New Covid-19 variant Omicron cases, travel updates from around the world

By Fernando Alfonso III, Mike Hayes and Helen Regan, CNN

Updated 0502 GMT (1302 HKT) November 29, 2021
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2:25 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Moderna chief medical officer says Omicron-specific vaccine booster is being developed if needed

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Moderna's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Burton has predicted a "couple of weeks of uncertainty" with the emergence of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, and he said the company would be able to move "very fast" in producing a variant-specific vaccine.

"There are three questions we really need answers to: How transmissible is this variant, how severe is it and will the antibodies that are produced in response to the current vaccines effective?" he told CNN.

Moderna said Friday that the new Omicron variant represents a "significant potential risk" to the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine as well as immunity reached naturally, due to its mutations.

Burton said everyone who hasn't been vaccinated in the US should get their shots now, and those who have been vaccinated should get booster shots.

Moderna has been testing variant-specific boosters over the summer, Burton said, and the company is already working on one for the Omicron 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. 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," he said.

Burton said he expects Covid-19 to be an "endemic disease that will need regular boosting."

Omicron is "a new wrench thrown" into the fight against Covid-19, he said

"We have to see what data comes out in the next couple weeks," Burton added.

When asked about vaccine inequity, Burton said Moderna is producing 110 million doses for African nations through the World Health Organization's vaccine-sharing program COVAX, adding "we're trying to do everything we can to balance where the burden of disease is."

3:07 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

South African president says he is "deeply disappointed" in Omicron travel bans

From CNN’s David McKenzie and Sharon Braithwaite

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to press on November 23, in Pretoria, South Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to press on November 23, in Pretoria, South Africa. (Phill Magakoe/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In an address to the nation on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa criticized a growing list of countries that have instituted travel bans against South Africa and its neighbors over the emerging Omicron variant of Covid-19.

“We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of southern African countries including our own following the identification of the Omicron variant. This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at that meeting of the G20 countries in Rome last month,” Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa went on to list the countries and territories by name and called on the travel restrictions to be lifted. 

“These restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries. 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,” he said.

Ramaphosa praised the country’s scientists for their early detection of the variant and their work in understanding its potential impact.

He said that the Omicron variant is responsible for most of the infections found in the Gauteng province over the last two weeks and is now appearing in other provinces. He confirmed that the country is seeing a sharp rise in infections.

“If cases continue to climb, we can expect to enter a fourth wave of infections within the next few weeks, if not sooner,” he said. 

Some context: South African scientists have long believed a fourth wave was on the way in South Africa during this time, something Ramaphosa reiterated.

“This should not come as a surprise,” he said.

Ramaphosa encouraged South Africans to get vaccinated and said that the government is exploring vaccine mandates to accelerate vaccine uptake. Currently, around 35% of the population is vaccinated in South Africa. He said that the country will remain at coronavirus Level 1, one of the country’s lowest levels.

“The coronavirus will be with us for the long term. We must therefore find ways of managing the pandemic while limiting disruptions to the economy and ensuring continuity,” he said.

1:26 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Omicron variant is a "clarion call" for Covid-19 vaccine boosters, US health officials say

From CNN's John Bonifield

Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with a Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination at a clinic on October 1, in San Rafael, California.
Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with a Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination at a clinic on October 1, in San Rafael, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As global health officials evaluate the level of impact the new Omicron variant could have on the pandemic, they say its emergence is a "clarion call" for booster shots of the Covid-19 vaccine.

"Based on what we've learned so far with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, the vaccines, which are generated against the original virus, still work, and the boosters work particularly well. This is an important point. For people who are listening, who haven't yet gotten boosted but did get their original vaccine and who are eligible now, this is another reason to do that now. Because the booster, it basically enlarges the capacity to recognize all kinds of different spike proteins it's never seen," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, explained why getting a booster will be helpful against the Omicron variant.

"When you have a high level of antibodies the way you get with the boosters that we've been doing lately in this country and elsewhere, you lift up the level of the neutralizing antibodies high enough that it generally crosses over and covers several of the variants, including the Delta variant, which makes us even more emphatic in saying, even with a variant that we don't know yet the full impact that it's going to have on protection against vaccine-induced antibodies, get boosted, get vaccinated, and you're going to bring that level right up. I don't think there's any possibility that this could completely evade any protection by the vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that's the reason why you boost," Fauci told ABC News on Sunday.

Fauci said the Omicron variant should be a clarion call for vaccination.

"This is a clarion call as far as I'm concerned of saying let's put aside all of these differences that we have, and say, if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're fully vaccinated, get boosted," Fauci told NBC News on Sunday.

1:04 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Israel bans all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears

From CNN's Ivana Kottasová

Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on November 28.
Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on November 28. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israel is banning all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears, authorities announced Saturday.

The ban, pending government approval, is expected to last two weeks. Israelis returning from a country on the red list, which includes countries in southern Africa, will be required to isolate for seven days in a designated hotel.

There are seven suspected cases of the variant in Israel, in addition to one confirmed case found in a person returning from Malawi, its Health Ministry said.

12:48 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Biden will receive in-person Covid-19 briefing today

From CNN's Allie Malloy

President Biden, first lady Jill Biden and their children and grandchildren have boarded Air Force One in Nantucket, ending their Thanksgiving vacation. 

Biden returns to the Capitol where he will receive a briefing on Covid-19 and the Omicron variant this afternoon.

"This afternoon, the President will have an in-person briefing with members of his Covid-19 response team and chief medical advisor to the President Dr. Fauci to provide an update on the Omicron variant and the administration’s response,” a White House official said.

