‘High confidence’ Omicron is less severe, UK health agency says – Al Jazeera English

The UK Health Security Agency says it is increasingly confident that the Omicron coronavirus variant “causes low severity of disease in adults,” as it published its updated briefing on Friday on the variant.

Swedish Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, 54, tested positive for COVID-19, according to her spokesperson, while Sweden’s king, queen and crown princess have all been hit with infections this month.

Elsewhere, passengers from 153 nations have been banned from transiting through Hong Kong airport, in the latest tightening of the city’s strict anti-virus travel measures.

Also on Friday, the Australian government cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time, saying the world tennis No 1, unvaccinated for COVID-19, may pose a risk to the community.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced yet more allegations of his office holding “boozy parties” while everyone else in the country was unable to mix because of strict rules on social distancing.

Here are the latest updates:

Djokovic’s PCR test ‘absolutely valid’: Serbian health ministry

A document showing that Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 on December 16 is valid, a Serbian health ministry official has said.

“After the documentation appeared on social networks we analysed the document, and the document is absolutely valid,” said Zoran Gojkovic, a member of the Crisis Staff team working on fighting COVID-19 in the country.

He said there was no legal penalty for those who break quarantine rules in Serbia, referring to Djokovic’s interview with French newspaper L’Equipe.

“I defend his free will not to get vaccinated,” Gojkovic said.

UK weekly infections down 29.5 percent

The UK has reported 99,652 new cases of COVID-19 in its daily data, a drop that pushed the seven-day tally down by 29.5 percent on the week before.

It reported 270 deaths of people who had tested positive for the disease within the previous 28 days. The seven day total for deaths is up 67 percent on the week before, following a record spike in infections in recent weeks.

UK health agency increasingly confident Omicron is less severe

The UK Health Security Agency has said it was increasingly confident that the Omicron coronavirus variant was less severe for adults, as it published its updated briefing on the variant.

“There is now high confidence that the Omicron variant causes low severity of disease in adults,” UKHSA said.

It added that there were 53 sequences of a sub-lineage of Omicron, BA.2, which does not have a specific mutation that easily distinguishes it from Delta, adding it would monitor the sub-lineage closely.

Israel says 500K have received fourth dose

Israel has administered a fourth vaccine dose to more than 500,000 people, the Health Ministry has said.

“Israel’s trailblazing vaccine campaign has reached another milestone,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. ”

Thank you to the half a million Israelis who got the fourth dose of the COVID vaccine and in so doing, help to keep us all safer.”

Russia records 783 Omicron cases: Official

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova has said that Russia had so far recorded 783 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant and expected a rise in cases in the near future.

She added that more than half of the cases had been detected in the capital Moscow.

Polish advisers resign over gov’t ‘limited efforts’

Thirteen of the 17 members of Poland’s Medical Council advising the prime minister have resigned, state-run news agency PAP has reported, condemning what they said was a lack of scientific influence on policy.

Even with one of the world’s highest death rates, Poland has introduced much more limited measures than many other European countries to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“The discrepancy between scientific and medical rationale and practice has become especially glaring in the context of the very limited efforts in the face of the autumn wave and then the threat of the Omicron variant, despite the enormous number of deaths expected,” the 13 council members said in a statement given to PAP.

Some restaurants rebel, re-open ahead of Dutch lockdown easing

Restaurants in one Dutch city have reopened and others said they would open on Saturday regardless of whether they are included in plans by the government to ease the country’s lockdown.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte was expected to order the reopening of most stores, hairdressers and gyms at a nationally televised press conference Friday evening, as popular support for the month-long lockdown evaporates despite the strain on hospitals and record new infections.

National broadcaster NOS reported that restaurants and bars would be excluded from the reopening, citing government sources. Rutte is due to speak at 18:00 GMT.

Netherlands registers more than 35,000 cases in 24 hours

The Netherlands has registered more than 35,000 new COVID-19 infections in 24 hours, a record high, official data has showed.

Norway opens jabs to 5-11 year-olds

Norway has said it would open vaccinations to 5-11 year-olds on a voluntary basis but stopped short of issuing an official recommendation.

In addition, children aged 12 to 15, who have until now been offered a single dose of the vaccine, may now receive a second dose if their parents wish, the health ministry said.

Omicron has 1/3 reduced risk of hospitalisation compared to Delta: UK researchers

There is a one third reduction in the risk of going into hospital associated with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 compared with Delta, researchers at Imperial College London have said in scientific advice published by the British government.

