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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9:14 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Omicron appears to be "a very transmissible variant," WHO chief scientist says

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan looks on during an interview with AFP in Geneva on May 8th, 2021.
World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan looks on during an interview with AFP in Geneva on May 8th, 2021. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said on Friday that although it’s early, the Omicron variant appears to be very transmissible. 

“From the early reports that we have, starting with the Gauteng province where it was first observed, and then across the different provinces of South Africa, we do think it is quite infectious, quite transmissible, because South Africa has been reporting a very rapid increase in the number of cases. In fact, they’ve been doubling every day, and that suggests that this virus is highly transmissible,” Swaminathan said at the Reuters NEXT Global Conference.

“How much more transmissible than Delta, it’s hard to say at this point of time, but it is a very transmissible variant, that what it appears,” she said.  

Swaminathan also pointed out that “huge thanks” are owed to South Africa’s scientific and medical community, who have been updating and working nonstop to provide as much information as possible.

8:38 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Biden administration shipping 9 million vaccine doses to Africa and another 2 million worldwide

From CNN's Arlette Saenz

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks while visiting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., on Thursday, December 2nd, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks while visiting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., on Thursday, December 2nd, 2021. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The Biden administration is shipping 11 million vaccines doses abroad today with 9 million going to Africa and another 2 million to other countries around the world, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients will announce in today’s Covid-19 response team briefing, according to remarks obtained by CNN.

It follows President Biden’s announcement Thursday that the administration will send more than 200 million doses abroad in 100 days, accelerating delivery to high-risk countries. Today’s shipment brings the total number of doses sent to Africa to 100 million.

“The President has been clear from the start: If we want to protect the American people and our economy, we must defeat the virus everywhere. That means we must ensure the rest of the world gets vaccinated,” Zients will say. “And under President Biden's leadership, the United States is leading the way.”

The Biden administration also will push international partners to take a stronger role in aiding in global vaccine efforts.

“From supporting communications campaigns to build vaccine confidence, to funding for vaccinators on the front line — we are leading the global vaccination effort. And we are calling on the rest of the world to step up and join us,” Zients will say. 

Today’s move comes as the Biden administration has faced criticism over recent travel restrictions imposed on eight African countries amid concerns over the Omicron variant. Several of the countries under the travel ban have not had a confirmed Omicron case yet. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has likened the widespread travel bans to “travel apartheid.”

Zients also will highlight the Biden administration’s progress in global vaccination efforts so far – noting a commitment of 1.2 billion doses worldwide and 280 million doses already donated and shipped to 110 countries, a figure the administration says exceeds the number of doses donated and shipped by all other countries combined.

The 11 million doses shipped today also exceed the donations of all but five other countries throughout the pandemic, according to the administration.

8:26 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

US pushing to scale up testing in homes and across big airports, CDC director says

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Dr Rochelle Walensky speaks to ABC’s Good Morning America Friday on 3rd December 2021
Dr Rochelle Walensky speaks to ABC’s Good Morning America Friday on 3rd December 2021 (ABC)

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on ABC’s Good Morning America Friday that the US is pushing to scale up testing for the coronavirus. 

“We’re doing active surveillance in lots of different ways,” she said, when asked how she envisioned President Biden’s focus on home testing would change the fight against Covid-19. “We’re doing rapid at-home tests so people can take control of their own symptoms, to do that at home test to self-identify and self-quarantine, to potentially come forward for a PCR test if their rapid test is positive, and then we can potentially do genomic sequencing of your PCR test.” 

Testing is also being scaled up in airports, she said, with tests being ramped up in major international airports including Atlanta, Newark, San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles. 

She also added that there are 10,000 sites that offer free PCR tests across the country. 

“We’re doing a lot to scale up testing,” she said. “And we’re really asking people to come forward when they have symptoms to get a test.” 

