Passengers walk at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. The Israeli government approved a ban on arriving foreigners for 14 days over concerns of the new Coronavirus variant Omicron. Photo by Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE
Nov. 28 (UPI) — Nearly two years after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Mainland China, the world is bracing for the effects of a worrisome new variant, called Omicron, with fears vaccines won’t offer protection against the strain. Nations are banning travel from South Africa, where scientists first detected it, including Israel banning all foreign visitors.
The virus has already killed 5,217,177 people and infected 261,750,858 worldwide, according to Worldometers.info on Sunday. But after a spike from the Delta variant earlier this year, the situation had stabilized with a 4% weekly decline of deaths and 1% decline in cases.
Israel, after discovering one case of the variant and seven suspected ones, became the first country to ban entry of all foreigners, effective Sunday night, the first night of Hanukkah. Also, all Israelis arriving from abroad must quarantine. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban is expected to last for 14 days.
Flights are blocked from South Africa to the United States, Canada, European Union, Britain Japan and Australia.
In the United States, where no Omicron cases have been identified, travel will be banned from South Africa and seven neighboring counties starting Monday: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Canada has the same restrictions though it is allowing visitors from Malawi.
Three weeks ago, the United States had allowed foreign visitors from 30 countries, including South Africa.
“It’s already here,” NBC News’ medical contributor Dr. Kavita Patel said. “We know from previous variants that by the time we pick it up in Africa and the European Union, it’s already likely.”
The United States has reported a world-high 799,348 deaths and 49,083,723 cases.
“You don’t want to frighten the American public but when something occurs that you need to take seriously, you take it seriously and you do whatever you can to mitigate against that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC News.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday during a visit to Riga, Latvia, that the world is in a “race against time” with the Omicron coronavirus variant.
A few days after the World Health Organization put out an alert on the new variant Wednesday, cases were detected across Europe, including in Britain, The Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Belgium. It was also found in Australia and Hong Kong.
Europe already has the most deaths and second-most cases of the continents. Lately, the situation has become dire in Eastern Europe, including Germany, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Czech Republic. Also, Austria on Monday became the first western European nation to enter a nationwide lockdown.
Experts fear the spread of the variant much like the other variants, including international passengers in the air and waters.
On Sunday, Dutch health officials identified 13 cases among passengers who flew in on two flights from South Africa on Friday after 61 tested positive for COVID-19.
Also Sunday, Denmark confirmed two cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, on passengers arriving by plane from South Africa, the Danish State Serum Institute told CNN.
Germany reported a third case Sunday in the central German state of Hesse. The previous two were in Munich, Bavaria.
And authorities in Australia said two travelers in Sydney from Africa became the first in the nation to test positive for the new variant.
Britain, which at one point last year was the epicenter of the virus, has identified two cases of the new variant. On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he wants anyone arriving to take a test on the second day and self-isolate until they provide a negative test result. Also, face coverings will be mandatory in shops and on public transport.
South African officials have been critical of the actions.
South Africa’s Foreign Ministry said these measures are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker. … Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”
In an address to the nation on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said: ” The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant. The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”
The variant was first reported on Wednesday. The official name for the variant is B.1.1.529, but the World Health Organization has used letters in the Greek alphabet to name the variant. They decided to skip Nu and Xi.
“Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new,'” Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman told The New York Times on Saturday. “And Xi was not used because it is a common last name.”
With only 43% of the world’s population fully vaccinated, it is not known whether the current vaccines are effective against the strain
The maker of the Pfizer/NioNTech vaccine said will manufacture and distribute an updated version of its vaccine within 100 days if the new variant Omicron is found to be resistant to its current vaccine.
Pfizer has administered 263 million doses and Moderna 173 million in the United States, according to statista.
Dr. Paul Burton, chief medical officer of Moderna, said there will be a “couple of weeks of uncertainty” about guarding against the variant.
“We can move very fast, we think weeks to within two to three months, we would be able to have an Omicron-specific vaccine booster available for testing and then for administration,” he told CNN. “So this is going to go at the fastest possible speed. But we have to do careful science now. We don’t want to misstep.”
Moderna, through the WHO’s vaccine-sharing program COVAX, is producing 110 million doses for African nations.
Although there has been a weekly spike in cases in South Africa, numbers are a fraction of records.
Over seven days, cases rose 231% with 11,661 and deaths were up 128% with 219.
