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Coronavirus digest: WHO warns world creating 'toxic' recipe for new variants

The WHO said low inoculation rates are fueling variants of COVID-19. Meanwhile, South African health experts believe there's a chance the omicron variant may not cause severe infection. DW has the latest.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that low vaccination rates and testing are contributing to new COVI-19 variants

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Wednesday that low inoculation rates and testing were a "toxic mix" fueling new COVID-19 strains. 

"Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing — a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

"We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from omicron," he said. 

The variant has been detected in two dozen countries, including the United States and Germany, since South African scientists raised the alarm. The global health body said it could still take a few weeks to determine the threat omicron presents.

Earlier the WHO also revised its travel advice for unvaccinated, vulnerable travelers hours after it was first released. 

In its original advisory, the UN health agency urged people who are unwell or at risk of developing severe COVID to postpone travel amid concerns over the omicron variant. This included people 60 years of age and older, and those with co-morbidities, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

The revised statement said high-risk groups who haven’t been fully vaccinated or don't have proof of an earlier infection are advised to postpone travel to areas with "community transmission."

Watch video 02:54

Ghebreyesus: the world needs a new accord on pandemics

Here are some more coronavirus headlines from around the world:

Europe

Austria has extended its COVID lockdown by 20 days after a parliamentary committee signed off on the extension. Last week, Austria became the first country in western Europe to reimpose a lockdown. 

After the extension, the total duration of the lockdown has increased to 20 days, which is the longest it will last, according to the conservative-led government. 

Belgium is looking to buy 10,000 doses of Merck & Co Inc’s antiviral COVID-19 pill. Brussels is in talks with the US pharmaceutical to purchase the doses that have been developed in partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics according to the country’s federal health ministry.

Germany has reported the highest number of daily deaths from coronavirus since mid-February on Wednesday, with 446 fatalities — the highest daily figure since February 18. It brings the overall death toll to 101,790.

Medics have warned that there could be 6,000 people in intensive care by Christmas — a figure that would be above the peak of last winter.

There were 67,186 new COVID infections on Wednesday, according to the latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases. The coronavirus incidence rate fell to 442.9, only the second time in three weeks that Germany’s nationwide seven-day incidence has declined slightly.

Four people in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg have tested positive for the omicron variant, despite having been fully vaccinated against coronavirus.

Watch video 01:32

COVID-19: How dangerous is omicron for Europe?

France is ramping up its COVID-19 booster vaccination drive while tightening entry rules for travelers from outside the EU, as the country tries to mitigate the spread of the omicron variant. According to government spokesman Gabriel Attal, flights from southern African countries resume on Saturday but specifically for people returning to their main residences.

The French government is also aiming to get 10 million people a third dose of vaccine by the end of the week. More than three-quarters of the population has received two doses of vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) believes the new omicron variant poses a threat to the recovery of the global economy.

As a result the growth forecast for this year has been lowered from 5.7 percent to 5.6 percent.

The chief economist of the OECD Laurence Boone said: "We are concerned that the new variant of the virus, the omicron strain, is further adding to the already high levels of uncertainty and risks, and that could be a threat to the recovery."

High inflation was another key concern, with an expected peak at the end of the year.

In Sweden the European Centre for Disease Precention and Control (ECDC) said at least 11 EU members states have detected cases of omicron.

In all there have been 59 cases including 16 in the Netherlands, 14 in Portugal and 9 recorded in Germany.

There are concerns over the true extent of infections although to date none of the cases have been severe or resulted in death.

Africa

South Africa was the first to identify the omicron variant of COVID-19 and raised the alarm, but the country's citizens were also speedily shut down from traveling to several countries. England led the charge of countries moving quickly to ban travel from southern African states. There has been sharp criticism for that response, with some suggesting that it may lead to hesitance from countries who detect future variants. 

South African epidemiologist Professor Salim Abdool Karim told DW the world's response to South Africa identifying strain sent out the wrong message.

