The latest on coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Eliza Mackintosh, Melissa Macaya and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 6:58 p.m. ET, December 31, 2021
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6:47 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Omicron is now the dominant variant in France

From Dalal Mawad in Paris and Eliza Mackintosh in London

People walk past the Trocadero place near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, Dec. 29, 2021. France reported on Wednesday 208,099 new confirmed Covid-19 cases detected in the past 24 hours, a new daily record since the outbreak of the pandemic in France.
People walk past the Trocadero place near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, Dec. 29, 2021. France reported on Wednesday 208,099 new confirmed Covid-19 cases detected in the past 24 hours, a new daily record since the outbreak of the pandemic in France. (Gao Jing/Xinhua/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron is poised to deliver his annual New Year's Eve speech on Friday afternoon, hours after the country announced that Omicron had become the dominant variant and as it grapples with a surge in Covid-19 cases.

More than 60% of coronavirus tests are now showing a profile compatible with Omicron, data released by the government late Thursday showed. The variant accounted for just 15% of all cases in mid-December, but holiday gatherings in recent weeks have fueled its spread and sparked a surge in infections.

Omicron variant cases are doubling every two to three days, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said Wednesday, reporting that France set another new daily record high of 208,000 coronavirus cases in 24 hours. "We are seeing numbers that give you vertigo," Veran told a parliamentary health commission in Paris.

Earlier this month, French ministers tightened travel restrictions for the United Kingdom, citing concerns over the spread of Omicron. But on Thursday, the French Interior Ministry announced that British nationals who are legal residents of an EU country would be allowed to transit through France over the holiday period.

To curb the spread of Omicron, France has also announced it will require a new "vaccine pass," replacing the previous "health pass," which could be obtained by providing a recent negative Covid test instead of proof of vaccination. The new system will to come into force from January 15 in restaurants, as well as in some of the country’s public transportation.

President Macron has pledged to ramp up restrictions on the unvaccinated, but has stopped short of making the vaccine compulsory.

4:36 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Hong Kong reports first Omicron cluster as city prepares to welcomes New Year

From CNN's Jessie Yeung in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has confirmed its first Omicron cluster, bringing an end to its long streak of zero locally transmitted cases and prompting fears of a wider outbreak as the city prepares to ring in the new year.

Two cases of local transmission were detected on Thursday, both fully vaccinated with no recent travel history. They tested preliminarily positive for Covid-19 after eating at a restaurant on Monday, where they were exposed to an air crew member who was later confirmed to be carrying the highly transmissible Omicron variant, authorities say.

The crew member, an employee of Cathay Pacific, the city's flagship carrier, arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on Christmas Day. He had tested negative twice, before testing preliminarily positive for Omicron on Tuesday. He is fully vaccinated with a third booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine and remains asymptomatic, according to the Department of Health.

Health authorities announced Friday they are also monitoring 19 new cases, mostly imported and all suspected to be Omicron — including a cargo pilot who visited several popular restaurants and bars on Monday, just days after returning from the US. On Tuesday he was determined to be a close contact of another patient and sent to the government's quarantine center; by Wednesday, he had tested positive for the virus.

Hong Kong hasn't seen a locally transmitted Covid case with an unknown source for nearly three months; the last such reported case was on October 8. Though the city had reported a number of imported Omicron cases from quarantined overseas travelers in December, the variant hadn't broken to the local community until now.

Read more:

5:31 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Cathay Pacific says strict new Hong Kong quarantine rules could cause "dramatic" supply chain disruptions

From CNN's Hannah Ritchie, Teele Rebane and Eric Cheung

A Cathay Pacific cargo airplane prepares to land at Hong Kong International Airport on November 21, 2021.
A Cathay Pacific cargo airplane prepares to land at Hong Kong International Airport on November 21, 2021. (Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images)

Hong Kong's flagship airline warned Friday that strict new quarantine measures in the city could lead to "dramatic disruptions" to local supply chains, as the company is forced to curb some passenger and cargo flights.

Cathay Pacific's note of caution came as the Hong Kong government announced that, from Saturday, all cargo air crew based in the city who have stayed overseas will need to spend seven days in hotel quarantine when they return. That's up from the current three-day requirement.

The measure marks an escalation from what are already some of the world's most stringent and isolating restrictions, as Hong Kong attempts to stamp out any trace of the coronavirus. The city, along with mainland China, is one of the last places in Asia still adopting a "zero Covid" strategy. And most people coming into the city are forced to quarantine in a hotel for up to three weeks upon arrival, even if they are inoculated.

