Global: The global Covid death toll has passed 5.5 million, with a figure of 5,596,595 according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, infections surged past 350 million to a world wide figure of 351,411,142.

The head of Pfizer has said that an annual Covid-19 vaccine would be preferable to more frequent booster shots in fighting the pandemic. Asked whether he sees booster shots being administered every four to five months on a regular basis, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla replied: “This will not be a good scenario. What I’m hoping (is) that we will have a vaccine that you will have to do once a year.”

Nearly half of those who became ill with Covid in the first wave of infections may have long-term and even permanent changes to their sense of smell, according to preliminary research from Sweden.

The Omicron -fuelled wave of Covid-19 infections has led wealthy countries to intensify their recruitment of nurses from poorer parts of the world, worsening dire staffing shortages in overstretched workforces there, the International Council of Nurses has said.

News by region

Americas

US: Covid -19 infections have now passed 70 million. Meanwhile, the US coronavirus death toll has increased to more than 866,000 according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The Omicron variant is starting to loosen its grip on the US Northeast, but experts warn that it will take more time for the latest wave of Covid-19 to recede nationwide. The strain’s fast surge and swift descent in one of the most populous parts of the US echoes its trajectory in areas of Europe and South Africa, where infections skyrocketed only to come back down nearly as quickly. That’s raised hopes that while Omicron has at times seemed like a replay of the worst days of the early pandemic, it will soon ebb. However, the shape of the Omicron wave may look different in various parts of the US, depending on vaccination rates and hospital capacity.  Nationally, the Omicron wave could peak as early as this week, according to projections from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Veklury Covid treatment may be used for some non-hospitalized patients with mild to moderate cases, the US Food and Drug Administration said. The therapy had previously been limited to patients requiring hospitalization.

Covid-19 deaths in the US rose to almost 14,300 in the week through Friday, the most since September, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg. That compares with record weekly death of more than 20,000 last January and early February.

US authorities are confident most states will soon reach and pass a peak in coronavirus Omicron variant cases, even as hospitals struggle to cope with the current surge, Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser has said.

New infections are climbing steeply in rural Alabama, even though the Omicron surge appears to have leveled off in urban areas like Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, al.com reported. Alabama is the second-least vaccinated state in the US, with less than 48% of people fully vaccinated, compared with the US average of almost 63%. Hardest hit in the Omicron wave are counties with the lowest vaccination rates, al.com reported. The state hit a record on Thursday of 46% of tests positive for Covid-19.

It’s too soon for schools to lift student mask mandates, but public health officials need to be clearer about how long they are needed, said Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the US Food and Drug Administration. “To withdraw it right at the peak of the epidemic, I think it’s imprudent. We should wait,” Gottlieb, a Pfizer Inc. board member, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “But this whole Covid epidemic, I think, has been colored by the fact that policymakers have not prescribed clear endpoints,” he said. “I think parents are willing to tolerate masks in schools, recognizing it’s very disruptive to children if there is an end date to it.”

Opponents of vaccine mandates gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC Sunday, though the crowd appeared to be smaller than expected. Rally organizers had submitted a permit to the National Park Service estimating 20,000 attendees at the rally, but the Washington Post reported the gathering was a small crowd of a few thousand. Robert Kennedy Jr., who has been outspoken about his opposition to the vaccine, was among the speakers.

The United States, the World Health Organization’s top donor, is resisting proposals to make the agency more independent, four officials involved in the talks said, raising doubts about the Biden administration’s long-term support for the UN agency.

Food banks across the United States are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers driven by fears over the Omicron variant. The extent of the problem was highlighted this past week during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day national holiday, when many food banks were forced to cancel their plans or had far lower numbers than pre-pandemic years.

Europe

The Omicron variant has moved the Covid-19 pandemic into a new phase and could bring it to an end in Europe, the WHO Europe director has said. “It’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame,” Hans Kluge told AFP, adding that Omicron could infect 60% of Europeans by March.

