New Covid-19 variant Omicron cases, travel updates from around the world

By Fernando Alfonso III, Mike Hayes and Helen Regan, CNN

Updated 12:02 AM ET, Mon November 29, 2021
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8:52 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Omicron symptoms were mild, doctor who treated small number of patients in South Africa says

From CNN Health's John Bonifield

A South African doctor who was among the first in the country to suspect a new Covid-19 variant was making people sick says the cases she has treated so far have been mild.

 "It started with a younger generation of 40 and less, and the most predominant clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days, with then the headache and the body aches and pain," Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters.

"Some of them will have what they call a scratch throat, and some will have a cough, a dry cough. But it's not a constant cough. It comes and goes. And that's more or less the big symptoms that we have seen."

Coetzee said she and her colleagues have not treated anyone requiring oxygen, but some have had had high temperatures, including one who was a severely ill child who had a fast pulse.

The child was treated at home and was feeling better after about 48 hours.

Appearing on CBS on Sunday, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb noted health officials do not know if the variant will cause more severe outcomes. 

"Is this making people more ill? There's no indication that it is. And in fact, there's some anecdotal information offered from physicians in South Africa that this could be causing milder illness. Now that could be an artifact of the fact that initial cases seem to be clustered in younger people, perhaps in outbreaks around universities," Gottlieb told CBS News on Sunday.

CNN has reached out to Coetzee for additional comment. 

8:47 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Japan tightens border controls on three more African countries

From CNN's Junko Ogura in Tokyo 

Japan has added Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia to its list of tighter border controls in response to the new Covid-19 variant Omicron,

It brings the total number of countries subject to entry restrictions in Japan to nine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Saturday. 

Measures against these three countries came into place on Sunday, a day after tighter border controls were put in place for people arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.

Travelers arriving from the nine countries, including Japanese nationals, are required to undergo a 10-day quarantine at government-designated facilities. 

In addition, Covid-19 tests will be conducted on the third, sixth and 10th days from entry. 

“The government is facing a strong sense of crisis regarding the discovery of mutant (coronavirus) strains,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Saturday. “We will take measures toward border control.”

8:47 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Canada confirms first two cases of Omicron Covid-19 variant

From CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian and Melissa Alonso

Passengers arriving on international flights go through Covid-19 testing at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on September 28.
Passengers arriving on international flights go through Covid-19 testing at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on September 28. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Canadian health officials confirmed the country’s first two cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant in Ottawa on Sunday. 

Both individuals carrying the coronavirus variant had recently traveled from Nigeria, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said in a joint statement

Both individuals are in isolation, and Canadian health officials are conducting contact tracing management, the statement reads. 

“The best defense against the Omicron variant is stopping it at our border,” the joint statement reads. “We continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers irrespective of where they’re coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant.”

Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos issued travel restrictions for anyone who has traveled through southern Africa in the last 14 days on Friday.

3:14 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Here's how health officials are testing to see if Omicron is resistant to current Covid-19 vaccines

From CNN's John Bonifield

The United States will know in about two weeks whether the Omicron variant is resistant to current Covid-19 vaccines, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical officer.

He outlined the steps that are being taken to make a determination.

"The way you find that out is you get the virus, and you put it either as the whole virus or as what we call a pseudovirus, and you take antibodies or serum from people who've been vaccinated and you determine if those antibodies can neutralize the virus," Fauci told ABC News on Sunday. "That whole process is already underway right now, and hopefully we'll be able to determine."

Speaking on NBC News on Sunday, Fauci said if the tests show antibodies from a person who has been vaccinated can neutralize the virus, then "we're in pretty good shape."

"If it looks like even at a high titer of antibody it doesn't, then what you've got to do is you've got to change and modify what the vaccine is going to be, which you can do pretty easily," Fauci said.

3:56 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

UK government tightens restrictions on travel and masks over Omicron variant concerns

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite

Passengers wear face masks as they travel on the London underground on Sunday, November 28.
Passengers wear face masks as they travel on the London underground on Sunday, November 28. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Face coverings will be mandatory in United Kingdom shops and on public transportation, and all travelers returning to the UK will require PCR testing starting at 11 p.m. ET Monday, the UK Department of Health and Social Care said Sunday in a statement.

These "temporary and precautionary measures" are to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant in the UK, the government said. It comes as the UK has detected three cases of this new variant, it announced Sunday.

An urgent meeting with the G7 health ministers will also be convened on Nov. 29 to discuss the developments on Omicron, the statement adds.

Separately, the Department of Education has told schools in England that pupils and visitors in secondary schools and above should wear masks in communal areas, though this is not considered a law, a department's press officer told CNN. These measures start Monday.

2:25 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Moderna chief medical officer says Omicron-specific vaccine booster is being developed if needed

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Moderna's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Burton has predicted a "couple of weeks of uncertainty" with the emergence of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, and he said the company would be able to move "very fast" in producing a variant-specific vaccine.

