December 1 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Adam Renton, Brad Lendon, Sheena McKenzie, Ed Upright, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021
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1:48 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

JUST IN: US' first case of Omicron variant reported in California, source says

From CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Jacqueline Howard

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the United States’ first confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant – in California – according to a source familiar.

The World Health Organization designates Omicron a "variant of concern." In a technical brief released this week, WHO noted that the variant poses a "very high" global risk. The variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa, and has since been detected in several countries.

Scientists are working to determine how transmissible the variant is, how sick it makes people and how well current vaccines work against it. Until more information is learned about the variant, the United States restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries.

On Monday, President Biden called the variant "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," saying, “We'll have to face this new threat just as we face those who have come before it.”

Health officials are urging people to get vaccinated against Covid-19, or get a booster if they’re eligible. Other measures such as masks, handwashing, physical distancing and ventilation will still work against the Omicron variant.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus remains the dominant variant globally and in the United States.

1:30 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Biden to Americans: "The best protection against Omicron is getting a booster shot"

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury and Betsy Klein

(Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
(Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden urged eligible Americans to get booster shots as soon as possible, saying that his administration will fight the Omicron variant with "science and speed, not chaos and confusion."

"Let me repeat what the doctors and scientists have affirmed. The best protection against Omicron is getting a booster shot. Right now, about 135 million Americans are eligible for a booster, but only about 40 million have gotten one thus far. If you're over 18 years of age, you got vaccinated before... June 1, go get your booster shot today," Biden said.

Biden continued, "If you're not vaccinated, now now is the time to get vaccinated and take your children to get vaccinated. Every child over the age of 5 can get a safe, effective vaccination."

On Thursday at the National Institutes of Health, Biden said, he will outline next steps in fighting the pandemic this winter: “Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.” 

Some details of the plan are already emerging, including narrowing the testing window for international air travelers, as CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported. Other aspects are likely to include a new push for vaccinations and boosters. 

CNN's Betsy Klein contributed reporting to this post.

1:10 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

WHO leaders speak out against Covid-19 travel bans

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

Blanket travel bans may be unfairly applied and likely will not completely prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, World Health Organization leaders said Wednesday. 

“I thank Botswana and South Africa for detecting, sequencing, and reporting this variant so rapidly,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his opening remarks at a news conference Wednesday. 

“It's deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing. We call on all countries to take rational, proportional risk reduction measures in keeping with international health regulations," the director-general said.

“We do not want to see countries penalized for sharing information, because this is how WHO and our partners, this is how we make assessments and how we provide advice,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19.

Van Kerkhove said some travel bans have limited the ability of South African researchers to ship virus samples out of the country, “so there are other implications for these travel bans that are out there.”

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said travel bans contain “internal contradictions” that don’t accurately address how the virus spreads. 

“There's also some inherent internal contradictions in these bans. We've seen these before where you ban flights except for your own citizens. I mean, epidemiologically, I find it hard to understand the principle there,” he said. 

“Is that that some passport holders will have the virus and some won’t? Does the virus read your passport? Does the virus know your nationality or where you're legally resident?" he added.

Ryan also criticized the inconsistent application of travel bans, pointing out that there are countries currently under a ban who have not yet had a case of Omicron, “and other countries with confirmed cases and evidence of local transmission with no travel bans.”

“So I'm not saying one is right or one is wrong, what I'm saying is I can't see the logic, certainly from a public health or an epidemiologic perspective,” he said.

12:54 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

European Commission chief calls for discussion on mandatory vaccinations for bloc

From CNN's James Frater and Sharon Braithwaite

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that it is time to "potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union" and have a discussion about the measure.

When asked during a news conference about her position on mandatory vaccination following Greece's decision to impose a roughly $113 fine on people over 60 years old who remain unvaccinated by mid-January, von der Leyen said it is "pure member state competence. Therefore, in respect to that, it's not me to give any kind of recommendation."

“If you're asking me what my personal position is? Two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic, we have the vaccines, the life saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere," she said.

“And thus, these costs, of course, an enormous, or this is an enormous health cost coming along," she continued.

“If you look at the numbers we have now 77% of the adults in the European Union vaccinated or if you take the whole population, it's 66%. And this means 1/3 of the European population is not vaccinated. These are 150 million people. This is a lot," von der Leyen noted.

She went on to outline her position on vaccination mandates, saying, “Not each and everyone can be vaccinated, so there are very small children, for example, or people with special medical conditions, but the vast majority could."

“And therefore, I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now. How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union, this needs discussion. This needs a common approach but it is a discussion that I think has to be led," she continued.


11:46 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

3 major US airlines say they are complying with new CDC directive

From CNN's Pete Muntean and Greg Wallace

Three major US airlines told CNN Wednesday they are complying with a new federal directive that requires airlines to turn over contact information on passengers who were recently in certain African countries.  

The carriers are Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines.  

Delta Air Lines flies several flights every week from Johannesburg, South Africa, into Atlanta. The airline said in a statement to CNN it is “in close coordination with public health bodies and industry regulators in our shared mission to keep the safety and health of customers our top priority.”  