The reduction in risk from Omicron compared to Delta increased to two-thirds when looking at severe outcomes such as formal admission or death, the researchers said.

China suspends more flights, Shanghai curbs tours

China has suspended dozens of international flights, while the city of Shanghai has curbed tourist activity.

Shanghai’s tourism and culture authority said travel agencies and online tourism companies must once again halt organising group tours into and out of Shanghai after it reported five new domestically transmitted infections on Thursday, all linked to an arrival from overseas.

China announced that 30 inbound international flights from several countries were suspended due to COVID-19 cases, including four more from the US. So far this year, China has announced the cancellation of 74 flights from the US.

England’s R number estimated between 1.1 and 1.5

The estimated range of England’s COVID-19 reproduction “R” number is between 1.1 and 1.5, the UK Health Security Agency has said, adding that cases might be growing by slightly less each day.

An R number between 1.1 and 1.5 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 11 and 15 other people. Last week the range was 1.2 to 1.5.

The daily growth of infections was estimated at between +1 percent to +5 percent, compared to +3 percent and +6 percent the previous week.

EMA lists rare spinal condition as side effect of AstraZeneca jab

A safety panel of the European drug regulator has recommended adding a rare spinal inflammation called transverse myelitis as a side effect of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.

European Medicines Agency’s safety committee also recommended a similar warning to be included for Johnson & Johnson’s one shot vaccine.

The committee, after reviewing data, concluded that a causal relationship between these two vaccines and transverse myelitis is at least a reasonable possibility.

EU excess deaths in November hit highest in a year: Eurostat

Around 27 percent more people died in the European Union than usual during November, the biggest increase in a year as a fresh wave of COVID-19 swept the region, according to official data.

Excess mortality – the increase in total number of deaths, from any cause, compared with the same time in previous years – continued to vary across member states, EU statistics office Eurostat said.

Bulgaria and Romania saw the highest rates in November, the last month for which data for all 27 EU member states is available, with excess mortality at 88 percent and 84 percent respectively, while Italy saw 4 percent more deaths.

COVID-19 Omicron variant now dominant in Italy

The highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant is now predominant in Italy, according to the National Health Institute (ISS), accounting for 81 percent of cases in a flash survey on January 3.

“In Italy on January 3, the Omicron variant was predominant, with an estimated prevalence of 81 percent, while Delta was at 19 percent of the sample tested”, ISS said in statement.

The analysis is based on 2,632 swabs tested in 120 laboratories and collected in all 21 Italian regions and autonomous provinces, the Institute said.

Philippines bans unvaccinated from public transport

The Philippines will push through with its plan next week to ban from public transportation people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19, according to officials.

The ban applies to the notoriously congested capital region of about 13 million people, where most new cases have emerged, but has faced stiff opposition from the country’s human rights commission, which called it restrictive and discriminatory.

But the transport ministry said there would be no stopping the plan, which was necessary to curb the spread and prevent the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed.

S Korea court exempts teens, supermarkets from vaccine passes

A South Korean court has ruled that large shops and teenagers should be temporarily excluded from COVID-19 vaccine pass mandates in the capital Seoul, part of an intensifying legal fight over one of Asia’s strictest vaccination policies.

A group of more than 1,000 doctors, professors and ordinary citizens filed for an injunction last week against Seoul’s mayor to suspend the mandates, which require vaccination passes or testing for entry to most public facilities except for schools.

An administrative court in the capital said department stores, supermarkets and shops in Seoul that have 3,000 square metres (32,300 square feet) or more of space should be exempted.

The court said the mandate should not apply to teenagers using any Seoul-based facilities.

WHO recommendation on Merck’s oral pill likely in early February

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently reviewing Merck’s COVID-19 antiviral oral pill molnupiravir and a recommendation will likely be made by early February, according an agency official.

Janet Diaz, WHO lead on clinical management, said the WHO’S Guidelines Development Group is also getting ready to review Pfizer’s oral pill.

“We will be looking at that (Pfizer oral pill) data in early February for publication likely at the end of that month.”

Omicron leaves Germany on brink of recession as growth dips

The risk of recession is looming for Germany after Europe’s biggest economy shrank at the end of 2021 and as it faces a bumpy start to this year, with the rapid spread of COVID-19’s Omicron variant deterring people from shopping and travel and supply bottlenecks holding back manufacturers.

Output in Germany fell by between 0.5 percent and 1 percent in the fourth quarter, the state statistics agency Destatis said.

