"Connecting Communities for COVID19 News" 29th Nov 2021

Isolation Tips
Omicron Identified as Covid-19 ‘Variant of Concern,’ Triggering Global Fears
A fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus first detected in southern Africa is a global “variant of concern” and might pose a higher risk of people falling ill with Covid-19 for a second time, the World Health Organization said Friday, as governments around the globe restricted travel from the region. WHO said there was also preliminary evidence that the variant, which it named Omicron after the Greek letter, was more transmissible than the Delta variant that is currently dominant world-wide, and other virus strains. Health authorities in Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong and Botswana said they had detected first cases of the variant. Although scientists were still figuring out the exact effects of the variant’s many mutations, its discovery highlights the continued threat posed by an evolving virus to the world’s emergence from the pandemic. The travel restrictions imposed by many countries, including the U.S., raised fears that there could be further setbacks to the reopening of economic and social life, including in Western countries with high vaccination rates.
Australia starts 14-day quarantine for citizens travelling from southern Africa
Australia will introduce 14-day quarantine for citizens and their dependents travelling from nine countries in southern Africa due to the new coronavirus variant, its health minister said on Saturday. "Anyone who is not a citizen of Australia or their dependents, and who has been in African countries where the Omicron variant has been detected and spread within the past 14 days will not be able to enter Australia," Health Minister Greg Hunt told a press briefing.
Hygiene Helpers
Covid Will Keep Spawning Variants Till the World Is Immune
So far, SARS-CoV-2’s most devastating impacts have been in developed countries. The U.S., U.K. and European Union have accounted for about a third of deaths, compared to their roughly 10% share of the world’s population. However, it’s been in the BRICS grouping of fast-growing middle- income nations where an outsized share of new variants of concern have been isolated and analyzed for the first time. From the original strain in China, to the Delta lineage picked up in India, the Gamma variety isolated in Brazil and the Beta and latest Omicron strains from South Africa, only the U.K.-related Alpha variant has emerged outside these countries.
Paris makes mask wearing outdoors mandatory at public gatherings
Paris has made the wearing of face masks outside mandatory again at public gatherings as the COVID-19 infection rate in the French capital soars, police said. The police prefecture said in a statement that masks will have to be worn for gathering in public spaces, at festivals and spectacles, on markets and when standing in line.
Community Activities
Ski holidays thrown into doubt as France mandates vaccine passport for lifts
France has mandated the use of vaccine passports in ski lifts, throwing the winter travel plans of thousands of British families into doubt. Anyone over the age of 12 will need a pass to show they are fully vaccinated, or have had one dose and recovered from Covid-19 in the last 180 days from December 4. But Thursday’s announcement will cause misery for Brits with teenagers - as the NHS app with a Covid pass is only available to the over-16s, the Times reports.
New COVID variant Omicron triggers global alarm, market sell-off
The discovery of a new coronavirus variant named Omicron triggered global alarm on Friday as countries rushed to suspend travel from southern Africa and stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered their biggest falls in more than a year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said Omicron may spread more quickly than other forms, and preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection. Epidemiologists warned travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally. The new mutations were first discovered in South Africa and have since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
U.S. to restrict travel from 8 African nations after Covid variant detected
The U.S. will restrict travel from eight African nations starting on November 29. The ban comes amid the discovery of a Covid-19 variant “Omicron” detected in South Africa. The World Health Organization confirmed the variant is highly transmissible.
European nations lead off in shutting borders to African nations with cases of new Omicron COVID variant
All 27 European Union member states and the United Kingdom have temporarily suspended travel to southern Africa following the discovery of a new COVID variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant, now designated as Omicron, as a SARS-CoV-2 "variant of concern", saying it may spread more quickly than other forms. Infections in South Africa had risen steeply in recent weeks, coinciding with the detection of the variant. After a closed meeting of independent experts who reviewed the data, WHO realised a statement saying there had been a "detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology".