EU: European Union countries agreed not to add restrictions on vaccinated travelers, signaling a shift from basing rules on a region’s epidemiological situation to an individual’s vaccination status. Ministers will sign-off on the decision Tuesday, according to people familiar with discussion. The move is non-binding, but signals that European countries are ready to leave behind the emergency measures they’ve had in place.

Germany: Germany will likely keep its current pandemic measures in place, the country’s regional leaders said ahead of a meeting Monday with Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss the situation. “Tightening of the corona measures is not on the horizon and that is good news for the current state of affairs,” Lower Saxony premier Stephan Weil told the RND media group before the summit. North Rhine-Westphalia’s regional leader Hendrik Wuest also said relaxing current measures isn’t on the table.

Germany reported 2,398 Covid-19 patients in ICU, 20 fewer than the day before. The number of patients on ventilators was 1,422, 26 fewer than the previous day. A further 44 Covid-19 patients died while in ICU.

Belgium: About 50,000 people protesting against Covid-19 restrictions in Belgium have been dispersed by police. The country is facing a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections, with the peak not expected for at least a couple of weeks.

Czech Republic: The Czech Republic reported 26,597 new coronavirus cases, a doubling from a week earlier. The country had a record 28,469 Covid-19 infections on Tuesday and the numbers have been near that all week. The nation of 10.7 million had 1,566 patients hospitalized with Covid-19, according to health ministry data.

UK: The UK detected 76,807 new Covid infections in the past 24 hours, a 54% drop on the 176,191 cases detected two weeks ago as the record-breaking Omicron wave appears to have spiked. The UK reported a further 297 people died within 28 days of a positive Covid test on Saturday, 3% up on the 287 deaths reported last Saturday.

The deadline for health workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 should be delayed to prevent staff shortages in England, the Royal College of GPs has said. Martin Marshall, the chairman of the college, described compulsory vaccination for health professionals as “not the right way forward”. However, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab signalled the government would maintain a deadline for health service workers to get a Covid-19 vaccine or risk losing their jobs in a response to a press report that the mandate would be delayed.

Russia: Russia recorded a daily record of 63,205 new Covid-19 infections, the government response center said Sunday. The number of deaths was 679, close to levels of July. With Russia at the start of a new wave, the Sputnik V vaccine is showing “very good efficacy” against the Omicron variant, said Alexander Gintsburg, director at Gamaleya Center, which developed the vaccine, Interfax reported.

Greece: Greece has detected two cases of an offshoot of the Omicron variant in passengers arriving at Athens international airport. The travellers, who have the BA.2 sub-variant, are in isolation. The BA.2 sub-variant, of which 426 cases have been sequenced in the UK, may have an “increased growth rate” over the earlier form of Omicron, officially designated as BA.1, according to UKHSA.

Italy: Italy must move from treating the pandemic as an emergency to a new “ordinary” phase where Covid-19 is just an illness among others, health undersecretary Pierpaolo Sileri said on Sunday on Rai1 television. Sileri said the easing of restrictions must happen “at the right moment,” adding that he expected infections to decline in coming days. Italy recorded 138,860 new cases on Sunday.

Switzerland: Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told newspaper Schweiz am Wochenende that he’s reviewing Covid measures weekly. If developments are positive, the government can reduce the work-from-home “obligation” to a “recommendation” in the next few weeks and lift the quarantine, Berset said. The days of the proof of vaccination certificate “also seem to be drawing to a close,” he said.

Asia pacific

New Zealand: New measures are being introduced in New Zealand as coronavirus cases could rise to more than 1,000 a day driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has postponed her planned wedding in response.

Australia: Western Australia reported 24 new community cases Sunday, prompting the state’s Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson to say that Omicron can’t be eliminated, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. “I think it’s clear that we’re not going to eliminate Omicron, it’s now about how we suppress and manage Omicron,” Sanderson told reporters Sunday in Perth, according to the ABC. The state now has 90 active cases, The Department of Health said in an emailed statement.

