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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5:09 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

South Africa sees steep rise in infections since Omicron first detected, says health minister

From CNN's Ghazi Balkiz in Johannesburg 

There has been a "steep rise in infections" in South Africa since the Omicron variant was

A health worker sanitizes a resident's hands at a Testaro Covid-19 mobile testing site outside Richmond Corner shopping center in the Milnerton district of Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. 
A health worker sanitizes a resident's hands at a Testaro Covid-19 mobile testing site outside Richmond Corner shopping center in the Milnerton district of Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021.  (Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

first detected in the country, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said Friday during a virtual briefing, adding there were indications the variant was highly transmissible.

There has been a steep rise in infections in the past seven days. We have moved from a total of around 2,565 new cases on Thursday last week, when this variant was announced, to the highs of 11,555 yesterday,” Phaahla said. 

New cases had increased by more than 300% in the last seven days, he explained, while the case positivity rate had increased from 1-2% two weeks ago to 22%.

There were also indications that the variant "is indeed highly transmissible, including infections of people who have been vaccinated," Phaahla said. "But, of course, infections are causing mostly mild illness, especially for those who are vaccinated."

Hospital admissions are "mainly dominated by those who are not vaccinated and young people below the age of 40, most of whom are not vaccinated,” he said.

The Omicron variant has been spreading to older age groups as well, Dr. Michelle Groome, head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said at the same briefing. 

"While many of these cluster infections started in our younger people, we are seeing a spread into the older age groups, as this wave progresses," she said. 

"Early evidence shows that this variant is more transmissible and that there's a degree of immune escape," she added.

Over the past seven days, there was a new spike in the whole of Gauteng province, with numbers starting to rise in the Western Cape, Phaahla said.

He stressed that the best protection against serious illness from Covid-19 is vaccination, while calling out the "hypocrisy ... that some countries have slapped us with travel bans, which included also many of our neighbors in the SADC region.”

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

Zimbabwe detects Omicron variant

From CNN's Radina Gigova in Atlanta and Columbus Mavhunga in Harare, Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's Vice President Constantino Chiwenga officially launched the country's vaccination program on February 18, 2021.
Zimbabwe's Vice President Constantino Chiwenga officially launched the country's vaccination program on February 18, 2021. (Knowledge Chingwecha/Majority World/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Zimbabwe is the latest country in southern Africa to detect the Omicron variant within its borders, Vice President and Minister of Health and Child Care Constantino Chiwenga said Thursday.

“We have done genomic sequencing and we now have the virus in the country. Let’s all follow Covid-19 preventative measures and get vaccinated,” Chiwenga said.

Chiwenga did not say how many Omicron cases have been detected in Zimbabwe.

The country has reported a total of 136,379 Covid-19 cases and 4,707 related deaths, according to data from its Health Ministry.

On Tuesday, Zimbabwe's government introduced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers and a national curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time. 

At least 34 countries and territories have now reported Omicron cases, according to CNN's tally.

3:13 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021

Omicron variant fears spark travel restrictions across the world

From CNN's Lilit Marcus and Barry Neild

Just as many countries were beginning to loosen their border restrictions, reports of a newly detected coronavirus variant in South Africa sent many of those doors slamming shut again.

The new B.1.1.529 variant was named Omicron by the World Health Organization on November 26.

Different countries and territories have taken different approaches toward preventing the spread of this new variant.

For the most up-to-date information country-by-country, read more:

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.