November 30 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Adrienne Vogt, Ben Westcott, Adam Renton, Sheena McKenzie and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021
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9:03 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

UN South Africa representative says travel ban is unfair and stresses importance of vaccine equity

From CNN's Mirna Alsharif

A passenger walks towards the plane while boarding a flight at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 28, 2021.
A passenger walks towards the plane while boarding a flight at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 28, 2021. (Dimitri Korczak/AFP/Getty Images)

Xolisa Mabhongo, the deputy permanent representative of South Africa to the United Nations, echoed sentiments that the travel ban placed on the country by multiple nations over the Omicron variant is not fair.

"We feel that the travel ban is very unfair," Mabhongo said to CNN's Briana Keilar on "New Day" Tuesday morning. "South African science should be commended for discovering this new variant and sharing the information with the world."

Mabhongo also stressed the importance of vaccine equity in all countries in order to "see the end of Covid."

"As long as the world operates on this trajectory on vaccine inequality, we will not see the end of Covid," he said. "We think it is not wise to continue in this route, we think vaccines should be shared by all countries."

"At this moment, less than 10% of the African population as a whole has been vaccinated, but we know that in other countries the rate is over 80%. So, this is indeed very unfair, and we have been urging countries to reverse it," he said.

When asked for his reaction to President Biden's comments that the US has provided "significant" vaccines to South Africa and the region, and that their issue is reluctance rather than doses, he said he "doesn't see this significant hesitancy that some people are talking about."

"Now again, like in all countries, it is possible, that you know, you will have some small minority of people who are hesitant against vaccines," he continued. "We do need more vaccines for sure, that is not a question. We need more vaccines in South Africa, in southern African and in the rest of the African continent."

8:43 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

While scientists research Omicron, NIH director recommends mask-wearing due to Delta variant

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

People wear face masks in Manhattan on November 29, 2021 in New York City. 
People wear face masks in Manhattan on November 29, 2021 in New York City.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins recommended that people wear masks until the severity of Omicron is known, due to the Delta variant.

“I would recommend that even without knowing about Omicron, because Delta is very much with us,” Collins said on ABC.  

Collins explained why he wears his mask indoors with other people:

“I wear my mask if I’m indoors with other people; I don’t always know whether they’re all vaccinated or not. That’s just good practice. I know we’re all tired of this, but the virus is not tired of us and it’s continuing to exploit those opportunities where we’re careless."

Collins said scientists are working quickly to research the severity of Omicron and how contagious it actually is, adding, "much credit to our colleagues in South Africa who have been totally transparent about this.”

"It does look like it’s spreading quite quickly there, but we don’t know how that would play out in a country like ours where Delta is already so dominant. Would Omicron be able to compete with Delta? We don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

It will take a few weeks to determine how effective current vaccines will be against the new variant, he said.

8:48 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Restricting travel due to Omicron variant was an "overreaction," South African doctor says 

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

Restrictions on travel because of the Omicron variant were an "overreaction," according to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and one of the doctors treating patients with the Omicron variant.

“I think it was an overreaction,” she said on CNN's "New Day" when asked about her assessment of the global reaction to the variant. “I do understand that there’s a lot of mutation in this virus. I do understand that it might be much more fast spreading than the Delta variant.” 

She said it was important to get input from scientists, “but while the scientists wait and are busy doing their work in the background, unfortunately, the patients [don't] wait, the patients comes in. And you need to alert your doctors and say listen, there’s something happening, there’s something going on, look at it, see what you can do.” 

“Telling the world there’s something out there and then being slammed by getting these — we call it the knee-jerk reaction — of closing borders and everyone, and people say 'yes, but I’m trying to protect my people,' so then the question would be how do you know it’s not in your country yet? How do you know that a lot of those infections that you are currently seeing that [are] severe, how do you know it’s not maybe related to the Omicron? How do you know?” Coetzee said. 

She also said that if doctors aren’t aware of the variant, they might not think patients have the variant and might not test them. 

