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The World Health Organization is urging caution after two South African health experts, including the doctor who first sounded the alarm about the omicron variant, indicated that symptoms linked to the coronavirus strain have been mild so far.

The 13 omicron cases identified in the Netherlands on Sunday suggest the new variant already has a strong foothold in Europe, with more countries reporting cases. It will “inevitably" arrive in the U.S., Anthony Fauci said, and that Americans should get vaccines and boosters as prevention. Airline travel is beginning to recall the first days of the pandemic.

Moderna Inc. Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said he suspects omicron may elude current vaccines and, if so, a reformulated shot could be available early next year. 

New York City may already be seeing signs of a winter spike in Covid-19 even though holiday travel, gatherings and colder weather are just getting started. 

Key Developments:

  • Virus Tracker: Cases top 261.4 million; deaths approach 5.2 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 7.9 billion doses given
  • Italy’s first omicron carrier probably arrived two weeks ago
  • Covid gives the world a blunt reminder it won’t go down easy
  • Markets face weeks of uncertainty in wait for omicron answers
  • New Covid variant weighs on OPEC oil producers: Julian Lee

WHO Urges Caution South Africa Calls Omicron ‘Mild’ (3:54 p.m. NY)

The World Health Organization is urging caution after two South African health experts, including the doctor who first sounded the alarm about the omicron variant, indicated that symptoms linked to the coronavirus strain have been mild so far.

The initial reported infections were among university students, WHO said, adding that younger patients tend to have milder symptoms.

“Understanding the level of severity of the omicron variant will take days to several weeks," WHO said in a statement, adding that “there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants." 

ECB’s Lagarde Says Vaccinations Must Be Expanded (3:20 p.m. NY)

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde said vaccination drives in poorer countries must be improved. “We won’t be protected until we are all vaccinated," Lagarde told Italy’s Rai 3 in a live television interview. “If some companies can deliver packages everywhere, I’m sure we can do that with vaccines too."

Asked about the virus’s latest resurgence, she said that “we’ve learned a lot, we know this enemy, we know the instruments we need to use and precautions we need to take, people have been vaccinated, there are new therapies -- I think we are better equipped to respond."

Surge in China Would Follow U.S.-Style Reopening: Study (2:49 p.m. NY)

China would face a “colossal outbreak" on a scale beyond anything any other country has yet seen, if it were to reopen in a similar manner to the U.S.

That’s a prediction based on statistical modeling by researchers at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University. A switch from China’s current Covid elimination strategy to an American-style approach with few restrictions would lead to as many as 637,155 infections a day, according to the study, which was published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 24. 

That would be the largest daily figure reported by any country since the start of the pandemic. 

South Africa Says Too Early for More Curbs (1:55 p.m. NY)

South Africa’s government said it would be premature to reimpose stringent curbs following the emergence of a new coronavirus strain because its impact still needs to be properly assessed.

The country will remain on virus alert level 1, the lowest, with alcohol bans, curfew hours and other measures to be reviewed in a week’s time, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Sunday in a televised address following a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council.

While the new mutation is present in all nine provinces and its emergence has coincided with a spike in new cases, “we are still not sure how exactly it will behave going forward," Ramaphosa said. 

Airlines Scramble as Restrictions Return (1:11 p.m. NY)

Airlines, passengers and businesses scrambled to respond to a deluge of travel restrictions announced over the weekend to slow the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant. 

An initial spate of flight bans from southern Africa, where omicron was first detected, gave way to more wide-ranging measures that will make travel more expensive and less convenient -- if possible at all -- recalling earlier days in the pandemic. 

NYC May Be at Start of Winter Surge (1:01 p.m. NY) 

New York City may already be seeing signs of a winter spike in Covid-19 even though holiday travel, gatherings and colder weather are just getting started. 

The city’s positive test rate rose to a two-month high as hospitals admitted more than 100 new virus patients on Friday, contributing to a 25% jump in hospitalizations in just two weeks.

The city has 463 people in the hospital for Covid-19, up from 370 on Nov. 12. The seven-day average of residents testing positive for the virus -- the lowest in the state of New York -- has climbed above 2% for the first time since the end of September. That metric doesn’t include rapid antigen test results.

Swiss Vote to Keep Health Pass (12:35 p.m. NY)

Swiss voters backed the government’s use of Covid-19 certificates for entry into theaters and restaurants despite vociferous campaigning by skeptics, who consider them an infringement of civil liberties.