"I think that travel bans are just quite outrageous," he said. "Essentially, the message that is being sent to a country like South Africa and to any other country, if you have good surveillance and you identify a new variant early, don't tell anybody because if you do, they'll punish you, they will isolate you."

Karim said there's a sense that the omicron variant may not be as severe as feared because of vaccinations and previous infection, although it could still be too early to tell.

"We're not expecting that it will be particularly more severe or a disease that's more severe or harmful," he said. "We are expecting that vaccination will protect against severe disease because severe disease is protected largely by T-cell immunity, rather than the antibodies, which have some level of escape."

Watch video 05:45

South African disease expert calls travel bans 'outrageous'

South African authorities said on Wednesday that COVID-19 cases rose to 8,561 from 4,373 the day before as the caseload almost doubled.

Scientists in the country said they were expecting a surge in cases in the days and weeks ahead.

"There is a possibility that really we're going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the
week unfolds,'' Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press.


Nigeria has confirmed its first cases of the omicron variant with two travelers testing positive, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said on Wednesday. The travelers arrived from South Africa last week.

The NCDC also said that retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed COVID-19 cases among travelers to Nigeria had detected the omicron variant in a test sample from October. 

Asia

Malaysia is set to impose a temporary ban on the entry of travelers from countries that have reported the omicron variant of the virus or are considered at risk. 

Hong Kong has extended its entry ban on non-residents from Japan, Portugal and Sweden over omicron concerns. The ban will come into effect on Friday.

All non-residents who have been in these countries over the last 21 days will not be allowed into Hong Kong. Only fully-vaccinated residents will be allowed to board flights. However, they will need to complete 21 days of quarantine at a hotel, at their own cost.

South Korea reported a record rise in daily infections with 5,123 new coronavirus cases, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Wednesday. This comes a day after the government delayed plans to relax virus-linked curbs.

Watch video 01:58

Travelers stranded as countries try to keep Omicron out

Japan has recorded a second omicron variant infection as the country began offering coronavirus vaccine booster shots to health care workers amid growing concerns over the variant.

On Wednesday, Japan's transport ministry asked international airlines to stop taking new reservations for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December. Already made reservations will not be affected, although flights may be canceled if there are insufficient passenger numbers,  the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said.

Americas

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that it is working to tighten testing requirements for air travelers amid rising concerns about the new omicron variant, which after being uncovered in some 20 countries also appeared in the United States on Wednesday.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, the CDC said it was working to revise its Global Testing Order "for travel as we learn more about the omicron variant; a revised order would shorten the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States."

According to reports, the Biden administration is also considering whether air travelers should get another test three to five days after their arrival in the US.

Watch video 01:55

Governments respond to omicron variant

A panel of US health advisers backed a new COVID-19 pill in a 13-10 vote. If the drug is authorized, this will be the first treatment for the virus Americans can use at home. 

The panel's recommendation is not binding and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is expected to make its own decision by the end of the year. 

The Molnupiravir drug is already authorized for use in the UK.

Watch video 03:25

Virologist Grundhoff explains why Omicron is so dangerous

The omicron variant has been detected in two travelers returning to Brazil from South Africa, health officials reported late Tuesday. These are the first confirmed cases of the variant in Latin America.

Oceania

Fiji is welcoming back its first tourists after more than 600 days, having pushed ahead with reopening plans.

The relaxation comes despite the threat posed by the newly detected omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.

The Pacific nation's economy — which relies on tourism — took one of the biggest pandemic-related hits in the world last year. It declined by 19%, prompting the government to offer unemployed people tools and money to become farmers.

Catch up in DW content

India is pulling out all the stops to avoid a repeat of the devastating wave of delta-fueled infections earlier this year, by ramping up testing while stepping up screening and surveillance of international travelers.

Travel bans have been part of the pandemic response — especially with the arrival of new variants like omicron. The WHO has criticized the practice, but that hasn't stopped countries from going ahead with it. Are travel restrictions doing more harm than good?

After lockdowns knocked several taxis out of business, partygoers and late-night workers are struggling to catch cab rides home as South Korean cities grapple with taxi shortages.

kb,see/rt,wmr (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

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