Blanket booster programmes in rich countries risk prolonging the battle with COVID-19, WHO chief says.
The World Health Organization chief has warned that the rush in wealthy countries to roll out additional COVID vaccine doses is deepening the inequity in access to vaccines and is prolonging the pandemic.
“No country can boost its way out of the pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a new South African study, along with data on hospitalisations and deaths in the country’s fourth wave of COVID infections, suggest that the risk of severe disease is lower with Omicron than with previous variants, a top scientist has said.
The United Kingdom has recorded 106,122 new daily coronavirus infections, the highest total of the pandemic and the first time the figure has topped 100,000.
In Nigeria, authorities have destroyed about one million expired doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, even as the West African country’s vaccination rate has almost doubled in the last week amid a spike in confirmed infections.
This live blog is now closed. Here were Wednesday’s updates:
In Scotland, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus appears less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalisation than Delta, according to an analysis of early data that was posted ahead of peer review on Wednesday.
The updated statistics agree with data released earlier on Wednesday from South Africa and from England, also in advance of peer review.
At the University of Edinburgh, researchers tracked nearly 152,500 patients diagnosed with COVID-19, including 22,205 infected with the Omicron variant. Half of the Omicron-infected patients were under the age of 40.
The number of Omicron patients who needed to be hospitalised was 68 percent lower than what the researchers would have expected, based on the rate in patients infected with Delta.
United States President Joe Biden has welcomed the US authorisation of Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill — the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus — calling it “promising”.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised the drug for emergency use on Wednesday.
We received good news today in our fight against COVID-19. The FDA granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer antiviral pill, a promising new treatment option that will significantly reduce hospitalization and death as we battle the more transmissible Omicron variant.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 22, 2021
Top United States infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has warned against attending large gatherings during the holiday season, saying that they are not considered safe even for vaccinated people and those who have received a booster dose.
“There are many of these parties that have 30, 40, 50 people in which you do not know the vaccination status of individuals. Those are the kind of functions in the context of COVID — and particularly in the context of Omicron — that you do not want to go to,” Fauci said at a White House briefing.
“So to the extent possible, we urge you to stay away from those situations that could put you at a higher risk.”
Faucci had said that small family gatherings “in the setting of the home” remain safe for vaccinated people.
A state health official says two-thirds of the patients who are in hospitals with COVID-19 in Maine during its surge in cases are not fully vaccinated against the disease.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Maine has risen over the past two weeks from about 634 new cases per day on December 6 to about 940 new cases per day on December 20.
The surge in cases came after months of the state doing a better job of controlling the spread of the virus than most.
France reported 84,272 new COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours, coming close to its all-time high of almost 87,000 cases in November 2020.
Coming within reach of the 84,999 new cases recorded at the height of France’s spring wave in April, the number of cases was also the country’s second-highest this year.
France’s health minister earlier said over 100,000 new infections could be reached by the end of this month.
The Governors Awards, an annual gala where honorary Oscars are handed out, became the latest glitzy Hollywood event postponed, as fears grow of a surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron variant.
Actors Samuel L Jackson, Danny Glover, Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, and actress-director Elaine May had been due to receive golden statuettes to honour their careers next month at an event that typically draws a who’s who of Tinseltown.
“We have made the difficult decision to change our plans in hosting the Governors Awards in person on January 15,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said in a statement.
Spain will make it compulsory to wear a face mask outdoors again as part of a package aimed at containing the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told reporters.
With nearly 80 percent of its population vaccinated and a booster programme gathering pace, Spain was largely spared the rampant wave of infections that led several northern European countries to toughen restrictions in the autumn.
Mohga Kamal-Yanni of the People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA) said the discarding of AstraZeneca vaccines in Nigeria was due to vaccines with very short expiry dates.
“You give them [vaccines] to the country with a two-week expiry date, that’s just not enough time to deliver the vaccines to rural areas of the villages. You don’t have enough time for transport and health workers and all the logistics that surrounds vaccines to work,” Kamal-Yanni told Al Jazeera from Oxford, UK.
