Coronavirus latest: India expects omicron’s severity to be ‘low’

Versie Dortch

Nikkei Asia is tracking the spread of the coronavirus that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Cumulative global cases have reached 264,261,428, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The worldwide death toll has hit 5,235,680.

For more information about the spread of COVID-19 and vaccination progress around the world, please see our interactive charts and maps.

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Status of vaccinations around the world

Friday, Dec. 3 (Tokyo time)

5:36 p.m. India’s health ministry says the severity of the Covid-19 disease from the omicron variant in the country “is anticipated to be low” given “the fast pace of vaccination” and “high exposure” to the delta variant. “However, scientific evidence is still evolving,” it said in a statement on Friday, a day after the country reported its first two cases of the omicron variant.

4:00 p.m. Roche says its newly acquired subsidiary, TIB Molbiol, has developed three new test kits to help researchers detect mutations in the new omicron variant of coronavirus. While the World Health Organization has said widely available tests can detect individuals infected with any variant, most PCR tests cannot distinguish between omicron and delta, the dominant and most infectious version of the virus. The new Roche and TIB Molbiol testing kits, made only for research use, can differentiate between unique mutations in omicron compared to other SARS-CoV-2 variants, Roche says.

An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill called molnupiravir is being developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

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2:19 p.m. Record daily COVID-19 case numbers and fears over the omicron variant have pushed South Korea to make it compulsory for people to show proof of vaccination to enter a wider range of public locations. Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said Friday that unvaccinated people will be banned from entering places such as restaurants, cafes, libraries, cinemas, performance halls and museums for four weeks from Monday.

2:17 p.m. India’s cumulative vaccination coverage crosses 1.25 billion doses, with 84% of the country’s 944 million adults having received at least one shot while 49% have had both. The country reported 9,216 new infections in the last 24 hours, slightly down from 9,765 the previous day, pushing the total caseload to over 34.61 million. Fatalities jumped by 391 to 470,115. India has so far confirmed two omicron variant cases.

1:44 p.m. A Japanese unit of Merck has applied for approval to produce and sell molnupiravir, an antiviral drug that inhibits the replication of the coronavirus, in Japan. If given the green light, it will be the first coronavirus pill for COVID-19 patients with light or middle-stage symptoms in the country. Japan’s government has already decided to purchase enough of the drug for 1.6 million people.

1:00 p.m. Malaysia has detected its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant, health minister Khairy Jamaluddin says. It was discovered in a foreign visitor from South Africa who arrived in Malaysia via Singapore on Nov. 19, he says.

Arrivals at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in November. Malaysia has detected its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant.

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12:10 p.m. Nepal’s government says it is barring the entry of travelers who have been in eight African countries or Hong Kong, to curb the spread of the new omicron variant. The ban, effective at midnight on Friday, covers people who have been in or transiting through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi and Hong Kong. Travelers who have been to these countries in the past three weeks will not be allowed into Nepal, and all other international visitors already in transit must spend seven days at their own cost in hotel quarantine.

11:20 a.m. Australia reports its first community transmission of the new omicron variant, but authorities are holding steady on a plan to reopen the economy amid hopes it will be milder than previous strains. The new case, a school student from Sydney, is the first confirmed omicron infection of a person who had not traveled overseas, a sign the variant is now in the community, said authorities in New South Wales. Australia now has nine confirmed omicron cases.

Stores in Honolulu, Hawaii are seen closed in April last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state has now confirmed its first case of the omicron variant.

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10:20 a.m. Hawaii’s Department of Health confirms its first case of the omicron variant, saying it was a case of community spread and the person had no history of travel. The person, who had moderate symptoms, had previously been infected with COVID-19 but had not been vaccinated, the department said. Hawaii becomes the fifth U.S. state to detect the variant, bringing the total number of cases in the country to nine.

10:10 a.m. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul says the state has confirmed at least five cases of the omicron variant. A 67-year-old woman from Suffolk County, two Queens residents, a Brooklyn resident and a fifth person, believed to be a visitor to the state, tested positive. Their vaccination statuses weren’t immediately clear, but the woman from Suffolk County had received at least one dose, she said. The cases come after a Minnesota resident tested positive for the variant following attendance at an anime convention in New York City.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the geographic spread of the positive tests suggested the variant was undergoing “community spread” in the city, and wasn’t linked to any one event.

