South African study offers hope to Omicron amid coronavirus second Christmas


  • S. African Omicron study suggests reduced risk of severe disease
  • Many see booster shots as the key to mastering Omicron
  • South Korean business groups protest over new restrictions

GENEVA / JOHANNESBURG, Dec.22 (Reuters) – South African data offered a silver lining on Wednesday over the severity of the Omicron coronavirus variant, but World Health Organization officials warned that it was too early to draw definitive conclusions as the strain spread across the globe.

Days before the second Christmas of the pandemic, countries have placed new restrictions on their citizens amid worries about the damage the variant could inflict on their economies.

Plans for Christmas parties and celebrations have been dashed from London to New Delhi amid the uncertainty.

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Omicron was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong. Preliminary data indicated that it was more resistant to vaccines developed before its emergence.

But a study by the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) suggested that people infected with Omicron were much less likely to end up in hospital than those infected with the Delta strain. Read more

COVID-19 cases also appear to have peaked in South Africa’s Gauteng province, the region where Omicron first emerged, he said.

The study, which was not peer-reviewed, compared South African Omicron data from October and November with data from Delta between April and November.

“In South Africa, it’s epidemiology: Omicron is behaving in a less severe way,” said Professor Cheryl Cohen of NICD.

“Compellingly, together our data really suggests a positive story of reduced Omicron severity compared to other variants.”

However, WHO COVID-19 technical officer Maria van Kerkhove said the UN agency did not have enough data to draw firm conclusions about the severity of the Omicron variant.

The data was still “messy” as countries reported their arrival and spread, she said at a briefing in Geneva.

“We haven’t seen this variant circulating long enough in populations around the world, certainly in vulnerable populations. We have asked countries to be careful, and to really think about it, especially as this holiday draws near.”

The European WHO official told Reuters in Brussels it takes three to four weeks to determine the severity of Omicron.

Hans Kluge said Omicron, already dominant in Britain, Denmark and Portugal, was likely to be the main strain of coronavirus in Europe within weeks.

“There is no doubt that Europe is the epicenter of the global pandemic again. Yes, I am very worried, but there is no reason to panic. The good news is … we know what To do.”


Meanwhile, governments have rushed to contain the variant’s rapid spread, urging citizens to get vaccinated as Omicron overturns reopening plans that many hoped would herald the end of the pandemic. Read more

Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Korea have reimposed partial or complete lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days. Read more

Germany’s health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown. Read more

Italy was preparing new measures and could make vaccinations compulsory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said.

Austria must order a 10 p.m. closure in the hospitality sector and classify Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway as risk areas, which means newcomers there must be quarantined if they have not received a reminder.

Belgium, the Czech Republic and Spain were also considering new borders. The Indian capital of New Delhi has banned Christmas and other celebrations before the New Year. Read more

The Chinese city of Xian – homeland of the terracotta warriors

– told its 13 million residents to stay at home as it works to contain rising COVID-19 cases as part of Beijing’s zero tolerance policy.


Policymakers around the world are trying to cope with the economic blow that could result from new epidemics.

On Wall Street, concerns about Omicron upsetting the economic recovery persisted, and US stock indices were mostly stable when the market opened.

“Overall, volatility for December was much higher than usual,” said Anu Gaggar, global investment strategist for Commonwealth Financial Network. “The Santa Claus rally is slightly lower this year.”

Some 300 South Korean business leaders demonstrated in Seoul on Wednesday against the return of strict social distancing rules, urging the government to abandon its “vaccine pass” policy and make up for the losses. Read more

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailed the recommendation of a health ministry panel that people over 60, people with weakened immune systems and health workers should receive a fourth COVID vaccine.

More than 275 million people are believed to have been infected with the coronavirus worldwide and nearly 5.7 million have died, according to a Reuters tally. Read more

Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in central China in December 2019.

US President Joe Biden tested negative for the coronavirus on Wednesday, the White House announced. On Tuesday, Biden pledged to distribute half a billion free COVID-19 rapid tests and warned a quarter of unvaccinated American adults that their choices could mean the “difference between life and death.” Read more

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick in England, said it was difficult to justify a fourth injection when many people had been vaccinated in wealthier countries and far fewer in Africa.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said boosters should not be seen as the only way to deal with the pandemic as other countries struggle to deploy fire.

“General recall programs are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than end it,” he said at a briefing in Geneva.

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Reports from Reuters offices around the world; Written by Nick Macfie and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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