"There are three questions we really need answers to: How transmissible is this variant, how severe is it and will the antibodies that are produced in response to the current vaccines effective?" he told CNN.

Moderna said Friday that the new Omicron variant represents a "significant potential risk" to the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine as well as immunity reached naturally, due to its mutations.

Burton said everyone who hasn't been vaccinated in the US should get their shots now, and those who have been vaccinated should get booster shots.

Moderna has been testing variant-specific boosters over the summer, Burton said, and the company is already working on one for the Omicron variant.

"We can move very fast, we think weeks to within two to three months, we would be able to have an Omicron-specific vaccine booster available for testing and then for administration. So this is going to go at the fastest possible speed. But we have to do careful science now. We don't want to misstep," he said.

Burton said he expects Covid-19 to be an "endemic disease that will need regular boosting."

Omicron is "a new wrench thrown" into the fight against Covid-19, he said

"We have to see what data comes out in the next couple weeks," Burton added.

When asked about vaccine inequity, Burton said Moderna is producing 110 million doses for African nations through the World Health Organization's vaccine-sharing program COVAX, adding "we're trying to do everything we can to balance where the burden of disease is."

3:07 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

South African president says he is "deeply disappointed" in Omicron travel bans

From CNN’s David McKenzie and Sharon Braithwaite

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to press on November 23, in Pretoria, South Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to press on November 23, in Pretoria, South Africa. (Phill Magakoe/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In an address to the nation on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa criticized a growing list of countries that have instituted travel bans against South Africa and its neighbors over the emerging Omicron variant of Covid-19.

“We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of southern African countries including our own following the identification of the Omicron variant. This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at that meeting of the G20 countries in Rome last month,” Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa went on to list the countries and territories by name and called on the travel restrictions to be lifted. 

“These restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries. The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant. The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic,” he said.

Ramaphosa praised the country’s scientists for their early detection of the variant and their work in understanding its potential impact.

He said that the Omicron variant is responsible for most of the infections found in the Gauteng province over the last two weeks and is now appearing in other provinces. He confirmed that the country is seeing a sharp rise in infections.

“If cases continue to climb, we can expect to enter a fourth wave of infections within the next few weeks, if not sooner,” he said. 

Some context: South African scientists have long believed a fourth wave was on the way in South Africa during this time, something Ramaphosa reiterated.

“This should not come as a surprise,” he said.

Ramaphosa encouraged South Africans to get vaccinated and said that the government is exploring vaccine mandates to accelerate vaccine uptake. Currently, around 35% of the population is vaccinated in South Africa. He said that the country will remain at coronavirus Level 1, one of the country’s lowest levels.

“The coronavirus will be with us for the long term. We must therefore find ways of managing the pandemic while limiting disruptions to the economy and ensuring continuity,” he said.

1:26 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Omicron variant is a "clarion call" for Covid-19 vaccine boosters, US health officials say

From CNN's John Bonifield

Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with a Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination at a clinic on October 1, in San Rafael, California.
Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with a Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination at a clinic on October 1, in San Rafael, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As global health officials evaluate the level of impact the new Omicron variant could have on the pandemic, they say its emergence is a "clarion call" for booster shots of the Covid-19 vaccine.

"Based on what we've learned so far with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, the vaccines, which are generated against the original virus, still work, and the boosters work particularly well. This is an important point. For people who are listening, who haven't yet gotten boosted but did get their original vaccine and who are eligible now, this is another reason to do that now. Because the booster, it basically enlarges the capacity to recognize all kinds of different spike proteins it's never seen," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, explained why getting a booster will be helpful against the Omicron variant.

"When you have a high level of antibodies the way you get with the boosters that we've been doing lately in this country and elsewhere, you lift up the level of the neutralizing antibodies high enough that it generally crosses over and covers several of the variants, including the Delta variant, which makes us even more emphatic in saying, even with a variant that we don't know yet the full impact that it's going to have on protection against vaccine-induced antibodies, get boosted, get vaccinated, and you're going to bring that level right up. I don't think there's any possibility that this could completely evade any protection by the vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that's the reason why you boost," Fauci told ABC News on Sunday.

Fauci said the Omicron variant should be a clarion call for vaccination.

"This is a clarion call as far as I'm concerned of saying let's put aside all of these differences that we have, and say, if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're fully vaccinated, get boosted," Fauci told NBC News on Sunday.

1:04 p.m. ET, November 28, 2021

Israel bans all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears

From CNN's Ivana Kottasová

Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on November 28.
Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on November 28. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israel is banning all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears, authorities announced Saturday.

The ban, pending government approval, is expected to last two weeks. Israelis returning from a country on the red list, which includes countries in southern Africa, will be required to isolate for seven days in a designated hotel.

There are seven suspected cases of the variant in Israel, in addition to one confirmed case found in a person returning from Malawi, its Health Ministry said.