Forecasts are also shaky for the first three months of 2022, and two straight quarters of falling output would leave Germany in recession, according to one commonly used definition.

Australian judge to hold emergency Djokovic hearing: court

The Australian judge who blocked Novak Djokovic’s deportation scheduled an emergency hearing late on Friday, after the government cancelled the tennis star’s visa for a second time.

“A directions hearing will be conducted tonight at 8:45 pm (09:45 GMT) before Judge Anthony Kelly of the Federal Circuit Court,” a court spokesman said in a statement.

Djokovic’s lawyer Nick Wood requested an injunction against the Serbian’s removal and appealed for him to be allowed to stay out of immigration detention as the case proceeds.

“We are very concerned about time,” Wood told an emergency hearing three days before Djokovic tries to defend his Australian Open crown.

Bangladesh tightens curbs as COVID cases rise

Bangladesh has enforced a new set of rules and guidelines to check a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the past week.

The South Asian country reported 3,359 new cases and 12 COVID-related deaths on Thursday, with a positivity rate of 12 percent, according to a daily bulletin issued by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).

Read more here.

Coronavirus vaccination in BangladeshSlum dwellers stand in a queue to get vaccines in Korail Slum in Dhaka [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Philippines eyes ‘unvaccinated list’ amid Duterte’s arrest threat

The Philippine government is looking to issue an order that would allow village officials to go “house-to-house” and record the vaccination status of all residents as it extends limits on mobility until the end of January due to a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

The move comes after President Rodrigo Duterte’s warning last week that he will order the arrest of those of have not been vaccinated to contain the spread of the disease.

Read more here.

Police block a church in Manila to prevent worshippers from enteringPolice officers man the Quaipo Church in Manila to prevent devotees from from entering [File: Lisa Marie David/Reuters]

Swedish PM Andersson tests positive for COVID

Swedish Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has tested positive for COVID-19, according to her spokesperson.

Andersson, 54, is one of several party leaders to have tested positive for the virus in the wake of a debate in parliament earlier this week while Sweden’s king, queen and crown princess have all been hit with infections this month.

“She (Andersson) is following the current recommendations and will perform her duties from home. The PM is feeling well, given the situation,” the spokesperson said.

Thousands gather at Hindu festival in India as virus surges

Tens of thousands of devout Hindus, led by heads of monasteries and ash-smeared ascetics, took a holy dip into the frigid waters of the Ganges River in northern India despite rising COVID-19 infections in the country.

Hindu pilgrims congregated at the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – in Prayagraj city, 200km (124 miles) northeast of Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, to participate in the Magh Mela festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.

Read more here.

Hindu pilgrims at Ganges riverHindu pilgrims gather to take a dip at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, on the occasion of “Makar Sankranti” festival at Sagar Island [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

J&J booster 85 percent effective against Omicron: Study

A booster shot of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has shown 85 percent effectiveness in protecting against the Omicron variant for 1-2 months after it is received, according to the head of South Africa’s Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

Glenda Grey presented the findings of a SAMRC study at a South African health ministry briefing on the COVID-19 fourth wave, which has been driven by the new variant.

Australia cancels Djokovic’s visa again over vaccination

The Australian government cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time, saying the world tennis No 1, unvaccinated for COVID-19, may pose a risk to the community.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to again cancel Djokovic’s visa, after a court quashed an earlier revocation and released him from immigration detention on Monday.

“Today I exercised my power under section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” Hawke said in a statement.

Read more here.

A Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic sits on a benchDjokovic rests during a training session at Melbourne Park [Diego Fedele/AAP Image via Reuters]

Hong Kong airport suspends transit flights from high-risk countries

Hong Kong International Airport has said passenger transit flights from countries considered high-risk because of the coronavirus will be suspended from January 16 to February 15.

“Passenger transfer/transit services via Hong Kong International Airport for any persons who have stayed in Group A specified place(s) in the past 21 days will be suspended,” the airport said in a statement on its website.

Hong Kong considers 153 countries as high risk.

Read more here.

Shanghai cuts some tourism trips on COVID-19 cases again

The eastern Chinese financial hub of Shanghai has suspended some tourism activities as part of its efforts to head off a handful of sporadic new local transmissions, while it also faces an increase in COVID-19 infections from overseas.

Shanghai’s tourism and culture authority said travel agencies and online tourism companies must once again halt organising group tours between Shanghai and other provinces, regions or municipalities, after the city reported five new domestically transmitted infections, all linked to a previous arrival from overseas.

