December 1 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Adam Renton, Brad Lendon, Sheena McKenzie, Ed Upright, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021
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11:29 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

CDC will provide names of passengers on flights from southern Africa to health departments

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed to CNN on Wednesday that officials have directed airlines carrying passengers that have been to certain southern African nations to share those passengers' contact information with the agency. 

"Effective November 30, 2021, CDC has directed airline and aircraft operators carrying passengers that have been in the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, or the Republic of Zimbabwe during the 14 days before their flight to the United States to transmit these passengers’ contact information to CDC," according to a statement that CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund emailed to CNN on Wednesday. "CDC is issuing this Directive to prevent the importation and spread of a communicable disease of public health importance."

Airlines and aircraft operators are directed to transmit passenger information as required under the CDC's Contact Information Collection Order, which was issued in late October, if information is not already being transmitted through established US Department of Homeland Security data systems. 

This post has been updated with new details from the CDC.

10:18 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

South Korea will require a 10-day quarantine for all incoming international travelers 

From CNN's Gawon Bae

A staff member wearing protective equipment guides a traveller at the arrival hall of Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Kora, on November 30.
A staff member wearing protective equipment guides a traveller at the arrival hall of Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Kora, on November 30. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

South Korea will mandate a 10-day quarantine for all incoming international travelers, including Korean nationals. The requirement will go into effect Dec. 3 for two weeks, Korea Disease Control and Prevention (KDCA) said in a statement Wednesday.

The decision was made the same day five cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant were reported by the country, in travelers arriving from Nigeria. 

The mandate applies to travelers from all countries, regardless of their vaccination status, KDCA said.

Korean nationals and foreigners on a long-term stay can quarantine from home, while foreigners staying less than 90 days must quarantine at a government-designated facility. Quarantine exemptions will only be granted in a limited set of special circumstances, such as attending a funeral, the statement said. 

South Korea will also ban foreign nationals on short-term stays — less than 90 days — from Nigeria from entering the country starting Friday.

On Saturday, South Korea had banned foreign nationals on short-term stays from eight southern African countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique. Korean citizens and foreigners on long-term stay may still enter the country. 

Starting Saturday, South Korea will also suspend direct flights from Ethiopia for two weeks. The government will arrange non-scheduled flights for Korean nationals to return from African countries, KDCA added.

9:58 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

US Travel Association calls on Biden to revisit Omicron travel ban

From CNN's Matt Egan 

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, speaks during a news conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, speaks during a news conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association, is questioning the logic of President Biden’s travel restrictions imposed on South Africa and seven neighboring countries in the wake of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“We want them to revisit this quickly,” Dow told CNN in a phone interview. “We need to follow the science – and a travel ban is not the most effective way.”

Dow, whose trade group represents all parts of the $1.5 trillion travel industry, said he met multiple times with the White House over the weekend and is very encouraged Biden signaled he’s not anticipating further restrictions.

“Even the WHO came out and said the data and science don’t support this,” he said. “We don’t want to see this go beyond South Africa.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the World Health Organization said “blanket travel banks will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

Dow, whose industry relies on a steady stream of foreign tourists, expressed confidence in the existing health protocols to come into the United States, including requirements that visitors are vaccinated and get tested for Covid-19 in advance.

“That makes people coming in healthier than the Americans are,” he said.

Some background: On Monday, the United States banned all travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries, with the exception of US citizens and legal permanent residents, who must test negative to enter the country.

Top US officials are considering new restrictions, including requiring everyone who enters the country to be tested for Covid-19 the day before their flight and having all travelers – including US citizens and permanent residents – be tested again after returning home, regardless of vaccination status, CNN reported on Tuesday, citing sources familiar with the discussions.

Dow acknowledged the serious health challenge facing the United States, but suggested it shouldn’t overshadow other priorities. Direct travel employment fell by 34% last year amid the pandemic, according to the US Travel Association. 

“We’ve got a health crisis, no doubt about it. But we’ve got a jobs crisis, an economic crisis, a mental health crisis and a diplomatic crisis,” he said.

Dow argued having more foreign tourists would improve America’s standing in the world. “Getting people here, traveling back and forth, is good public diplomacy,” he said.

9:24 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Cuba says it's developing vaccines to combat the Omicron variant

From CNN’s Patrick Oppmann in Havana 

Cuban scientists are working on vaccines to combat the Omicron variant, the island’s state-run media reported on Wednesday. 

"We closely followed the reports on the behavior of the new Omicron variant. We are already designing specific vaccines. If necessary, in a short time we will develop them,” Dr. Eduardo Martínez Díaz, president of the drug maker BioCubaFarma, said in a statement on Twitter.

Cuban pharmaceutical companies have already produced several vaccines scientists say are highly effective against earlier strains of the coronavirus. According to Cuba’s health ministry more than 80% of the island’s population is now fully vaccinated and coronavirus-related infections and deaths have plummeted in recent weeks.

8:35 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Ireland reports first Omicron case

From CNN's Sarah Dean

Ireland has reported its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, a statement from the National Public Health Emergency Team said Wednesday. 

