Israel is to offer second COVID-19 booster shots as fast-spreading Omicron forces countries across the world to impose new curbs days before Christmas, but a South African study offered a glimmer of hope about the new variant's firepower. Governments made urgent pleas for citizens to vaccinate as Omicron emerges as the dominant variant, upending reopening plans that many had hoped would herald the start of a post-pandemic era and unnerving financial markets.
Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Korea have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days. Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Spain were among European countries due to consider new curbs on Wednesday.
Omicron was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong. Studies indicate the variant is more resistant to vaccines developed before it emerged. However, the new South African study suggested reduced risk of hospitalisation in people infected with Omicron compared with Delta, although the authors said some of the reduction was likely due to high population immunity.
The study by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and major universities, which has not been peer-reviewed, compared data about Omicron in October and November with data about Delta between April and November, all in South Africa. The authors found that the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80% lower for those infected with Omicron compared with Delta, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30% lower.
They also included several caveats and cautioned against jumping to conclusions. Results of a study by Imperial College London released last week showed there was no sign that Omicron was milder than Delta. Many scientists around the world believe that booster shots are key to limiting the severity of infection.
"We are seeing a waning of protection against Omicron infection. This wave is growing in surprisingly high numbers… More than 80% of the panel supported this measure," Arnon Shahar, a doctor on an Israeli Health Ministry expert panel, told Israel's Army Radio of the second booster shot campaign.
To go into effect, the recommendations must be approved by the ministry's director-general, Nachman Ash. The ministry did not say when that might happen.
France said it could soon have around 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, up from around 70,000 currently as the country battles a fifth wave of the epidemic.
More than 275.18 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and nearly 5.7 million have died, according to a Reuters tally.
'LIFE AND DEATH'
Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in central China in December 2019.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday promised half a billion free rapid COVID-19 tests and warned the quarter of American adults who are unvaccinated that their choices could spell the "difference between life and death".
Singapore will freeze all new ticket sales for flights and buses under its programme for quarantine-free travel into the city-state from Thursday to Jan. 20.
Japan reported its first suspected case of community transmission of Omicron on Wednesday while India has urged its states to prepare for surges and allowed them to impose restrictions on crowds and gatherings.
Countries are also looking to shorten the time between second vaccination shots and boosters. However, wary of public lockdown fatigue, there is reluctance to return to last year's strict curbs.
Australia on Wednesday reported more than 5,000 daily infections for the first time during the pandemic. Despite the surge, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday repeated strict lockdowns would not be brought back.
There was also resistance to new lockdowns in South Korea, where authorities announced restrictions on gatherings and operating times for restaurants, cafes and bars.
Small business and restaurant associations issued statements protesting the decision and calling for compensation, with one of the groups vowing to stage a demonstration on Wednesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would not introduce new COVID-19 curbs in England before Christmas, but warned the government might need to act afterwards.
Governments have stepped up vaccination and treatment efforts with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set to authorise COVID-19 treatment pills from Pfizer Inc and Merck, Bloomberg News reported.
Policymakers are scrambling to address the economic hit that might come from new outbreaks with Britain announcing 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of support for businesses hit hardest. European stock indexes edged slightly higher on Wednesday, on track for a second day of gains even as Omicron infections surged