.9 million people in the country, nearly 52,000 of whom have died.
US military bases in Japan are strengthening COVID measures after the Japanese government asked US authorities to impose stricter countermeasures at its military installations in the country.
"The mitigation measures we have instituted ... are intended to protect our force's readiness, the well-being of our families, and the health of Japan’s citizens," US Forces Japan said in a release. "We recognize we all have a part to play in keeping our communities safe."
This comes after a call between Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
A flight from Milan, Italy, to Amritsar, India, landed with 70% onboard testing positive for the coronavirus. Despite having to show a negative COVID test before boarding the aircraft, 125 of the 160 adults on the plane tested positive upon arrival and were put into quarantine, according to Indian media reports.
After suffering a pandemic wave in the spring and summer, India had, until recently, seen low numbers of infections and deaths. The country recorded 90,928 new infections in the last 24 hours, a 57% increase from the day before. The Health Ministry said 325 new deaths were reported in the same period.
Thailand has raised its COVID-19 alert level from three to four to help curb the spread of the omicron variant. Experts say the change could set the tone for further restrictions, including closing high-risk areas and restrictions on domestic travel or public gatherings.
The Health Ministry in Israel has recommended removing all the countries currently on an omicron no-fly list. The move will allow travel to the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mexico, Switzerland and Turkey.
Israel had imposed travel restrictions on those countries last month after the discovery of the omicron variant. But experts say they are no longer sensible as omicron has spread widely within Israel. The number of reported daily new infections in the country of 9.4 million reached a peak of 16,115 on Thursday.
Tennis player Novak Djokovic was denied entry to Australia after almost nine hours at an airport in Melbourne. He was scheduled to play at the Australian Open, which runs from January 17 to January 30.
The organizers had stipulated that only fully vaccinated players or those with an official medical exemption will be allowed to play.
Earlier this week, Djokovic, an outspoken vaccine skeptic, claimed he had "exemption permission" and would be able to compete. Australian authorities said his exemption was not valid.
Brazil has reported its highest daily number of infections since September – 35,826 new cases – and 128 deaths from COVID-19, according to the country’s health ministry.
Since the pandemic began, Brazil has registered 22,386,930 cases. The official death toll now stands at 619,641.
Brazil will start vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11 later this month. Under new government guidelines, vaccinations will not require prescriptions from doctors.
Nearly three weeks ago, the country approved the use of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for children. The move was met with resistance by President Jair Bolsonaro, a vaccine skeptic, who warned of possible side effects.
Meanwhile, in the grip of a third wave as the omicron variant spreads, Argentina has reported its highest number of cases ever – at 109,608.
However, the record has so far not translated into a similar exponential rise in COVID-related deaths. These totaled 40 over a 24-hour period, the governnent said.
In recent months, Argentina accelerated its vaccination campaign, starting with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, followed by AstraZeneca and Sinopharm and, later, CanSino, Pfizer and Moderna.
An advisory panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has voted to recommend a BioNTech-Pfizer booster for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17.
This comes as the US struggles with a massive surge in omicron infections.
The uncertainty around the new variant has led to the postponement of the Grammy Awards and pushed the renowned Sundance Film Festival online.
see, sms/wmr (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)