On Saturday, South Africa reported eight deaths for a total of 89,791 in 18th place worldwide. Cases were 3,220 for a total of 2,958,548, also in 18th. Records were 26,645 cases on June 3 and deaths hit 819 on Jan. 19.
But the nation’s first-time vaccination rate is 28.9% and fully is 24.3%, according to tracking by Bloomberg.
Worldwide, vaccination doses grew by 290 million in one week to 7.9 with the world’s population of 7.9 billion, according to tracking by Bloomberg.
China, which has the world’s largest population at 1.5 billion, has administered the most doses at 2.5 billion, ahead of India at 1.2 billion and the United States at 454 million. About 87.5% of Mainland China’s population has received at least one vaccine dose.
Africa has 16.72% of the world’s population but its share of vaccinations is 3.4% at 234.79 million doses, according to Our World in Data.
Latin America is at 66% with at least one shot, according to The New York Times tracking. The United States and Canada are at 71% with Asia-Pacific 65%, Europe at 62%, Middle East 46% and Africa 10%.
Before the variant was reported, officials already were alarmed in Africa about a fourth wave.
“It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” Harry Moultrie, a senior epidemiologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, which coordinated modeling, said in a report by Bloomberg. “We don’t know where this virus is going to take us. We will still be seeing hospital admissions and deaths related to Covid for years to come.”
In Africa, deaths rose 2% for the week with a total of 223,354 and cases were up 46% at 8,718,035. One week ago deaths dropped 19% and cases declined 6%.
Tunisia has the second-most deaths with 25,363 ahead of Egypt with 20,305.
Many European nations already have experienced another wave.
In one week, Europe’s cases rose 11% to 72,942,130, second behind Asia, and deaths were down 1% to 1,406,929. Last week, Europe was the only continent to rise in both categories.
Germany has been setting cases records, reporting a record 76,132 on Thursday. One week earlier, Germany shattered its record at 64,164. Until Nov. 4, the record was 32,546 on April 14. On Sunday, Germany reported 10,450 for a total of 5,774,923, which is ninth in the world. Sunday’s rise was 30,406.
Deaths are nowhere near the record of 1,249 on Dec. 29. On Friday there were 374, the most since 407 on April 14. Germany added 55 deaths Sunday for 101,395 in 14th place.
Skiers in Germany’s richest state, Bavaria, starting this week will need to prove they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 within the past six months. Daily COVID-19 tests are required.
Germany is encountering vaccine hesitancy but its 71% percent of the population with at least one dose is more than the United States at 69.7%.
Germany’s rate is lower than other European cities. Britain has vaccinated 76.2% of its population with at least one dose.
In the European Union, the one-shot vaccination rate is 70.9%, including 82.4% in Spain, 80% in France, 78.0% in Italy.
Russia is lagging the world in vaccination with 44.9% of its population with at least one dose of a domestic-produced vaccine, including Sputnik 5.
Two other Eastern European nations have low vaccination rates: Ukraine at 31.7% and Romania at 39.5%. Poland’s rate is 54.6% and Czech Republic’s is 62.1%.
On Sunday, Russia reported 1,224 deaths, with the record 1,254 on Nov. 19, for a total of 272,755 in fifth place. And the nation added 33,548 cases for 9,570,373, also in fifth place, including a record 41,335 on Nov. 6. Russia deaths only went up by 12 for a total of 8,688, which is the most in the world, and an 8% drop in cases to 242,637, which is fourth behind the United States, Germany and Britain.
Russia has exceeded 1,000 deaths every day since Oct. 16. Also, Russia hasn’t been below 700 since July. Last year, deaths reached 635 on Dec. 24.
In Austria, where there is a partial lockdown, deaths were up 17% with the total overall 1,143,283 and deaths decreased 4% for a cumulative 12,388.
Other European nations also have had big gains.
Poland’s deaths increased 13% with 51 reported Sunday for a total of 83,037 in 18th. Cases were up 18% with 20,576 added Sunday for 3,345,388 in 17th.
Czech Republic’s deaths rose 16% with 44 reported Sunday for 32,837 in 25th. And cases were up 30% with 12,514 most recently, two days after record 27,938, and 2,123,059 total in 23rd.
Two Eastern European nations’ deaths declined. Ukraine added 400 deaths for a total of 85,117 in 17th place with a 17% weekly drop though the national set a record with 838 one week Tuesday. Romania rose 88 Sunday for a total of 56,275 in 20th but a 36% seven-day decline.
