AstraZeneca is collaborating with Oxford University to develop an improved coronavirus vaccine that will exclusively target the omicron variant, the company has announced. Scientists at the university argue that the improved vaccine would also provide protection against new and emerging variants in the future, as well as respond more quickly to them.
France could soon have around 100,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, health minister Olivier Veran has warned, as the new Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread rapidly. The Omicron variant will be the dominant strain of the coronavirus in France by early January, he said.
Singapore said it will freeze all new ticket sales for flights and buses under its quarantine-free travel scheme for four weeks from Thursday. Citing the risk of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, the government said the move would buy time to strengthen its defences against COVID-19.
Australia ruled out a Christmas lockdown and renewed its vaccination push, as surging Omicron cases caused authorities to impose new curbs and expedite COVID-19 booster shots.
Here are the latest updates:
AstraZeneca, Oxford team up to develop omicron-targeted vaccine
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.
China orders 13 million Xi’an residents to stay home over COVID outbreak
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.
Philippines halves COVID-19 booster wait time to three months
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 spokesperson Karlo Nograles said.
Single-dose vaccine recipients are eligible for a booster after two months, he told a regular news conference.
Poland reports highest number of COVID-related deaths in fourth wave
Poland reported 775 COVID-related deaths on Friday, the highest daily number in the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the data from the health ministry showed, with total number of infections since the start of the pandemic crossing 4 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,” ministry’s spokesman Wojciech Andrusiewicz told reporters.
Israel to offer fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose in bid to outpace Omicron
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”.
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Japan confirms first known local omicron transmissions
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 traveling 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 case drop may show omicron peak has passed
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 center 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.
UK says 14 deaths and 129 hospitalised by Omicron
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 aims to tackle rising COVID cases by curbing bars’ opening hours
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 a proof of vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 and a recent negative test result.
France could soon have 100,000 COVID cases a day
France could have around 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, health minister Olivier Veran said, up from around 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 suspends ticket sales for quarantine-free travel to Singapore
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 says health care workers must get booster shots
California health care 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 health care 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 health care workers.
Australia PM meets with state leaders as virus cases surge
New COVID-19 cases in Australia’s most populous state surged to a pandemic record on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with 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 suspends quarantine-free travel ticket sales
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.