Covid-19 has infected more than 277M people and killed over 5.3M worldwide. Here are some of the latest coronavirus-related developments:

The Omicron variant is spreading fast across the globe. (Reuters)

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Russia’s coronavirus death toll tops 600,000

Russia’s coronavirus death toll passed the 600,000 mark, Reuters news agency calculations based on official data showed, after a surge of infections linked to the Delta variant.

Russia had the third highest toll in the world with 600,434 fatalities, behind the United States, which has recorded around 813,000 deaths and Brazil with 618,000.

The Omicron variant which is spreading fast in other countries has so far made little impact on the Russian data. Officials said this week they had detected only 41 cases.

South African health regulator approves J&J boosters

South Africa’s health regulator approved the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine for a second dose or booster, paving the way for the shot widely used in South Africa to shore up protection against the Omicron variant.

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The country already announced in December that it was preparing to offer people booster doses of both the Pfizer and J&J shots, but it did not specify when J&J boosters would be available.

The South African Health Products Authority said in a statement on Thursday that it had approved J&J shots for use as a second dose or booster at least two months after the completion of the person’s primary vaccination, with either J&J’s single-shot course or another approved mRNA Covid-19 vaccine.

Xi’an residents hunker down for city lockdown

Taking crucial exams in lockdown, adapting to home-schooling and cancelling family reunions, Xi’an residents are enduring a near-total city closure to curb a tiny outbreak, as China presses on with its zero-Covid strategy ahead of the Winter Olympics.

The city transformed as all 13 million residents were ordered to stay home: streets emptied, people formed long lines at Covid-19 testing stations, and officials cordoned-off apartment compounds.

The historic former capital, a popular destination for international tourists prior to the pandemic, was swiftly sealed off after more than 200 Covid cases were detected this month.

S. Korea marks deadliest day of pandemic

South Korea set a new record for Covid-19 deaths as officials warned that the highly transmissible omicron variant could soon become the dominant strain.

In recent weeks, South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths after it significantly relaxed restrictions in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said a record 109 people died in the last 24-hour period, raising the country’s total number of pandemic fatalities to 5,015. It said the number of patients in serious or critical conditions also hit a fresh high of 1,083.

British data indicates lower hospitalisation rate for Omicron

Two studies from Britain have shown that Covid infections with Omicron are less likely to result in hospitalisation compared to the Delta variant, the latest research confirming a trend first identified in South Africa.

The preliminary studies, one paper from Scotland and the other from England, were cautiously welcomed by experts, who nonetheless stressed that any advantage in milder outcomes could still be negated by the new strain’s heightened infectiousness, which may still lead to more overall severe cases.

“We’re saying that this is qualified good news, qualified because these are early observations, they are statistically significant, and we are showing a reduced risk of hospitalizations,” Jim McMenamin, a co-author of the Scottish research, told reporters on a call.

The Scottish paper examined Covid cases recorded in November and December and grouped them by cases caused by Delta against those caused by Omicron.

Australia reports major spike in Covid cases

Australia has reported a major spike in coronavirus infections, a day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected lockdowns or mask mandates to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The most populous state, New South Wales, recorded 5,715 new cases, up from 3,763 and almost as many as were recorded across all of Australia on Wednesday. 

New South Wales also reported one death.

There were 347 people in New South Wales hospitals, up from 302 the previous day, and 45 in intensive care units, up from 40. Victoria state also saw a sharp increase, reporting 2,005 new infections on Thursday and 10 deaths. 

US court to take up Biden vaccine mandate cases

The US Supreme Court has agreed to take up disputes over the Biden administration’s nationwide vaccine-or-testing Covid-19 mandate for large businesses and a separate vaccine requirement for healthcare workers.

The brief court order said the court will hear oral arguments on Jan. 7 in the two cases, with rulings likely to follow in short order.

An appeals court on Friday allowed the workplace mandate, which covers 80 million American workers, to go into effect, prompting businesses, states and other groups challenging the policy to ask the Supreme Court to block it.

The other case concerns whether the administration can require healthcare workers at facilities that treat federally funded Medicare and Medicaid patients to receive shots while litigation continues.

Venezuela reports seven more cases

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said that seven cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been detected in the South American country.

All the cases occurred in people who had travelled from other countries, including Panama, Dominican Republic, Spain, and Turkey, and got positive test results at the airport, Maduro said on state television.

Maduro added his government wants to vaccinate 90 percent of the Venezuelan population by the end of the year and to begin giving out booster shots in the first week of January.

US authorises Pfizer Covid pills

The United States has authorized Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill for high-risk people aged 12 and up, as a surge of cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant threatened holiday plans and Americans struggled to find tests.

Paxlovid, which comprises two types of tablets, was granted an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration after it was shown in a clinical trial to reduce the risk of hospitalizations and deaths among at-risk people by 88 percent.

The US has spent $5.3 billion procuring 10 million courses of the treatment, with the first 265,000 to be delivered in January 2022, and the rest by late summer, White House Covid coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters on a call.

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