10:00 a.m. China reports 96 new confirmed COVID-19 cases for Thursday, up from 73 a day earlier. Of the new infections, 80 were locally transmitted, compared with 53 the day before. The country recorded 24 new asymptomatic cases, which it classifies separately from confirmed infections, rising from 13 a day earlier.

8:00 a.m. Novavax says that it can begin commercial production of a COVID-19 vaccine tailored for the omicron coronavirus variant in January and that it is evaluating whether its current vaccine works against the variant.

6:00 a.m. Colorado health officials say a woman who returned from a trip to southern Africa has been confirmed to have the omicron variant, the third case in the U.S. so far.

A traveler walks through Logan International Airport in Boston. 

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3:50 a.m. “We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” U.S. President Joe Biden says of his administration’s response to omicron.

Biden outlines five key points of a plan to fight the spread of the virus: an expanded campaign of booster shots, new vaccine clinics for families, free at-home testing, more surge response teams made up of nurses and doctors, and greater efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world.

2:00 a.m. Minnesota public health authorities say a resident who recently returned from New York City has been infected with the omicron variant in what appears to be the second confirmed case in the U.S.

The man, who was fully vaccinated and has since recovered, traveled to New York City to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center from Nov. 19-21, the authorities say.

Thursday, Dec. 2

8:30 p.m. Two cases of the omicron variant have been detected in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Lav Agarwal, joint secretary at the health ministry, told a media briefing on Thursday. Both are males aged 66 and 46.

Read more.

India has reported its first two cases of omicron.

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8:25 p.m. Singapore detects two imported cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant, and both individuals have been isolated, the country’s Health Ministry says. Contact tracing is continuing for passengers on the same flight as those infected, and there is no evidence of community transmission, the ministry says.

7:01 p.m. The U.S. government has unveiled a strategy to control the spread of COVID-19 this winter that includes more stringent travel protocols and access to booster shots. The administration says it will accelerate the development and deployment of new vaccines “in the unlikely event they are needed” to combat the highly mutated omicron variant. The plan comes a day after a first case of omicron was found in California.

6:00 p.m. The Japanese government will temporarily invalidate special visas issued to foreign nationals who meet certain conditions, Nikkei has learned, in an effort to curb the spread of the omicron variant. The government has tightened its definition of “special circumstances,” narrowing the scope to those traveling for diplomatic or other special purposes. Visas issued under the previous criteria will be temporarily invalidated, and foreigners wishing to enter the country during the one-month suspension will be asked to reapply.

GlaxoSmithKline says early tests of the COVID-19 antibody therapy it is developing with U.S. partner Vir shows the drug works against the omicron variant.

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4:15 p.m. GlaxoSmithKline says a pre-clinical analysis of the COVID-19 antibody-based therapy it is developing with U.S. partner Vir has indicated that the drug also works against the new omicron variant. Further tests will be carried out on the sotrovimab therapy to firm up the results. Meanwhile, Britain’s drug regulator approved the treatment for people with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk of developing severe disease.

2:31 p.m. India has found six positive COVID-19 cases among tests of 3,476 passengers from 11 international flights that took off from “at risk” countries and landed on Wednesday, when revised guidelines for international arrivals came into force. The positive samples have been sent for genomic sequencing to identify whether the omicron variant is present. India so far has not confirmed any omicron cases. It has identified the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel as at-risk countries. Passengers arriving from any of these places must undergo mandatory COVID testing before leaving the airport.

2:25 p.m. The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final, featuring the top six point-earners in each discipline, will be canceled due to the emergence of the omicron variant, Kyodo reports. The Grand Prix Final is the sport’s second-most prestigious annual event, behind the world championships. This year, it was to take place in Osaka from Dec. 9 to Dec. 11 and serve as a tune-up for the Beijing Olympics, in February.

Shoma Uno, right, and Kaori Sakamoto, both of Japan, participate in the NHK Trophy gala in Tokyo on Nov. 14. Both qualified for the Grand Prix final in Osaka, which now has been canceled due to the emergence of the omicron variant.

  © Kyodo

2:10 p.m. Australia’s state of New South Wales reports its seventh omicron variant infection, a person who arrived on Nov. 23 from Doha, Qatar. State authorities say the person had not been in southern Africa, suggesting they caught the virus on the flight.

11:54 a.m. Japan’s transport ministry has canceled its blanket ban on accepting new reservations for inbound flights and asked airlines to accommodate the needs of returning Japanese, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno says. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he had asked the ministry to be mindful of returning Japanese given the confusion that a suspension of new bookings installed on Wednesday had caused.

