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South Africa study points to reduced risk of severe illness from omicron

A South African study offered pre-Christmas good tidings about the severity of omicron on Wednesday as the fast-spreading coronavirus variant forces countries across the world to impose new curbs.
Governments urged citizens to vaccinate as omicron becomes the dominant strain, upending reopening plans that many had hoped would herald the end of the pandemic, and unnerving financial markets.
Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Korea have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days.

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German health experts said on Wednesday that new curbs probably did not go far enough as the health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown.
Italy is preparing new measures and might make vaccinations obligatory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said.
Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Spain were also considering new curbs.
Omicron was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong. Studies indicate it is more resistant to vaccines developed before it emerged.
However, the South African study suggested that those infected with omicron were less likely to end up in hospital than those with delta.

‘Positive story’

The study by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and major universities, which had not been peer-reviewed, compared South African Omicron data from October and November with data about Delta between April and November.
The authors found that the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80 percent lower for those with omicron, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30 percent lower.
“In South Africa, this is the epidemiology: Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe,” said Professor Cheryl Cohen of the NICD, one of the authors.
“Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of omicron compared to other variants.”
Still, the authors included caveats and cautioned against jumping to conclusions. A study by Imperial College London released last week found no sign that omicron was milder.
Policymakers across the world are scrambling to address the economic blow that might come from new outbreaks; Britain on Tuesday announced 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of support for businesses hit hardest.
Some 300 South Korean business owners protested in Seoul on Wednesday against the return of strict social distancing rules, urging the government to scrap its “vaccine pass” policy and compensate them for losses.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed a Health Ministry panel’s recommendation that the over 60s, those with compromised immune systems and health workers should receive fourth COVID shots.

Free test kits

But Professor Lawrence Young, virologist at the University of Warwick in England, said it was difficult to justify this “in a situation where around 73 percent of people in wealthy and middle-income countries have been (fully or partly) vaccinated … whereas only 12 percent are vaccinated in Africa”.
The Israeli recommendations require approval from the ministry’s director-general, and it was not clear when that might happen.
More than 275 million people have been reported to be infected with the coronavirus around the world, and nearly 5.7 million have died, according to a Reuters tally.
Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in central China in December 2019.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday promised to distribute half a billion free rapid COVID-19 tests, and warned the quarter of American adults who are unvaccinated that their choices could spell the “difference between life and death.”
Japan reported its first suspected case of community transmission of omicron on Wednesday, while India has urged its federal states to prepare for surges and allowed them to impose restrictions on crowds and gatherings.
Some wealthy countries want to shorten the time between second vaccination shots and boosters, hoping this will reduce the need to burden weary citizens with new lockdowns.
Australia on Wednesday reported more than 5,000 daily infections for the first time. Prime Minister Scott Morrison nevertheless insisted that strict lockdowns would not be brought back.

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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).

For all the latest headlines follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

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.
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
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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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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