Former Covid-Zero Haven Ditches Masks, QR Codes in Stark Pivot
The biggest state in Australia is eliminating a raft of pandemic restrictions as it nears a 95% vaccination rate, in one of the starkest reversals from the Covid-Zero strategy yet. From Dec. 15, or once the 95% inoculation target is hit, masks will only be required on public transport, on planes and at airports in New South Wales, ending the need to wear a protective face covering in most indoor settings. Check-ins via QR code, which are currently mandatory in the state at any venue, will only be needed at hospitals, aged-care facilities, pubs, small bars and nightclubs, according to the latest guidelines from the New South Wales government.
Working Remotely
Portugal Says Remote Working Will Be Mandatory on Jan. 2-9
The Portuguese government said remote working will be mandatory in the week of Jan. 2-9 as it tries to prevent a spike in coronavirus infections after the Christmas and New Year holiday break. Schools will reopen on Jan. 10, a week later than previously planned, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said. Until that first week of January, remote working will be recommended when possible.
One in five plan to continue working from home one or more days
Up to one in five Australians are likely to keep working from home at least part of the week according to new research which also found an increase in the number of people moving out of the cities. The report shows one in 20 people were working from home before the pandemic. This had increased to nearly one in five this year during a period of minimal COVID-19 restrictions and community transmission. Cities that experienced longer outbreaks have a higher proportion of people who continued to work from home outside of lockdowns.
Virtual Classrooms
What do parents in Saudi Arabia really think about distance learning?
Distance learning was a necessity imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the past 18 months there has been a great deal of debate, globally, about the merits or otherwise of remote education and how well its extended use has served students during these difficult times. In Saudi Arabia, however, parents appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of distance learning, according to figures quoted by Education Minister Hamad Al-Sheikh.He added that it is here to stay, in some form, even after the pandemic ends because it has become a pillar of the education system.
Long Hours and Online Learning - Interview with teacher Sophie Jackson
Over the last 2 years, how schools approach learning has been through some large changes, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdowns. When the topic of education is brought up in relation to these changes, most people highlight the impact of a changing learning environment on students. However, children weren’t the only people affected: schools and their staff had to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing environment as well. Primary school teacher Sophie Jackson explains how online learning has evolved for her school and how it is used now.
Public Policies
WHO reaches draft consensus on future pandemic treaty
Member states of the World Health Organization have reached a tentative consensus to negotiate a future agreement on preventing pandemics, bridging the gap between sides led by the European Union and United States, diplomats said on Sunday. The draft resolution, hammered out in negotiations over the weekend, will be presented for adoption to health ministers at the WHO's three-day special assembly that opens on Monday, they said.
Israel to close borders to all foreigners due to omicron variant
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the country's borders would be closed to all foreigners due to concerns about the omicron variant and that Israeli citizens coming into the country would have to quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status. The statement, issued on Saturday, said that beginning at midnight between Sunday and Monday, the country’s borders would be closed to international travelers for two weeks pending approval from the government, Reuters reported. One case of the omicron variant has been confirmed in Israel and seven others in the country are suspected to have the variant, according to the news outlet.
WTO postpones major meeting over COVID-19 concerns -sources
The World Trade Organization (WTO) became the first major diplomatic casualty of the new coronavirus variant on Friday when it postponed its first ministerial meeting in four years due to the deteriorating health situation. Ministers from WTO members were due to have gathered next week for a meeting widely seen as a test of the WTO's relevance. The WTO said that its members had agreed late on Friday to postpone the ministerial conference after the new variant outbreak led to travel restrictions that would have prevented many ministers from reaching Geneva.