The statement said the case is linked to travel from one of the seven southern African countries that Ireland has imposed travel restrictions on.

“The NPHET Epidemiological Surveillance Team has been meeting regularly over the course of the last week to monitor the situation relating to the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 and, today, we are confirming that one case has been identified in Ireland," Dr. Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health, said in the statement.
8:25 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Inside the lab where the Omicron variant was first detected

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

At Lancet Laboratories in South Africa, scientists and pathologists first noticed an anomaly in positive PCR tests in early November, and it cropped up over and over again.

"It was a bit disturbing, because it made us worry that we were dealing with something new," Allison Glass, a pathologist at Lancet Labs, told CNN's David McKenzie.

They urgently notified South Africa's genomics team. Within days, details about the new Omicron coronavirus variant became known worldwide.

"What's important is we know that a new variant is likely to have an increase in cases, whether they be more severe or not," Glass said.

Scientists inside the Wits VIDA Research Unit in South Africa are trying to determine whether the variant is more transmissible or causes more severe disease.

Samples are being put in freezers in the hallways at the lab, and it is set to operate 24 hours a day, McKenzie reported.

Jeanine du Plessis, a medical scientist at the lab, said they are seeing a lot more positive cases in the past few weeks.

Since there is still so much unknown about the variant at the moment, she said "everyone feels a little bit of hopelessness."

Watch:

8:25 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

The US is considering mandatory testing for all travelers coming into the country — including citizens

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Maegan Vazquez

Travelers arrive from international flights at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on November 30.
Travelers arrive from international flights at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on November 30. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Top US government officials are considering requiring everyone who enters the country to be tested for Covid-19 the day before their flight and having all travelers — including US citizens and permanent residents — be tested again after returning home, regardless of vaccination status, sources familiar with the discussions have told CNN.

Officials were deliberating the potential changes Tuesday night and no final decisions have been made.

However, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed in a statement that the agency is working to revise testing requirements for travelers because of the new Omicron variant.

"A revised order would shorten the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States," a CDC spokesperson said in a statement. "This strengthens already robust protocols in place for international travel, including requirements for foreign travelers to be fully vaccinated."

Currently, vaccinated travelers are required to test three days before their departures. The move under consideration would shorten that timeline to one day.

A mandatory quarantine for US citizens returning home is not under consideration, according to a White House official.

"The administration continues to evaluate the appropriate measures to protect the American people from COVID-19, especially as we learn more about the Omicron variant, including considering more stringent testing requirements for international travel. Policy discussions are ongoing across the government and no final decisions have been made," a White House official told CNN.

You can read more on the possible changes here.

8:14 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

"Hope for the best, prepare for the worst," says EU leader

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite in London

Europe is in a race against the clock to step up its vaccination and booster programs amid concerns over the Omicron variant hitting its shores, European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a news briefing Wednesday.

Von der Leyen said the bloc is facing a "severe double challenge."
"On one hand, we are amidst the fourth wave," von der Leyen said. And on the other hand, "we are now facing a new threat, that is the new variant Omicron," she added.
"At this point we do not know all about this variant. But we know enough to be concerned," she said, adding that "we know from our experience with the Delta variant, that it is a race against time."

Von der Leyen urged members states to "do everything possible to make the best out of the time we have until we have certainty about the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of Omicron."

"What is the bottom line? Hope for the best, prepare for the worst," she added.

The EU Commission put forward a coordinated EU approach on Wednesday to address the challenges from the resurgence of Covid-19 in many member states this fall.

Among the measures suggested, member states "should continue to implement a joint strategy to limit the entry of the Omicron variant into the EU, with regular, daily reviews of essential travel restrictions," the Commission said in a statement.

7:43 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Omicron cases have been mild and in younger patients, South African doctor says

From CNN’s Naomi Thomas

Dr. Mvuyisi Mzukwa, vice chair of the South African Medical Association, on December 1.
Dr. Mvuyisi Mzukwa, vice chair of the South African Medical Association, on December 1. (CNN)

Doctors in South Africa have so far observed that patients with the Omicron coronavirus variant are younger and have milder cases, and those who are hospitalized are largely unvaccinated.

“We’re seeing younger patients and we’re seeing milder cases of Omicron,” Dr. Mvuyisi Mzukwa, vice chair of the South African Medical Association, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on New Day Wednesday.
“Also, what we’ve noted is that the people that are being hospitalized are largely unvaccinated, about 90% of those are unvaccinated.” 

Mzukwa said that very few people are being admitted to the hospital and the South African health care system is not under pressure.

“Obviously, we’re still gathering information as to the spread of this Omicron in the country, but it is not what it is touted to be out there,” he said, noting that the South African government has not put the country under any further restrictions. 
“There is nothing much that we see beyond what we have seen with the Delta variant,” he said. 

Asked about hospitalizations across the country, which have been seen as trending up over the last month, Mzukwa said that even in the province where the Omicron variant is concentrated, “we have not seen that much of hospitalization, all we see is that those patients that do get admitted are patients who are not vaccinated.”