North Korea: The United Nations offered to send 60 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to North Korea in December but it hasn’t yet received an official response, Yonhap News reported. It cited South Korean lawmaker Kim Kyung-hyup, who was briefed by the nation’s National Intelligence Service.

Singapore: Local Covid-19 cases in Singapore rose to 2,794 on 21 January, the most since November, according to the Ministry of Health’s website. Total infections for the day including imported cases more than doubled from a day earlier to 3,155, as the data started including results from antigen rapid tests.

Indonesia: Indonesia reported 3,205 new cases on Saturday, its biggest addition since Sept. 21 last year, led by the Omicron variant, according to the health ministry. The capital Jakarta recorded more than half the additional infections.

India: Restrictions on election campaigns across five poll-bound Indian states will stay in place till the end of this month as daily infections have crossed the 300,000 mark, the federal election commission said. No road show, rallies and procession shall be allowed until 31 January, according to a statement issued by the commission on Saturday. The commission has also raised the limit on door-to-door campaign to 10 people from 5, excluding security personnel.

Taiwan: Taiwan imposed new Covid-19 controls after the number of local infections surged to their highest since a widespread outbreak last summer. The government will ban eating on public transportation, including trains and ships, from Sunday, Transportation Minister Wang Kwo-tsai said at a briefing on Saturday. Large-scale religious events where social distancing can’t be guaranteed, such as pilgrimages and processions, will also be barred, according to a statement from the Ministry of the Interior.

Japan: A poll by Japanese newspaper Mainichi on Saturday showed 46% of those surveyed said they were fearful about the spread of Omicron coronavirus variant but not as concerned as they were with the delta strain, while 34% of respondents said they were very fearful. Tokyo found 11,227 infections on Saturday. Authorities have placed curbs on 13 prefectures, including Tokyo and its surrounding areas, from Friday to 13 February.  Of those surveyed, 31% said they approved of the government’s coronavirus measures, a decline of 15 percentage points from the previous poll by the paper. Those who did not approve of the government’s actions rose 13 percentage points to 39%, according to the Mainichi.

Samoa: The small Pacific nation of Samoa has been placed under a 48-hour nationwide lockdown after 15 passengers on a flight from Australia tested positive for Covid-19. The passengers were on a flight from Brisbane carrying 73 people, all of whom were fully vaccinated and had tested negative for Covid-19 before departure.

China: Beijing Winter Olympics organisers say they have confirmed 72 cases of Covid-19 among 2,586 Games-related personnel entering China from 4 January to 22 January, with no cases among 171 athletes and team officials arriving in that period.

Hong Kong: Hong Kong authorities said on Sunday one hamster surrendered to authorities by pet owners had tested positive for Covid-19 and that more than 2,200 hamsters had been culled as the city struggled to contain an outbreak.

Hong Kong reported 25 confirmed local Covid infections on Saturday, the most since at least March, and 100 preliminary positive cases as officials try to contain an outbreak at a public housing estate. Most of the preliminary positive cases were found at the public housing complex in the New Territories where more than 2,500 residents have been locked down for five days and are tested every day.

Middle-east and Africa

Israel: A fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccine given to people over 60 in Israel made them three times more resistant to serious illness than thrice-vaccinated people in the same age group, Israel’s health ministry has said.

Economy update

New Zealand: New Zealand’s government is warning businesses to be prepared for labor shortages and supply disruptions as Omicron takes hold in the community. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has urged companies to ensure business continuity plans are in place and pledged government support, but warned that the impact of the variant could be severe. Modelling showed that in a scenario of 25,000 daily cases there could be 350,000 workers a day self-isolating, he said.

US: Citigroup Inc. asked staffers in the New York City region to begin returning to the office early next month as cases start to recede in the area. Employees in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were asked to prepare to come back on 7 February. For other locations across the US, Citigroup will continue to monitor local health data before inviting more workers to return. A spokeswoman confirmed the bank’s plans.

Citigroup has already asked its London staff to come into the office at least three days a week after the UK government said people no longer needed to work from home.