U.S. President Biden calls for intellectual property protection waivers on COVID-19 vaccines
U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday called on nations expected to meet at the World Trade Organization next week to agree to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines in the wake of the identification of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa. However, the meeting he was referring to was later postponed after the new variant led to travel restrictions that would have prevented many participants from reaching Geneva
New Zealand PM Ardern says prepared for new COVID-19 variants
New Zealand is well prepared for the discovery of new coronavirus variants that may be resistant to vaccines, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday, including the strain currently spreading in South Africa. "All of our planning around COVID, we have built into it the possibility of variants in the future," Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference. "That is why we are maintaining levels of public health protections. It's why we've maintained requirements at our border." Britain on Thursday drew attention to a newly identified coronavirus variant in South Africa with a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on.
Maintaining Services
S.African doctor says patients with Omicron variant have "very mild" symptoms
A South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain among patients said on Sunday that symptoms of the Omicron variant were so far mild and could be treated at home. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters that on Nov. 18 she noticed seven patients at her clinic who had symptoms different from the dominant Delta variant, albeit "very mild".
India’s COVID vaccine exports resume – but others must step up to vaccinate the world
The Indian embassy in Iran recently celebrated the arrival of 1 million doses of Covaxin, a COVID vaccine developed in India by the pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech. Bangladesh, Myanmar and Iran also recently received a million doses each of Covishield, the version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s single largest vaccine producer. These 4 million doses, delivered in early October 2021, were the first to be exported from India in more than six months. Dubbed the “pharmacy of the world”, India has the largest vaccine-production capacity of any country. It therefore has a massive role to play in vaccinating the world. However, up until recently the “pharmacy” has been closed to other countries. Unlike most COVID vaccine producers, India began exporting doses through its “vaccine friendship” initiative – a diplomatic programme based around gifting vaccines to lower-income countries – the same week it began its domestic vaccination programme, back in January 2021. It was soon internationally hailed as a “vaccine superpower”. However, in late March exports ground to a halt, as India’s devastating second wave took hold and all resources were diverted towards its domestic vaccine programme.
Military sent to Michigan to deal with surge in COVID as Minnesota calls up the National Guard
Michigan is currently the hardest-hit state in the nation, with COVID-19 cases rising 88 per cent in the last 14 days. The governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has requested federal assistance to help in hospitals, and 44 people are being deployed. In Minnesota, another state struggling with a surge in cases, the National Guard is being brought in to take some of the strain off nursing home staff. Nursing homes in the state are now suffering a chronic staffing shortage with 23,000 open long-term caregiver positions as employees seek better paid, less intense jobs or else quit due to vaccine mandates. Governor Tim Walz has deployed 400 members of the National Guard to work as nurses and proposed using $50 million in unspent federal coronavirus relief funding to help these facilities hire and retain staff
Shanghai's Flareup Spreads as China Faces a New Covid Outbreak
Shanghai scrapped about one-third of the flights from its busiest international airport on Friday and suspended some hospital services after a handful of Covid infections were detected in the financial hub, showing China’s commitment to stringent curbs to eliminate the virus as winter looms. More than 30% of flights from Shanghai Pudong International Airport were canceled on Friday morning, state broadcaster CCTV reported. Schools were immediately suspended and housing complexes tied to the cases were locked down as local officials embraced strict measures in what may become a protracted battle as cold weather forces more people indoors. Chinese airline stocks declined. Shanghai International Airport Co. Ltd. fell as much as 4%, while Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and China Eastern Airlines Corp. Ltd. dropped at least 2% in Hong Kong.
Healthcare Innovations
China study warns of 'colossal' COVID outbreak if it opens up like U.S., France
China could face more than 630,000 COVID-19 infections a day if it dropped its zero-tolerance policies by lifting travel curbs, according to a study by Peking University mathematicians. In the report published in China CDC Weekly by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the mathematicians said China could not afford to lift travel restrictions without more efficient vaccinations or specific treatments. Using data for August from the United States, Britain, Spain, France and Israel, the mathematicians assessed the potential results if China adopted the same pandemic control tactics as those countries.
