December 23 Omicron variant and coronavirus news

By Helen Regan, Amy Woodyatt and Adam Renton, CNN

Updated 0615 GMT (1415 HKT) December 24, 2021
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4:28 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Fourth Covid-19 shot needed, according to German Health Minister

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Federal Minister of Health, speaks during a press conference on the current Corona situation on 22 December, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.
Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Federal Minister of Health, speaks during a press conference on the current Corona situation on 22 December, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance/Getty Images)

Germany's health minister Karl Lauterbach said Germans will need a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to maintain protection from the Omicron variant.

"We will need a fourth vaccination," Lauterbach told public broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday night, adding that "We know this already -- we need a specific variant vaccination against Omicron."

The protection of the booster vaccination administered so far "is not too durable --- and we are prepared for that," Lauterbach went on to say.

Germany has ordered vaccine doses from Pfizer/BioNTech specifically targeting Omicron "80 million doses in total, which we expect in April or May", Lauterbach said.

Omicron could soon be dominant: On Wednesday, the head of Germany's public health institute, the Robert Koch Insitute (RKI), said that the Omicron variant could be dominant in the country in two to three weeks.

Vaccination drive in full force: Lauterbach said that vaccination centers will be kept open over the Christmas holidays to keep Germany's booster campaign up to speed and administer 30 million booster vaccinations by the end of the year.

In addition, Germany aims to get another 30 million vaccine shots administered by the end of January. Lauterbach said this strategy could ''dramatically'' slow the spread of the virus.

In Germany, 70.5% of the population is fully vaccinated and 33.8% have received a booster shot, data from the RKI showed Thursday.

Germany's new chancellor Olaf Scholz wants to achieve a first-time vaccination rate of 80% in Germany by January 7, Scholz' spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit announced Wednesday.

3:56 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Beijing Winter Olympic officials "regret" NHL player pull-out

From CNN's Beijing Bureau

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics officials expressed “regret” Thursday that no National Hockey League (NHL) players will attend the Games in February.

The NHL said Wednesday it will opt out because of the "regular-season schedule having been materially disrupted as a result of increasing COVID cases and a rising number of postponed games."

Speaking at a State Council news conference Thursday, Huang Chun, deputy director of epidemic prevention and control office of the Beijing Winter Olympic Organizing Committee, said organizers regretted the NHL decision.

Covid-19 prevention and control measures for the Games were "reassuring" and will "certainly reduce the risk of the spread of the infections" and "protect the health and safety of athletes and other personnel," Huang added.

Read more:

4:29 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

China admits Beijing Winter Olympics could bring Covid-19 cases 

From CNN's Beijing Bureau

Deputy Head of virus prevention and control department of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games Organising Committee Huang Chun speaks during a press conference at the State Council Information Office (SCIO) building in Beijing on December 23, 2021.
Deputy Head of virus prevention and control department of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games Organising Committee Huang Chun speaks during a press conference at the State Council Information Office (SCIO) building in Beijing on December 23, 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

China has acknowledged the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics could bring “Covid-19 cases or small clusters of infections,” an official said during a State Council news conference on Thursday.

“A large number of overseas personnel will gather, causing a very high risk of transmission,” the official said.

Despite the risk, China said it is fully prepared for the possible Covid-19 infections inside the Olympic bubble.

Deputy director of epidemic prevention and control office of the Beijing Winter Olympic Organizing Committee, Huang Chun, said any infected staff and athletes will not be able to compete or work, and will be sent to a designated hospital or isolation facility depending on whether the patient has symptoms or not.

Symptomatic patients would be discharged after their body temperature returns to normal, respiratory symptoms disappear and present two consecutive Covid-19 tests within 24 hours. They will then be able to choose whether to participate in the next stage of the competition or return to work, Huang said.

As for asymptomatic patients, Huang said they will be tested every 24 hours in isolation and will be released if they present negative results twice within 24 hours, including one within six hours ahead of the competition.

Huang said the committee and Chinese people were “very concerned” about the possible impact of potential Covid-19 cases inside the Olympic bubble on China’s wider society. 

