December 2 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Sheena McKenzie & Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021
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5:12 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

South Africa’s Covid-19 cases appear to be spiking at "fastest rate since the start of the pandemic"

From CNN's Sheena McKenzie, Becky Anderson, Tim Lister & David McKenzie

A hospital worker ensures people practice social distancing as they wait in line to get vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 1, 2021
A hospital worker ensures people practice social distancing as they wait in line to get vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 1, 2021 (Shiraaz Mohamed/AP)

South Africa’s Covid-19 cases are “increasingly rapidly” at what looks to be “the fastest rate we have seen since the start of the pandemic,” Michelle Groome, head of the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), told CNN Wednesday.

Weeks after Omicron was first detected, it is now the dominant variant in some provinces, according to health authorities. In Gauteng province -- which includes the major city of Johannesburg -- the Omicron variant comprised 74% of sequences, said South Africa's Network for Genomic Surveillance on Wednesday.

The province has seen the sharpest rise in coronavirus infections in the last month, and testing is ongoing to determine the prevalence of Omicron in other districts.

Infections in South Africa appear to be surging, with around 8,600 daily cases on Tuesday, up from roughly 1,300 cases a week earlier, according to latest data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Groome said the rapid increase of cases was "concerning," adding that testing of wastewater had alerted authorities relatively early to infections in the Pretoria district.

"Two weeks ago we were seeing case numbers and positivity rates which were the lowest since the start of the pandemic," said Groome. She added that those numbers "have climbed rapidly to today" where scientists were looking at "positivity rates of over 15%."

For now, it was unclear whether the rise in infections was "due to increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant or due to immune escape," said Groome.

She added that cases had mostly been among younger people, which could be down to their increased social gatherings as schools broke up, as well as lower vaccination rates in that age group.

So far, doctors had observed "mostly mild cases," Groome said, putting it down to a mostly younger demographic presenting.

As cases move into the older population, doctors will have a better idea of "whether we are seeing reciprocal increases in hospitalizations and deaths associated with it, or whether this really is more a mild disease," Groome said.

4:15 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

First Omicron case identified in mainland France

From CNN's Joseph Ataman in Paris

The first case of the Omicron variant detected in mainland France has been identified in the northern Ile-de-France region, French health authorities said Thursday.

A statement from the Ile-de-France regional health authority said the case, a man between ages 50 and 60, tested positive on Nov. 25 following his return from a trip to Nigeria.

The man, who was unvaccinated, was asymptomatic at the time of the test and was placed into isolation with the group he was traveling with, authorities said.

His wife — who is also unvaccinated and traveled with him — also tested positive for Covid-19, but the sequencing of her variant is still ongoing, the statement said.

The first case of the Omicron variant recorded on French territory was detected on the island of Reunion, officials said Tuesday.

3:57 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

It's nearly 10 a.m. in Berlin and 6 p.m. in Tokyo. Here's what you need to know about the Omicron variant

The Omicron coronavirus variant has prompted a fresh wave of travel restrictions and border closures as countries scramble to identify cases of the potentially more transmissible strain.

Here's the latest major developments:

  • Japan overturns flight embargo: Tokyo on Thursday canceled a ban on accepting new reservations for inbound flights. Japan's Transport Ministry had asked airlines to refuse reservations on international flights to the country, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida later said he had instructed the ministry to reconsider out of consideration for Japanese citizens' need to return.
  • Germany crisis talks: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her likely successor are holding coronavirus crisis talks with regional leaders on Thursday. Tougher restrictions are likely to be agreed — many of which are set to target unvaccinated people.
  • First US case: The United States has joined a growing number of countries that have confirmed Omicron cases. The case was identified in California in a person who traveled from South Africa before travel restrictions were in place.
  • US mask mandate: The Biden administration will extend existing requirements for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, buses, trains and boats, as well as in airports and other transport hubs through March.
  • UN chief's appeal: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said widespread travel bans on southern African countries over fears of the Omicron variant were akin to "travel apartheid." The bans were "unacceptable," he added.
  • WHO travel advice: The World Health Organization advised people in certain groups at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 — including the unvaccinated and those over 60 — to postpone travel to areas with community spread, in response to the new variant.
3:16 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Omicron is "the variant we were fearing," French expert says

From CNN's Joseph Ataman in Paris

Omicron is the coronavirus "variant we were fearing," a French health expert said Thursday.