The government has lowered the maximum number of people allowed to enter the country per day to 3,500. According to the Japanese airlines, the quota of people allocated to each company has been filled for most of the days of the year.

10:30 a.m. As South Korea’s daily coronavirus cases reach a fresh high, authorities halt quarantine exemptions for fully vaccinated inbound travelers for two weeks in a bid to fend off the omicron variant. South Korea will require a 10-day quarantine for all inbound travelers for two weeks starting Friday, halting exemptions given earlier to fully vaccinated people.

An employee cleans the empty arrival hall at Incheon International Airport in South Korea on Nov. 30.

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10:00 a.m. Moderna could have a COVID-19 booster shot targeting the omicron variant tested and ready to file for U.S. authorization as soon as March 2022, Moderna President Stephen Hoge told Reuters. Hoge said he believes booster shots carrying genes specifically targeting mutations in the omicron variant would be the quickest way to address any anticipated reductions in vaccine efficacy it may cause. “We’ve already started that program,” he said.

9:40 a.m. South Korea reports another record for daily coronavirus cases, totaling 5,266, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency says. The country is struggling to stop the spread of the virus, but daily infections topped 5,000 for the first time on Wednesday. South Korea also reported its first five cases of the newly emerged omicron variant.

4:05 a.m. The U.S. has confirmed its first case of infection by the omicron variant, the CDC says.

The person in California was fully vaccinated but did not have a booster shot, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, an adviser to President Joe Biden on infectious disease control.

1:11 a.m. The Serum Institute of India pledges to supply about 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot to the global vaccine-distribution network COVAX by the end of year after resuming exports last week, reports Reuters, citing COVAX co-lead GAVI.

1:01 a.m. The World Health Organization says it expects to have more information on the new omicron variant within days instead of weeks, as it originally said.

The new variant, which was first reported in southern Africa, may be more transmissible than the delta variant. It is also unknown if omicron makes people more or less ill.

People line up to get tested for the coronavirus in Seoul. 

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Wednesday, Dec. 1

11:30 p.m. Garuda Indonesia, the country’s flagship air carrier, cancels planned flights connecting Tokyo and Bali, dealing a further blow to the tourism-dependent island.

Garuda had planned a weekly flight between Japan’s Haneda Airport to Jakarta with a stop off in Bali from Dec. 5 through the end of the month in what would have been the first direct international flight to the island since it reopened to tourists in mid-October.

But “because of the tightening of immigration restrictions by both Indonesian and Japanese governments due to the omicron strain,” the flights to Bali have been canceled, Garuda said on its Japanese website.

10:10 p.m. South Korea reports its first five cases of the omicron variant as daily coronavirus infections top 5,000 for the first time, stoking concern over a sharp rise in patients with severe symptoms. A fully vaccinated couple tested positive for the variant after arriving last week from Nigeria, followed by two of their family members and a friend, officials say.

South Korea also says a U.N. peacekeeping conference expected to draw more than 700 people to Seoul next week now will be held online.

10:07 p.m. Vietnam will suspend flights to and from seven African countries over concerns about the omicron coronavirus variant, Lao Dong Newspaper reports. The countries are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho and Mozambique.

Vietnam has yet to detect any cases of omicron, but the country reports 14,508 coronavirus infections on Wednesday, raising its overall caseload to 1.25 million, with 25,000 deaths.

8:40 p.m. India postpones plans to resume regular international flights in light of the emergence of the omicron variant.

The decision comes just days after New Delhi reversed its ban on international flights imposed in March last year.

The situation “is being watched closely in consultation with all stakeholders,” said the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the country’s aviation regulator.

The World Health Organization is to launch negotiations on a global pandemic agreement that would cover issues from data sharing and genome sequencing of emerging viruses to equitable distribution of vaccines and drugs.

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6:40 p.m. The World Health Organization agrees to launch negotiations on an international pact to prevent and control future pandemics. The treaty, expected to be ready in May 2024, is to cover issues from data sharing and genome sequencing of emerging viruses to equitable distribution of vaccines and drugs derived from research.

4:32 p.m. Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has asked domestic and foreign airlines to suspend new bookings for all international flights arriving in Japan to strengthen border controls against the omicron variant of COVID-19. For the time being, the suspension applies to bookings made through the end of December. The ministry says the emergency measure aims to stop the spread of infection until the the situation regarding omicron is known. International flights departing from Japan will not be affected.

