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December 8, 2021updated 07 Jan 2022 5:34am

International update: Scientists identify ‘stealth’ version of Omicron variant

By Paul Dennis

8 December

Omicron latest

Scientists have identified a “stealth” version of the Omicron variant which cannot be detected with the routine tests that public health officials are using to track its spread around the world. The stealth variant has many mutations in common with standard Omicron, but researchers say it is genetically distinct and so may well behave differently.

Early data from South Africa suggests the Omicron variant can partially evade protection from the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. Researchers found there was about a fortyfold reduction in vaccine-induced antibodies that could neutralise the Omicron variant relative to an earlier strain.

Australia: Queensland said it found two different lineages of Omicron in returned travellers. The new lineage, which has about half the gene variations of the original and can’t be detected with typical screening, was found in a traveler who had returned from South Africa and tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday, the state’s deputy health coordinator for Covid operations Peter Aitkin told reporters. The new lineage has enough markers “to be able to classify it as Omicron, but we don’t know enough about it as to what that means then as far as clinical severity, vaccine effectiveness,” Aitkin said. “We now have Omicron and Omicron-like.” Meanwhile, New South Wales state said genome sequencing confirmed an additional Omicron case contracted from an outbreak in Sydney’s western suburbs, bringing the locally acquired infections to 21. Including international arrivals, the state has found 34 cases of the variant, none of whom have been admitted to hospital for treatment, health officials said in a statement Wednesday. Victoria state is urgently investigating an outbreak in Melbourne after two infections indicated they could be the Omicron variant, health officials said in a statement. The source of infection is under investigation as the cases aren’t linked to international travel.

UK: The UK has reported a further 101 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, taking the total number of cases across the country to 437. Of the new cases, 72 were confirmed in England, 28 in Scotland, and one in Wales. There have been no new cases reported in Northern Ireland.

The spread of Omicron in Wales is expected to reach its peak by the end of next month, the health minister, Eluned Morgan, said. She said: “We are expecting a significant wave of Omicron to hit Wales. The modelling suggests it will reach its peak by around the end of January, which is why there is an urgency in terms of getting people vaccinated and boosters done as soon as possible.”

Denmark: Denmark has the found Omicron in sewage water for the first time and has given up its initial strategy to contain the SARS-CoV-2 variant, health authorities said. Denmark has registered 398 Omicron cases as of Tuesday, up by 137 cases from a day earlier, SSI, the country’s institute for infectious disease, said in a statement.  It’s no longer “proportional” to use extra resources to eliminate the Omicron version of the virus, Soren Brostrom, the head of the Danish Health Authority, said at a press conference in Copenhagen.

News by region

Global: The global Covid death toll has passed 5.2 million, with a figure of 5,271,751 according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, infections passed 267 million world wide.

A vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Canada’s Medicago Inc. demonstrated 71% efficacy against multiple variants. The companies also found the plant-based vaccine showed 75% efficacy against the highly-infectious delta variant and nearly 89% efficacy against the gamma variant first identified in Brazil, according to the advanced-stage trial results published Tuesday. No vaccinated participants developed severe disease and no serious side effects were reported in the study of about 24,000 people.

Americas

US: Covid -19 infections have passed 49.3 million. Meanwhile, the US coronavirus death toll has passed 791,000 according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The Biden administration’s mandate for federal contractors’ employees to be vaccinated will be halted nationwide, amid a slew of challenges from states that say the president overstepped his authority in requiring the Covid-19 shots. A federal judge in Georgia blocked the mandate on Tuesday. The latest order follows a Kentucky federal judge’s grant last week of a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit involving Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.

Europe

EU: Deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19 will continue to rise in Europe in the coming weeks as vaccination rates remain insufficient to counter the trends, a key European health agency warned Tuesday. European countries have taken a varying set of measures to combat the spread of the virus, including lockdowns for the unvaccinated and early closing for restaurants and bars. But Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said the toll is still growing. “In the coming weeks, there will be increasing parameters of cases, deaths, hospitalization and ICU admissions,” she told a meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels. “The Omicron variant, that makes the whole situation even more worrying.”

