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A healthcare worker at a Covid-19 vaccine clinic in Johannesburg. A South African study has found that the risk of reinfection from the Omicron coronavirus variant is three times higher than for any previous strain. Photograph: Joao Silva/New York Times
South Africa’s daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases almost quadrupled since Tuesday as the Omicron variant spread across the country.
The country recorded 16,055 infections in the last 24 hours and a positivity rate accelerated to 24.3 per cent from 16.5 per cent on Tuesday, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
A South African study of infections since the start of the pandemic found that the risk of reinfection from the Omicron coronavirus variant is three times higher than for any previous strain.
More people under 40 are contracting Covid-19 as a fourth wave sweeps across South Africa, early data from the nation’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed.
Rio de Janeiro has cancelled its New Year’s Eve party due to renewed Covid-19 fears. The city’s mayor Eduardo Paes announced the decision on social media. Mr Paes had previously promised the biggest New Year’s Eve party ever, with multiple firework displays and artists performing on a dozen stages across the city. He said there is no decision about the annual carnival, due to take place in March. The yearly celebration on Copacabana beach has in the past gathered more than one million locals and tourists. Other Brazilian cities, including Sao Paulo and Salvador, have also cancelled New Year’s Eve celebrations due to fears of the omicron variant. So far, the ministry of health has confirmed five Omicron cases in Brazil.
Covid vaccines could soon be rolled out for children as young as five in Australia, the country’s government has said, as the chief health officer in New South Wales, Kerry Chant, warned of “an uptick” in Omicron cases in metropolitan Sydney.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Saturday that vaccine regulators were set to decide on giving Pfizer to children by the end of the year.
If all goes well, the doses will be rolled out from January, and Mr Hunt said the process was “heading in a positive direction”.
Thousands of people again turned out in Melbourne on Saturday in the first mass demonstration since the Victorian government passed its new pandemic laws.
The mostly maskless crowds shouted “sack Dan Andrews” (premier of Victoria) and “freedom”, and were seen waving Donald Trump placards, United Australia party (UAP) posters, Eureka and national flags, and signs about various conspiracy theories.
The UAP leader, Craig Kelly, who has been criticised for posting misleading information about the pandemic online, addressed the crowd. He called Victoria a “fascist medical state” because, when he refused to show his Covid vaccine certificate, he was unable to hire a rental car at Melbourne airport.
Counter-protesters, who said hostility to vaccines had become a “gateway to the far right”, marched in Carlton.
The Victorian health minister, Martin Foley, said the protests, which have been fuelled by the pandemic laws, which give the premier and the health minister more power over public health orders, should be peaceful and “based on up-to-date facts” – suggesting some were complaining about laws that had already been changed.
Thirty-nine Covid cases have been linked to protests in the state last month, mostly in unvaccinated people. Three people have been hospitalised and one is in intensive care.
A total of 13 Omicron cases have been found in New South Wales, one in Australian Capital Territory, and one in the Northern Territory.
South Australia recorded five further Covid cases on Saturday, leading the state’s chief public health officer to recommend that borders be shut. But instead it was agreed to require all arrivals from New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory to be tested upon arrival.
In Australia, 87.9 per cent of people aged 16 and over are double vaccinated. The highest rate is in Canberra, where 97.9 per cent of those aged 12 and over are now fully vaccinated.
Government officials and scientific advisers in the UK believe that the danger posed by the Omicron variant may not be clear until January, potentially allowing weeks of intense mixing while the variant spreads.
Minutes for the British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggest there is deep concern about the threat from the new variant, particularly its transmissibility. Though there is a wariness about over-reacting, one government scientific adviser said Downing Street was “putting all its eggs in one basket” by focusing its efforts on the booster vaccine drive.
“It should be a balance between social mixing and immunity. That will affect how quickly it spreads,” the adviser said. “At the moment we are not really doing anything to reduce mixing. It’s disruptive and it’s damaging to the economy, but at the very least we could encourage people to think about their contacts.”
Some senior Sage scientists have made the case privately that the additional precaution of home working should be taken in the run-up to Christmas and that the government should start to suggest that people take sensible steps to minimise social contact in the days before seeing loved ones.
“We may wait till next year to see an exponential increase and then introduce plan B. And then that doesn’t work and we end up having to do more intense things. It’s undoubtedly a very difficult judgment,” one Sage adviser said.
Ministers have acknowledged that the current figures for Omicron in the UK may be more than two weeks old and vastly underestimate the true picture.
A further 75 cases of Omicron have been identified in England, bringing the total there to 104, according to the UK Health Security Agency. Twenty-nine cases have been detected in Scotland and one in Wales. No cases of Omicron have been identified in Northern Ireland.
India reported its third case of the Omicron variant on Saturday, government officials said, as total Covid-19 cases inched closer to the 35 million mark.
Officials in the western state of Gujarat said the patient who tested positive for Omicron was a 72-year old man of Indian origin who had lived in Zimbabwe for decades, and returned on November 28th.
India reported 8,603 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday, taking the total to 34.62 million. Deaths rose by 415 to 470,530.
Prime minister Narendra Modi last month asked officials to focus on countries identified at risk, after the World Health Organisation declared the new variant to be “of concern”.
India expects the Omicron variant to cause less severe illness, due to rising vaccination rates and high prior exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70 per cent of the population by July.
The federal health ministry said on Thursday that India had identified two male patients, aged 66 and 46, who had the new strain in the southern state of Karnataka. The first person was a South African national while the second one, an Indian physician, had no recent travel history.
India has fully vaccinated just half of its 944 million adults despite having ample supplies of domestically made shots. Up to 84 per cent have received at least one dose, with more than 125 million people due for a second shot.
The Omicron variant is now in at least 10 US states, and White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said there is “absolutely” community spread.
The states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Maryland and Nebraska reported Omicron infections on Friday, and cases are guaranteed to keep on rising in the coming days, according to Mr Fauci.
Covid-19 infections in the US have reached the highest level in two months.
South Korea reported three additional infections of the Omicron strain on Saturday, bringing total cases of the new variant to nine, according to health authorities. The country also set new daily records for virus cases, Covid-19 deaths and the number of critical Covid patients on Saturday. The country is awaiting test results to see whether there is community transmission.
Russia suffered the most fatalities of the Covid-19 pandemic in October, according to official data released Friday, adding to what a demographer says is on track to be the deadliest year since the second World War.
There were 74,839 deaths associated with the virus in October, a 47 per cent increase over the previous monthly high in July, according to Federal Statistics Service data published late Friday. Russia has had more than 575,000 deaths linked to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Oslo has uncovered 12 more cases of the Omicron variant after a Christmas party in the Norwegian capital, bringing the total to 13, the city government said in a statement on Friday.
Norway on Thursday introduced measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, including working from home and a face mask mandate in shops and public transport. – Guardian, Reuters, Bloomberg
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