• This daily news round-up brings you a selection of the latest news and updates on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, as well as tips and tools to help you stay informed and protected.
  • Top stories: WHO warns of more hospital cases as Omicron is confirmed in 57 countries; US sets new record for COVID-19 booster shots; study shows Omicron variant can partially evade Pfizer vaccine.

1. How COVID-19 is affecting the globe

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 267.2 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.27 million. More than 8.28 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

Americans are lining up for booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines at a record pace, with concerns about the newly detected Omicron coronavirus variant spurring millions to get shots, the US government said on Tuesday. Just under a million people a day received booster doses of one of the three authorized vaccines last week, the highest rate since US regulators gave the nod to additional shots for some adults in September, government data shows.

Germany recorded the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 since February on Wednesday as it battles to stop a fourth wave of the pandemic. A total of 69,601 new infections were reported, 2,415 more than the same time a week ago, and another 527 people died - the highest number since 12 February - to bring the total to 104,047, the Robert Koch Institute for disease control said.

South Korea will consider expanding home treatment of COVID-19 patients, a health official said on Wednesday, as both new daily infections and severe cases hit record highs, putting hospital capacity under strain. Infections in South Korea have skyrocketed this month after the government began to ease restrictions. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 7,175 new coronavirus cases and 63 deaths for Tuesday, the first time daily infections have topped 7,000.

The African Union (AU) has called for an urgent end to travel restrictions imposed on some of its member states, saying the measures effectively penalize governments for timely data sharing in line with international health regulations. The measures act "as a disincentive for information sharing in the future", the AU said in a statement. Late last month several countries imposed travel curbs on seven southern African nations after they reported cases of the Omicron variant.

Britain is marking a year since the first person in the world was given a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials. On 8 December, 2020, Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother, became the first person to get the shot following its clinical approval. Britain has now given nearly 120 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, either as first doses, second doses or as boosters.

A rebound in market sentiment continued in early European trading on Wednesday, with world shares set for their biggest two-day jump since November last year as investors became less concerned about the Omicron variant. Shares plunged recently when the discovery of the new COVID-19 variant spooked investors. But sentiment has rebounded sharply this week in the absence of indications that Omicron would derail the economic recovery.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people in selected countries
Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people in selected countries.
Image: Our World in Data

2. WHO warns of increased hospitalizations as Omicron variant reported in 57 countries

The Omicron variant has been reported in 57 nations and the number of patients needing hospitalization is likely to rise as it spreads, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

The WHO, in its weekly epidemiological report, said more data was needed to assess the severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant and whether its mutations might reduce protection from vaccine-derived immunity.

"Even if the severity is equal or potentially even lower than for COVID-19 Delta variant, it is expected that hospitalizations will increase if more people become infected and that there will be a time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an increase in the incidence of deaths," it said.

On 26 November, the WHO declared the Omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa, a variant of concern. It is the fifth SARS-CoV-2 strain to carry such a designation.

The number of reported COVID-19 cases in South Africa doubled in the week to 5 December to more than 62,000 and "very large" increases in incidence have been seen in Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Lesotho, it said.

The spread of Omicron, coupled with enhanced testing and low vaccination rates may have played a role, it added.

Referring to the risk of reinfection, the WHO said: "Preliminary analysis suggests that the mutations present in the Omicron variant may reduce neutralizing activity of antibodies resulting in reduced protection from natural immunity."

3. Study suggests Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine may only partially protect against Omicron

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus can partially evade protection from two doses of Pfizer and partner BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, the research head of a laboratory at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa said on Tuesday.

Still, the study showed that blood from people who had received two doses of the vaccine and had a prior infection were mostly able to neutralize the variant, suggesting that booster doses of the vaccine could help to fend off infection.

Alex Sigal, a professor at the Africa Health Research Institute, said on Twitter there was "a very large drop" in neutralization of the Omicron variant relative to an earlier strain of COVID-19.

The lab tested blood from 12 people who had been vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, according to a manuscript posted on the website for his lab. The preliminary data in the manuscript has not yet been peer reviewed.

Blood from five out of six people who had been vaccinated as well as previously infected with COVID-19 still neutralized the Omicron variant, the manuscript said.

The preliminary data does not indicate that the vaccine is less able to prevent severe illness or death. While lab tests are under way, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said last week "we think it's likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron".

COVID-19

How is the World Economic Forum helping to identify new technologies to fight COVID-19?

As part of work identifying promising technology use cases to combat COVID, The Boston Consulting Group recently used contextual AI to analyze more than 150 million English language media articles from 30 countries published between December 2019 to May 2020.

The result is a compendium of hundreds of technology use cases. It more than triples the number of solutions, providing better visibility into the diverse uses of technology for the COVID-19 response.

To see a full list of 200+ exciting technology use cases during COVID – please follow this link.