“I think if for South Africa to spread the message out there and then being slammed, that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Of course it’s other people’s lives as well, you know. It’s a huge impact, it’s a huge impact on the economy of South Africa, it’s a huge impact to the people that want to come and visit family, it’s a huge impact on South Africans that want to go and visit family and friends during the festive season. I just think, you know, there’s other ways to do this.” 

7:57 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Omicron cases have been “extremely mild” so far, South African doctor says

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, on November 30.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, on November 30. (CNN)

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and one of the doctors treating some patients with the Omicron variant, told CNN that the majority of cases of the variant that she has seen have been mild. 

Coetzee pointed out that it’s still very early days for the Omicron variant, and that, in the beginning, it’s typically not that severe, as younger people get infected and then it spreads further.

“The majority of what we are presenting to primary health care practitioners are extremely mild cases, so mild to moderate. And so, these patients, it means they don’t need to be hospitalized for now,” she said on CNN's "New Day."
“We try to get the message out there to the world to say listen, we’re not saying this is not going to be a disease going forward that’s going to cause severe disease; it will cause severe disease, but if this disease can cause to more than the majority of people mild symptoms, easily treatable at home, no need for admission, that’s a first prize.”

She said that they want to share the symptoms with people so they can understand that if they feel fatigued for a day or two, have a bit of a scratchy throat and body aches and pain — “we call it normally malaise, so I don’t feel generally well,” she said — that they should go and see their doctor. Doctors also need to test patients who come in with those symptoms. 

“If we can get that message out to the world, it means that we would most probably going forward have less severe cases, less people going too late to the doctors,” she said. “No system can afford that, not South Africa, not the United States. No one can afford that.” 

Asked if she had seen vaccinated people who contracted the Omicron variant, Coetzee said, “I have seen vaccinated people, and not really very sick. That might change going forward, as we say this is early days, and this is maybe what makes us hopeful.” 

10:00 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Two Israeli doctors, both triple vaccinated, are confirmed with Omicron variant

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Amir Tal in Jerusalem

Two doctors working in Tel Aviv have been diagnosed with the Omicron variant, the Sheba Medical Center confirmed Tuesday, including the first known case of community spread of the variant in Israel. Both men had been vaccinated three times.

According to the hospital, a doctor in his 50s tested positive several days after returning from a conference in London.

The doctor's PCR tests before leaving Britain and on arrival back in Israel had produced negative results, so the man returned to work where he infected another doctor, a man in his 70s, the hospital says.

The pair are now resting at home with only very mild symptoms. All those who were in contact with the two men have been tested, with no positive results so far.

It brings the number of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in Israel to four.

The first case was discovered in a person returning from Malawi. Details of the second case have not been made public, but Israeli media reports say it was found in a person returning from South Africa.

8:49 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Vaccines targeting Omicron could be approved in 3-4 months, says EU drug regulator 

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy in London 

Vaccines developed to target the new Omicron coronavirus variant could be approved in three to four months if needed, the chief of the European Union's drug regulator said on Tuesday. 

Although vaccines so far had proven "effective against the circulating variants," there is a need to "understand whether or not this will be the case" with Omicron, Emer Cooke, Executive Director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), told the European Parliament.

A two-week laboratory testing process must first take place to establish whether the current crop of vaccines provide protection against Omicron, Cooke said.  

Health officials will also have to consider how the European situation compares to that of South Africa, Cooke said, pointing to the EU's older population, higher vaccine uptake and booster rollout as key factors. 

If there is a need to change the current vaccines, companies will then have to adapt their formulations to include the new sequencing, Cooke said. She added that the EMA is working with drug companies and other regulators to ensure they are "as prepared and ready as possible" .

Were there a need to change the existing vaccines, we could be in a position to have those approved within three to four months," Cooke said.

Cooke also stressed "that the current vaccines provide protection."

She also reinforced the importance of pushing forward with the booster rollout across the bloc so that those eligible for the additional protection receive it. 

8:49 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Omicron variant in the Netherlands a week earlier than previously known

From CNN’s Mick Krever and Eleanor Pickston

The Omicron variant was present in The Netherlands as early as Nov. 19, a week earlier than previously known, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment said Tuesday.