“Vaccines are not just the vials. There is the syringes, the transport, the health workers, the cold chain between when it arrives at the airport until it goes to where it’s actually going to be given to people. So you need the time.”
With the onset of the typically busy end-of-year travel season coinciding with the rapid spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, passengers are navigating the latest changes to COVID regulations.
At least 50 million people worldwide are projected to be travelling on international flights during the season, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Read more here.
The risk of needing to stay in hospital for patients with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is 40 to 45 percent lower than for patients with the Delta variant, according to research by London’s Imperial College.
“Overall, we find evidence of a reduction in the risk of hospitalisation for Omicron relative to Delta infections, averaging over all cases in the study period,” the researchers said of the study, which analysed data from PCR-test confirmed cases in England between December 1 and December 14, 2021.
Low-cost airline Ryanair has said the Omicron coronavirus variant would have a strong effect on its financial performance as it more than doubled the forecast for its annual loss.
The Irish airline now expects a loss of 250-450 million euros ($283-510m) in its financial year that runs through March 2022, up from an earlier forecast of 100-200 million euros.
Media and other in-person league personnel functioning in near proximity to teams and players on game day are under a new mandate from the NBA to receive the COVID-19 booster shot by January 5.
The order covers “league staff and vendors who in their official capacities interact in person with any player” within 15 feet (4.6 metres), including referees, league operations, player development, team and player marketing, communications and NBA photos.
A nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases has hit the NBA hard in December after only 17 positives in October and November combined. More than 115 positive tests were recorded in players in the first 21 days of the month.
Northern Ireland ordered the closure of nightclubs from Sunday after reporting an all-time high of 3,231 COVID-19 cases, up from an average of just more than 2,000 in the previous seven days.
The devolved government of the British region also ordered an end to ordering at bars and limited restaurants to serve no more than six people per table.
Several members of the devolved administration have said they are limited in what they can do due to funding constraints from London.
“The precautionary approach would have been to impose much more severe restrictions right now,” said Health Minister Robin Swann. “All other things being equal, the executive would have gone further today.”
Belgium decided to further tighten restrictions in anticipation of the surging Omicron variant but shied away from a full lockdown like the neighbouring Netherlands has.
The authorities decided to close cinemas, theatres and concert halls and ban indoor activities.
Sports fans will be closed out of stadiums and indoor halls. Shopping will be curtailed with visitors forced to be spread out and groups entering a shop limited to two adults, possibly accompanied by children.
A new coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2) variant, known as Omicron (or B.1.1.529), was first identified by scientists in South Africa on November 24.
The latest variant of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease is believed to be more transmissible than the already highly transmissible Delta variant. Omicron has already been detected in 106 countries, the WHO has said.
Read more here.
Canada will temporarily expand support programmes to help people and businesses whose livelihoods are being hit by the Omicron variant, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
“We are adapting our measures to make sure that no one is left behind,” Trudeau told a televised briefing.
Ottawa said in October it would wind down many supports in late October, citing the recovering economy and the success of vaccination efforts.
Americans are facing a second Christmas of upended holiday plans, with a surge in COVID-19 infections fuelled by the now-dominant Omicron variant forcing some people to cancel their travel and fret about whether it is safe to visit loved ones.
Carmen Rivera and her fiancee Jasmine Maisonet made the painful decision to cancel their flights to visit family in Florida and Puerto Rico after Maisonet was exposed to an infected co-worker and tested positive for COVID-19.
Read more here.
US President Joe Biden said he received another COVID-19 test on Wednesday, five days after exposure to the virus from a member of his staff, but has not received the results yet.
Biden tested negative for the virus three days after he was exposed. The president made the comments to reporters after public remarks during a meeting on the status of the US supply chain.
Pfizer Inc said the US Food and Drug Administration authorised its antiviral COVID-19 pill, making it the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus that is expected to become an important tool in the fight against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Data from Pfizer’s clinical trial showed its two-drug antiviral regimen was 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness.
Read more here.