8:24 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

US has the tools to fight new variants, but the majority of cases are still driven by Delta, Walensky says 

From CNN Health’s Naomi Thomas

Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 20th, 2021. 
Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 20th, 2021.  (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The United States can’t lose sight of the fact that Delta is still the dominant variant in the country — but for all variants, it’s better to be vaccinated than unvaccinated, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday.

“Let’s just back up for one second and comment on the fact that today we have 90,000 new cases of Covid-19 every day, and that about 99.9% of them continue to be Delta,” Walensky said when asked if it could be concluded yet that Omicron may be less severe than Delta.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of what we have here in the United States is Delta. And we know how to tackle Delta, with vaccines, with boosters, with masking and all of our prevention measures that we have been using all along.” 

Walensky said that the country has better tools now and is in a much better place to tackle new variants.

As you note, we’ve seen Omicron in about five states now, and we’re continuing to do investigations with other states as probable cases emerge,” she said. “But what we can say, based on what these cases are showing, some have mild disease, some may have more severe disease, many of them are vaccinated, and what we’re seeing now is that many of the people with mild disease were the vaccinated people.

“So, we still have a lot of science to do to understand how these vaccines are working against Omicron, except to say that we know for every variant that we’ve had, it’s better to be vaccinated than unvaccinated.”

6:55 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Company Christmas party linked to 17 suspected Omicron cases in Norway

From Amy Cassidy in Glasgow

Seventeen Omicron cases are suspected among an outbreak of Covid-19 following a company Christmas party in Oslo, Norway, a health official told CNN Friday.

Around 125 people attended the party, over 60 of whom have tested positive for Covid-19, with one confirmed Omicron case so far, the head of communications at the Oslo health department, Caroline Bremer, told CNN.

“We are expecting more cases and we are just doing the work that we can to confirm and trace,” she said.

The event was attended by people from “several surrounding municipalities” as well as Oslo, and health officials are coordinating contact tracing, according to a statement issued by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health on Thursday. 

8:10 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

CDC tightens travel requirements: negative Covid-19 test within one day of arrival for international travelers

From CNN Health’s Maggie Fox

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tightened travel requirements on Thursday, posting an amended order changing the Covid-19 testing requirement to one day before air travel into the US.

As the virus that causes Covid-19 spreads, it has new opportunities to change (mutate) and become more difficult to control,” the CDC says in the new order. “While it is known and expected that viruses change through mutation leading to the emergence of new variants, the emergent Omicron variant is particularly concerning and of critical significance for this Amended Order.”

Tests approved or authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration are acceptable for use, the order says. People who can show they have recovered from infection within the past 90 days are exempt.

A COVID-19 test center operates inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on December 01, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. The Biden administration is planning to announce tighter restrictions for travelers flying into the United States, including requiring a negative test for COVID-19 one day ahead of travel, in response to the new Omicron variant. 
A COVID-19 test center operates inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on December 01, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. The Biden administration is planning to announce tighter restrictions for travelers flying into the United States, including requiring a negative test for COVID-19 one day ahead of travel, in response to the new Omicron variant.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“At this time, it is unknown what level of protection current vaccines will provide against this newly emergent mutated variant. To best protect the health of the United States, unless and until CDC can confirm that current approved and authorized vaccines provide adequate protection against the Omicron variant, all passengers -- including those who are fully vaccinated, but excluding passengers who present a valid Documentation of Recovery -- must obtain a viral test on a specimen collected no more than 1 calendar day before their flight’s departure to meet the requirements of this Amended Order,” it reads.

“The one-day time window, a reduction from the previous 3-day window for fully vaccinated passengers, will provide less opportunity to develop infection with the Omicron variant prior to arrival into the United States.”

The order takes effect December 6.

6:42 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Facebook sold ads comparing vaccine to Holocaust

From CNN's Donie O'Sullivan

Facebook has sold ads promoting anti-vaccine messages, comparing the US government's response to Covid-19 to Nazi Germany, casting doubt on the result of the 2020 election, and even pushing political violence.