That’s a week before last Friday — when 14 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for the Omicron variant after arrival in the Netherlands.

The variant was confirmed in two test samples taken on Nov. 19 and Nov. 23, RIVM said.

“It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa,” the statement added. “The GGD [Municipal Public Health Service] will notify the people involved and start source and contact tracing.”

The two newly discovered cases takes the total number of confirmed Omicron infections in the Netherlands to 16, an RIVM spokesperson confirmed to CNN.

8:50 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Covid-19 vaccine mandates are divisive. But Europe is starting to show how they can work

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh in London

Earlier this month, Austria took a step once unthinkable for a Western democracy: It announced that Covid-19 vaccinations would become compulsory for its entire population.

Up until then, governments around the world had rejected the idea of a universal coronavirus vaccine mandate, opting instead for incentives and other "nudges" to motivate people to get shots. Even in authoritarian states, like China, it is not mandatory policy.

Austria's extraordinary move came just days after it introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated -- a restriction that went farther than other European nations in singling out the people who have been driving a worrying surge in hospitalizations.

The series of decisions leading Austria to this point reflects the desperate position governments find themselves in as they look to protect public health systems and tentative economic recoveries as cases soar across Europe. The continent is once again ground zero for the global pandemic, despite the widespread availability of vaccines.

It is that irony that has drawn the ire of Europe's leaders, who are growing increasingly frustrated by vaccine skeptics and other pockets of the population still resisting Covid-19 vaccination programs.

Austria's tough new measures were unveiled before the announcement of the discovery of the Omicron variant late last week, which triggered fears that the winter Covid-19 wave could be more brutal than previously thought. The news of the variant could push more countries to harden their approach, pivoting from voluntary to mandatory measures in a last-ditch effort to get shots in arms.

In explaining Austria's decision, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg pointed to the successes of Italy and France, which have introduced vaccine mandates in all but name — requiring health passes as proof of vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from infection to attend public gatherings, travel or go to work — in conjunction with public health measures, like mask wearing.

Both countries have also made vaccination mandatory for health workers — two of five countries to do so in Europe, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

South Africa is now mulling compulsory Covid-19 shots following the discovery of the Omicron variant. And on Tuesday, Greece announced that vaccinations for citizens over the age of 60 will be mandatory from mid-January.

Read more of this report here:

7:19 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021

China locks down cities near Mongolia border amid Covid-19 outbreak

From CNN's Beijing Bureau and Hannah Ritchie

Medical staff prepare for Covid-19 tests on November 28 in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of northeastern China.
Medical staff prepare for Covid-19 tests on November 28 in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of northeastern China. (Zhang Hechang/VCG/Getty Images)

China has locked down several cities close to its northern border with Mongolia, following several outbreaks of Covid-19.

The largest flareup is in the Inner Mongolian city of Manzhouli, a crucial land port of entry bordering Russia.

On Tuesday the city had 34 confirmed cases, bringing its total number of cases to 73 since the start of the current outbreak which began on Saturday.

Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of northeastern China, bordering the independent country Mongolia and Russia.

On Monday, a total of 42 locally transmitted cases were also reported across two provinces and three municipalities in northern China, mostly in the city of Hulunbuir.

The city of Manzhouli has conducted three city-wide mass testings on its 300,000 residents over three days, according to the local government. The third round of testing happened Tuesday morning.

The city has been placed under a strict lockdown, with public transport suspended and 24-hour guarded checkpoints set up around its borders.

All residents are prohibited from going out -- apart from medical support staff and material delivery personnel. Businesses, schools, universities, and kindergartens are closed across Manzhouli, the local government said in a press release Monday.

Genome sequencing of the first three cases in Manzhouli found that the infections may have been spread via “imported goods," the Center for Epidemic Prevention and Control in Manzhouli said Tuesday.

From December 1, Manzhouli railway port will suspend the import of non-container goods that require manual handling.

Several other cities -- some hundreds of miles from Manzhouli -- have also been locked down, with major roads connecting the districts blocked off.