The WHO head has warned that blanket booster programmes in rich countries risk prolonging the world’s battle with COVID-19 and said “no country can boost its way out of the pandemic”.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the priority must be to reduce deaths and help all countries meet minimum vaccination targets that many still have not reached.
Moreover, he noted that “the vast majority of hospitalisations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not unboosted people”.
Read more here.
Italy reported 146 coronavirus-related deaths against 153 on Tuesday, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 36,293 from 30,798.
Italy has registered 136,077 deaths linked to COVID-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world. The country has reported 5.5 million cases to date.
The United Kingdom reported more than 100,000 new daily coronavirus cases for the first time since widespread testing was introduced, with 106,122 compared with 90,629 on Tuesday.
There were 140 deaths within 28 days of a positive case, down from 172 the previous day, according to government data.
The WHO does not yet have enough data on the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus to say if it is more transmissible than the Delta variant, an official said, almost a month after South Africa first raised the alarm about its emergence.
“We do have some data suggesting that rates of hospitalisation are lower,” WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said in a briefing with media.
Aircraft passengers are twice or even thrice more likely to catch COVID-19 during a flight since the emergence of the Omicron variant, according to the top medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
The new strain is highly transmissible and has become dominant in a matter of weeks, accounting for more than 70 percent of all new cases in the US alone.
Read more here.
The National Hockey League said it will not send its players to compete in the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Winter Olympics after the regular season schedule was disrupted due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events – 50 games already have been postponed through December 23 – Olympic participation is no longer feasible,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Britain has said it would start vaccinating vulnerable children aged five to 11 against COVID-19 after the country’s medicines regulator approved the use of a lower dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot in that age group.
The children will receive two 10mg doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – a third of the adult dose – with an interval of eight weeks between the first and second doses, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said.
Authorities in Nigeria have publicly destroyed more than one million expired doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine even as the West African country’s vaccination rate has almost doubled in the last one week amid a spike in confirmed infections.
The expired doses – numbering 1,066,214 – were destroyed in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, a week after the nation said it will no longer accept donated COVID-19 vaccines with short shelf lives.
Al Jazeera’s Fidelis Mbah reported from Abuja the government’s very public display of destroying the vaccines was to reassure citizens whatever jabs were administered, were of “good quality” – amid conspiracies and false information against vaccines in the country.
Read more here.
Bharat Pankhania of the University of Exeter Medical School told Al Jazeera that unless poor nations are fully vaccinated, richer nations immunising their populations multiple times will not stop variants emerging.
“Again, the richer nations can do whatever they like, because they’ve got the vaccines, supplies, and they can immunise their population once, twice, thrice,” he said from Bath, in the UK.
However, he said: “If you do not suppress infections in vulnerable countries where you have a lot of immune suppressed people, then you will get the drive for variants to emerge. And Omicron is one such example. And we can definitely get other variants which will again be a setback.”
The world’s children are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, with marked increases in violence, abuse, child labour, lost schooling, and malnutrition, two Vatican studies said on Wednesday.
The studies, based on academic, scientific, United Nations data and other source material, were produced by the Vatican’s development office and the Pontifical Academy for Life.
“Reports of violence, abuse, and exploitation of children have sharply increased since the pandemic began. Poorer communities disproportionately bear these adversities,” one of the studies said.
France has cancelled its order for Merck & Co’s COVID-19 antiviral drug following disappointing trial data and hopes instead to receive Pfizer’s competing drug before the end of January, the health minister said.
France is the first country to publicly say it has cancelled an order for the Merck treatment after the company released data in late November suggesting its drug was markedly less effective than previously thought, reducing hospitalisations and deaths in its clinical trial of high-risk individuals by about 30 percent.
“The latest studies weren’t good,” Olivier Veran told BFM TV.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has said player welfare is not being taken seriously enough following the Premier League’s decision to continue playing despite a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“I am worried about player welfare and I don’t think anybody takes that seriously enough, especially in this period, when COVID is here,” Henderson told BBC Sport.
Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders said it was “absurd” to play twice in four days while missing a number of key players due to COVID-19 and injuries, while Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel said players’ health and safety was at risk.
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard says fear of the coronavirus is so heightened that one of his players was reluctant to get out of his car.
An outbreak at Villa saw their match against Burnley last Saturday postponed at short notice, with Gerrard warning that it will be a “nightmare” if the Midlands have to tackle two matches in two days with just 14 players available.
“We had a situation at the weekend where one of the players was reluctant to get out of his car because he had some symptoms and he’s got a young family, and you can totally understand his view in his situation,” Gerrard said.
Finland will from Thursday start offering coronavirus vaccines to children between five and 11 years of age, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has said.
The Finnish Health Institute earlier this month recommended that children aged five and above should be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they or someone in their household were at high risk of severe infection.
All foreigners seeking to enter Sweden will have to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours, the government said as cases surged.
The requirement will come into force on December 28 and will apply to all non-citizens and non-residents over the age of 12, including travellers from the European Union and neighbouring Nordic countries.
“All travellers will need to be able to present a negative test for an ongoing infection of COVID-19 upon arrival to Sweden, regardless of which country you are travelling from,” the government said in a statement.
A new South African study, along with data on hospitalisations and deaths in the country’s fourth wave of COVID infections, suggest that the risk of severe disease is lower with Omicron than with previous variants, a top scientist has said.
“In South Africa, this is the epidemiology: Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe,” said Professor Cheryl Cohen of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), one of the authors of the new study.
“Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants,” she said during a news conference by a group of NICD scientists.
Read more here.
Turkey’s domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine, Turkovac, has received emergency use authorisation by Turkish authorities and will be open to use from next weekend, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.
Turkey began developing Turkovac this year, but the launch date for the vaccine has been beset by delays. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey would make the shot available globally.
Turkey has already administered more than 125 million doses of vaccines using shots developed by China’s Sinovac and by Pfizer-BioNTech, with more than 51 million having received two doses of the vaccines. It has also begun administering booster shots.
AstraZeneca is working with Oxford University to develop a better coronavirus vaccine that will exclusively target the Omicron variant.
“Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an Omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed, and will be informed by emerging data,” said the British-Swedish pharmaceutical in a statement provided to local media.
Sandy Douglas, head of a research group at Oxford University, told The Financial Times that updated vaccines are a must when dealing with logistical challenges posed by the rapid spread of variants such as Omicron, and that they could help alleviate pressures on healthcare services and systems.
“Adenovirus-based vaccines [such as made by Oxford-AstraZeneca’s] could in principle be used to respond to any new variant more rapidly than some may previously have realised,” she said.
The northern Chinese city of Xi’an on Wednesday ordered all 13 million residents to stay home, in a strict lockdown as concern grows over a fresh outbreak of COVID-19.
With Beijing preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in February, China is on high alert as it fights local outbreaks in several cities.
All households may only “send one household member outside once every two days to purchase necessities”, with all others ordered to remain indoors except for emergencies, the city government said in a statement on its official Weibo social media account.
The Philippines has halved to three months the waiting time for a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine in its battle to rein in the more infectious Omicron variant of coronavirus, which has forced a global tightening of curbs.
From Wednesday, adults can receive a booster dose at least three months after taking the second complement of a two-dose vaccine, versus six months earlier, acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles said.
Single-dose vaccine recipients are eligible for a booster after two months, he told a regular news conference.
Poland on Wednesday reported 775 COVID-related deaths in the last 24 hours, the highest daily number in the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the data from the health ministry showed, with the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic crossing four million.
Poland has been dealing with persistently high daily case numbers in a fourth wave that has forced authorities to tighten restrictions.
“Unfortunately, [deaths] dominate among the elderly and the unvaccinated … we do not get vaccinated and we go to hospitals too late,” the ministry’s spokesman, Wojciech Andrusiewicz, told reporters.
Israel has announced it will offer a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to health workers and people older than 60, amid concern about the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
A health ministry expert panel recommended the fourth shot late on Tuesday, a decision that was swiftly welcomed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as “great news that will help us overcome the Omicron wave that is spreading around the world”.