Support for the measure was at 62%. Polls for the broadcaster SRF had indicated the law, which also covers financial aid to pandemic-stricken companies, was supported by a comfortable majority. 

Botswana Identifies More Cases (12:30 p.m. NY)

Botswana has identified 15 more cases of the omicron variant, bringing the total detected to 19, Health Minister Edwin Dikoloti told a televised briefing Saturday. 

Preliminary analysis suggests most of the infections were imported, Dikoloti said. Four cases were truck drivers crossing from neighboring South Africa, while another was a South Africa resident who visited Botswana to see his family. 

Fauci Stresses Need for Vaccination (11:58 a.m. NY)

Covid-19’s omicron variant appears to be more transmissible, reinforcing the need for Americans to get vaccinations or booster shots, U.S. health officials said. 

Omicron “is a clarion call" for people to be vaccinated, Anthony Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press." Infections in the U.S. are already rising and stepped-up prevention with the emergence of the new variant will impact whether Americans are “headed into a bleak or bleaker winter," he said.

“Inevitably it will be" in the U.S., Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week" on Sunday. “The question is, will we be prepared for it?"

Omicron So Far ‘Mild,’ South Africa Experts Say (11:56 a.m. NY)

Symptoms linked to the omicron coronavirus variant have been mild so far, according to a Covid-19 adviser to the South Africa government and the Pretoria doctor who first sounded the alarm about the new strain. 

While South Africa, which first identified the new variant, currently has 3,220 people with the coronavirus infection overall, there’s been no real uptick in hospitalizations, Barry Schoub, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, told Sky News on Sunday. 

“The cases that have occurred so far have all been mild cases, mild-to-moderate cases, and that’s a good sign," said Schoub, adding that it was still early days and nothing was certain yet. 

Germany Has More Suspected Omicron Cases (12:05 p.m. NY) 

Germany has more suspected cases of infections with the omicron variant, this time in Essen and Dusseldorf, Rheinische Post reported, citing a spokesman for the State government of North-Rhine Westphalia.

Half of Germany’s intensive care beds are now taken by patients with Covid-19. The nation’s state governments are now planning to postpone all elective operations, Business Insider reported, citing a draft decisions to be adopted at the national conference of health ministers scheduled for Monday.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi Giving Booster Shots (9:48 a.m. NY)

Dubai and Abu Dhabi started administering booster shots of the coronavirus vaccine as countries across the world seek to check the advance of a new strain.

In Dubai, booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be available for those who are 18 years and older, and can be taken six months after the second dose, the emirate’s health authority tweeted Sunday. Neighboring Abu Dhabi also asked the public to take the booster shots, according to a tweet from the emirate’s media office. It didn’t specify the type of vaccine.

Dutch Cluster Suggests Omicron Foothold in Europe (9:25 a.m. NY)

The 13 omicron Covid-19 cases identified in the Netherlands on Sunday suggest the new variant already has a strong foothold in Europe. Dutch authorities said they found the cases among 61 people who tested positive for Covid on two flights that arrived from southern Africa on Friday.

“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands," Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference in Rotterdam. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg."

The Netherlands cases mark the most widespread incidence of the new strain in Europe found so far, but the variant has been confirmed or is suspected in the U.K., Italy, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic. Australia, Hong Kong and Israel have identified cases, too. 

Moderna Vaccine for Omicron May be Ready in 2022 (7:10 a.m. NY)

Moderna Inc. Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said he suspects the new omicron coronavirus variant may elude current vaccines, and if so, a reformulated shot could be available early in the new year.

“We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks," Burton said Sunday on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show." “If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities."

Merck Covid Pill Set for Authorization Despite Concerns, MS Says (7:01 a.m. NY)

Merck & Co.’s Covid-19 pill will likely still get U.S. authorization despite disappointing efficacy data and concerns raised by regulators, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted.

Merck shares fell 3.8% Friday after the release of data showing molnupiravir was less effective than previously reported, and as the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about its safety and long-term effectiveness.

U.K.: No Need for Work-From-Home Mandate (6:37 a.m. NY)

There’s no need to impose a new work-from-home rule or other draconian steps now that the new coronavirus variant has spread to the U.K., Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

Moves taken Saturday by the government will buy scientists “precious weeks" to evaluate the omicron strain and work on new vaccine formulations if needed, Javid said. In interviews with Sky News and the BBC, he cited the “heavy cost" of lockdowns on the economy and mental health.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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