The order, in line with a national guideline to cut tourist activities in provincial divisions where new infections have emerged, came less than a month after Shanghai lifted a previous suspension that had come into effect in November, according to local government statements and a report by a newspaper managed by China’s tourism authority.

Cambodia begins fourth round of COVID vaccinations

Cambodia has begun a fourth round of vaccinations against the coronavirus following the recent discovery of cases of the Omicron variant, with high-risk groups being the first to receive their next shots.

Among those waiting at hospitals and clinics were frontline medical staff as well as members of the armed forces.

Government ministers, including Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, also received booster doses on Friday. Hun Sen has appealed to all Cambodians to get fully vaccinated, including a booster, saying that is the only way to make sure to keep their families and communities safe from COVID-19.

‘Alarm’ in China at latest outbreak

Al Jazeera’s Britt Clennett, reporting from Hong Kong, says there is growing “alarm” in China about the latest coronavirus outbreak.

The country confirmed 201 new cases for January 13, up from 190 a day earlier. Authorities also reported 42 asymptomatic cases, which China does not report among its confirmed cases.

Clennett says the concern is that cases from Tianjin, just 30 minutes by train from Beijing, could spread to the capital just as it is preparing to host the Winter Olympics. She says authorities are “taking no chances” and have ramped up checks on travellers to the capital.

Omicron set to become dominant in South Korea

Omicron is set to become the dominant variant in South Korea, with officials keeping a close eye on the spread of the virus ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly especially from last week and is on the verge of becoming the dominant variant as it accounted for 20 percent of domestic cases two days ago,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said during a COVID-19 response meeting, according to Yonhap news agency.

“I request people to restrain from their hometown visits and meetings with relatives and families during the Lunar New Year holiday period.”

While the government is extending health curbs until February 6 given the concerns, it says it will also relax the rules slightly so that six fully vaccinated people can attend private gatherings rather than four. A 9pm curfew on restaurants, cafes and bars will continue.

Three people wearing masks silhouetted against the sky on a cold morning in SeoulPeople wearing masks take a walk on a cold winter’s day at a Han river park in Seoul [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

Philippines to extend COVID-19 curbs until January 31

The Philippines’s coronavirus task force plans to extend movement curbs in the area around Manila and other provinces until the end of January, according to acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles.

The Southeast Asian nation is battling its biggest-ever surge in COVID-19 cases.

Online and physical classes at all public and private schools in Manila began a one-week suspension on Friday.

Australia’s NSW reports record deaths

The Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths for a third day.

The state reported 29 of the 56 deaths announced in Australia on Friday.

The surge in Omicron cases is putting pressure on hospitals, but health officials say they expect admissions to reach their peak next week.

The state’s Health Deputy Secretary, Susan Pearce, told the media the number of patients in hospital was better than the best-case scenario in official modelling and plateauing “but that plateauing is obviously still at a relatively high level of COVID patients in our hospitals and in our (intensive care).”

More party revelations for UK PM Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing new allegations of his office partying while citizens were being told not to gather for social events because of COVID-19.

The Daily Telegraph says the latest gatherings took place on April 16 last year – the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral – despite rules limiting the size of gatherings both indoors and out.

Johnson is already under pressure, with some in his party calling for his resignation after he admitted on Wednesday that he attended a staff drinks gathering during the May 2020 lockdown. He told parliament that he thought it was a work event.

Djokovic practises as clock ticks down on Australia visa decision

Tennis star Novak Djokovic has been out practising in Melbourne this morning as the Australian government prepares to announce its decision on his visa status.

Immigration officials cancelled his visa when he arrived in the country last week ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament, citing insufficient evidence of a medical exemption to COVID-19 vaccination.

That decision was reversed by a court.

The top men’s tennis player is awaiting a decision on his visa from Immigration Minister Alex Hawk.

Novak Djokovic in blue shorts, t-shorts and shoes plays a shot during practise at Melbourne ParkDjokovic practises at Melbourne Park [Diego Fedele/AAP Image via Reuters]

WHO approves new COVID-19 treatments

A WHO expert panel has added two more drugs to its guidelines for recommended treatments for COVID-19.

The drug baricitinib, which is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, is “strongly recommended” for patients with severe or critical COVID-19, in combination with corticosteroids.

Sotrovimab, an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment, has been given a “conditional recommendation” for those with non-severe COVID-19 but at the very highest risk of hospital admission.

You can read more on that story here.

You can read all the updates from January 13 here.

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‘High confidence’ Omicron is less severe, UK health agency says – Al Jazeera English

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