Coronavirus: What’s happening in Canada and around the world on Friday

The latest:

The World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Reuters on Friday that while the new coronavirus variant omicron appeared to be very transmissible, the right response was to be prepared, cautious and not panic.

The WHO has urged countries to boost health-care capacity and vaccinate their people to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant, saying travel curbs could buy time, but alone were not the answer.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Swaminathan said during an interview at the Reuters Next conference.

While the emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much remains unknown about omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. Parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the delta variant before it emerged.

“We need to wait, let’s hope it’s milder … but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said of what was known about omicron.

“Delta accounts for 99 per cent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”

The WHO’s top scientist said the omicron variant seemed to be causing three times more infections than experienced previously in South Africa, meaning “it does seem to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infection.”

Vaccines did appear to be having some effect.

“The fact that they’re not getting sick … that means the vaccines are still providing protection and we would hope that they would continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.

Asked about the need for annual vaccine boosters, she said “the WHO is preparing for all scenarios,” which could include an additional dose, particularly among some age groups or vulnerable sections of the population, or a modified vaccine.

“Natural infection acts as a booster,” the WHO scientist said, adding that while the new variant “could have originated in a country where there isn’t a great deal of genome sequencing,” its origins were not known.

“We may never know,” Swaminathan said.

WATCH | WHO emergencies director says ‘bit of a roller coaster’ coming on information about omicron: 

WHO warns ‘bit of a roller coaster’ coming on information about omicron

The World Health Organization’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan, says the transparency around rapidly emerging data on the coronavirus variant omicron is empowering but recognizes how unsettling it is to be hearing bits of information in real time. 1:49

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergency program, said later Friday that information about the variant will soon be flowing in as scientists learn more. He urged people to “stay centred” and not “go to the extremes of any analysis.”

“There was a time when scientists would look at all this data and nobody in the public would know, and eventually, a month later …. there would be a result,” he said during a question and answer session about omicron. “That’s not how the world works anymore — everything is happening in real time.”

Ryan said that shift in how information moves around the world offers some real benefits around transparency and community empowerment. But he said it can also be “unsettling” to people because firm answers aren’t there right away.

“That’s the world we live in, so we’ve got to get used to living in that world where getting the real evidence and answers is slightly behind getting all the data and all this kind of unlinked information.”

“We all live with that uncertainty,” he said.

From Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 11:45 a.m. ET


What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Eligibility for COVID-19 booster shots varies across Canada: 

Eligibility for COVID-19 booster shots varies across Canada

Ontario will lower the eligibility age for COVID-19 booster shots to 50 and up by mid-December, adding to a shifting map of booster shot eligibility in Canada. There are calls for provinces and territories to be more cohesive with each other on who gets a booster shot. 2:03


What’s happening around the world

WATCH | ‘Why is it only Africa?’: South Africa’s High Commissioner questions scientific basis of Canada’s travel ban: 

‘Why is it only Africa?’: South Africa’s High Commissioner questions scientific basis of Canada’s travel ban

“South Africa displayed the highest level of transparency and integrity, but we are now being chastised for doing the right thing,” South Africa’s High Commissioner Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo told Power & Politics Thursday. 11:18

As of late Friday morning, more than 264.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.

In Africa, the health ministry in South Africa on Thursday reported 11,535 new cases of COVID-19 and 44 additional deaths, up from 8,561 new cases and 28 deaths a day earlier. The country, which raised the alarm about the new variant now named omicron, has seen a surge in cases.

In Europe, more regions of Russia have made COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for residents age 60 and over as the country tries to control coronavirus infections and to keep the omicron variant at bay.

Authorities in the northern region of Komi said Friday that people in that age group are required to get fully vaccinated by Feb. 1. The Omsk region in Siberia introduced a more stringent timeline Thursday that obligates those 60 and above to get their first vaccine dose by Dec. 24 and their second dose by Jan. 15.

Several other regions, including Lipetsk, Kurgan and the city of St. Petersburg, adopted similar mandates in recent weeks. Some regions also imposed vaccine mandates for certain categories of essential workers. Russia has struggled to get cases down amid low vaccination rates and poor compliance with public health measures.

About 40 per cent of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved a domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine — Sputnik V — months before most of the world.

Meanwhile, the prevalence of COVID-19 infections in England rose to around 1 in 60 people in the week ending Nov. 27, Britain’s Office for National Statistics said on Friday, led higher by the dominant delta variant rather than newly identified omicron. The prevalence was up from 1 in 65 reported the previous week, the ONS said.

WATCH | Canadians will need to take COVID-19 test a day before flying to the U.S.: 

Canadians will need to take COVID-19 test a day before flying to the U.S.

The U.S. is planning to require all travellers who arrive by air take a COVID-19 test within 24 hours of their departure, a move officials say is needed to slow the spread of the omicron variant. 2:15

In the Americas, the Biden administration announced measures to guard against the virus spreading. From Monday, international air travellers arriving in the United States will have to have obtained a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel.

“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” President Joe Biden said. Around 60 per cent of the U.S. population have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations.

In the Middle East, OPEC and its allies agreed to stick to their existing policy of monthly oil output increases despite fears that a U.S. release from crude reserves and the new omicron coronavirus variant would lead to a fresh oil price rout.

In the Asia-Pacific region, India reported its first omicron cases but the government said it had no immediate plan to authorize booster vaccine shots despite demands from legislators.

-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 11:35 a.m. ET

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