Britain’s situation is stabilizing after spiking a few weeks ago. Deaths decreased 17% at 858, with cases up 9% to 305,242 in third place.
Overall, Britain is seventh in the world with 144,775, including 51 Sunday. Cases are fourth at 10,146,915, with 36,681 most recently. On Friday infections rose 50,091 with the record 67,794 in January.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Sunday on the BBC that compulsory masks would help to “protect the progress we’ve made so we can all continue to enjoy Christmas with our families.” And he added the kingdom would take further action “in a proportionate way wherever necessary.”
In deaths, Italy is ninth with 133,674, including 47 Sunday. In the top 20: France is 12th with 118,871, an increase of 34 Saturday; Spain 16th with 87,955 and no data on weekends.
Seventeen days ago, the Netherlands became the first western European country to impose a partial lockdown since the summer. The three-week restrictions include the closure of bars, restaurants and essential shops at 8 p.m., and non-essential services to close at 6 p.m.
In the past week, Netherlands’ cases rose 12%, including 22,133 on Sunday, four days after a record 23,708, in 21st at 2,599,579, and deaths went up 40% with 45 on Sunday for a total of 19,317 in 37th. The Netherlands has vaccinated 76.7% of its population.
In Asia over the past week, deaths increased 5% with a current 1,211,480 and cases were up 0.2% with 81,954,233, the most of the continents.
India’s deaths increased 36% to 2,892 four weeks after a surge of 83%. Cases were down 15%.
On Sunday, India reported 621 deaths for a total of 468,554, third in the world, and the most since 803 on Oct. 28. Cases were 8,744, after 8,488 Monday, the least since Feb. 3 when it was 2,992 for a total of 34,572,523, in second worldwide.
India holds world daily records: 6,148 deaths in June and 414,188 cases in May.
The nation’s cases have been under 20,000 for 51 days in a row and below 50,000 for 154 consecutive days.
India, which is the prime manufacturer of vaccines for the world, has a one-shot rate for the entire population of 57.1% in a ramped-up effort.
India, with the second-largest population in the world at 1.4 billion, is lagging behind other big nations.
The government requires tourists to monitor their health for 14 days after arrival.
The outright ban on commercial international flights last through Tuesday.
Indonesia ranks eighth in the world at 143,808, dropping behind Britain in the past week, with an increase of only one death Sunday, way down from a record 2,069 on July 27. The Asian nation’s cases are 14th at 4,255,936, including 264 Sunday, also a fraction of the record 54,000 in July. Indonesia has vaccinated 51.5% of its population with at least one dose.
Iran is 10th at 129,629 deaths, including 80 Sunday. Iran’s one-shot vaccination rate is 68%, up from 43.6% seven weeks ago.
Turkey is sixth in the world for cases at 8,746,055, including 21,655 reported Sunday and 19th in deaths, dropping behind Poland in the past week, at 76,233, including 21,655 most recently. Turkey has a 67.4% vaccination rate.
Japan reported one death again Sunday and five in the past month, with a total of 18,358.
And there were 73 cases Sunday compared with the record of 25,492 on Aug. 21 after the Summer Olympics ended on Aug. 8.
Japan has a relatively low 13,713 infections per million and 146 deaths per million. Worldwide, it’s 33,530 cases per million and 668.7 per million deaths. The United States’ figures are 2,395 fatalities per million and 147,059 infections per million.
Japan, which didn’t administer its first vaccine doses until February, has vaccinated 79% of the 129.4 million population.
The pandemic began in late 2019 in Mainland China, but the nation’s death toll has stood at 4,636 for several months and 81st behind Zimbabwe at 4,705. China added 25 cases Sunday.
In early December, quarantine travel will be allowed from Hong Kong, which has a 63% vaccination rate.
Mainland China could experience 737,155 daily cases if its ends a zero-tolerance strategy, including massive testing, according to a study published in China CDC Weekly.
“The estimates revealed the real possibility of a colossal outbreak which would almost certainly put an unbearable burden on the medical system,” scientists said in the report.
South Korea’s cases rose 4,067 Sunday four days after a record 4,115 with 2020’s highest 1,237 on Dec. 25. The nation has 3,492 deaths, including 52 on Sunday.
The latest surge mainly is coming from ending restrictions a cluster of infections spread from a little-known religious settlement led by a pastor who pokes his followers in the eyes to heal them.
South Korea’s vaccination rate is 82%, after getting off to a late start like Japan.
Israel has a death toll of 8,189 with 22 reported Sunday, and 284 cases most recently with the record 20,523 on Sept. 1. Israel has among the world’s worst infection rates: 143,712 per million.
The nation’s one-shot vaccination rate is 73.1%. Israel has approved vaccines for children 5 to 11 years old.
Before Israel’s travel ban, the nation and Turkey were among 18 non-European Union nations that participate in the 27-nation EU vaccine certificate program, meaning people who have been fully vaccinated can visit other member countries, including England, without needing to quarantine. Each nation can implement restrictions.
The United States has begun allowing entry to fully vaccinated foreign travelers from 33 nations, including by air and land. Travel for U.S. residents was allowed earlier.
Canada earlier ended its advisory against non-essential travel for vaccinated citizens. Canada reopened its border to vaccinated Americans in August.
In North America, the deaths are 1,189,929 with an 27% weekly decrease, and cases are 58,782,658, decreasing 35%.
The United States’ deaths dropped 36% and cases 38%. On Saturday, the United States reported 127 deaths and 22,612 cases though most states don’t report data on weekends.
Mexico is fourth in the world in deaths at 293,859 with a 16% weekly increase and 245 recorded Saturday. The nation’s cases also rose 19% with 2,956 most recently for 15th at 3,882,792.
Canada ranks 27th worldwide in deaths with 29,633 including five on Sunday after 10 Saturday, and 26th in cases with 1,786,246, including 1,892 most recently. Canada’s deaths record is 257 on Dec. 29 and the cases mark is 11,383 on Jan. 3.
Canada’s cases rose 5% and deaths went down 20%. However, health officials Sunday confirmed two cases of the Omicron variant, becoming the first in North America to do so.
Canada has around one-third the rates per million than the United States with deaths 775 and cases 46,703.
Canada has the best one-shot vaccination rate of the three largest countries in North America at 79.9% with children 5-11 now able to get the Pfizer vaccine. The United States is at 69.7% for one shot. Mexico’s percentage is 59.7%, though it was the first Latin American nation to begin vaccinating people.
In South America, cases increased 4% in one week with a total of 38,9953,853 and deaths were up 14% to 1,181,190.
Brazil’s deaths rose 13% to 614,314, and up 4% in cases to 22,080,906, which ranks third. Brazil reported 78 deaths and 4,043 cases Sunday. On Monday, Brazil reported 2,594 cases, the fewest since April 21 one year ago when it was 2350.
Also in the top 10 for deaths, Peru is sixth at 201,108. Colombia is 11th at 128,437, Argentina is 13th with 116,529 deaths and Chile 22nd with 38,313.
On Sunday, Chile reported 31 more deaths, Peru 37, Colombia 43 and Argentina 12. These numbers are way down from records: Peru with 1,154, Colombia with 754, Argentina with 791, Chile with 316.
Peru has the world’s highest death rate at 5,981 per million people.
Chile has the highest vaccination rate on the continent at 88% with Brazil at 77.3%, Argentina 81%, Colombia at 71.5% and Peru 65.3%.
Oceania, with only 42.3 million people, has 4,198 deaths with a decrease of 15% in seven days and cases are 364,967 with a rise of 8%.
New Zealand’s deaths rose by four in one week to 43 with one Sunday. Australia’s toll increased to 1,994, with four reported Sunday and 50 in a week.
New Zealand added 146 cases Sunday after a record 222 No. 16. Australia was up 1,234 with a record 2,688 reached Oct. 14.
Australia has a vaccination rate of 77.5% with New Zealand at 77.9% among the entire population.
New Zealand has been in a nationwide lockdown since August after a single case, the country’s first in six months. Restrictions are set to end once 90% of those 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, which is projected for later this month.
In Australia, Victoria and New South Wales are no longer in lockdowns after months-long ones.
Fiji, with a 70.7% vaccinated rate, has 696 deaths, with one in a week. On May 3, there were four fatalities. Cases have climbed from 121 on May 3 to 52,494. Fiji has 903,457 residents.
Guam, a territory of the United States with fewer than 200,000 residents, has 263 deaths, one in a week, and 19,137 cases, including 20 daily most recently. Its vaccination rate is 80.1% for the entire population, including 99.9% of those eligible, which is 12 and older, and also 99.9% 18 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.