12:48 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

This Welsh rugby team was unable to depart South Africa following one suspected Omicron case

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite in London

Cardiff Rugby has been unable to depart South Africa following two positive cases of Covid-19, one of which is suspected to be the new Omicron variant, the team said Sunday in a statement.

The Welsh team had hoped to leave Cape Town on Sunday afternoon, but due to the two positive results of the PCR tests undertaken Saturday night, "the entire travelling party have returned to their hotel to isolate," the statement read.

CNN has reached out to Cardiff Rugby for clarity on the suspected case.

1:10 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Omicron Covid-19 variant prompts these countries to impose travel restrictions

A passenger walks through the arrivals area at Heathrow Airport on November 26 in London.
A passenger walks through the arrivals area at Heathrow Airport on November 26 in London. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The discovery of a new Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa prompted multiple countries to impose travel restrictions on at least six African nations

The newly identified variant appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa, and scientists are concerned that its unusually high number of mutations could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion.

The World Health Organization classified it as a "variant of concern" on Friday. 

These are the countries that have announced restrictions so far:

  • The cascade of closures began late Thursday as the United Kingdom announced it would be temporarily suspending flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
  • Israel on Saturday announced it is barring foreigners from entering the country for two weeks.
  • Japan has tightened border controls for travelers from the same six countries, bringing in a 10-day quarantine that began at 12 a.m. on Nov. 27. Bahrain and Sri Lanka said they would suspend entry from those countries as well. Brazil said it will close its air borders with the six countries.
  • Pakistan announced on Saturday that it would be closing its borders to South Africa, Hong Kong, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana.
  • Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland and Malta have all announced restrictions on travelers from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini. Switzerland banned all direct flights from the same seven countries as well. France extended its suspension of flights from the seven countries until midnight local time on Tuesday. Denmark's government is advising against all travel to those countries.
  • Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, Oman and Jordan have also announced restrictions on the seven countries. Saudi Arabia suspended flights from the seven countries on Friday, plus an additional seven — Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius and Comoros — on Saturday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
  • Morocco announced the suspension of all global incoming air flights to the kingdom starting November 29 for two weeks, according to the state-run news agency MAP.
  • Meanwhile, Germany declared South Africa a "virus variant area" starting Friday night, which means that airlines may only enter from the country to repatriate German citizens.
  • President Biden announced that the United States will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday. Acting on advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biden administration will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Officials, who are still learning more about the variant, said the policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution.
  • Canada is taking similar steps as the US, according to its health minister. South Korea tightened its border against travelers from the same eight countries.
  • Greece will allow only essential travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Eswatini, Zambia and Malawi, the country's health ministry said Friday. Australia is also banning the entry of foreign citizens who have traveled to the nine southern African countries in the previous 14 days. Kuwait on Saturday halted direct commercial flights from the same countries.
  • Starting Dec. 1, travelers from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe “will not be allowed to enter Thailand” and will not be permitted to apply for entry.
  • Russia said on Friday it will restrict entry into its country for citizens from nine countries — South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar, Eswatini, Tanzania — as well as Hong Kong.
  • Turkey issued a travel ban from five African countries — Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe — through land, air, sea and rail border crossings starting Friday night, according to a tweet from the Turkish health minister.
  • Colombia's President Iván Duque Márquez announced Saturday that all passengers arriving from South Africa will have to go into mandatory quarantine for 15 days.
  • Indonesia will refuse entry of foreign nationals traveling from eight southern African countries — South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini and Nigeria — within the last 14 days.

12:18 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

The world is in a "race against time" with the Omicron variant, EU commission president says

From CNN’s Eleanor Pickston

President of EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen attends a joint press conference after a meeting in Riga, Latvia, on November 28.
President of EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen attends a joint press conference after a meeting in Riga, Latvia, on November 28. (Gints Ivuskans/AFP/Getty Images)

The world is in a “race against time” with the Omicron coronavirus variant, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday during a visit to Riga, Latvia.

The European Union is taking the threat posed by the Omicron variant “very seriously,” adding that it will take scientists and manufacturers two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations,” she said. 

Von der Leyen stressed that it should be countries’ “highest priority” to vaccinate their citizens and administer boosters. She also emphasized the importance of mask-wearing, hand hygiene, and social distancing to “buy time” until more is known about the Omicron variant. 

Some context: So far, 65.9% of the European Union population is currently fully vaccinated, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control dashboard on Sunday.


12:08 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Travel bans targeting Africa threaten "global solidarity," WHO Africa director says

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Regional Office for Africa said Sunday that it stands with African nations and called for borders to remain open as an increasing number of countries around the world impose flight bans on Southern Africa due to concerns over the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The office said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its possible spread.

With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, "putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity," WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said.

"Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” Moeti added.

Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but "place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.

If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations," WHO Africa said in a statement, adding that WHO is "scaling up" support to genomic sequencing in the continent.

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of Covid-19,” Moeti said. “On the eve of a special session on pandemic preparedness I urge all countries to respect their legal obligations and implement scientifically based public health actions. It is critical that countries which are open with their data are supported as this is the only way to ensure we receive important data in a timely manner."

Some context: WHO announced Friday that it had designated the newly identified coronavirus variant, B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern, named Omicron.

A WHO official told CNN Friday that travel bans on travelers from Southern African nations over concerns about the spread of a new Covid-19 variant are "draconian measures" that might stop future scientists from coming quickly with news of new variants.