Coronavirus latest as UK records 53,945 daily cases, the highest since 17 July; “good news” in early data on Omicron; nothing to stop festive parties and no guidance on who you should kiss at Christmas, Number 10 says; UK approves new Sotrovimab drug that could work against new variant.
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Three US states have identified cases of the Omicron variant – California, Colorado and Minnesota – among patients who were fully vaccinated and developed mild symptoms, health officials said today.
The Minnesota patient is the first known US case of community transmission of the new strain. The fully vaccinated man had recently travelled to New York City and attended a conference.
It comes as President Joe Biden announced new testing requirements for international travellers and promised in the coming weeks that Americans would have access to free, rapid at-home COVID-19 testing in a bid to combat the new variant.
Colorado health officials said today that a woman with the Omicron variant had recently returned from a trip to southern Africa.
California reported the first US case of the variant on Wednesday – found in a fully vaccinated traveller who had been in South Africa.
The UK today recorded 53,945 new cases of coronavirus – the highest daily figure since mid-July following the European football championship.
Thursday’s data also showed 141 more deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID test – compared to 41 on 17 July.
Meanwhile, the UK also confirmed 10 new Omicron cases today – taking the total to 42.
The Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has identified a further seven cases in England, in addition to the previous 22 confirmed cases of the variant known as B.1.1.529.
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Brazil has confirmed two more cases of the new Omicron variant in the country, bringing the total to five.
The country’s health ministry said the two people who have tested positive for the variant boarded a plane in South Africa, passed through Ethiopia, landed in Guarulhos, and finally arrived in Brasilia.
One of them has mild symptoms of the disease and the other is asymptomatic.
Three other Omicron cases were confirmed on Wednesday in Sao Paulo.
US President Joe Biden’s latest measures to limit the spread of coronavirus is set to increase the difficulty of entering the United States, even for American citizens returning from abroad.
From next week, travellers heading to the US will be required to show evidence of a negative test for COVID-19 within one day of boarding their flight. The previous period was three days.
Mr Biden also plans to extend the federal rule requiring passengers on planes, trains and buses to wear face masks through to 18 March.
The new measures have come about hastily as the White House acts urgently ahead of winter, when the virus can spread more easily among people indoors, and since the discovery of the concerning new Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Google is delaying its return-to-office plan in Europe, the Middle East and Africa due to the rising concerns over the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Business Insider reported today, citing a company memo.
The company had previously extended its voluntary return-to-office policy until 10 January – beyond which it said it would allow countries and locations to decide when to end voluntary work-from-home based on local conditions.
But today, Matt Brittin, Google’s president for the EMEA region, reportedly told employees that the company would put off that deadline beyond that date.
The US or North America employees have not yet received any guidance regarding changes in office return plans, the report added.
Zimbabwe’s Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the health minister, has confirmed the southern African country has recorded its first case of the Omicron variant.
This makes it the fifth African country to report its presence after Botswana, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.
“We are doing the genomic sequencing, we have already now identified that we have it in this country and therefore we must remain vigilant,” Mr Chiwenga said according to Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster today.
Mr Chiwenga was speaking to a meeting for farmers and didn’t provide details on the number of cases of Omicron in the country or the origin of the cases.
US President Joe Biden has said international travellers to the US will have to test negative for COVID within one day of departure “regardless of their vaccination status or nationality”.
“It provides an added degree of protection”, he said.
The president today outlined his strategy to fight the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants over the winter, which includes free and insurer-funded at-home COVID-19 testing.
The US government will also require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for 100% of the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests, and make 50 million more tests available free through rural clinics and health centres for the uninsured.
“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Mr Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
Analysis by Thomas Moore, science correspondent
We now have the first strong insight into what’s driving Omicron’s rise in South Africa.
And it has worrying implications for the rest of the world.
Scientists have been puzzling over the real-world effect of the variant’s constellation of mutations. Some predicted that our antibodies may not be good enough to prevent infection.
And this shows that is indeed the case. A re-infection rate more than twice as high as in the first wave with the original Wuhan virus is quite astonishing – particularly when you consider that the Beta and Delta variants didn’t have that biological superpower.
So Omicron can spread, even in a population with very high levels of natural immunity. Although the variant doesn’t seem to be more inherently transmissible than Delta.
The effect of re-infections on the current wave in South Africa will be much the same. The big question now is what happens in a population, like the UK’s, where vaccination rates are high.
Research by the National Institutes of Health in the US has shown that antibodies produced by COVID vaccines are more likely to recognise variations in the virus spike protein than those generated by natural immunity.
That could mean people who are fully vaccinated – and boosted – may still be able shrug off Omicron. But it could be weeks before we know that for sure.
Omicron has a “substantial” ability to evade immunity from a previous COVID infection, according to the first real-world study of the variant’s effect.
The finding suggests the new variant could cause a substantial wave of infections, even in populations with high levels of antibodies.
Researchers at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) warn their finding has important public health implications.
They add: “Urgent questions remain regarding whether Omicron is also able to evade vaccine-induced immunity and the potential implications of reduced immunity to infection on protection against severe disease and death.”
The scientists looked at almost 2.8 million confirmed cases of COVID19 in South Africa since March 2020 and found 35,670 were re-infections.