The ads have been run by merchandise companies that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook over the last few years.

On Monday, Fox News personality Lara Logan caused outrage by comparing Dr. Anthony Fauci to a notorious Nazi doctor known as the "Angel of Death" -- around the same time ads were running on Facebook promoting a sweater emblazed with the words, "I'm originally from America but I currently reside in 1941 Germany."

Another ad compared the rollout of vaccines to the Holocaust -- falsely and ludicrously implying they are part of an attempt to slaughter people on a mass scale.

The ad was run by a Facebook page named "Ride the Red Wave." Earlier this year the page ran ads for a t-shirt with the words, "Make hanging traitors great again."

Facebook has made more than $280,000 from ads run by "Ride the Red Wave" since May, according to data reviewed by CNN. The page has fewer than 10,000 followers, but by paying Facebook the people running the page can potentially reach millions of Americans.

Read the full story here:

6:45 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Switzerland places 2,000 people in quarantine after two Omicron cases emerge

From Rob Iddiols and Allegra Goodwin in London

Swiss health authorities have placed 2,000 people under quarantine for ten days after two cases of the Omicron variant were detected at the International School of Geneva. 

A total of 2,000 students and campus staff have been instructed to quarantine, which includes 1,600 children.  

“All those involved must also take a PCR test,” Geneva health authorities said in a statement on Thursday. “Parents and siblings of the students concerned must also take a screening test in order to detect the possible presence of the Omicron variant as soon as possible. This is the first measure of this magnitude.” 

The Genevan health department said the two cases of Omicron are linked to a family with a member that had returned from a trip to South Africa.  

Switzerland has identified a handful of cases of the new variant spread across five cantons and imposed travel bans from southern Africa and quarantine requirements on arrivals from 23 countries including Japan, Britain, and Canada. 

“Only a few rare, imported cases have been identified in Switzerland so far,” the health department statement continued. They, therefore, decided on “strong measures” as a precaution. 

“It is essential to slow down the introduction of the variant in our territory. When identified, it is also essential to minimize transmission in Switzerland,” they said. 

Geneva is home to the World Health Organization (WHO), which last week classified Omicron as a variant of concern.

5:49 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Germany's ICUs to hit "new peak" around Christmas, says health minister

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

Jens Spahn (CDU), Executive Federal Minister for Health, gives a press conference on the development in the Corona pandemic at the Federal Press Conference on 3rd December 2021 in Berlin, Germany.
Jens Spahn (CDU), Executive Federal Minister for Health, gives a press conference on the development in the Corona pandemic at the Federal Press Conference on 3rd December 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Kay Nietfeld/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

Intensive care units (ICUs) in Germany will “reach a new peak around Christmas,” outgoing Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a press conference in Berlin on Friday as the country grapples with a spiraling wave of infections linked to unvaccinated people.

There are currently 4,800 people with Covid-19 in intensive care, Spahn said, adding that more severely ill patients are expected to be treated at ICUs, over the next few weeks.  

“If all adults in Germany were vaccinated, we would not be in this situation,” Spahn said, adding that there’s an “enormous burden on doctors and nursing staff” and that that pictures of Covid-19 patients being transferred from hotspot areas by the German air force were “very worrying.”

Spahn also said Germany has enough vaccine to reach its goal of administering 30 million booster shots by Christmas. Around 10 million of the 55 million vaccinated adults in Germany have received a booster shot, he said.

“We don't have a day to lose,” the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Lothar Wieler, said alongside Spahn, warning that there will be a rise in coronavirus-related deaths in the next few weeks. “We must bring down the caseload of daily new infections as well as the incidence rate to break Germany's fourth wave.” 

Wieler also explained that some areas were struggling to report real-time Covid-19 data because they were overwhelmed by the high number of cases. Testing centers and federal health authorities in hotspot areas were unable to submit data on time, potentially affecting Germany’s overall daily Covid-19 numbers, Wieler said.