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Omicron’s global spread prompts renewed lockdowns, delayed reopenings

New Zealand delayed the planned reopening of its international border because of the sweeping spread of Omicron around the world on Tuesday, as several other countries reimposed social distancing measures.

Many nations are on high alert just days ahead of Christmas and New Year celebrations, as the latest health crisis also takes a toll on financial markets, which fear the impact on the global economic recovery.

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Omicron infections are multiplying rapidly across Europe, the US and Asia, including in Japan where a single cluster at a military base has grown to at least 180 cases.

New Zealand COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said his country was delaying the start of a planned staggered reopening of its border until the end of February. The government had previously said quarantine-free travel would reopen by mid-January for New Zealand citizens and residents in Australia and by April for foreign tourists.

“There’s no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans, but it’s important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans,” Hipkins said at a press conference.

In Singapore, the health ministry was carrying out testing to determine whether Omicron was behind a potential cluster of cases at a gym.

“Given its high transmissibility and spread to many parts of the world, we should expect to find more Omicron cases at our borders and also within our community,” Singapore’s health ministry said on Tuesday.

The Omicron variant has become dominant in the US with lightning speed, and claimed the life on Monday of an unvaccinated man in Texas, officials said. Lines for COVID-19 tests wrapped around the block in New York, Washington and other US cities as people clamored to find out if they were infected before celebrating the holidays with family.

South Korea, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland were among countries to reimpose partial or full lockdowns, or other social distancing measures, in recent days.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said the situation was “extremely difficult” as hospitalisations rose steeply in London.

Asked about speculation the government would ban indoor socializing and limit tourism, Johnson said: “We’re looking at all kinds of things … we will rule nothing out.”

In Australia, where Omicron cases have surged but hospitalisations remain relatively low, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged state and territory leaders to avoid further lockdowns, saying limiting the spread of the virus comes down to personal responsibility.

“We have got to get past the heavy hand of government and we have got to treat Australians like adults,” he said. “We’re not going back to lock downs. We’re going forward to live with this virus with common sense and responsibility.”

Several leaders and health officials have stressed the importance of booster vaccine shots to fight the variant.

The Omicron variant was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong and so far has been reported in at least 89 countries.

The severity of illness it causes remains unclear, but the World Health Organization (WHO) warned it is spreading faster https://www.reuters.com/world/omicron-spreading-infecting-vaccinated-who-2021-12-20 than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease.

Market impact

The rapid spread of the variant has ignited fears that more countries may impose economically disruptive restrictions, impacting markets.

US stocks ended trading on Monday down by more than 1 percent, pressured lower by surging Omicron cases, while oil investors feared that new restrictions in Europe would weigh on fuel demand, sending crude prices lower.

Asian shares and oil prices rose in early trade on Tuesday, though the Australian and New Zealand dollars fell.

The World Economic Forum on Monday postponed its annual meeting in Davos due to the spread of Omicron, putting off the event scheduled for January until mid-2022.

More than 274 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally since the pandemic began and more than 5.65 million people have died.

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For many around the world, Omicron is expected to crimp traditional year-end celebrations.

Kim Min-song, 39, was among customers at a barbecue restaurant in Seoul on Monday who hurriedly put on jackets and face masks to head home as an evening curfew loomed: “It is the year end when we meet missed ones, but now we can’t fully do that.”

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UAE reports 1,796 new COVID-19 cases, no deaths

The UAE announced 1,796 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the official Emirates News Agency reported.

This brings the current total active cases in the UAE to 17,551 and the total number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic to 949,384, according to data from the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

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The cases were determined out of 232,943 tests in the last 24 hours.

No deaths from the virus were recorded on Saturday, maintaining the total deaths caused by COVID-19 to 2,317 in the UAE.

At least 1,727 patients recovered in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total COVID-19 recoveries to 929,516.

On June 13, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced it would strictly enforce its mask rules – with penalties for those flouting the protocol – and announced it would tighten its rules on the Al Hosn green pass system amid rising coronavirus cases across the country.

NCEMA said that it has recently “monitored some behaviors that have become a danger to society and public health,” referring to people not adhering to COVID-19 precautionary and preventative measures and how it has “negatively” impacted recovery efforts.

“Negligence and recklessness in following precautionary measures, and failure in the societal role in maintaining public health and acquired immunity, has resulted in a rise in the number of infections and new waves of the virus,” the authority spokesman said in the briefing.

The authority reaffirmed the need to wear masks in closed public spaces, reiterating that it was mandatory and that not adhering to this rule would result in a fine of up to $816 (AED 3,000).

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.1 million cases were reported globally in the last week.

It added, however, that the worldwide number of deaths remained relatively similar to the week before, at about 8,500, noting that COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

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Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines could increase protection as boosters: EMA

Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to include the omicron variant strain can improve protection when used as a booster, the European Medicines Agency and other global health regulators said on Friday.
Following a meeting on Thursday, the EMA said global regulators had agreed on key principles for updating COVID-19 shots to respond to emerging variants.
While the existing coronavirus vaccines continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, the group said, vaccine effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
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As such, an omicron-specific or bivalent booster – meaning a vaccine that includes both the new strain and the original coronavirus strain – could “increase and extend” protection, a statement from the EMA said.
The statement refers specifically to the mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been testing retooled versions of their vaccines to include the omicron variant.
Vaccines which include other variants, for example the beta variant, might also be considered for use as boosters if clinical trial data demonstrate an adequate level of neutralization against omicron and other variants of concern, the statement said.
It follows guidance from the World Health Organization that omicron-specific boosters could restore protection against emerging strains of the coronavirus.
But it stops short of the position of the regulator in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said on Thursday that it would seek the inclusion specifically of the newer BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron, currently driving a surge in new infections globally, in any new shots for use domestically.
On Tuesday, the head of a WHO advisory committee that has considered the modified shots said the group preferred BA.1-based boosters, arguing that the variant is more distinct and could generate a broader response than the more recently circulating subvariants.
Top US FDA official Peter Marks said in an interview that regulators from other countries were seriously considering using new boosters based on the BA.1 omicron variant that caused the massive surge in cases last winter, because those shots can be available sooner than the BA.4/5 based booster the United States plans to use.
The EMA said it would provide more details in coming days.
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Health

Russia scraps remaining COVID-19 restrictions

Russia said on Friday it was ending all restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the requirement to wear masks, citing a steady decline in deaths from the virus.
However, it did not rule out re-introducing restrictive measures if the situation deteriorates.
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said it was “suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures.”
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
It said the dynamics of the virus were consistent with global trends and 93 percent of confirmed cases were mild or asymptomatic.
Since the start of the pandemic in Russia in April 2020, over 800,000 people have died from coronavirus or causes related to COVID-19, Reuters calculations show, with the country recording over 18 million infections.
Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik V vaccine when the pandemic struck but take-up was slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products. About 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
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