United flies between Johannesburg and Newark.  

American has extended its flexibility policies to accommodate passengers who would have been flying from southern African countries into the US to rearrange their flights.  

About the directive: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directive involves foreign nationals from eight countries including South Africa and was issued in response to the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

11:29 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

CDC will provide names of passengers on flights from southern Africa to health departments

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed to CNN on Wednesday that officials have directed airlines carrying passengers that have been to certain southern African nations to share those passengers' contact information with the agency. 

"Effective November 30, 2021, CDC has directed airline and aircraft operators carrying passengers that have been in the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, or the Republic of Zimbabwe during the 14 days before their flight to the United States to transmit these passengers’ contact information to CDC," according to a statement that CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund emailed to CNN on Wednesday. "CDC is issuing this Directive to prevent the importation and spread of a communicable disease of public health importance."

Airlines and aircraft operators are directed to transmit passenger information as required under the CDC's Contact Information Collection Order, which was issued in late October, if information is not already being transmitted through established US Department of Homeland Security data systems. 

This post has been updated with new details from the CDC.

10:18 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

South Korea will require a 10-day quarantine for all incoming international travelers 

From CNN's Gawon Bae

A staff member wearing protective equipment guides a traveller at the arrival hall of Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Kora, on November 30.
A staff member wearing protective equipment guides a traveller at the arrival hall of Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Kora, on November 30. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

South Korea will mandate a 10-day quarantine for all incoming international travelers, including Korean nationals. The requirement will go into effect Dec. 3 for two weeks, Korea Disease Control and Prevention (KDCA) said in a statement Wednesday.

The decision was made the same day five cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant were reported by the country, in travelers arriving from Nigeria. 

The mandate applies to travelers from all countries, regardless of their vaccination status, KDCA said.

Korean nationals and foreigners on a long-term stay can quarantine from home, while foreigners staying less than 90 days must quarantine at a government-designated facility. Quarantine exemptions will only be granted in a limited set of special circumstances, such as attending a funeral, the statement said. 

South Korea will also ban foreign nationals on short-term stays — less than 90 days — from Nigeria from entering the country starting Friday.

On Saturday, South Korea had banned foreign nationals on short-term stays from eight southern African countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique. Korean citizens and foreigners on long-term stay may still enter the country. 

Starting Saturday, South Korea will also suspend direct flights from Ethiopia for two weeks. The government will arrange non-scheduled flights for Korean nationals to return from African countries, KDCA added.

9:58 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

US Travel Association calls on Biden to revisit Omicron travel ban

From CNN's Matt Egan 

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, speaks during a news conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, speaks during a news conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association, is questioning the logic of President Biden’s travel restrictions imposed on South Africa and seven neighboring countries in the wake of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“We want them to revisit this quickly,” Dow told CNN in a phone interview. “We need to follow the science – and a travel ban is not the most effective way.”

Dow, whose trade group represents all parts of the $1.5 trillion travel industry, said he met multiple times with the White House over the weekend and is very encouraged Biden signaled he’s not anticipating further restrictions.

“Even the WHO came out and said the data and science don’t support this,” he said. “We don’t want to see this go beyond South Africa.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the World Health Organization said “blanket travel banks will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

Dow, whose industry relies on a steady stream of foreign tourists, expressed confidence in the existing health protocols to come into the United States, including requirements that visitors are vaccinated and get tested for Covid-19 in advance.

“That makes people coming in healthier than the Americans are,” he said.

Some background: On Monday, the United States banned all travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries, with the exception of US citizens and legal permanent residents, who must test negative to enter the country.

Top US officials are considering new restrictions, including requiring everyone who enters the country to be tested for Covid-19 the day before their flight and having all travelers – including US citizens and permanent residents – be tested again after returning home, regardless of vaccination status, CNN reported on Tuesday, citing sources familiar with the discussions.

Dow acknowledged the serious health challenge facing the United States, but suggested it shouldn’t overshadow other priorities. Direct travel employment fell by 34% last year amid the pandemic, according to the US Travel Association. 

“We’ve got a health crisis, no doubt about it. But we’ve got a jobs crisis, an economic crisis, a mental health crisis and a diplomatic crisis,” he said.

Dow argued having more foreign tourists would improve America’s standing in the world. “Getting people here, traveling back and forth, is good public diplomacy,” he said.

9:24 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Cuba says it's developing vaccines to combat the Omicron variant

From CNN’s Patrick Oppmann in Havana 

Cuban scientists are working on vaccines to combat the Omicron variant, the island’s state-run media reported on Wednesday. 

"We closely followed the reports on the behavior of the new Omicron variant. We are already designing specific vaccines. If necessary, in a short time we will develop them,” Dr. Eduardo Martínez Díaz, president of the drug maker BioCubaFarma, said in a statement on Twitter.

Cuban pharmaceutical companies have already produced several vaccines scientists say are highly effective against earlier strains of the coronavirus. According to Cuba’s health ministry more than 80% of the island’s population is now fully vaccinated and coronavirus-related infections and deaths have plummeted in recent weeks.