Read more here.
Japan confirmed its first known local transmissions of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in Osaka on Wednesday, a sign it is already making its way in the country.
The family of three in Osaka had no record of travelling overseas and their infections could not be traced, Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said.
The three are the first known cases of community transmission of the highly infectious Omicron variant in Japan, Yoshimura said. “I believe they only happened to be detected and we must take steps on the assumption that there already are other cases of community transmission,” he said.
South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic Omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.
After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide last Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In Gauteng province – South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria – the decrease started earlier and has continued.
“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the centre of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press news agency.
There are currently 129 people in hospital with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and so far 14 people have died with it, junior health minister, Gillian Keegan, told Sky News.
She also said the UK government would not hesitate to bring in further COVID-19 restrictions if the data showed it was necessary.
Finland will restrict restaurants’ opening hours to curb rising COVID-19 infections and the spread of the new Omicron variant, the government said.
Starting on Christmas eve, bars will have to stop serving alcohol at 9pm and close at 10pm. From December 28 onwards, alcohol can only be served until 5pm and bars need to close by 6pm and restaurants by 8pm, the government said in a statement.
The government also decided university and other adult students would shift to remote schooling after the Christmas holidays and foreign travellers coming to Finland would need proof of vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 and a recent negative test result.
France could have around 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, Health Minister Olivier Veran said, up from about 70,000 currently as the country battles a fifth wave of the epidemic.
Veran said no new restrictions were on the table for now, although nothing could be ruled out, with authorities hoping an increase in the numbers of people having vaccinations will allow them to keep the virus in check.
Malaysia has temporarily suspended sales of tickets for air and land travel under a vaccinated travel lane scheme with Singapore until January 20, the health ministry said, amid concerns over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The action followed a similar move by Singapore to freeze all new ticket sales over the same period.
Under the vaccinated travel lane programme, both countries allow quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated travellers, who have to do multiple screenings.
California healthcare workers will be required to have coronavirus booster shots to ensure that hospitals are ready to deal with a surge in cases as the more-transmissible Omicron variant spreads throughout the state.
Governor Gavin Newsom announced the order on Tuesday on his personal Twitter account and planned to provide more details at a Wednesday news conference.
California already requires healthcare workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, a directive that took effect in September and has since led to the firing or suspension of thousands of people. Now it will join New Mexico as at least the second state to require booster shots for healthcare workers.
New COVID-19 cases in Australia’s most populous state surged to a pandemic record on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison met state leaders to discuss preventive measures.
Morrison emerged from the national cabinet meeting again rejecting lockdowns and mask mandates imposed by the federal government. He said policies on mask-wearing were best left to state governments and to Australians who should follow “commonsense behavioural measures”.
“Despite these rising cases, hospitals and health systems remain in a strong position but of course, they will be tested,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra after the emergency meeting.
Singapore has said it will freeze all new ticket sales for flights and buses under its programme for quarantine-free travel into the city-state from December 23 to January 20, the government said, citing the risk from the fast-spreading Omicron.
“Our border measures will help to buy us time to study and understand the Omicron variant, and to strengthen our defences, including enhancing our healthcare capacity, and getting more people vaccinated and boosted,” Singapore’s health ministry said in a statement.
Under the vaccinated travel lane programme, Singapore allows quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated travellers, who have to take multiple COVID-19 tests.
About two dozen countries are listed in the programme including Australia, India, Malaysia, Britain and the United States.
Travellers already holding tickets on flights or buses and who meet all other requirements can still travel under the programme.
Singapore has confirmed imported Omicron cases and several local infections.
Move aims to reassure a wary public that the donated vaccines with a short shelf life were taken out of circulation.
Long lines for testing and fears of the new coronavirus variant undermine holiday travel plans for a second year.
Study finds people diagnosed with Omicron in South Africa 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital.
Health workers and Israelis who are over the age of 60 or are immunocompromised will be eligible for a fourth dose.
Follow Al Jazeera English: