December 2 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Rhea Mogul, Adam Renton, Sheena McKenzie & Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, December 3, 2021
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5:59 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Americans split down party lines on workplace vaccine requirements and Biden’s pandemic handling

From CNN’s Deidre McPhillips

President Joe Biden speaks on US supply chains in Washington, DC on Wednesday, December 1.
President Joe Biden speaks on US supply chains in Washington, DC on Wednesday, December 1. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Americans are divided -- largely down party lines and vaccination status -- in their opinions on workplace vaccine requirements and how well President Joe Biden is handling the pandemic overall, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor survey published Thursday.

Only slightly more than half (52%) of adults support the Biden administration’s policy that would mandate workers in companies with at least 100 workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or face weekly tests, while 45% oppose it.

The federal policy is on hold as it is debated in a federal appeals court, but more than a third of workers at large companies said they already have a vaccination requirement and another 17% want their employers to impose one.

Vaccine requirements are much less common at smaller companies; only about 11% of people working at smaller companies said a vaccine requirement was already in place and another 20% would want their employer to impose one.

Most Republicans (79%) oppose the federal policy, while most Democrats (86%) favor it. Opinions are similarly divided by vaccination status, with most vaccinated adults in favor and most unvaccinated adults against.

General perceptions about how well Biden is handling the pandemic overall are also split by political party and vaccination status.

Nearly nine in 10 Republicans say they disapprove, while more than eight in 10 Democrats say they approve. Similarly, nearly eight in 10 unvaccinated adults disapprove, while more than half of vaccinated adults approve, according to the survey.

Overall, nearly half of adults surveyed said the government has not done enough to help small businesses or low-income people during the pandemic. About 40% of those surveyed said the government has not done enough to help Black people, Hispanic people or rural residents.

The latest KFF Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor survey was conducted over two weeks in mid-November. All fully vaccinated adults became eligible to receive a booster dose at the end of the survey period, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance encouraging all vaccinated adults to get boosters, and information about the new Omicron variant become public, after the survey ended.

Results came from a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,820 adults.

6:05 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

"Our first thought was: There goes our quiet December": How scientists discovered Omicron and set off a global reaction

From CNN's Tim Lister and David McKenzie in Johannesburg

A healthcare worker conducts a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on November 30, 2021.
A healthcare worker conducts a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on November 30, 2021. (Emmanuel Crosete/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early days of November, laboratory technicians at Lancet Laboratories in Pretoria, South Africa, found unusual features in samples they were testing for the coronavirus.

Essentially, a gene was missing in what would be a normal genome profile of the virus. PCR tests weren't detecting one of their expected targets, a signal that something about the virus had changed.

Just a few days later, the same phenomenon was reported at Lancet's Molecular Pathology Department in Johannesburg.

Dr. Allison Glass, a pathologist with Lancet, said the discovery coincided with an increase in positive cases of Covid-19 in parts of South Africa.

In the province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, fewer than 1% of people were testing positive at the start of November, but this rose to 6% within a fortnight and to 16% by Wednesday.

The discovery "raised concerns that we were in for another surge," Glass told CNN. "Our first thought was: There goes our quiet December and a Christmas break."

Three weeks later, what the South African scientists had stumbled across would be known worldwide as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The spike in Gauteng didn't go unnoticed at the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA). Its director, Tulio de Oliveira, called a meeting for November 23. He told the New Yorker: "We heard from one member in our network that a private lab, Lancet Laboratories, had sent in six genomes of a very mutated virus. And, when we looked at the genomes, we got quite worried because they discovered a failure of one of the probes in the P.C.R. testing."

CERI rapidly upscaled testing of samples in Gauteng and found the variant appearing very frequently. Tulio later observed on Twitter that in less than two weeks the new variant "dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa."

Read the full story here:

5:29 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Biden to outline new steps to combat Covid in US through winter months

From CNN’s DJ Judd

As part of its ongoing efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the White House is announcing a slew of new actions Thursday aimed at fighting the pandemic and protecting Americans from the Delta and newly-discovered Omicron coronavirus variants. 

President Joe Biden will detail the administration’s nine-pronged plan in remarks at the National Institutes of Health Thursday, just one day after officials confirmed the first recorded case of the Omicron variant in the United States in California.

“While this new variant is a cause for concern, it is not a cause for panic,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday ahead of the President’s remarks.

“We have the tools we need to confront this variant, to keep making progress in our fight against the virus, and we are using these tools to keep people safe, keep our schools open, and protect our economy,” the official added.

The plans addresses several areas:

Travel guidance for international and domestic travel 

Building on new travel restrictions from regions affected by spread of the Omicron variant earlier this week, Biden will announce new steps Thursday tightening pre-departure Covid-testing protocol for all inbound international travelers, requiring a negative test within one day of departure for the US.

At this time, any foreign national who travels to the US must be fully vaccinated, though there remains no vaccination requirement for American citizens traveling via air, either globally or domestically. 

The administration will also formally announce its plan to extend a mask requirement for domestic travel, originally slated to expire in January, until mid-March. The order, which was already extended earlier this summer, also applies to travel via rail and public transportation, and comes amid widespread reports of unruly passengers refusing to comply with mask mandates.

Increasing vaccine and booster outreach for seniors and children 

Under the plan announced Wednesday, the administration is increasing vaccine outreach, including efforts, in partnership with HHS, AARP, and Medicare, to ensure an estimated 100 million Americans eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine booster get shots as soon as possible, including the launching of a nationwide public education campaigns, town halls, offering rides to vaccine and booster appointments for the nation’s “hardest-hit and highest risk older Americans.” 

The administration will also unveil a series of steps aimed at increasing vaccination rates among children in an effort to keep schools open and protect children ages 5 and up. 

As part of those efforts, the administration will launch “family vaccination clinics” aimed at offering vaccines and boosters for entire families at once and FEMA offering mobile vaccination clinics to reach hard-to-reach communities. The administration is also issuing a “Safe School Checklist” so schools can safely encourage vaccination and booster efforts and avoid outbreaks.

Biden will also announce further actions to export vaccines abroad, including 200 million more doses in the next 100 days, accelerating delivery to high-risk countries, while ramping up vaccine manufacturing to increase global production capacity. 

Expanding testing and outbreak response efforts 

Biden’s Thursday announcement will also new steps to increase Covid-testing, including the news that private insurers will reimburse the costs of at-home tests for more than 150 million Americans covered by private insurance. In addition, local community sites such as health centers and rural clinics will offer free at-home tests for those not covered by private insurance.

The president will also announce over 60 Winter Covid emergency response team deployments available to states to combat outbreaks and rising Covid cases nationally, expanding a program from the summer and fall.

5:12 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

South Africa’s Covid-19 cases appear to be spiking at "fastest rate since the start of the pandemic"

From CNN's Sheena McKenzie, Becky Anderson, Tim Lister & David McKenzie

A hospital worker ensures people practice social distancing as they wait in line to get vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 1, 2021
A hospital worker ensures people practice social distancing as they wait in line to get vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 1, 2021 (Shiraaz Mohamed/AP)

South Africa’s Covid-19 cases are “increasingly rapidly” at what looks to be “the fastest rate we have seen since the start of the pandemic,” Michelle Groome, head of the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), told CNN Wednesday.

Weeks after Omicron was first detected, it is now the dominant variant in some provinces, according to health authorities. In Gauteng province -- which includes the major city of Johannesburg -- the Omicron variant comprised 74% of sequences, said South Africa's Network for Genomic Surveillance on Wednesday.

The province has seen the sharpest rise in coronavirus infections in the last month, and testing is ongoing to determine the prevalence of Omicron in other districts.

Infections in South Africa appear to be surging, with around 8,600 daily cases on Tuesday, up from roughly 1,300 cases a week earlier, according to latest data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Groome said the rapid increase of cases was "concerning," adding that testing of wastewater had alerted authorities relatively early to infections in the Pretoria district.

"Two weeks ago we were seeing case numbers and positivity rates which were the lowest since the start of the pandemic," said Groome. She added that those numbers "have climbed rapidly to today" where scientists were looking at "positivity rates of over 15%."

For now, it was unclear whether the rise in infections was "due to increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant or due to immune escape," said Groome.

She added that cases had mostly been among younger people, which could be down to their increased social gatherings as schools broke up, as well as lower vaccination rates in that age group.

So far, doctors had observed "mostly mild cases," Groome said, putting it down to a mostly younger demographic presenting.

As cases move into the older population, doctors will have a better idea of "whether we are seeing reciprocal increases in hospitalizations and deaths associated with it, or whether this really is more a mild disease," Groome said.

4:15 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

First Omicron case identified in mainland France

From CNN's Joseph Ataman in Paris

The first case of the Omicron variant detected in mainland France has been identified in the northern Ile-de-France region, French health authorities said Thursday.

A statement from the Ile-de-France regional health authority said the case, a man between ages 50 and 60, tested positive on Nov. 25 following his return from a trip to Nigeria.

The man, who was unvaccinated, was asymptomatic at the time of the test and was placed into isolation with the group he was traveling with, authorities said.

His wife — who is also unvaccinated and traveled with him — also tested positive for Covid-19, but the sequencing of her variant is still ongoing, the statement said.

The first case of the Omicron variant recorded on French territory was detected on the island of Reunion, officials said Tuesday.

3:57 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

It's nearly 10 a.m. in Berlin and 6 p.m. in Tokyo. Here's what you need to know about the Omicron variant

The Omicron coronavirus variant has prompted a fresh wave of travel restrictions and border closures as countries scramble to identify cases of the potentially more transmissible strain.

Here's the latest major developments:

  • Japan overturns flight embargo: Tokyo on Thursday canceled a ban on accepting new reservations for inbound flights. Japan's Transport Ministry had asked airlines to refuse reservations on international flights to the country, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida later said he had instructed the ministry to reconsider out of consideration for Japanese citizens' need to return.
  • Germany crisis talks: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her likely successor are holding coronavirus crisis talks with regional leaders on Thursday. Tougher restrictions are likely to be agreed — many of which are set to target unvaccinated people.
  • First US case: The United States has joined a growing number of countries that have confirmed Omicron cases. The case was identified in California in a person who traveled from South Africa before travel restrictions were in place.
  • US mask mandate: The Biden administration will extend existing requirements for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, buses, trains and boats, as well as in airports and other transport hubs through March.
  • UN chief's appeal: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said widespread travel bans on southern African countries over fears of the Omicron variant were akin to "travel apartheid." The bans were "unacceptable," he added.
  • WHO travel advice: The World Health Organization advised people in certain groups at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 — including the unvaccinated and those over 60 — to postpone travel to areas with community spread, in response to the new variant.
3:16 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Omicron is "the variant we were fearing," French expert says

From CNN's Joseph Ataman in Paris

Omicron is the coronavirus "variant we were fearing," a French health expert said Thursday.

Speaking to CNN affiliate BFMTV, Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France's Scientific Council, said the new variant's 30 new mutations in the spike protein — the part of the virus targeted by vaccines — were a cause for concern.

Omicron “arrived from nowhere,” Delfraissy said, adding that the new strain was not an evolution of the Delta variant, which was responsible for the fifth Covid-19 wave in Europe. 

“The real enemy, it's the fifth wave with the Delta variant,” he said. 

Delfraissy said that while Omicron was spreading quickly, “Christmas is not in danger,” and “the response to Delta and Omicron is the same: booster shots.”