Speaking to CNN affiliate BFMTV, Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France's Scientific Council, said the new variant's 30 new mutations in the spike protein — the part of the virus targeted by vaccines — were a cause for concern.

Omicron “arrived from nowhere,” Delfraissy said, adding that the new strain was not an evolution of the Delta variant, which was responsible for the fifth Covid-19 wave in Europe. 

“The real enemy, it's the fifth wave with the Delta variant,” he said. 

Delfraissy said that while Omicron was spreading quickly, “Christmas is not in danger,” and “the response to Delta and Omicron is the same: booster shots.”

3:05 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

5 takeaways from CNN's coronavirus town hall

Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (CNN)

Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta hosted a CNN town hall on the coronavirus Wednesday night, with guests including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Much of the discussion focused on Omicron, including what we do and don't know about the new variant. Here are five main takeaways:

  1. We don't know much about Omicron yet: The world has a lot to learn about the new variant before any decision can be made on how to address it, Fauci said. The single Omicron case detected in the United States so far “doesn’t really tell you much at all,” he added. “It's only a single person. You really can’t make a broad general statement or an extrapolation for what would go on with unvaccinated people or people who were boosted,” Fauci said. “So there’s a lot more to be learned.”
  2. Fauci says people should get vaccinated: Americans should not lose sight of the dangers of the Delta variant even as Omicron dominates headlines, Fauci said. "We still have 99.9% of the isolates are Delta, and we know what we can do with Delta," he said. "We have, within our capability, to block it by getting the people who are unvaccinated vaccinated." Americans should also take other precautions — including wearing masks — as colder weather settles on much of the country, Fauci added.
  3. It's still safe to travel: Despite the emergence of Omicron, Americans can still travel safely, Fauci said. He added he would not suggest anything different from previous safety recommendations. "We just have a problem that's identifiable now, and just as I said, and I'll say it again, if you have a vaccinated situation, your family's vaccinated, enjoy the holidays, indoor with your family in a family setting," he said.
  4. Moderna president's vaccine hopes: Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, expressed hope the pharmaceutical company's Covid-19 vaccine would deliver the "highest efficacy" against the Omicron variant. "Our hope, at least in Moderna, is that we're going to continue to see the highest efficacy overall and continue to see the boosters push that even higher," he said. However, he also acknowledged it is likely the current vaccines could be less effective against Omicron.
  5. It's still not clear if people will need a yearly booster: It's too early to tell whether people will need to receive a Covid-19 vaccine each year to protect against infection, Fauci said. “The honest answer is we don't know what's going to be required,” he said. “I hope we get a durability of protection from the boost that we won't have to be chasing all the time against the new variant but that just remains to be seen.”
2:53 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Germany's unvaccinated could soon face even tougher Covid-19 restrictions

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt

Acting Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and acting German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz during a press conference after a meeting on the current coronavirus situation on November 18, 2021 in Berlin.
Acting Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and acting German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz during a press conference after a meeting on the current coronavirus situation on November 18, 2021 in Berlin. (Clemens Bilan/Pool/Getty Images)

German citizens could potentially face tougher coronavirus restrictions as the country struggles to contain a fierce fourth wave of the pandemic.

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her likely successor, Olaf Scholz, are holding crisis talks with regional leaders on Thursday to map out a way forward, a Tuesday statement from the Chancellor’s office said.

Tougher restrictions are likely to be agreed — many of which are set to target unvaccinated people. The goal is to bring down infection rates and ease the pressure on rapidly filling intensive care beds.

Among the range of measures being considered are the closures of bars and clubs, and limiting large events. Some hard-hit regions in Germany have already canceled Christmas markets and barred unvaccinated people from public spaces like restaurants, gyms and leisure facilities.

Germany's leaders are also set to discuss mandatory vaccinations. Earlier this week, Scholz signaled his backing for mandatory Covid-19 shots. The introduction of mandatory vaccines would have to be approved by Parliament.

Intensive care warning: On Wednesday, Germany recorded 446 Covid-19 related fatalities — its highest number of daily deaths in nine months. Many hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of intensive care patients and German medics have warned that occupancy of intensive care beds could soon exceed that seen during last winter's peak.

The German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency (Divi) in a statement on Wednesday warned there could be about 6,000 Covid-19 patients in intensive care by Christmas —regardless of any measures implemented by Germany's leaders. 

Germany reported 73,209 new cases within the past 24 hours, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country's disease control center.

More than 102,000 people have died as a result of coronavirus in Germany, the RKI said. The country reported 388 new deaths related to Covid-19 from Wednesday to Thursday.

Just under 70% of Germany's population is fully vaccinated, according to the RKI.

12:23 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Analysis: Biden's path out of the pandemic meets a Republican blockade

Analysis from CNN's Maeve Reston

Republican opposition to public health measures like vaccine and mask mandates has become one of the most difficult challenges facing President Joe Biden as he tries to fulfill his campaign promise to shut down the Covid-19 pandemic.

GOP leaders for months have blamed Biden for failing to stamp out the virus while becoming the party hellbent on protecting the rights of the unvaccinated, even if that means putting the health and safety of all other Americans at risk.

The Gordian knot they have created for Biden was on full display once again Wednesday when several Republican senators threatened to derail a stopgap measure that will avert a government shutdown Friday night unless their colleagues acceded to their demand for a vote on defunding Biden's vaccine requirement for large employers.

With unvaccinated Americans now about three times as likely to lean Republican as Democratic, Biden has found few influential GOP allies to help him push his case for vaccinations in deep red areas where Americans remain most resistant to getting them.

Summing up what has become a central talking point for GOP candidates as they head into the 2022 midterm primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters on Wednesday that his party should "use every tool we have to protect people's rights, and the vaccine mandates are illegal, they're abusive and they're hurting this country."

But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, warned that forcing a shutdown over a health measure intended to save lives would prove disastrous for the Republican Party: "I certainly hope they don't shut out the lights of this government (in) some kind of bold display of stupidity," he said.

Read the full analysis:

12:03 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

China's northern border city Manzhouli reports dozens more Covid-19 cases

From CNN’s Beijing bureau

The Chinese city of Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia recorded 53 new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, according to local health officials. 

Over the past five days, Manzhouli has been mass testing its 300,000 residents as it tries to stop a local Covid outbreak.

The city, which borders Russia, has so far confirmed 151 locally transmitted infections while the neighboring district of Zhalainuo'er has identified a further 32 cases, according to a CNN tally. 

Residents in 55 of the city's neighborhoods have been banned from leaving their homes, while those in the rest of Manzhouli cannot leave their communities, the Center for Epidemic Prevention and Control said.

A fifth round of mass testing started on Thursday, according to the municipal government.

The recent outbreak began Nov. 27 when three asymptomatic cases were identified in Manzhouli.

China is the only country still following a zero-Covid model and, as such, moves quickly to eradicate any local outbreaks.

11:30 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Japan overturns ban on inbound flight bookings

From CNN's Junko Ogura in Tokyo

Japan has canceled a ban on accepting new reservations for inbound international flights, according to the Civil Aviation Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. 

On Wednesday, the Transport Ministry had asked airlines to refuse reservations on international flights to Japan over concerns of the Omicron coronavirus variant. It would have applied to all travelers — including Japanese citizens — from December 1 through December 31.

But Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida later said he had instructed the ministry to reconsider the decision out of consideration for Japanese citizens’ need to return.

Kishida added the initial announcement had caused confusion while talking to reporters from his office on Thursday. 

Airlines can now take new reservations as long as the number of passengers entering Japan remains below 3,500 a day — a limit on arrivals that was lowered from 5,000 last month, a transport ministry official said, according to Reuters.