The latest on the Omicron coronavirus variant

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton and Tara John, CNN

Updated 5:55 p.m. ET, December 3, 2021
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3:41 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

China says it will fast-track entry for US business leaders as Beijing sticks to zero-Covid strategy

From CNN’s Beijing bureau

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang delivers a keynote speech at the welcome event by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations Board of Directors in Washington D.C. August 31st, 2021. 
Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang delivers a keynote speech at the welcome event by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations Board of Directors in Washington D.C. August 31st, 2021.  (Liu Jie/Xinhua/Getty Images)

China has pledged to reduce waiting times for businessmen seeking approval to travel to the country from the United States, its ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, said Thursday.

The Asian nation will fast-track the process to a maximum wait time of 10 days, while making Covid-19 testing more convenient and allowing executives to work during quarantine, Qin said at an annual US-China Business Council gala in Washington, DC.

China is one of the few countries still pursuing a strict zero-Covid strategy and has some of the toughest travel restrictions — and longest quarantine measures — in the world.

Qin said China is willing to address concerns US companies may have over market access and the general business environment in the world's second-largest economy. 

He also repeated Beijing's appeal to Washington to abolish additional tariffs imposed on Chinese goods, calling on the US to abandon its "Cold War mentality."

“We should regain the confidence in China-US relations,” Qin said. “China-US economic and trade relations are mutually beneficial in nature and should not be politicized.”

Last month, two dozen US business groups called on the Biden administration to work toward removing tariffs on China to help ease historic inflation. In a letter to Biden officials, the groups warned tariffs on China and retaliatory levies are hurting US companies and families by raising costs.

2:01 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Cambodia bans travel from 10 African countries due to Omicron variant

From CNN's Lizzy Yee

Cambodia has restricted all arrivals from 10 southern African countries amid concerns over the Omicron coronavirus variant, according to national news agency Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP).

From Thursday, travelers who have visited Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Angola and Zambia in the past 21 days will be denied entry into the country, AKP reported.

South African scientists discovered the Omicron variant last week. It has since been identified in a growing number of countries including the United States.

Cambodia is the latest country to ban travel from several southern African nations over the new variant. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday described widespread travel bans as “unacceptable,” likening the restrictions to apartheid.

1:46 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Malaysia reports its first Omicron case

From CNN's Wayne Chang

Malaysia has detected its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, health minister Khairy Jamaluddin said Friday. 

The case was identified on Thursday in a foreign student who arrived in Malaysia from South Africa on Nov. 19, before the African nation reported the emergence of Omicron to the World Health Organization, Khairy wrote on Twitter.  

The student, who is studying at a private university in Perak state on Malaysia's west coast, is fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, Dimishtra Sittampalam, an adviser to the health minister, wrote on Twitter. 

Dr. Mahesh Appannan, a senior health ministry official, said while it is possible that Omicron is “already [in the country], the data surrounding this particular case suggests local transmission likely did not happen.”
1:14 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

South Korea tightens some restrictions as Covid-19 cases surge

From CNN's Gawon Bae in Seoul, South Korea

A commuter walks past information boards displayed to remind the public on how to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Seoul on December 1, 2021.
A commuter walks past information boards displayed to remind the public on how to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Seoul on December 1, 2021. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

South Korea will toughen some of its virus control measures in response to a surge in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said at a briefing Friday.

The decision comes after the country previously eased restrictions on Nov. 1 with the goal to "recover to normal life."

The country has reported six confirmed Omicron cases, according to Korea's Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

What are the new restrictions? For four weeks starting Dec. 6, gatherings will be limited to six people in the greater Seoul area and eight people for the rest of the country, regardless of their vaccination status, Kwon said.

More venues, including restaurants and cafes, will require people to be fully vaccinated or present a negative Covid-19 test result to enter. Previously only gyms, clubs and bars required this mandate.

However, up to one unvaccinated person without a negative Covid-19 test result will be allowed to enter these facilities by themselves, or as part of a group where everyone else meets the requirements.

Starting February, children aged 12-18 will also have to be fully vaccinated or show a negative test to enter these facilities.

Spike in cases: South Korea identified 4,944 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday, bringing its total to 462,555, according to KDCA.

The country currently has a record 736 patients hospitalized in critical condition, while the death toll stands at 3,739.

As of Friday, 83% of the population have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while just over 80% have been fully vaccinated, KDCA said.

12:41 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Omicron will "eventually come to most countries" in Western Pacific, WHO says

From CNN's Eric Cheung

The Omicron variant will "eventually come to most countries" in the Western Pacific region, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said Friday as he urged governments to make preparations.

Regional Emergency Director for WHO's Western Pacific region Dr. Babatunde Olowokure said he believed the number of countries with the new variant circulating is higher than what is currently reported.

A number of countries and territories in the region, including Japan, South Korea and Australia have reported cases of the Omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa.

Olowokure added that countries can learn from their experiences in responding to the Delta variant, including boosting vaccine coverage for priority groups — such as health care workers, the elderly and vulnerable populations.

Other measures included mask-wearing, social distancing, strengthening active surveillance, taking a risk-based approach to border control, and prioritizing ICU beds for those who require such treatment, Olowokure said.