Aussie vaccine researchers rush to include Omicron in jab development
Australian vaccine researchers will be putting the Omicron coronavirus variant under the microscope, with experts saying the rise of the new strain highlights the urgent need for sovereign vaccine manufacturing. The emergence of Omicron has prompted the companies that make COVID-19 vaccines for Australia, including Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna, to evaluate the efficacy of their products against the variant. Pfizer said it expects new data on the variant within a fortnight and would be able to tailor a new vaccine-specific variant within 100 days if it is found to be necessary. Nasdaq-listed Moderna, which is planning to set up operations in Australia, has said it is using a three-pronged strategy against Omicron. The company will evaluate data from a stronger booster shot of its original vaccine to see whether it is effective against the new strain. It is also studying two multi-variant booster candidates and will start work on an Omicron-specific booster in coming weeks.
BioNTech says it could tweak Covid vaccine in 100 days if needed
BioNTech says it could produce and ship an updated version of its vaccine within 100 days if the new Covid variant detected in southern Africa is found to evade existing immunity. The German biotechnology company is already investigating whether the vaccine it developed with US drugmaker Pfizer works well against the variant, named Omicron, which has caused concern due to its high number of mutations and initial suggestions that it could be transmitting more quickly. The company says it will know in two weeks whether its current vaccine is likely to be sufficiently effective against the B.1.1.529 variant, now named Omicron by the World Health Organization, based on lab-based experiments.
Merck’s Covid-19 Pill Was 30% Effective in Final Analysis, Company Says
Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said a final analysis of their experimental Covid-19 pill found the drug less effective than an early look, prompting U.S. health regulators to continue a staff review of the drug’s application days before an outside panel meets. The Food and Drug Administration made public Friday their initial review of the drug’s application, including an analysis of clinical-trial data for the drug, molnupiravir. Agency staff said the drug was effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization and death, but they didn’t take a position on whether the agency should authorize the drug. The agency also said no major safety concerns turned up in late-stage testing. The FDA said it is still conducting its review of molnupiravir, after the companies told the agency earlier this week the pill was 30% effective in a final analysis of the late-stage study results. After taking an early look at results, the companies had reported in October that molnupiravir was 50% effective.
BioNTech Expects Data on Vaccine Versus New Variant in Two Weeks
BioNTech SE has begun studying the new Covid-19 variant that has emerged in southern Africa and expects the first data from laboratory tests about how it interacts with its vaccine within two weeks. The lab data will shed light on whether the new variant, called B.1.1.529, can elude the vaccine it makes together with Pfizer Inc., the German biotech said on Friday. Pfizer and BioNTech put plans in place months ago to be able to ship a new version of their shot within 100 days if necessary, a BioNTech spokeswoman said. “We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations,” BioNTech said in a statement.
Moderna Edges Pfizer in Study of Five Covid Vaccines
The Moderna Inc. and Russian Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccines both edged the version from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE in effectiveness in a large-scale study of five different immunization shots conducted by Hungarian researchers. Moderna’s vaccine was 88.7% effective in protecting against coronavirus infection and 93.6% effective against Covid-related mortality, compared with 85.7% and 95.4%, respectively for Sputnik, according to the paper published Wednesday on the website of the Clinical Microbiology and Infection medical journal. Pfizer came in third with 83.3% and 90.6%, respectively. The research reviewed the effectiveness of five vaccines in people at least seven days after they received their second dose. Data from more than 3.7 million vaccinated people aged 16 and over were reviewed from January to June of this year.
WHO Says New Strain Is a Variant of Concern, Names It Omicron
The World Health Organization said that a strain of coronavirus recently discovered by South African researchers is a variant of concern, posing a threat that could confound countries’ efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19. The WHO assigned the Greek letter omicron to the variant, which had been known as B.1.1.529, following a meeting by a panel of experts Friday. Scientists say the variant carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus’s entry into cells in the body. It’s also what is targeted by vaccines, so if the protein changes enough, it raises concern that the mutations could make immunizations less effective.