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Will omicron variant oust delta is a question facing virus scientists

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The scientists who were among a network that was the first to sequence omicron are watching to see if the highly mutated coronavirus variant will dictate the course of the pandemic.

Will future strains stem from its lineage or will other variants crowd it out?
Initial findings in South Africa, where omicron is driving the country’s fourth wave of infections, show that the new variant is easily transmitted and has largely overtaken delta, which had abated after an intense third wave of infections in the middle of 2021.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

That means, at least in South Africa, omicron is likely to form the base from which new mutations emerge, said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the KRISP genomics institute based in Durban.

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“The jury is still out on whether omicron takes over from delta in all parts of the world, Lessells said in an interview on Tuesday. “Or whether delta is still evolving in some way and then we see this kind of co-circulation.”
Omicron’s discovery was announced by Tulio de Oliveira, the head of Krisp, at a state-run press conference on Nov. 25.

Scientists including Lessells, a close colleague of de Oliveira, are conducting a number of tests in order to get a better grasp of omicron’s risks, and how significant they are will only be known in the coming weeks.

The other possibility is that like omicron, “something comes out of the blue somewhat that hasn’t descended from either of these variants, but that has different properties again and so these are all the things we have to we have to look out for,” he said.

In South Africa, where 70 percent or more of the country’s 60 million people are estimated to have been exposed to Covid-19 during the past 18 months and about 26 percent are fully vaccinated, omicron’s symptoms have been milder than earlier strains. That may not be the case in countries where the coronavirus has been less rampant.

This virus “just wants to survive, nothing else,” Lessells said. “So it’s evolving to continue surviving now in the context of populations with high levels of immunity. It’s virus evolution in action.”

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UAE reports 3,014 COVID cases, four new deaths in 24 hours

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The UAE reported on Thursday 3,014 COVID-19 infections and four new deaths in 24 hours after conducting 504,831 tests.

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Saudi Arabia reports 5,591 new COVID-19 infections, two deaths in 24 hours

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reported 5,591 COVID-19 cases and two new deaths in 24 hours, according to the Ministry of Health.

This brings the total number of cases in the Kingdom to 638,327.

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Thailand to resume quarantine-free travel from Feb. 1 after pause due to omicron

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Thailand will resume its quarantine-free travel scheme from February 1, officials said Thursday, after the program was suspended due to the fast-spreading omicron COVID-19 variant.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Pandemic travel curbs have hammered the kingdom’s tourism-dominated economy, sending visitor numbers dwindling to a trickle.

Fully vaccinated travelers will now be able to enter under the “test and go” scheme as long as they take COVID-19 tests on the first and fifth days after arriving, spokesman for the country’s COVID-19 taskforce Taweesin Visanuyothin told reporters.

Visitors will have to isolate at a hotel while waiting for their test results and will be required to download a tracking app to ensure they comply with the rules.

Seeking to bounce back from its worst economic performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand launched the “test and go” scheme in November as an alternative to two weeks’ hotel quarantine.

The program was suspended late last month over fears about omicron, but with deaths and hospitalizations not spiking, Taweesin said it could resume, though the authorities will keep it under review.

“In case there are more infections or the situation changes, there will be a re-assessment for inbound travelers and adjust toward the sandbox scheme,” Taweesin said.

Under the sandbox program launched last year as a first step towards resuming tourism, fully jabbed visitors spend seven nights in certain designated locations, such as the resort island of Phuket, before being allowed to travel on to the rest of Thailand.

In a further relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol until 11:00 p.m. – easing the current 9:00 p.m. cut-off.

The tourism ministry estimates that some five million foreign visitors will come to Thailand in 2022 — down from nearly 40 million in the year before the pandemic.

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