4:01 p.m. Japan has found a second person who has tested positive with the COVID-19 omicron variant. The infected man, in his 20s, had been staying in Peru. He is quarantined at a medical institution. The first case of the variant in the country was discovered Tuesday.

3:51 p.m. India’s capital, New Delhi, which was one of the worst affected during the pandemic’s second wave in the country in April to May, is bracing for omicron. The city government, which is run by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party, says that 30,000 oxygen beds are ready and that the number can be scaled up to over 60,000 in a short span of time. It also says a two-month buffer stock of medicines is being built.

Malaysia will delay plans to set up so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with countries that have reported the presence of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

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3:00 p.m. Malaysia will temporarily ban the entry of travelers from countries that have reported the omicron coronavirus variant or are considered high-risk, its health minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, says. It will also delay plans to set up so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with those countries, he added.

1:58 p.m. Japan will tighten the criteria under which some foreign nationals are exempted from entry restrictions, as part of the government’s effort to limit the spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant. Officials are working to narrow the scope of the exemptions. The exemptions currently allow events such as concerts by foreign artists to take place.

1:32 p.m. India reports 8,954 new cases in the last 24 hours — the fifth straight day with less than 10,000 infections — pushing the country’s total to 34.6 million. Deaths rose by 267 to 469,247. Meanwhile, the country administered about 8.1 million vaccine doses since Tuesday morning, bringing the cumulative vaccination coverage to over 1.24 billion doses.

12:07 p.m. Australian authorities flag another probable case of the omicron variant in Sydney as they brace for more infections after at least two international travelers visited several locations in the city while likely infectious. Officials in New South Wales, home to Sydney, said initial testing “strongly indicates” a man in his 40s who arrived from southern Africa on Nov. 25 had been infected with the Omicron variant and had spent time in the community. “We believe it is likely it will be confirmed later this afternoon as a definite omicron case,” the state’s health minister, Brad Hazzard, told reporters. But he ruled out lockdowns to contain the newly identified variant.

11:00 a.m. Japan begins COVID-19 booster shots for people who had their second vaccination at least 8 months ago. Medical personnel will be the first to get third doses, expanding to the elderly in January. The move comes amid growing concern after authorities confirmed the first case of the new omicron variant in the country.

A medical worker walks past a screen monitoring COVID-19 patients in a South Korean hospital. The country has been battling a surge in infections.

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10:56 a.m. South Korean cases hit a record daily high of 5,123, up from 3,031 a day ago. Total infections have reached 452,350, with 3,658 deaths. The country has been struggling to contain soaring COVID cases since last month, when it loosened social distancing rules under its “living with the coronavirus” policy.

9:26 a.m. Non-Hong Kong residents traveling from Japan, Portugal and Sweden will not be allowed into the territory after those countries were classified at high risk for the omicron variant. The changes came after Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel and Italy were also moved to the high-risk group. Incoming travelers from those countries will now have to quarantine for 21 days, starting Dec 3.

7:58 a.m. Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa said that two Brazilians had tested positive for the omicron COVID-19 variant, the first reported cases in Latin America. Anvisa said a traveler arriving in Sao Paulo from South Africa and his wife, who had not traveled, both tested positive for the new variant, adding to concerns that omicron is spreading around the world before recent travel bans went into effect.

Tuesday, Nov. 30

8:27 p.m. The new coronavirus variant, omicron, has been detected in two Israeli doctors, one of whom returned from a conference in London in the past week, a spokesperson for Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv confirmed. The two doctors had received three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and so far have shown mild COVID-19 symptoms, the hospital says. The physician who returned from Britain probably infected his colleague, it says.

Two more people have been identified in Israel as carrying the new variant, health officials have confirmed, one of them a tourist from Malawi who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

A man is swab tested for COVID-19 near a bus terminal in New Delhi, India. The country has yet to report cases of the omicron variant, though a sample of a man who tested positive after recently returning from South Africa is being examined.

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7:45 p.m. India’s health ministry says states should ramp up COVID-19 testing as the world battles the new omicron coronavirus variant, while some cities delayed the reopening of schools as a precaution. While India has not yet reported any omicron cases, authorities are studying the sample of a man who tested positive for COVID-19 after recently returning from South Africa to see if he is infected with that or another variant. The ministry added the omicron variant “doesn’t escape RT-PCR and RAT (testing),” appeasing some concerns among domestic health workers that changes in the spike protein of the virus could lead to conventional tests failing to detect the variant.