3:05 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

5 takeaways from CNN's coronavirus town hall

Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (CNN)

Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta hosted a CNN town hall on the coronavirus Wednesday night, with guests including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Much of the discussion focused on Omicron, including what we do and don't know about the new variant. Here are five main takeaways:

  1. We don't know much about Omicron yet: The world has a lot to learn about the new variant before any decision can be made on how to address it, Fauci said. The single Omicron case detected in the United States so far “doesn’t really tell you much at all,” he added. “It's only a single person. You really can’t make a broad general statement or an extrapolation for what would go on with unvaccinated people or people who were boosted,” Fauci said. “So there’s a lot more to be learned.”
  2. Fauci says people should get vaccinated: Americans should not lose sight of the dangers of the Delta variant even as Omicron dominates headlines, Fauci said. "We still have 99.9% of the isolates are Delta, and we know what we can do with Delta," he said. "We have, within our capability, to block it by getting the people who are unvaccinated vaccinated." Americans should also take other precautions — including wearing masks — as colder weather settles on much of the country, Fauci added.
  3. It's still safe to travel: Despite the emergence of Omicron, Americans can still travel safely, Fauci said. He added he would not suggest anything different from previous safety recommendations. "We just have a problem that's identifiable now, and just as I said, and I'll say it again, if you have a vaccinated situation, your family's vaccinated, enjoy the holidays, indoor with your family in a family setting," he said.
  4. Moderna president's vaccine hopes: Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, expressed hope the pharmaceutical company's Covid-19 vaccine would deliver the "highest efficacy" against the Omicron variant. "Our hope, at least in Moderna, is that we're going to continue to see the highest efficacy overall and continue to see the boosters push that even higher," he said. However, he also acknowledged it is likely the current vaccines could be less effective against Omicron.
  5. It's still not clear if people will need a yearly booster: It's too early to tell whether people will need to receive a Covid-19 vaccine each year to protect against infection, Fauci said. “The honest answer is we don't know what's going to be required,” he said. “I hope we get a durability of protection from the boost that we won't have to be chasing all the time against the new variant but that just remains to be seen.”
2:53 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Germany's unvaccinated could soon face even tougher Covid-19 restrictions

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt

Acting Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and acting German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz during a press conference after a meeting on the current coronavirus situation on November 18, 2021 in Berlin.
Acting Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and acting German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz during a press conference after a meeting on the current coronavirus situation on November 18, 2021 in Berlin. (Clemens Bilan/Pool/Getty Images)

German citizens could potentially face tougher coronavirus restrictions as the country struggles to contain a fierce fourth wave of the pandemic.

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her likely successor, Olaf Scholz, are holding crisis talks with regional leaders on Thursday to map out a way forward, a Tuesday statement from the Chancellor’s office said.

Tougher restrictions are likely to be agreed — many of which are set to target unvaccinated people. The goal is to bring down infection rates and ease the pressure on rapidly filling intensive care beds.

Among the range of measures being considered are the closures of bars and clubs, and limiting large events. Some hard-hit regions in Germany have already canceled Christmas markets and barred unvaccinated people from public spaces like restaurants, gyms and leisure facilities.

Germany's leaders are also set to discuss mandatory vaccinations. Earlier this week, Scholz signaled his backing for mandatory Covid-19 shots. The introduction of mandatory vaccines would have to be approved by Parliament.

Intensive care warning: On Wednesday, Germany recorded 446 Covid-19 related fatalities — its highest number of daily deaths in nine months. Many hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of intensive care patients and German medics have warned that occupancy of intensive care beds could soon exceed that seen during last winter's peak.

The German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency (Divi) in a statement on Wednesday warned there could be about 6,000 Covid-19 patients in intensive care by Christmas —regardless of any measures implemented by Germany's leaders. 

Germany reported 73,209 new cases within the past 24 hours, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country's disease control center.

More than 102,000 people have died as a result of coronavirus in Germany, the RKI said. The country reported 388 new deaths related to Covid-19 from Wednesday to Thursday.

Just under 70% of Germany's population is fully vaccinated, according to the RKI.