EU health agencies have recommended that Covid vaccines be mixed and matched for both initial courses and booster doses. Evidence suggests that the combination of viral vector vaccines and mRNA vaccines produces good levels of antibodies against the coronavirus, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a joint statement.

Portugal: Portugal’s Directorate-General for Health said it recommends vaccination for children age 5 to 11, with the priority given to those with illnesses considered to be of risk for severe Covid-19. Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE’s vaccine will be used, the directorate-general said in an emailed statement.

UK: Prime minister Boris Johnson is facing accusations of lying after senior No 10 officials were filmed joking about a staff Christmas party that would have contravened strict Covid regulations in place at the time. Johnson and his aides have repeatedly denied that the event broke Covid rules or took place at all. The Metropolitan Police has confirmed it is reviewing the video footage.

Separately, the UK’s education department confirmed a report that some staff and the then education secretary Gavin Williamson held an office party last year, while London was in tier 2, the second-highest level of Covid restrictions.

Germany: Germany recorded a total of 69,601 new cases, compared with 36,059 the day before, according to the country’s public health authority RKI.

Norway: No more than 10 visitors will be allowed in private homes in Norway, and people must keep a distance of at least one metre from anyone outside of their household in new restrictions introduced by the government today. Prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre warned people to expect a “different Christmas holiday” following a recent surge of infections and hospitalisations.

Sweden: From Wednesday, people in Sweden will face new measures to curb rising Covid infections, including renewed social distancing, home-working and the use of face masks on public transport. “We need to work together so that the situation doesn’t get worse, so today we are presenting further precautionary measures,” the prime minister, Magdalena Andersson said.

Spain: Spain’s health commission approved vaccinations against Covid for children aged five to 11, following a recommendation by the European Union’s health regulator late last month. Spanish authorities expect to start vaccinating children on 13 December as the first doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine are expected arrive, the health minister, Carolina Darias, said.

Poland: Poland will introduce compulsory Covid vaccinations for doctors, teachers and security service personnel from 1 March, the health minister said, as he announced a raft of new measures to curb the spread of the virus. Niedzielski said the limit on the number of people allowed in public spaces such as restaurants and cinemas would be lowered to 30%, not including vaccinated people, from the current 50%. Businesses will also be required to check customers’ Covid certificates. Nightclubs will be closed from 15 December and on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, only 100 people will be allowed to enter, not counting those who have been vaccinated. Additionally, travellers from outside the European Union’s Schengen passport-free zone will need to show a negative test result from 15 December and schools will return to distance learning for periods just before and after the Christmas holiday. Niedzielski said that the government was also working on a draft law that would allow employers to check workers’ Covid test results.

Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon urged companies in Scotland to ensure that all staff who can are working from home until the middle of January, telling people to do a lateral flow test “on every occasion” they intend to mix with others over the festive season, whether at work, socialising or going shopping.

Asia-pacific

South Korea: Daily cases in South Korea have surpassed 7,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the country’s prime minister Kim Boo-kyum said.

Japan: There are so few people getting sick with Covid-19 in Japan that on some recent days no one has died. That’s brought the number of confirmed deaths in the past week down to six, the lowest it’s been in the country since July 2020, before the second wave of pandemic fatalities.

China: China reported 49 domestic infections on Wednesday, including five asymptomatic cases, which were mostly in an Inner Mongolia town bordering Russia where nine rounds of mass testing have weeded out some 400 infections. Another cluster has emerged in the eastern province of Zhejiang while nearby Shanghai reported one infection. New flare ups have been reported across the country since mid-October, increasing the challenge for health authorities trying to maintain the long-held goal of Covid Zero.

Middle-east and Africa

Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe’s new daily cases surged to a record high of 4,031 on Dec. 7, surpassing the previous peak recorded during the nation’s third wave in July, according to data from the Health Ministry.

Nigeria: The rate of positive tests in Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos jumped to 6% from 0.1% in the middle of November and officials warned of the beginning of a fourth wave of infections. Ignoring Covid protocols is leading to a surge in cases, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said in an emailed statement.

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