The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Jack Guy, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Maureen Chowdhury, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 7:23 p.m. ET, December 22, 2021
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3:38 a.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Germany's Health Minister does not rule out a hard lockdown

From Chris Stern in Berlin 

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has defended recent federal and state measures to combat the spread of Covid and did not rule out tougher measures. 

"What we decided today has an effect," Lauterbach told public broadcaster ARD. "But we're not ruling out anything. So if the number of cases actually developed in such way that a hard lockdown also had to be discussed, then there would be no red lines. We are not there at this point in time."

On Tuesday afternoon, the federal and state governments imposed strict contact restrictions for the German public, including for those who have been vaccinated and those who have recovered, to fight a fifth wave of the virus fueled by the Omicron variant. 

4:38 a.m. ET, December 22, 2021

AstraZeneca taking "preliminary steps" in producing an Omicron variant vaccine 

From CNN's Livvy Doherty and Hannah Ritchie 

View of a dose of an AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination point in Bogota, on December 21, 2021.
View of a dose of an AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination point in Bogota, on December 21, 2021. (Daniel Munoz/AFP/Getty Images)

Oxford University and AstraZeneca are taking preliminary steps to produce an Omicron variant vaccine in case it is required for the next phase of the pandemic, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company told CNN on Wednesday. 

"Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an Omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed, and will be informed by emerging data," a spokesperson for the company said. 

The Omicron variant is now the dominant strain in a host of countries including the US, Denmark, Portugal and the UK.

Preliminary data has shown it is more effective at evading neutralizing antibodies offered by Covid-19 vaccines than previous variants. 

3:49 a.m. ET, December 22, 2021

Israel begins fourth Covid-19 dose vaccine rollout

From CNN's Andrew Carey in Jerusalem

Israel is to begin rolling out a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine with immediate effect for people ages 60 and over, medical workers and people with suppressed immune systems, the Prime Minister's Office announced Tuesday, following a recommendation from the country's panel of coronavirus experts.

Those eligible for the fourth dose can receive it provided at least four months have passed since the third dose, it said. In Israel, almost all vaccinated citizens have received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

One of the members of the expert panel told Israeli radio Tuesday evening that the decision to recommend a fourth dose had not been an easy one.

"We don't really have data yet on the level of immunity, like we did when we decided on the third dose, but on the other hand, there is really scary data out there in the rest of the world, Professor Galia Rahav said.

"In a situation like this, if you don't act immediately, you miss the train," she added.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed the recommendation and encouraged citizens to get the shot as quickly as they could.

"Wonderful news, do not waste time -- go get vaccinated," he said in a Tuesday statement.

Bennett also applauded Israel's efforts in tackling the virus so far, saying that the country continues to "stand at the forefront of the global effort to deal with the pandemic."

Read the full story here.

4:44 a.m. ET, December 22, 2021

India warns states of "increased detection" of Omicron while thousands attend political events

From CNN's Esha Mitra in New Delhi

A health worker collects samples for Covid-19 testing at Shahdara, New Delhi, India, on December 18, 2021
A health worker collects samples for Covid-19 testing at Shahdara, New Delhi, India, on December 18, 2021 (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

India’s central government warned the country’s states on Wednesday of “initial signs of a surge in cases of Covid-19” and “increased detection” of the Omicron variant across the country.

The letter from the central health ministry asked state governments to impose containment measures in districts with a 10% or higher Covid-19 positivity rate, or with 40% or higher hospital bed occupancy rate.

The letter quoted scientific evidence that suggests that Omicron is three times more transmissible than Delta, therefore it recommended implementing night curfews, regulating large gatherings, curtailing the numbers at marriages and funerals, restricting numbers at offices and public transport in districts that fall within the government’s parameters. 

The advisory added that samples from covid clusters must now be sent to India’s genome sequencing laboratories, while emergency operation centers set up during the second wave should be reopened. 

On the same day that the advisory was issued, more than 200,000 women attended an event on women's empowerment where Narendra Modi spoke, according to the Prime Minister’s office.

With five states heading to the polls in 2022, political parties have been holding rallies with hundreds of thousands in attendance. Although Modi has not held election rallies in Uttar Pradesh, a critical state in the upcoming elections, he has been addressing large gatherings in the state for various policy announcements and inaugurations.

Following India’s second covid wave that peaked during the months of April and May, restrictions on gatherings, travel and entertainment have been lifted by state governments over the recent months. 

While the central government had imposed a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, they have since issued guidelines and advisories to state governments, leaving them to decide on local containment measures depending on their specific covid situation. 

At least 200 cases of Omicron have been detected in India since December 2 and a total of 34,758,481 covid cases have been recorded in the country as of Wednesday, including 478,325 deaths, according to the health ministry.

3:39 a.m. ET, December 22, 2021

WHO's Europe director: "Storm coming" as Omicron becomes dominant strain across region

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned of a "storm coming" as Omicron spreads in a host of countries across Europe. 

Omicron has now become the dominant strain of Covid-19 in countries such as Denmark, Portugal, and the UK where cases are doubling every 1.5 to three days, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Kluge said.

"We can see another storm coming," Kluge said at a news conference in Vienna, Austria. "Within weeks Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, with a threat to push already overwhelmed health systems further to the brink." 

Countries in WHO's Europe region recorded at least 2,749,122 new Covid-19 cases in the past week, according to WHO data released Tuesday. The "sheer volume" of new Covid-19 cases may culminate in more hospitalizations and the disruption of other critical health services, Kluge said.

He also hailed boosters as "the single most important defense against the Omicron" variant. Despite the ability of vaccination to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations, it does "not necessarily interrupt transmission," Kluge said, stressing the need for other complementary measures.

"We need to double the number of people in our region wearing masks indoors," Kluge said as an example. Acknowledging that although it "is important to celebrate Christmas" and New Year's, Kluge said there is a firm need to "celebrate safely" in Europe this year.

On Monday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged people to consider canceling festive events, saying that "an event canceled is better than a life canceled."