"We are wary that any further tightening of aircrew quarantine arrangements would lead to reductions in flight frequencies to protect the well-being of our crew members and the overall safety of our operations," said Andy Wong, general manager of Cathay Pacific's corporate affairs division, in a statement.

He added that such actions would cause "dramatic disruptions to supply chains in the short-term" and undermine Hong Kong International Airport as a "leading cargo hub."

Strict quarantine rules have already been taking a toll on pilots at the carrier.

Like staff at many airlines, all Cathay flight crew are fully vaccinated. But Cathay pilots told CNN Business weeks ago that the airline had adopted strict policies for those traveling to countries designated as "high risk," such as the United States, India and the United Kingdom. Pilots headed to those places typically fly out for several weeks and still have to quarantine in hotels again in Hong Kong.

Omicron cases: "Low risk" and cargo flights have been more lenient in the past, but Friday's announcement suggests the city sees a need for a tightening as the threat of the Omicron coronavirus variant grows. Hong Kong just reported its first two local cases of the variant, which health authorities said Thursday were likely linked to a Cathay crew member.

Read more:

3:25 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Doctors in India end strike amid growing Covid cases

From CNN's Esha Mitra in New Delhi

Junior doctors of a government medical college hospital shout anti-government slogans as they march in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Junior doctors of a government medical college hospital shout anti-government slogans as they march in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Manish Swarup/AP)

Resident doctors in India's capital, New Delhi, have called off their two-week long strike amid rising coronavirus cases in the country, a statement from the Federation of Resident Doctors’ Association (FORDA) said on Friday.

Thousands of resident doctors have been protesting a delay in allocating hospitals to doctors who have passed their post-graduate exams — leaving them unemployed and unable to support the country's Covid efforts. The delay has led to a shortage of 45,000 doctors on the front line, according to the Indian Medical Association. 

“With the Covid situation getting worse we have rejoined hospitals,” said FORDA secretary Dr. Anuj Aggarwal, adding they will continue to push for allocation of hospitals to the incoming batch of doctors.

India reported more than 16,000 new Covid-19 cases Friday, a 27% rise from the day before, according to the Ministry of Health.

2:44 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Omicron is likely behind a "sharp increase" in India cases, health official says

From CNN's Esha Mitra in New Delhi

India reported more than 16,000 new coronavirus cases on Friday, a 27% rise from the day before, according to the country's Ministry of Health — as doctors brace for a potential third wave driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

India's Omicron case numbers have more than tripled this week, with at least 1,270 infections now recorded, compared to 358 last Friday.

Health secretary Lav Agarwal called it a "sharp increase" during a news conference Thursday.

According to the head of India's Covid-19 task force, VK Paul, the rise “could be part of the global rise in cases pushed by Omicron."

"This variant is highly transmissible and that perhaps explains the speed in which it is rising," he said Thursday.

Meanwhile, as five Indian states gear up for elections in early 2022, political parties have held a number of events drawing large crowds, particularly in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous.

Many people have stopped wearing face masks, and are getting tested less frequently than before.

Local restrictions: While the national government has issued no restrictions on large gatherings, it has outlined Covid protocols for states to impose depending on their local situation. At least 13 states and several major cities have imposed restrictions.

In the capital, New Delhi, all social, cultural, political and festival gatherings are banned until further notice. Bars and restaurants are capped at 50% capacity, with face masks required for entry. Gyms and pools are shut entirely. A night curfew was announced Tuesday.

In Mumbai, all social, religious and political gatherings — including weddings and professional functions — are capped at 50% indoors and 25% outdoors until further notice.

Vaccination status: Just over 63% of India's adult population are fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health, while 90% are "partially vaccinated."

India has reported a total of 34.8 million Covid-19 cases and 481,080 related deaths, according to the ministry.

Read more about Omicron and India:

2:12 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Cathay Pacific to cancel more flights after Hong Kong tightens aircrew quarantine rules

From CNN's Hannah Ritchie, Teele Rebane and Eric Cheung

Cathay Pacific planes seen on ground at Hong Kong International Airport in this file photo from Nov. 29.
Cathay Pacific planes seen on ground at Hong Kong International Airport in this file photo from Nov. 29. (Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Cathay Pacific will cancel an unspecified number of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong after the city tightened quarantine rules for aircrew, the airline said in a statement Thursday.

The Cathay statement said Hong Kong's "latest tightening of aircrew quarantine restrictions continues to constrain our ability to operate flights as planned. We are making further significant changes to our flight schedule, including cancellations of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong from now to tentatively the first quarter of 2022."
“We intend to operate a skeleton passenger flight schedule in January.”

