Germany cracks down on unvaccinated as Omicron concerns spread

Germany on Thursday announced a Covid lockdown for the unvaccinated, as the UK reported its highest number of Covid cases since July, and Norway announced new measures in the Oslo area after a suspected cluster of Omicron cases emerged among dozens of vaccinated people linked to a company Christmas party.

The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa last week, and has since spread to dozens of countries worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the new strain poses a "very high" global risk, and has urged governments to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups. France announced yesterday that a negative Covid-19 test will be mandatory for all travellers arriving from outside the EU.

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23:45 Paris time: Third US state detects Omicron case

Health officials in the U.S. state of Colorado have identified a case of the Omicron Covid-19 variant in a woman who recently traveled to southern Africa, local officials said on Thursday.

The Minnesota case reported earlier Thursday remains the only one in the US attributed to community transmission so far.

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21:20 Paris time: Biden tightens US restrictions

The US government will now require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for 100% of the cost of over-the-counter, at-home Covid tests, administration officials said, and make 50 million more tests available free through rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.

The White House also unveiled a requirement that all inbound international travelers be tested within one day of flying. This will apply to all travelers, both US and foreign, regardless of vaccination status.

For domestic travelers, President Joe Biden will announce he is extending a mask mandate on airplanes, trains and other public transport through mid-March.

Biden repeatedly stressed in recent days that there will be no return to mass shutdowns.

But the White House also faces the challenge that many Americans are not receptive to Biden's appeals for collective action. Despite ever-more creative attempts to encourage people to get their shots, about 40 percent of the country has yet to be fully vaccinated.

20:10 Paris time: US announces first known case of Omicron community transmission

Health authorities in the midwestern US state of Minnesota announced they had found another case of the Omicron coronavirus variant on American soil, this time in a man with no known recent international travel history.

Like the first identified US case in California, the patient was vaccinated, and had mild symptoms from which he has now recovered. Minnesota officials said he had also received a booster.

He returned to the Minneapolis area from an anime convention in New York City, held November 19-21, before developing symptoms on November 22 and getting tested two days later.

19:35 Paris time: Reinfection risk three times higher from Omicron, S. Africa health body warns

The Omicron variant poses a threefold higher risk of reinfection than the currently dominant Delta variant and the Beta strain, a group of South African health bodies said.

The South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis along with National Institute of Communicable Diseases said latest findings "provide epidemiological evidence for Omicron's ability to evade immunity from prior infection".

19:30 Paris time: EU warns Omicron may become dominant in Europe in months

The EU's public health agency warned that Omicron could be responsible for more than half of all Covid cases in Europe within a few months.

The estimate could lend weight to preliminary information about the very high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, above that of the Delta variant, which before Omicron was considered the most contagious of the main coronavirus strains.

"Based on mathematical modelling conducted by ECDC, there are indications that Omicron could cause over half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the EU/EEA within the next few months," the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a statement.

19:00 Paris time: European stocks fall amid Omicron worries

European shares fell more than 1% on Thursday, as countries ramped up restrictions to curb the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, raising worries about hits to a nascent economic recovery.

The continent-wide STOXX 600 closed down 1.2%, giving back more than half of the previous day's gains when a recovery in the pandemic-exposed sectors triggered the STOXX 600's best session in almost six months.

Travel and leisure shares, which suffer the most from movement curbs, fell 2.6%, bringing losses this year to 7%, significantly underperforming other major sectors which are on course to gain in double digits.

18:40 Paris time: Norway announces new measures in Oslo area

Norway introduced new anti-Covid measures in greater Oslo after a suspected cluster of Omicron cases emerged among dozens of vaccinated people.

Face masks will be mandatory in public transport, shopping centres, shops and taxis when social distancing is not possible. People will have to work from home if possible and the number allowed to gather at private indoor events will be limited to 100, the government said.

The announcement came after the Omicron variant was detected in at least one of "50 to 60" people who tested positive for Covid after a Christmas dinner in Oslo last week. That represents about half of the 120 people — all vaccinated — who attended the event organised by solar energy producer Scatec.

Analyses were still ongoing to determine if more of the positive cases concerned the Omicron variant — which local authorities said they expected.

"The situation is worrying," Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol told journalists. "This indicates that the virus is transmitted very easily and that the vaccine doesn't protect well against infection."

18:35 Paris time: UK reports another 10 Omicron cases

The UK announced that it had identified a further 10 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of cases to 42.

The UK Health Security Agency said there had been seven more cases of Omicron in England, while three more cases were identified in Scotland.

18:30 Paris time: UK records highest number of cases since July

Britain recorded 53,945 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, the highest daily figure since July 17, government figures showed, as the dominant Delta variant spreads and measures come in to curb the Omicron variant of concern.

