A South African study offered pre-Christmas good tidings about the severity of omicron on Wednesday as the fast-spreading coronavirus variant forces countries across the world to impose new curbs.
Governments urged citizens to vaccinate as omicron becomes the dominant strain, upending reopening plans that many had hoped would herald the end of the pandemic, and unnerving financial markets.
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Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Korea have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days.
German health experts said on Wednesday that new curbs probably did not go far enough as the health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown.
Italy is preparing new measures and might make vaccinations obligatory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said.
Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Spain were also considering new curbs.
Omicron was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong. Studies indicate it is more resistant to vaccines developed before it emerged.
However, the South African study suggested that those infected with omicron were less likely to end up in hospital than those with delta.
The study by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and major universities, which had not been peer-reviewed, compared South African Omicron data from October and November with data about Delta between April and November.
The authors found that the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80 percent lower for those with omicron, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30 percent lower.
“In South Africa, this is the epidemiology: Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe,” said Professor Cheryl Cohen of the NICD, one of the authors.
“Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of omicron compared to other variants.”
Still, the authors included caveats and cautioned against jumping to conclusions. A study by Imperial College London released last week found no sign that omicron was milder.
Policymakers across the world are scrambling to address the economic blow that might come from new outbreaks; Britain on Tuesday announced 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of support for businesses hit hardest.
Some 300 South Korean business owners protested in Seoul on Wednesday against the return of strict social distancing rules, urging the government to scrap its “vaccine pass” policy and compensate them for losses.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed a Health Ministry panel’s recommendation that the over 60s, those with compromised immune systems and health workers should receive fourth COVID shots.
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But Professor Lawrence Young, virologist at the University of Warwick in England, said it was difficult to justify this “in a situation where around 73 percent of people in wealthy and middle-income countries have been (fully or partly) vaccinated ... whereas only 12 percent are vaccinated in Africa”.
The Israeli recommendations require approval from the ministry’s director-general, and it was not clear when that might happen.
More than 275 million people have been reported to be infected with the coronavirus around the world, and nearly 5.7 million have died, according to a Reuters tally.
Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in central China in December 2019.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday promised to distribute 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.”
Japan reported its first suspected case of community transmission of omicron on Wednesday, while India has urged its federal states to prepare for surges and allowed them to impose restrictions on crowds and gatherings.
Some wealthy countries want to shorten the time between second vaccination shots and boosters, hoping this will reduce the need to burden weary citizens with new lockdowns.
Australia on Wednesday reported more than 5,000 daily infections for the first time. Prime Minister Scott Morrison nevertheless insisted that strict lockdowns would not be brought back.
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