It's yet another setback for the embattled Hong Kong flag carrier, which has been dealt several blows by the city's strict coronavirus border rules.

In a separate statement Friday, Cathay said it was suspending long-haul cargo flights into the city for one week, effective immediately.

The flight cancellations are expected to further isolate Hong Kong as the financial hub remains one of the only places in Asia, alongside mainland China, to stick to a rigid zero-Covid strategy.

“We sincerely apologise for the disruption caused. We will be working with customers to mitigate the disruption as much as possible,” the airline said.

In an email to CNN, Hong Kong's Transport and Housing Bureau did not elaborate on changes to current aircrew quarantine restrictions.

Flight bans: Cathay’s announcement follows Hong Kong's suspension of some international routes into the city for major airlines including Qatar Airways, Emirates, Korean Air, Turkish Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Finnair. 

Hong Kong has temporarily banned some passenger flights from New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Helsinki, London, Dubai, Doha, Bangkok, Korea, Istanbul and Manila after imported Covid-19 cases were recorded in patients arriving from these destinations. 

The Hong Kong government said it will review temporary bans on flight routes in early January 2022.

2:41 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Analysis: A pandemic-scarred year ends in darkness — but with hope on the horizon

Analysis from CNN's Stephen Collinson

2021 wasn't supposed to end like this.

The year dawned in a blaze of hope that new, effective Covid-19 vaccines — free and available to all — would deliver the country from the worst public health emergency in 100 years, in which 350,000 Americans had already died. The promise of a new President, Joe Biden, to shut down the virus rang in the nation's ears after his predecessor had lied about Covid-19's severity, botched the government response and prized his political goals over its health.

But the year ends in a dark place. Hospitals are flooded with Covid-19 patients, the transportation network is seizing up, and a new coronavirus variant — Omicron — is finding even the most careful citizens.

This year was deadlier then the last. More than 820,000 have now perished in the United States alone from Covid-19. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is predicting 44,000 deaths in the next four weeks. The once-unthinkable figure of a million lost Americans looks depressingly credible, and another White House has often seemed outmatched and hoping in vain for best-case scenarios to unfold as the virus stages fresh assaults.

"I think that right now we're in the public health crisis of our lifetimes," Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN on Thursday.

He spoke as hospitalizations are rising fast, across the country — including in New York, Michigan, Colorado and Maryland — and the Delta variant of the coronavirus clings on and causes vicious hotspots elsewhere.

Read more:

12:32 a.m. ET, December 31, 2021

Some residents of locked down Chinese city say they are growing desperate for daily goods

From CNN's Beijing Bureau and Yong Xiong

After living for more than a week under a lockdown imposed to bring a local coronavirus outbreak under control, some residents of a city in northwestern China say they are growing desperate for basic necessities.

Xi'an, a city of 13 million in northwest Shaanxi province, went into lockdown on December 23. As cases continue to rise in the city, social media posts this week have detailed some residents' struggle to buy groceries and other essential items.

In response, the Xi'an government said it would increase efforts to distribute daily supplies.

Photos of received groceries have now begun to appear on the social media site Weibo, despite the local government warning of continued difficulties in finding personnel to deliver food. 

Xian's lockdown is the largest enacted in China since restrictions in Wuhan, which sealed off 11 million people in 2020.

The Xi'an outbreak poses a threat to China's dogged zero-Covid strategy; the city's restrictions were further tightened on Monday, banning residents from leaving their homes unless to undergo testing for the virus. Groceries are instead supposed to be delivered to people's doors. 

The Shaanxi government has deployed 4,900 public servants to help with Covid controls and food distribution, according to state-run The Paper.

China reported 166 new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases on Friday, including 161 in Xi’an, the National Health Commission (NHC) said.

Xi’an has reported a total of 1,278 cases since its outbreak began on December 9. 

Read more about the Xi'an lockdown:

11:00 p.m. ET, December 30, 2021

Germany to lift UK travel ban on Tuesday, embassy says

From CNN's Fred Pleitgen and Sugam Pokharel

Germany is set to lift a ban on British nationals from entering the country from Tuesday, the German embassy in London said Thursday.   

From midnight on Tuesday, Germany will allow travelers who are fully vaccinated or “who have an important reason for travelling” from the United Kingdom to enter the country, the embassy said in a statement on Twitter.

People who are fully vaccinated will not need a negative Covid-19 test to enter the country, nor will they need to quarantine for 14 days upon entry, it added.

Responding to Germany's move, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was a "welcome development from our German colleagues." 

Germany added the UK to its list of areas with "variants of concern” on December 19. Only German citizens and residents were allowed to enter the country from the UK.