COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID digest: Europe urges 'strong action' as omicron spreads

Published : December 16, 2021 16:01 IST

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has raised the risk assessment for the omicron variant to 'very high'. Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/Zumapress/picture alliance

The E.U.'s center for disease prevention warned the "vaccination alone" will not stop omicron.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on December 15 that vaccinations on their own would not be enough to halt the spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant. The agency has called for "strong action" as it raised the risk assessment for omicron to "very high." "In the current situation, vaccination alone will not allow us to prevent the impact of the omicron variant, because there will be no time to address the vaccination gaps that still exist," ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said in a statement.

The ECDC has called for the reintroduction of mask-wearing, hand sanitizing, working from home and curbs on crowded spaces to help stop the spread of the virus. The European health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said in a tweet that "omicron is a real threat, and will likely become the dominant variant by the start of 2022."

Here are the major developments on coronavirus from around the world

Americas

The United States has now surpassed 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Around a quarter of those deaths have been recorded since vaccines were first approved for use last spring. U.S. President Joe Biden called it a "tragic milestone." "We remember each person and the lives they lived, and we pray for the loved ones left behind," Biden added in a statement late on December 14. "As we head into the winter and confront a new variant, we must resolve to keep fighting this virus together," he said, talking about the new omicron variant.

Asia

Health authorities in the Philippines have cautioned people to avoid large gatherings during the Christmas period. The warning comes after the country detected the first two cases of the omicron variant. Many in the country had been hoping for Christmas celebrations with fewer restrictions. "With the detection of the imported cases of Omicron variant, the department also urges everyone to adhere to minimum public standards and properly wear face masks, frequently wash hands with soap and water or alcohol, observe physical distancing, ensure proper ventilation and avoid crowded areas," the department of health said in an advisory.

South Korea will limit social gatherings and cut restaurant business hours after it recorded another record-breaking day of coronavirus cases on December 15. "The government sees the current virus situation as serious and plans to enforce stronger social distancing measures," said South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum. The East Asian country reported 7,850 new cases in the last 24 hours on December 15, with 964 patients in critical or serious condition and 70 deaths.

Africa

South Africa recorded the highest daily amount of new COVID-19 infections. The amount of 26,976 makes it the highest since the pandemic began. The country recorded 54 deaths on December 15. The omicron variant was first detected by South African scientists in November, who then quickly raised the alarm. The country's President Cyril Ramaphosa has tested positive despite being fully vaccinated. Around one third of the country's population has been vaccinated.

Oceania

Australia on December 15 lifted a nearly two-year ban on international students, skilled workers and others with eligible visas. The global pandemic has meant that international borders have been shut to all except residents and Australian nationals. In a statement, the country’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said: "Australia is well placed to deal with COVID-19 and its emerging challenges like the Omicron variant."

Global

The World Health Organization warned on December 14 that the new omicron variant is spreading at an unprecedented rate across the world, urging governments to act to contain it. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said omicron had been reported in 77 countries and could "probably" spread to many countries undetected. WHO expert Bruce Aylward warned against "jumping to a conclusion that this is a mild disease" after the United Kingdom reported the first death from the new variant, first detected in South Africa.

The omicron variant spreads much faster, is more resistant to vaccines, but may cause less severe illness, a new study on the South African outbreak showed. The preliminary findings demonstrated that while the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine did not seem to halt its spread as effectively, it can prevent hospitalization. "Omicron is moving extraordinarily fast, faster even than the most pessimistic among us thought it was going to move,'' infectious diseases expert Jacob Lemieux said.

The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (U.N. FAO) on December 15 said that the global pandemic and rising food prices are a threat to food security for hundreds of millions of people living in Asia. According to a report, access to food in 2020 worsened and deteriorated even further this year as countries battled to contain outbreaks with restrictions. This has meant that around 1.8 billion people do not have healthy diets. The U.N. FAO said that a knock-on effect of this was a rise in stunted growth among children below the age of five. Hunger was identified as an urgent problem in North Korea, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has given Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine the all-clear to be used as a booster shot. The booster dose should be administered at least 2 months after the first dose in people aged 18 and above, the regulator said in a statement. The vaccine becomes the third to be approved by the agency after BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna.

Pfizer on December 14 announced that its experimental pill to treat coronavirus appears effective against the omicron variant. The pharmaceutical giant also said that the full results of its study, which the company has yet to publish openly, showed the experimental drug's encouraging early results against the virus. The pill reduces combined hospitalizations and deaths by about 89 per cent among high-risk adults when taken shortly after coronavirus symptoms, according to Pfizer.

Europe

Germany on December 15 reported 51,301 new cases of infections, down by 18,300 on the same day last week. The country reported 453 COVID-19-related deaths, while the seven-day incidence has gone down to 353 cases per 100,000 population. The curve of Germany's fourth wave has begun to flatten over the past two weeks or so, after record numbers in November. Meanwhile, police in the German state of Saxony conducted pre-dawn raids on December 15 in the city of Dresden over a potential anti-vaxxer plot to harm state premier Michael Kretschmer.

Britain's health minister Sajid Javid said the the omicron variant now accounts for around 60 per cent of cases in London. Speaking to the BBC Javid said: "No one wants to see any more restrictions," that was after being quizzed on whether government was planning any restrictive measures. "At the same time, people want to be safe, for themselves, for their family, for their friends," the health minister said. The U.K. has recorded 78,610 confirmed cases in one day, making it the highest tally since the pandemic began.

Health authorities in Poland said on December 15 that there has been a record 669 daily deaths from COVID-19 in the fourth wave. The highest daily toll since the pandemic began was 954 in April. The country is experiencing high infection rates and has instituted tighter measures to help curb the spread of the virus. Limiting the number of people allowed in public spaces and closing nightclubs have been some of the measures introduced.

People traveling to Greece will be required to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test upon entering the country. The country's health ministry on December 15 said the measure would come into effect from December 19. Tests will not be allowed to be more than 48 hours old.

kb, jc, dvv/sms (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)

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