5:00 p.m. China’s Foreign Ministry says the new omicron COVID-19 variant will pose challenges for prevention and control, but it nonetheless believes the Winter Olympics will go smoothly. Beijing is set to host the Games from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20.

Narita Airport on Nov. 30. A traveler from Namibia has been found to be infected with the omicron variant.

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4:01 p.m. Japan has discovered its first omicron case, a government source says. A man in his 30s who arrived from Namibia has been found to be infected with the heavily mutated variant after he tested positive for the coronavirus at Narita Airport, near Tokyo, upon his arrival on Sunday, according to the source.

3:17 p.m. Japan’s blue-chip Nikkei Stock Average declined over 400 points, or 1.6%, on Tuesday, closing below the 28,000 mark for the first time in nearly two months. The benchmark index had risen in early-morning trade, but fell quickly following a report by the Financial Times that Moderna’s chief executive believes existing vaccines will be much less effective in fighting the new variant, Omicron.

2:24 p.m. India logs 6,990 new cases in the last 24 hours, the lowest daily infection count in a year and a half, bringing the country’s total to about 34.6 million. Fatalities rose by 190 to 468,980. Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ban flights from countries where the omicron variant has been detected. “Many countries have stopped flights from omicron-affected nations. Why are we delaying?” he tweeted in Hindi on Tuesday.

1:00 p.m. Australian authorities say an international traveler who was most likely infected with the omicron variant has spent time in the community. Officials are now rushing to track the person’s close contacts and locations visited. New South Wales health officials say initial testing “strongly indicates” the traveler, who arrived in Sydney last week, before the latest border restrictions took effect, has been infected with the variant. The fully vaccinated person visited a busy shopping center in Sydney while likely infectious, officials say. All passengers on the person’s flight have been asked to self-isolate for 14 days regardless of their vaccination status.

11:30 a.m. Hong Kong has banned nonresidents from entering the city from four African countries — Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia — starting Tuesday due to fears over the omicron variant. Residents can return if they are vaccinated but will have to quarantine for seven days in a government facility and another two weeks in a hotel at their own cost. On Dec. 2, Hong Kong will expand the ban to travelers who have been to Australia, Canada, Israel and six European countries — Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany and Italy — in the past 21 days. Vaccinated residents returning from these countries will face three weeks of hotel quarantine.

Singapore’s health ministry says travelers from Johannesburg who went on to test positive for the omicron variant in Sydney, transited through Changi Airport.

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11:00 a.m. Singapore’s health ministry says travelers from Johannesburg who tested positive for the omicron coronavirus variant in Sydney, had transited through Changi Airport. The two individuals left Johannesburg on Nov. 27 on a Singapore Airlines flight and arrived at Changi on the same day for their transit flight. Both had tested negative prior to departure. Most of the travelers had remained in the transit area at Changi. Of the seven who disembarked, six had been placed on a 10-day stay-at-home notice, while the seventh, a close contact of an infected individual on the flight, had been quarantined.

10:56 a.m. South Korean biotech company Celltrion says its distribution arm has signed supply deals for its monoclonal antibody to treat COVID-19 with nine European countries. The European Commission earlier this month approved the company’s antibody therapy Regkirona, granting marketing authorization for adults with COVID-19 who are at increased risk of progressing to a severe condition. The first batch of 50,000 doses will be shipped to Europe this year and the company is in talks with 47 other nations including in Asia, Central and South America and the Middle East.

9:34 a.m. Japanese drugmakers Shionogi and Daiichi Sankyo look to ensure that their vaccines under development will be effective against the new omicron variant. Shionogi is considering making an active vaccine ingredient based on the omicron virus’ genetic information. The company has been developing a vaccine against previous coronavirus variants which will soon enter final-stage clinical trials, with plans to go on the market by March. Daiichi Sankyo has started to investigate whether its own vaccine under development would be effective against omicron.

9:30 a.m. Canada has detected two omicron cases in Ottawa, bringing the country total to five of the new variant. Earlier in the day, Quebec discovered its first case of the omicron variant. Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube told reporters that 115 travelers from countries affected by the variant — primarily South Africa — were asked to isolate and test for COVID-19.

6:00 a.m. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says everyone aged 18 years and older should get a booster shot. The update comes after President Joe Biden called for more vaccinations to curb the spread of the omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa.

2:38 a.m. Health ministers from the Group of Seven nations hold an urgent meeting to discuss the omicron variant. In a joint statement, they say they will continue to work closely together with the WHO and international partners to share information and monitor omicron. They also praise the exemplary work of South Africa in both detecting the variant and alerting others to it.

12:37 a.m. Sweden confirms its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant, the country’s Public Health Agency says, citing a test taken just over a week ago by a person who traveled from South Africa. Spain also detects its first case of the omicron variant, in a traveler coming from South Africa, El Pais newspaper reports.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer says it has started work on a new vaccine targeting the omicron variant and that it could be ready in less than 100 days.

  © Reuters

12:30 a.m. Pfizer has begun work on a new vaccine targeting the omicron variant of the coronavirus, and it could be shipped in less than 100 days if necessary, CEO Albert Bourla says. “We have made multiple times clear that we would be able to have [this] vaccine in less than 100 days,” Bourla told CNBC. He noted that the company created vaccines for the beta and delta variants quickly, though they ultimately weren’t used because the original shots remained effective. Bourla also says the company’s treatment pill against COVID-19 will be effective against the new variant. “The good news when it comes to our treatment, it was designed with that in mind. It was designed with the fact that most mutations are coming in the spikes,” he said.

Monday, Nov. 29

11:45 p.m. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said his country will supply another 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to African countries in addition to the 200 million that it has already provided. Xi’s pledge comes amid rising global concerns over the new omicron variant, which was first identified in southern Africa.

People wait for coronavirus checks outside Seoul Station on Nov. 26. (Photo by Kotaro Hosokawa)

11:30 p.m. South Korea will set a six-month limit on its vaccination certificates, the government says, hoping to encourage the public to obtain booster shots. At a meeting of infection control policymakers, President Moon Jae-in says the public needs to realize “that vaccination isn’t complete unless you receive a third shot.”

The expiration feature will begin Dec. 20. People with expired vaccination certificates will face restrictions on eating at restaurants and other activities.

New COVID-19 infections, serious cases and deaths are reaching all-time highs in South Korea amid a rise in so-called breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. The Kospi was among the Asian stock indexes falling Monday as worries over the new omicron variant swept the region.

8:30 p.m. Australia says it will delay the reopening of its international border by two weeks after reporting its first cases of the omicron coronavirus variant. Prime Minister Scott Morrison convened a meeting of his national security committee and said it received advice from Australia’s chief health officer to delay the reopening after the first cases of the new variant were detected on Sunday.

8:00 p.m. The Philippines and Indonesia have imposed travel bans and other restrictions in response to concerns over the spread of the new COVID-19 omicron variant, joining other countries in the region. Read more here.

5:54 p.m. Hong Kong has found its third case of the omicron variant, but officials stress the virus has been contained and will not affect the resumption of quarantine-free travel to mainland China. The city’s latest case involves a man who arrived from Nigeria. The government said it would reclassify countries with omicron cases as high-risk. An entry ban on non-Hong Kong residents from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, and Zimbabwe came into effect Sunday. Hong Kong residents arriving in the city from those countries will have to quarantine in a government facility for seven days where they will undergo daily tests, before transferring to a designated hotel for another 14.

Hong Kongers line up for Sinovac shots on November 29. City officials say the variant has been contained and will not affect the resumption of quarantine-free travel to mainland China.

  © AP

5:40 p.m. Portugal has detected 13 cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant — all related to players and staff members of Lisbon soccer team Belenenses, says health authority DGS.

5:23: p.m. The omicron variant is likely to spread internationally, posing a “very high” global risk where COVID-19 surges could have “severe consequences” in some areas, the World Health Organization says. The U.N. agency, in technical advice to its 194 member states, urged them to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.

4:03 p.m. Indonesia is prioritizing COVID-19 control over tourism in the short term by continuing with tougher quarantine rules than many of its neighbors, a senior minister told Nikkei Asia, especially as the country gears up to chair the Group of 20 nations and host a series of meetings starting in December — mainly in Bali.

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2:30 p.m. Japan says a person that stayed in Namibia has tested positive for COVID-19 but it is not known whether the infection is of the omicron variant. The person tested positive upon entering Japan on Sunday. The health ministry says it is looking into the case closely and it would take four to five days to determine the type of the variant. Japan is curbing entrants from Namibia and other southern African countries as it steps up measures against the new coronavirus variant.

2:00 p.m. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the country will try to live with the coronavirus despite the new omicron variant posing a fresh health threat to the world. There were no cases of the variant in New Zealand, but the developing global situation showed why a cautious approach was needed at the borders, she said. “Omicron is a reminder of the risk that still exists at our borders.”

12:38 p.m. The Japanese government has decided to halt allowing foreign business travelers and students to enter the country because of the emergence of the new COVID-19 variant omicron. After new infection numbers plummeted, the government in early November lifted its entry ban for these travelers. The country still remains closed to tourists.

A passenger arrives at Sydney Airport on Nov. 29 as Australia reviews plans on reopening the country to certain categories of visitors.

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11:30 a.m. Australia will review plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, after the country reported its first cases of the omicron variant. Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the new variant as officials ordered a 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries. Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate a two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travelers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the new strain.

11:00 a.m. Top U.S. infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told President Joe Biden on Sunday it will take about two weeks to have definitive information on the omicron variant that has sparked new travel curbs. Biden was briefed in person by his coronavirus response team on Sunday as officials expect the new variant to reach the U.S. despite an impending ban on travelers from southern Africa. Fauci said he believes existing vaccines are likely to provide “a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.”

10:10 a.m. Singapore and Malaysia reopen one of the world’s busiest land borders, allowing vaccinated travelers to cross after nearly two years of a pandemic-related closure. The sudden closing in March 2020 left tens of thousands of people stranded on both sides, separated from families and fearing for their jobs. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is due to make his first official visit as premier to Singapore on Monday.

10:00 a.m. China reports 41 cases for Sunday, up from 23 a day earlier. Of these, 21 were locally transmitted, compared with three a day earlier. Almost all the locally transmitted cases were in Inner Mongolia, with one in Yunnan.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida talks to reporters on Nov. 29 as the omicron coronavirus variant pushes the country to consider stricter border curbs. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

9:50 a.m. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says his country will consider further tightening borders as the newly discovered omicron variant spreads around the world. “We are [taking measures] with a strong sense of crisis,” Kishida said, noting that Japan closed its borders to foreigners traveling from nine countries including South Africa as of Sunday. “As we’re seeing a spread around the world, we continue to consider further measures to tighten border controls and will announce a decision at the appropriate time.”

9:40 a.m. Australian shares fall more than 1% to hit a near two-month low, extending losses to a second straight day, as concerns over the omicron variant hitting economic recovery sparked a broad sell-off. The S&P/ASX 200 index fell as much as 1.36% to 7,180.3 — its lowest level since Oct. 1 — after a 1.73% drop on Friday. Australia on Sunday confirmed two cases of the omicron variant, jeopardizing the country’s reopening plans.

8:01 a.m. Canada has confirmed its first two cases of the omicron variant, both in Ontario. “This development demonstrates that our monitoring system is working,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says. The country had already stepped up measures for inbound travelers who had been in southern Africa within the last 14 days.

6:39 a.m. France has detected eight possible cases of the omicron variant, the Ministry for Solidarity and Health says. All flights had already been suspended from the southern African countries of South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, it says.

5:16 a.m. The U.K. says it will convene an urgent meeting of G-7 health ministers on Monday to discuss developments on the new omicron variant. The meeting is expected to be held online.

The omicron variant has spread to multiple European countries, among them the U.K., Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. 

  © Reuters

4:21 a.m. It is not yet clear whether omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe disease than other variants, including the now-dominant delta, the World Health Organization says in an update. Research is underway to gauge whether rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in South Africa are due to omicron or other factors, the WHO says. “Initial reported infections were among university students — younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity … will take days to several weeks” for omicron, the update says.

Sunday, Nov. 28

11:00 p.m. Vietnam’s health ministry asks the government to temporarily stop flights to and from some African countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho and Mozambique, as well as pause issuing visas or travel permission related to these countries. The ministry said it has not detected any omicron cases within its borders.

4:16 p.m. Two people who traveled to Sydney from southern Africa have been found to be infected with the omicron variant.

“The two positive cases, who were asymptomatic, are in isolation in the Special Health Accommodation,” the Ministry of Health for the Australian state of New South Wales says. “Both people are fully vaccinated.”

The Qatar Airways flight’s remaining 12 passengers from southern Africa are undergoing 14 days of hotel quarantine, while around 260 passengers and air crew members “are considered close contacts and have been directed to isolate,” the Health Ministry says.

3:11 p.m. China could suffer hundreds of thousands of new infections a day if it abandons zero tolerance and adopts Western-style strategies of living with COVID-19 or opening up the country, creating “the real possibility of a colossal outbreak which would almost certainly induce an unaffordable burden to the medical system,” Peking University researchers argue in a new paper.

Looking at the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Spain and France, the authors find that the American strategy would be the worst for China, with an estimated lower bound of 637,155 daily new cases and 22,364 daily severe cases.

“Our findings have raised a clear warning that, for the time being, we are not ready to embrace ‘open-up’ strategies resting solely on the hypothesis of herd immunity induced by vaccination advocated by certain western countries,” the researchers conclude. “More efficient vaccinations or more specific treatment, preferably the combination of both, are needed before entry-exit quarantine measures and other COVID-19 response strategies in China can be safely lifted.”

The statistical study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the U.S.-headquartered Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It appears in China CDC Weekly, a publication of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

2:50 p.m. The omicron variant has spread to multiple European countries, among them the U.K., Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

1:08 p.m. Indonesia will bar international travelers arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini and Nigeria, effective Monday local time.

“If there are foreign nationals who have visited any of these countries within the past 14 days, they will be denied entry to Indonesia at the Immigration Border Control,” Directorate General of Immigration spokesperson Arya Pradhana Anggakara says. The DGI says it has also temporarily suspended the granting of visitor visas and temporary stay visa applications.

Indonesians entering from the eight countries and Hong Kong will also now have to quarantine in designated facilities for 14 days, but the ban will not affect delegates to Group of 20 meetings, Reuters reports. Indonesia will soon take over the G-20’s rotating presidency.

6:59 a.m. Israel will ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counterterrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the new and potentially more contagious omicron variant first detected in South Africa. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Israel, the first country to shut its borders completely over the variant, has so far confirmed one omicron case and seven other suspected cases.

5:45 a.m. Saudi Arabia will allow entry to travelers “from all countries” as long as they have received one dose of a vaccine inside the kingdom, authorities say, a day after suspending flights from seven African countries due to the omicron variant. Travelers would be allowed in from next Saturday and would need to quarantine for three days.

3:05 a.m. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department advise against travel to eight southern African countries after the White House announced new travel restrictions in response to a new COVID-19 variant.

The CDC raises its travel recommendation to “Level Four: Very High” for South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Eswatini and Botswana, while the State Department issues parallel “Do Not Travel” advisories. On Monday, the CDC had lowered its COVID-19 travel advisory for South Africa to “Level 1: Low.”

2:27 a.m. There is a reasonable chance that the newly identified omicron coronavirus variant has some degree of resistance to vaccines, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says. “There is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant,” Whitty tells a news conference, speaking alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

12:45 a.m. The U.S. will continue to push for World Trade Organization members to agree on an intellectual property framework for COVID-19 vaccines after a major WTO ministerial meeting set for this week was postponed on Friday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai says.

In two tweets, Tai says the postponement “is a reminder that we still have much work to do to end the pandemic.”

“The United States will continue working with @WTO members to achieve a multifaceted outcome on trade and health, including an international IP framework, that supports the global pandemic response and puts the WTO in a stronger position to meet the needs of regular people,” she says.

12:20 a.m. Singapore detects 1,761 new cases compared with 1,090 infections the day before as well as six new deaths. Of the new cases, 1,689 are in the community, 63 in the migrant worker dormitories and nine are imported cases, according to the Ministry of Health. The weekly infection growth rate is 0.75.

Saturday, Nov. 27

7:35 p.m. The Czech Republic is examining a suspected case of the omicron variant detected in a person who spent time in Namibia, the National Institute of Public Health says.

7:15 p.m. A minister in the German state of Hesse says the recently discovered omicron coronavirus variant had probably arrived in Germany, Reuters reports.

“Last night several omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveler returning from South Africa,” tweets Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western German state.

5:35 p.m. Japan will add Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia to its list of nations subject to tighter entry rules from Sunday, following the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says.

The addition comes one day after Tokyo started requiring travelers who have recently been to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa or Zimbabwe to spend 10 days in a government-designated facility upon arrival.

4:50 p.m. Sri Lanka bars travelers from six southern African countries over concerns about the new omicron variant.

3:40 p.m. A senior Thai health official says the nation will ban entry of people traveling from eight African countries it designated as high-risk for the new omicron variant. Starting in December, travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, will be prohibited, according to Reuters.

11:26 a.m. Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt says the country will introduce 14-day quarantine for citizens and their dependents traveling from nine countries in southern Africa due to the new coronavirus variant omicron, according to Reuters.

To catch up on earlier developments, see last week’s latest updates.

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