Cases were up 2.8% over the last seven days compared with the week before, although deaths were down 3% over the same time span.

There were a further 141 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test recorded on Thursday, down from 171 the day before.

The UK Health Security Agency said that cases were highest in those aged 5 to 9 years old, evidence that cases have risen again in schools after dipping following a half-term break a month ago.

16:00 Paris time: Germany agrees new Covid restrictions amid Omicron worries

The new measures agreed in Germany focus on the unvaccinated – some 31 percent of the population – who will be barred from access to all but the most essential businesses such as supermarkets and pharmacies. Germany is also planning legislation to make vaccination mandatory.

"We have understood that the situation is very serious and that we want to take further measures in addition to those already taken," Chancellor Angela Merkel told a press conference.

"To do this, the fourth wave must be broken and this has not yet been achieved," she said, referring to Germany's latest surge in cases. A nationwide vaccination mandate could take effect from February 2022 after it is debated in the Bundestag and after guidance from Germany's Ethics Council, she said.

15:30 Paris time: 50 in Norway infected with Omicron after Christmas party

Officials in Norway say at least 50 people in Oslo have been infected with the Omicron variant in cases connected to a company’s recent Christmas party in a restaurant in the capital, officials said Thursday.

The Oslo local council said in a statement that more cases are expected. Officials are trying to trace transmission routes from the party.

14:45 Paris time: India announces first two Omicron cases

India announced its first two cases of the Omicron variant, months after a devastating wave of the coronavirus killed more than 200,000 people around the country.

Top health ministry official Luv Agarwal told AFP two men in southern Karnataka state, aged 66 and 46, had tested positive for the variant.

"As per the protocols all their primary and secondary contacts have been traced and are being tested," he told a press briefing.

India has yet to impose new blanket international travel bans but on Monday the health ministry ordered all inbound travellers from "countries at risk" to undergo mandatory post-arrival Covid testing, along with the random testing of other international arrivals.

13:50 Paris time: France reports a second case of Omicron

After the health body for the Île-de-France region including Paris said an Omicron case had been found in a person who returned from Nigeria, a second case was found in the Haut-Rhin region in eastern France in a person returning from South Africa, the local health body said. They were the first cases found in mainland France, after a case was found in the French Indian Ocean island of La Réunion last month.

The government's top scientific adviser said Omicron could become dominant in the country by the end of January.

13:20 Paris time: Omicron found in Finland

The first case of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in Finland, the Finnish Health Institute said on Thursday.

The institute had previously said it was investigating cases that had been identified with a PCR test to have a potential mutation to match Omicron.

11:55 Paris time: South African scientists 'believe' Omicron symptoms 'will be less severe' for the reinfected, vaccinated

South African scientists studying the Omicron outbreak believe symptoms are less severe for those reinfected with Covid-19 by the new variant or infected after vaccination, a top scientist said on Thursday.

"So we believe, I think very much so, that the reinfections (of the)… disease will be less severe," said Anne von Gottberg, microbiologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

"And that's what we're trying to prove and to monitor very carefully in South Africa. And the same would hold for those that are vaccinated."

09:30 Paris time: First case of Omicron found in France’s Paris region

The local health body for the Paris region announced that the first case of the Omicron variant was detected in a person who had recently returned from Nigeria.

09:15 Paris time: Japan reverses ban on incoming flight reservations

Japan reversed on Thursday a ban on new inbound flight reservations, revealing confusion between government agencies and the public over Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's strategy to keep out the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

On Monday, Japan's aviation bureau told airlines not to accept new reservations for December over Omicron, two cases of which have been found so far, but the abrupt move provoked worries among those aiming to return for year-end holidays.

Kishida said the move caused confusion, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno added that the prime minister had asked the transport ministry, which oversees the airline industry, to keep in mind the needs of returning Japanese.

"I understand the transport ministry has cancelled its instruction for the blanket suspension of new reservations and asked airlines anew to give sufficient consideration to the needs of returning Japanese nationals," Matsuno said.

Airlines may now take new reservations as long as arrivals stay within a daily limit of 3,500, down from last month's figure of 5,000, a transport ministry official said.

08:50 Paris time: UK approves Covid-19 treatment

British regulators on Thursday approved GlaxoSmithKline drug sotrovimab to treat those at high risk of developing severe Covid-19 symptoms, with the manufacturer saying it "retains activity" against the new Omicron variant.

The monoclonal antibody "was found to be safe and effective at reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death in people with mild to moderate Covid-19 infection who are at an increased risk of developing severe disease," said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

08:00 Paris time: South Korea will require vaccinated travellers to quarantine

In the latest restrictions, South Korea on Thursday halted quarantine exemptions for fully vaccinated inbound travellers for two weeks as daily coronavirus case numbers rose to a new high. South Korea confirmed its first five cases of the Omicron variant on Wednesday.


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