The new coronavirus variant may have infiltrated Europe already. Belgium confirmed one case, a regional official in Germany said it’s “highly likely” the strain arrived there, the Netherlands is researching 61 new Covid infections, and the Czech Republic is examining a suspected case.
The reports come as governments from the US to New Zealand tightened restrictions on travel from countries in southern Africa after the variant emerged there. The World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the strain discovered by South African researchers is a “variant of concern.” Global markets tumbled.
Scientists are trying to ascertain how quickly the new variant, officially assigned the Greek letter omicron, can spread and whether it’s resistant to Covid-19 vaccines. The European Union’s health agency suggested that vaccines may not work well against the mutation, while Moderna said it’s already conducting clinical studies of two multivalent booster candidates.
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Goldman to Offer Asia-Pacific Staff $5 000 (6:48 a.m. NY)
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is rolling out a reimbursement plan to help compensate employees in the Asia-Pacific region for costs incurred from hotel quarantine stays as Hong Kong’s strict Covid-Zero strategy makes it harder for global banks to retain top talent there.
Goldman staff will be able to claim a one-time subsidy of as much as $5 000 to cover costs from a mandatory quarantine stay effective December. 1, according to a memo seen by Bloomberg. A stay at Hong Kong’s designated quarantine hotel can cost HK$500 ($64) to HK$3 630 a night for a non-suite room.
French Make 3 Million Appointments for Shots (6:30 a.m. NY)
French Health Minister Olivier Veran said 3 million appointments have been made for Covid booster shots since he announced they would be made available to all adults.
France is opening up boosters to all those age 18 and above starting Saturday, with 19 million people now eligible for an additional shot. About 6.3 million people already have had a booster.
Most Austrians Back Mandatory Vaccinations (6:05 a.m. NY)
A majority of Austrians support government plans to make vaccinations against the coronavirus mandatory. The country’s vaccination rate is one of the lowest in western Europe.
A combined 60% of respondents saw the government’s recent step as “absolutely right” or “rather right” in a survey conducted by the Unique Research institute for the Profil magazine. That compares with 36% who saw the policy as absolutely or rather wrong.
Highly Probable Omicron Is in Germany (6:21 p.m. HK)
It’s “very likely” the new coronavirus strain, omicron, has arrived in Germany, a state official said Saturday.
A traveler returning from South Africa on Friday night showed several symptoms typical of the new variant, Kai Klose, minister of social affairs in the German state of Hesse, said on Twitter without providing more detail.
While the virus sample hasn’t been sequenced, there’s a “high level of suspicion” that the person has the new strain, Klose said. The traveler has been isolated at home.
Modi Wants to Review Easing of Travel Rules (6:02 p.m. HK)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indian officials to review plans for the easing of international travel restrictions after the emergence of the new omicron variant. India needs to be “proactive in light of the new variant,” Modi said during a meeting on the Covid-19 situation and the pace of vaccinations in the country.
On Friday, the Press Trust of India cited the civil aviation ministry as saying scheduled international flights to and from India will resume starting December 15.
Dutch: 61 Flyers From SA Test Positive (5:49 p.m. HK)
Sixty-one people arriving in the Netherlands on separate flights from South Africa tested positive for the coronavirus and were in isolation Saturday, the AP reported. Further tests are underway to determine if any of those who arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport are infected with the new omicron variant.
The planes arrived in the Netherlands on Friday shortly after the Dutch government imposed a ban on flights from some southern African nations following discovery of the new variant.
New Zealand, Australia Tighten Borders (4:17 p.m. HK)
New Zealand joined Australia in banning entry to travelers from nine African countries in an effort to protect against the new omicron variant. The restrictions start Sunday night but don’t apply to returning citizens, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said. New Zealanders returning from those nations are required to undergo testing and a 14-day managed isolation period, he said.
Earlier, Australia said direct flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique were being suspended, Health Minister Greg Hunt said. Returning citizens and their dependents who have been in any of those countries in the past 14 days must enter supervised quarantine on arrival.
Hong Kong Needs 80% Jab Rate to Open (3:58 p.m. HK)
Hong Kong will have to achieve a vaccination rate of at least 80% before it will consider reopening its borders to mainland China and the international community, The Standard reported, citing a top government official.
About 70% of the population has received at least one shot, the paper cited Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip as saying. The report didn’t specify if the reopening criteria are for a fully- or partially-vaccinated population.
Covid Rising Rapidly in Two SA Cities (3:13 p.m. HK)
Wastewater analysis shows that Covid-19 infections are surging in two major metropolitan areas, the South African Medical Research Council said.
The number of virus fragments found in water samples have jumped this month in the area around Pretoria and in Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality that governs the coastal city of Eberhard, the council said in a statement Friday.