“Our line of defense will prevent infections from spreading to the city, and we should hold this line especially regarding the highly contagious Omicron,” Huang said.
3:20 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

This Chinese city found a Covid cluster. All 13 million residents are now under lockdown

From CNN's Jessie Yeung in Hong Kong

On Tuesday, the central Chinese city of Xi'an recorded 52 new Covid-19 cases. By Wednesday, authorities had imposed strict lockdown measures on its estimated 13 million residents.

The sweeping restrictions, which prevent people from leaving their homes, come as the country braces for the Lunar New Year travel rush, followed swiftly by the 2022 Winter Olympics, due to begin in the capital Beijing on February 4.

Xi'an, an ancient city known internationally as the home of the 2,000-year-old Terracotta warriors sculptures, detected its first case connected to the latest outbreak at a quarantine hotel on December 9. The virus is believed to have then spread into the community via an infected hotel worker.

Officials believe the cluster is linked to an inbound flight from Pakistan on December 4, where at least six passengers were found to have the Delta variant. So far, there have been no reported cases of the Omicron variant in Xi'an.

Authorities moved swiftly, suspending schools and conducting mass testing for the entire city. Cases have continued to climb, however. Since December 9, the city has recorded a total of 206 cases. On Wednesday, authorities recorded 63 new locally transmitted cases, Xi'an's highest daily figure this month.

Lockdown rules: By noon on Wednesday, more than 30,000 people who were believed to have come into contact with a confirmed case were placed in quarantine, according to state-run newspaper China Daily. That same day, the city imposed a strict lockdown until further notice for all residents.

Xi'an is now designated a "controlled area," China's second-highest category of lockdown -- meaning residents are banned from leaving their homes except for urgent cases like medical emergencies. Each household is only allowed to send one designated person out of the house to buy groceries every two days.

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4:23 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Japan records first locally transmitted Omicron cases

From CNN’s Junko Ogura in Tokyo

Japan recorded its first locally transmitted cases of the Omicron variant on Wednesday, according to officials in Osaka prefecture.

Of the four people who tested positive for Omicron in Osaka, three did not have any travel history or any close contact with people who had traveled abroad, authorities said.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said at a news conference, “it is seen to be the first community spread in the country.”

The three people with no travel history are members of the same family — a man and a women in their 30s, and a girl under age 10. They developed mild symptoms on Saturday and Sunday and have been hospitalized.

1:20 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

South Korea reports record high critically ill Covid-19 patients for second straight day

From CNN’s Gawon Bae in Seoul, South Korea

South Korea reported a record number of critically ill Covid-19 patients for the second day in a row, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

Some 1,083 patients are in intensive care units as of Wednesday, the KDCA said.

The country also reported its highest single-day rise in coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic with 109 fatalities from Wednesday, according to the KDCA.

Here's a quick rundown of South Korea's Covid outbreak:  

  • ICU bed occupancy is at 79.2%
  • That leaves 278 beds available
  • There were 6,919 new Covid-19 cases reported from Wednesday
  • Among the new cases, 6,856 cases were locally transmitted, with the capital Seoul reporting 2,695 infections
  • As of 12 a.m. local time Thursday, 85.3% of the population have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine
  • 82.2% of the population have received a second dose
  • And 26.7% have received a booster shot

4:19 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Australia's New South Wales reports record Covid-19 cases for third consecutive day

From CNN’s Sophie Jeong

A health worker is tested at the Histopath pre-departure COVID testing clinic at Sydney International airport on December 23, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Demand at COVID-19 testing centres across Sydney has increased in the lead up to Christmas as NSW coronavirus case numbers rise. People travelling to Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia are required to show a negative PCR test to enter those states while Western Australia's borders are closed to NSW travellers.
A health worker is tested at the Histopath pre-departure COVID testing clinic at Sydney International airport on December 23, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Demand at COVID-19 testing centres across Sydney has increased in the lead up to Christmas as NSW coronavirus case numbers rise. People travelling to Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia are required to show a negative PCR test to enter those states while Western Australia's borders are closed to NSW travellers. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Australia’s state of New South Wales (NSW) reported record new Covid-19 cases for the third straight day on Thursday, with 5,715 infections.

The daily total is almost 2,000 cases higher than the previous day. And it was only on Tuesday that NSW reported more than 3,000 daily cases for the first time during the pandemic.

Covid cases are rising rapidly in Australia, with the Omicron variant posing a new threat just as states and cities were beginning to loosen restrictions.