12:01 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

It's just past midnight in Washington, DC and 6 a.m in Berlin. Here's the latest on 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 what you need to know:

  • Biden's Covid plan: The US President stopped short of imposing shutdowns on schools or businesses, ruling them out for now as he announced a new strategy aimed at fighting a potential winter surge of Covid-19. Biden's speech came as Omicron variant cases were identified in at least five US states by late Thursday. 
  • New US travel rules: From 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday, all inbound travelers must take a Covid-19 test within one day of departure to the US. Currently, travelers are required to test within three days of their departure. Foreign travelers arriving in the US must also be fully vaccinated. 
  • Germany locks down unvaccinated: Germany on Thursday announced a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated, as its leaders backed plans for mandatory inoculations in the coming months. The move comes as the country battles a surge in cases that has pushed Europe back to the epicenter of the pandemic, heightening fears over the newly discovered Omicron variant.
  • South Africa infections spike: 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," the head of the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases said. Weeks after Omicron was first detected in the country, it is now the dominant variant in some provinces, according to health authorities.
11:55 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Just about any Covid-19 vaccine works as a booster, study finds

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

Dr. Manjul Shukla transfers Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at a mobile vaccination clinic in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Dr. Manjul Shukla transfers Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at a mobile vaccination clinic in Worcester, Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP)

Any one of six different Covid-19 vaccines produce a strong immune system response and should work safely and well as boosters for people who have received initial vaccinations with either the Pfizer/BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccines, British researchers reported Thursday.

They said their findings are especially important as studies show protection from two doses of these vaccines is waning. The new Omicron variant may evade some of the effects of vaccines, researchers reported in the Lancet medical journal..

And the longer the interval between the initial vaccine and the booster dose, the stronger the immune response, according to the research.

“It’s really encouraging that a wide range of vaccines, using different technologies, show benefits as a third dose to either AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech. That gives confidence and flexibility in developing booster programs here in the UK and globally, with other factors like supply chain and logistics also in play,” said Saul Faust of the University Hospital Southampton, who led the study team. 

Study methods: The researchers randomly gave one of seven different boosters to more than 2,800 people, including vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Moderna, Germany’s Curevac and France’s Valneva.

After four weeks, almost everyone had similar immune responses. AstraZeneca’s vaccine did not provide a strong boost if given to people initially vaccinated with the same vaccine, the researchers found. Otherwise, any of the vaccines boosted either vaccine well. The team will follow volunteers for at least a year.

What about Omicron? Faust said he hoped the boosters would work well against the Omicron variant, but noted that had not been tested. The researchers did not test people against real-life infection, but rather tested their blood for antibody responses — which studies have shown are good indicators of protection against infection.

Faust said the findings come at an important time. “With a new variant, we do need to try and get boosters into people,” he told reporters. “We’re right at the beginning of a very, very busy winter period.
“This is about just making sure we’ve got people as protected as possible.”
11:05 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

China reports 80 local symptomatic Covid-19 cases

From CNN's Beijing bureau

China recorded 80 local symptomatic Covid-19 cases on Thursday, its National Health Commission (NHC) said in a statement. It also identified 10 local asymptomatic cases, which it records separately, the NHC said.

Among the symptomatic cases, 56 were found in the city of Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia, which is currently experiencing an outbreak that began Nov. 27. The city, which borders Russia, has recorded 207 symptomatic cases since the start of the outbreak, according to a CNN tally.

Another 10 symptomatic cases were reported in Harbin city in northeastern Heilongjiang province, the NHC said. It added that 10 more symptomatic cases were detected in Longchuan city in southwestern Yunnan province.

The 10 asymptomatic cases were also reported in Yunnan province.

Mass testing and restrictions: Manzhouli has launched six citywide mass testing drives for its 300,000 residents. Meanwhile, all residents in Harbin were prohibited from leaving the city except for essential travel. Entertainment facilities shut down Thursday, and the city launched mass testing drives for its 10 million residents, the municipal government announced. 

All schools in Longchuan were closed and residents are only allowed to leave the city for essential travel, the local government said at a news conference Friday.

China's capital, Beijing, recorded one case and Shanghai found two cases on Thursday.

7:57 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Stricter testing requirements for travelers coming to the US will take effect Monday

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

The Biden administration's new, stricter Covid-19 testing requirements for all travelers coming to the United States will take effect on Monday, an administration official told CNN.

The new rules will require each traveler flying into the US from another country to test negative one day before their departure, changing rules that had allowed inbound travelers to test up to three days before entering the country. The new rule from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will take effect at 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday.

The shift in policy — which President Joe Biden announced Thursday alongside a slate of new steps to combat Covid-19 this winter — underscores the potential threat posed by the newly discovered Omicron variant. Scientists are still working to determine how transmissible the variant is, how sick it makes people and how well the current vaccines work against it.

"Experts say that Covid-19 cases will continue to rise in the weeks ahead and this winter," the President said. "So we need to be ready."

Any foreign national who travels to the US must be fully vaccinated, though there remains no vaccination requirement for American citizens traveling via air, either globally or domestically. The White House said earlier in the day that a vaccine requirement for domestic travel remained on the table as an option for the future.

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