Thailand Bars Entry From Eight African Nations (2:38 p.m. HK)
Thailand will ban entry from eight southern African nations from December 1, after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha ordered agencies to step up vigilance against the new omicron variant. Arrivals from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will be forbidden, said Opas Karnkawinpong, director general of the Disease Control Department.
Hong Kong Mulls Vaccine Mandates for Venues (1 p.m. HK)
Hong Kong authorities are mulling if they should require visitors to restaurants, gyms and cinemas to have taken at least one vaccine shot, the Ming Pao newspaper reported on Saturday, citing anonymous sources. Those who can’t be vaccinated due to health reasons may be exempted from the rule, it said.
The territory had zero local virus cases on Saturday, health authorities said. There were three imported cases.
EU Council President Postpones Asian Visit (9:31 a.m. HK)
European Council President Charles Michel postponed his planned visit to Japan and South Korea as the number of cases jumped, his spokesman Barend Leyts said. He had been due to meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Philippines Suspends South Africa Flights (8:42 a.m. HK)
The Philippines suspended flights from South Africa and six other regional countries until December 15, due to concerns about the new variant. Passengers who have visited any of the countries during the 14 days before their arrival will be barred entry.
The country also lowered its target for a three-day vaccine drive to 9 million jabs from 15 million due to a shortage of syringes and other logistical issues, according to a government statement.
N.Y. Governor Declares State of Emergency (8:35 a.m. HK)
New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency on Friday due to a rise in Covid cases in the state and the threat of the omicron variant.
She said the variant hasn’t yet been detected in the state but that she decided to sign an executive order to allow the health department to limit non-essential, non-urgent procedures at hospitals and acquire critical supplies more quickly. The order takes effect December 3 and will be re-assessed based on the latest Covid-19 data on January 15.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the US hasn’t identified any omicron cases in the country so far.
Shanghai Says No New Cases, Hospitals Reopen (8:30 a.m. HK)
Shanghai had no new locally transmitted cases since finding a new cluster on Thursday, according to a statement Saturday from the local health commission.
The cluster involves the delta variant and was introduced from other provinces, the Shanghai government said.
Four hospitals in the city will reopen to the public on Saturday following virus screening. The nearby city of Suzhou also reported no new infections after testing over 48,400 people.
Delta Has No Plans to Change SA Service (6:57 a.m. HK)
Delta Air Lines Inc. will continue to operate flights between the US and South Africa after the Biden administration imposed fresh travel restrictions on the country and several neighbouring ones.
The carrier operates three flights per week between its Atlanta hub and Johannesburg. “There are no planned adjustments to service at this time,” the carrier said in an emailed statement.
Fed’s Bostic Plays Down Risk From Variant (6:50 a.m. HK)
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic said the new variant would probably slow the US economy somewhat, but the lessons learned during the pandemic indicated that the headwind would be less than in the past.
“We have a lot of momentum in the economy right now,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “That momentum, I’m hopeful, will be able to carry us through this next wave.” But he also cautioned that “all of that is predicated on the idea and the notion that the new variant is similar to delta.”
ECDC Concerned Vaccines May Not Work Well (5:49 a.m. HK)
Based on omicron’s mutation profile, partial immune escape is likely, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a threat assessment report Friday.
The EU’s health agency is among the first official authorities to acknowledge that vaccines may not work well against the new strain. The ECDC pushed authorities to “urgently” reinforce pandemic restrictions, avoiding travel to affected areas, and the vaccination of holdouts.
WTO Postpones Geneva Ministerial Meeting (4:43 a.m. HK)
The World Trade Organisation postponed its in-person ministerial conference in Geneva as Switzerland tightened travel restrictions, people familiar with the situation said.
The conference will be convened as soon as conditions allow, they said.
Gottlieb Calls Travel Curbs Counterproductive (4:18 a.m. HK)
Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, took to Twitter to express his disapproval of the travel restrictions being imposed due to the latest variant, saying they hurt current containment efforts and discourage future sharing.
US, Canada Curb Travel From Southern Africa (2:05 p.m. NY)
President Joe Biden’s administration will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, according to senior administration officials. In addition to South Africa, they include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The policy doesn’t apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, though they must still test negative prior to travel to the US.
Canada is banning the entry of foreign nationals who have traveled through southern Africa in the last 14 days.
Vaccine Makers Study Variant’s Impact (12:55 p.m. NY)
AstraZeneca says it’s investigating the impact of new Covid variant on the vaccine developed with University of Oxford, with studies under way in Botswana and Eswatini.
The company is testing antibody treatment against new variant, and says it’s hopeful of efficacy due to “potent antibodies with different and complementary activities against the virus.”
Johnson & Johnson, maker of a one-dose Covid shot, is already testing its vaccine against B.1.1.529, CNBC reported, citing the company.
BioNTech said earlier it expects the first data within two weeks of how the strain interacts with the vaccine it makes with Pfizer.