One death nationwide was reported from Wednesday: a man in his 40s who was not vaccinated and had underlying health conditions, NSW Health said in a release.

NSW — Australia's most populous state — currently has 347 Covid-19 patients in hospital with 45 in intensive care, 13 of whom require ventilation.

The state has recorded 112,307 total Covid-19 cases, NSW Health said.

Victoria cases rise: The neighboring southern state of Victoria reported 2,005 new cases on Thursday — an increase of more than 500 infections from the previous day, according to a media release from the Health Department.

There are 398 Covid-19 patients in hospital in Victoria, with 72 in intensive care, and 39 of those on a ventilator.

1:02 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

The FDA authorized the first pill to treat Covid-19. Here are key things to know

From CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht and Amanda Sealy

The US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized Pfizer's antiviral pill, Paxlovid, to treat Covid-19.

This is the first antiviral Covid-19 pill authorized for ill people to take at home, before they get sick enough to be hospitalized.

High-risk individuals age 12 and older who weigh at least 88 pounds and have a positive SARS-CoV-2 test are eligible for this treatment and will need to have it prescribed by a doctor.

The pill "should be initiated as soon as possible after diagnosis of Covid-19 and within five days of symptom onset," according to an FDA statement.

Paxlovid combines a new antiviral drug named nirmatrelvir and an older one called ritonavir and is administered as three pills given twice a day for five days.

Last week, Pfizer released updated results that showed the treatment cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% if given to high-risk adults within a few days of their first symptoms. If given within the first five days of symptoms, the efficacy was similar: 88%.

"This breakthrough therapy, which has been shown to significantly reduce hospitalizations and deaths and can be taken at home, will change the way we treat COVID-19, and hopefully help reduce some of the significant pressures facing our healthcare and hospital systems," Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement.

In November, the Biden administration said it would purchase 10 million treatment courses for $5.3 billion. President Joe Biden said he was encouraged by the "promising data" from Pfizer and added the drug would "mark a significant step forward in our path out of the pandemic."

The FDA emphasized in a statement that Paxlovid is not for pre- or post-exposure prevention of Covid-19 and "is not a substitute for vaccination in individuals for whom COVID-19 vaccination and a booster dose are recommended."

8:18 a.m. ET, December 23, 2021

Why it's so hard to find a Covid-19 test right now in the US

From CNN's Aya Elamroussi

People wait in long lines in Manhattan to get tested for COVID-19 on December 22, 2021 in New York City. CityMD, which is one of the most popular testing businesses, temporarily closed 13 locations in the city due to staffing issues amid a surge in demand. New York City has once again seen COVID-19 case numbers rise as the new omicron variant has become the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for 73 percent of new cases.
People wait in long lines in Manhattan to get tested for COVID-19 on December 22, 2021 in New York City. CityMD, which is one of the most popular testing businesses, temporarily closed 13 locations in the city due to staffing issues amid a surge in demand. New York City has once again seen COVID-19 case numbers rise as the new omicron variant has become the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for 73 percent of new cases. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With coronavirus cases surging once again, frustrated Americans are struggling to get tested days before Christmas as long lines and increased demand overwhelm some facilities across the country.

The catalyst has been the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has become the dominant strain in the US in a matter of weeks and has led to a slew of new measures to combat the spread.

With millions traveling or planning to join large family gatherings, there is a rush to get tested — and many people are running out of luck, either with getting tests at clinics or with buying at-home test kits.

Long lines were seen this week in New York City, Boston and Miami, as well as Ohio and Minnesota.

At the same time, CVS Health and Walgreens — the two largest pharmaceutical chain stores in the US — are limiting the number of at-home Covid kits customers can buy due to significant demand, they announced.

The demand is only going to grow, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"We do have some testing. But what we're going to need, I think, over the course of the next two to eight weeks is going to be remarkable. We are going to see this big surge nationwide," he predicted.

And while the Biden administration plans to provide 500 million new tests by next month, the holiday test surge is happening now.

A former assistant secretary of the US Health and Human Services Department is concerned the co pledge on tests will not meet the demand, he said.

"Unless we have a billion or 2 billion a month, I think we're still going to have to be selective to make sure that we keep people who can die from the disease from dying from the disease," Adm. Dr. Brett Giroir told CNN.

Read more about Covid-19 testing in the US: