Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, December 20, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

Geneva: The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

“There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing for Geneva-based journalists, held at its new headquarters building.

“And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected,” Tedros said.

People visit the Covent Garden Christmas Village, in London, on December 20, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

UK set to bring in new curbs after Christmas 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may introduce new restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant after Christmas, the Times and other media reported on Monday.

Britain said total confirmed Omicron-variant cases now are 37,101, up by more than 12,000 on the previous day.

Britain has reported record levels of COVID-19 cases over the past week, with officials and ministers warning that hospitalisations are also rising.

A cabinet meeting on Tuesday had raised expectations new measures may be imminent, but media said ministers pushed back and that restrictions, lasting between 2 weeks and a month, were now more likely to be introduced after Christmas.

“The 28th has been pencilled in by officials as the starting point for the new curbs,” Steven Swinford, political editor of the Times, said on Twitter.

Swinford and others said these would likely include a ban on households mixing indoors, as well as possible limits on the numbers who can meet outdoors and pubs and restaurants limited to opening outdoors only.

The UK Health Security Agency said on Sunday that 12 people in Britain had died with the Omicron variant and 104 were currently in hospital with it.

Officials warned last week that hospitalisations could hit new highs as the effects of the latest surge of the COVID-19 pandemic work their way through the population.

A woman gets vaccinated during a vaccination event against COVID-19 at the Samariter Church in Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Germany set to restrict contacts for the vaccinated

After a new lockdown in the Netherlands and travel restrictions targeted by several countries at the UK, Germany is bracing for stricter measures, while France is considering requiring vaccine passes in the work place. German leaders are considering tougher contact restrictions and an accelerated booster campaign among other measures after experts warned that the Omicron variant could bring critical infrastructure to breaking point.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he supported the likely decision of a meeting of federal and state leaders planned for Tuesday to restrict private contacts for those who have been vaccinated, or have been infected and recovered.

Scholz, speaking in Rome, said the meeting would also focus on the continued operation of critical institutions such as hospitals, police stations and electricity providers in case of high infection numbers, as well as handing out more boosters.

According to a draft document seen by Reuters, access to restaurants, theatres and other cultural venues will remain open to the vaccinated andrecovered, who will be limited to a maximum of 10 people from Dec. 28 for private gatherings.

Clubs and discos will also be closed, the document said.

“The big New Year’s Eve parties won’t be able to take place this year,” the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Hendrik Wuest, told broadcaster ARD.

The World Economic Forum postponed its annual meeting in Davos next month, thwarted for a second year by the waves of COVID-19. Image Credit: Reuters

Davos gathering postponed

The World Economic Forum postponed its annual meeting in Davos next month, thwarted for a second year by the waves of COVID-19.

The forum said in a statement that it was forced to rethink plans for the meeting, which had been slated for January 17-21, and will now host it in early summer.

“Current pandemic conditions make it extremely difficult to deliver a global in-person meeting,” it said.

As recently as last week, WEF officials were expressing confidence that they could host the conference given Switzerland was open to international travel and that regular testing would be provided.

In the US, Moderna said a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine increased antibody levels against the omicron variant.

A 50 microgram booster dose - the authorized amount - saw a 37-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies, the company said in a statement Monday. The company also tested a 100 microgram dose, which increased antibody levels 83-fold compared with the primary two-dose course.

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said earlier this month initial lab studies showed a third dose of their vaccine may be needed to fight the Omicron variant after a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies against the variant was observed in people who got just two shots.

Hong Kong is banning Cathay Pacific’s passenger flights from New York between December 20 to January 2 Image Credit: AFP

HK bans Cathay flights from NY

Hong Kong is banning Cathay Pacific’s passenger flights from New York between December 20 to January 2 after three passengers on a flight on the same route were confirmed to have Covid-19, according to a government statement.

Hong Kong reported five imported Omicron cases on Monday, bringing the tally to 19 so far.

Mneanwhile, the Israeli cabinet approved recommendations by health officials to add the US, Canada and eight other countries to a list of banned travel destinations due to the spread of the omicron variant.

The decision is slated to take effect at midnight Tuesday, subject to approval by a Knesset committee.

Other countries on the list include Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.

Outbreak at US military camp in Japan

An outbreak at a US military base in Japan is fueling concern about the omicron variant, months after the nation saw a record delta wave of infections ebb.

More than 180 people are part of the cluster at the US military Camp Hansen on the island prefecture of Okinawa, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsunotold reporters on Monday. While it’s unclear if any of these have omicron, concern is growing that the new variant is spreading as two people connected to the base have been confirmed to have it.

In Paris, French authorities have identified 182,000 fake health passes through 400 ongoing investigations, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in a tweet on Monday.

This comes after the minister last week called on police to step up security checks for the passes, which are required for entry into public spaces including restaurants and cultural venues, according to Agence France-Presse.

As of last week, around a hundred people had been arrested for using or selling fake passes, AFP reported. They can face up to five years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros ($66,300).

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A demonstrator holds a placard that reads “No to the health passport” as people attend a demonstration called by French political party “Les Patriotes” against COVID-19 health pass as France sees an increase in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and hospitalisations, in Paris, France, December 18, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

France, Belgium back vaccines for kids 5-11

France’s Haute Autorite de Sante approved the expansion of Covid-19 vaccinations for children age 5-11.

The governmental body said children can be vaccinated on a voluntary basis once the pediatric version of Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine is available.

Separately, Belgium’s public health authorities said children aged 5-11 years can be vaccinated with Pfizer’s shots, with the first invitation letters to be sent this month.

The vaccine will be administered with two doses, 21 days apart, according to an emailed statement from Corona Government Commission.