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January 4, 2022updated 07 Jan 2022 6:17am

International update: Omicron variant drives Covid cases to record levels

By Paul Dennis

4 January

Global: The global Covid death toll has passed 5.4 million, with a figure of 5,449,575 according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, infections passed 292 million world wide.

Omicron latest

Global: A string of new studies have confirmed that even as case numbers hit records due to the Omicron variant, the numbers of severe cases and hospitalizations have not. “We’re now in a totally different phase,” said Monica Gandhi, an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “The virus is always going to be with us, but my hope is this variant causes so much immunity that it will quell the pandemic.”

US: Thousands of US schools delayed a scheduled return to classrooms following the holiday break or switched to remote learning as the Omicron variant pushes Covid-19 cases to record levels. In Florida, Covid-19 cases have risen by 948% in just two weeks.

UK: The UK reported 157,758 new Covid cases today and 42 additional deaths. Cases rose by 50% between 28 December and 3 January compared with the week before. Deaths rose 17% during the same period compared with the previous seven days. Multiple NHS trusts have declared “critical incidents” amid soaring staff absences caused by Covid. Parts of the health service are in “crisis”, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation said.

France: The French government said it would ease access to crisis funds and could delay loan repayments for businesses struggling with a drop in activity as a surge in Omicron cases hits tourism and leisure activities. Such efforts have allowed the country “to relaunch economic activity very quickly and very strongly,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said after meeting with representatives of business groups.

Canada: Canada’s most populous province of Ontario announced new restrictions – including closing down schools and shops operating at 50% capacity – as officials warned of a “tsunami” of new Covid cases.

China: China may keep its border restrictions for the rest of the year as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics and a series of political events in 2022, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said. Reports that vaccines made by domestic firm Sinovac Biotech Ltd. offer limited protection against the Omicron variant will likely reinforce China’s resolve to stick with its Covid Zero strategy, analysts led by Andrew Tilton wrote in a note Tuesday.

Geopolitical risk consultancy Eurasia Group, assessing the biggest political risks in 2022, ranked “No Zero Covid” as the No. 1 threat, focusing on how China is facing an increasingly difficult battle to eliminate the virus’s more transmissible variants. China’s zero-Covid policy looked “incredibly successful” in 2020 but now has “become a fight against a much more transmissible variant with broader lockdowns and vaccines with limited effectiveness,” Eurasia said in its report. “The population has virtually no antibodies against Omicron. Keeping the country locked down for two years has now made it more risky to open it back up.”

The inactivated Covid vaccines developed by Chinese companies Sinovac and Sinopharm are found to stimulate little or no protective antibodies against the immunity-evading Omicron variant.

News by region

Americas

US: Covid -19 infections have passed 56 million. Meanwhile, the US coronavirus death toll has passed 827,000 according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Roughly 1.06 million cases were diagnosed Monday as of midnight New York time, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The tally may fluctuate as more data is entered. That’s more than any country has ever reported since the pandemic began more than two years ago and comes after the recent record of about 590,000 cases was itself a doubling from the prior week. The surging infections have led to cancelled flights, closed schools and offices, overwhelmed hospitals and strangled supply chains.

The stratospheric numbers come even as many Americans rely on tests they take at home, with results that aren’t reported to authorities. That means that the new record is likely a significant under-estimate.

The US food and drug administration (FDA) has authorised the use of a third dose of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid vaccine for children aged 12 to 15.

Starbucks will require its US workers to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly testing in order to comply with new federal mandates, the company said in an update sent to employees on Monday.

Europe

France: Two French lawmakers said they received death threats as Parliament moves toward requiring proof of vaccination for access to public venues and transportation. Agnès Firmin Le Bodo of the center-right Agir party tweeted an email she received with threats to kill her over her support for the vaccination pass. “Our democracy is in danger,” she wrote.

UK: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK is in a much better position with the virus than last year but said it would be “absolute folly” to think the pandemic is almost over, the BBC reported.

Asia pacific

China: The city of Yuzhou in China’s Henan Province entered lockdown Monday night after three asymptomatic Covid cases were detected on Sunday, local media reports. More than 1 million citizens are now required to stay at home while public transportation, in-person education and public gatherings have been suspended. The city’s downtown area was reportedly locked down with all personnel unable to enter or exit the area. Shops and supermarkets have been ordered to suspend all business activities except “guaranteeing the supply of daily life materials”, according to a government notice. The emergency measures follow the lockdown of 13 million in Xi’an after 127 people contracted the virus.

Hong Kong: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a vaccine requirement for restaurants and public leisure facilities will be imposed from February 24. That’s later than initially planned, with the government having delayed the start of the restrictions to after the Lunar New Year holidays, when families gather in homes and restaurants across the city.

Japan: Japan’s capital found 103 new coronavirus cases on Monday, the most in nearly three months according to data from the Tokyo government.

The number of serious cases remained at one. But the seven-day average case load figure rose to 75.7, nearly doubling from the previous week. In the southern prefecture of Okinawa, 130 cases were reported Monday, the highest since late September, according to Fuji News Network. In the Japanese capital, a cluster of 11 cases was found at the Tokyo Daijingu shrine, the broadcaster also reported.

India: India vaccinated over 3.8 million 15- to 18-year-olds on Monday as the country expanded its vaccination drive.

Middle-east and Africa

Israel: Israel is set to allow foreigners with presumed Covid-19 immunity to enter from medium-risk countries from 9 January, the health ministry has said. Foreign travellers from 199 “orange” countries will be admitted if they can prove they are vaccinated or have recovered from the virus.

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