• 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 tells Asia-Pacific to brace for Omicron as variant spreads; Germany imposes restrictions on unvaccinated people; US steps up travel restrictions and brings in free COVID-19 tests.

1. How COVID-19 is affecting the globe

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 264.3 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.23 million. More than 8.12 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Asia-Pacific countries on Friday to boost healthcare capacity and fully vaccinate their people to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant spreads globally despite travel curbs. Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant. Omicron started gaining a foothold in Asia this week, with cases reported in India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

The European Union's public health agency said on Thursday that the Omicron variant could be responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 infections in Europe within a few months. The estimate could lend weight to preliminary information about the very high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, above that of the Delta variant.

The Swiss cantons of Geneva and Vaud have placed 2,000 people into quarantine after two cases of the Omicron variant were detected at an international school. Geneva is home to the WHO which last week classified Omicron as a SARS-CoV-2 "variant of concern". Geneva had previously confirmed one case in an individual who had returned from South Africa and another suspected case linked to the same individual.

India expects the Omicron variant of coronavirus to cause less severe disease, the health ministry said on Friday, thanks to vaccinations and high prior exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70% of the population by July. As many as 84% have received at least one vaccine dose.

South Africa is being hit by a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant which has been detected in seven of the country's nine provinces, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said on Friday. Omicron, which has raised global fears of a surge in infections, was first detected in southern Africa last month. Phaahla urged South Africans to get fully vaccinated.

Ghana detected the Omicron coronavirus variant in 34 samples from travellers who returned to the country between 21-25 November, according to data from the state institute responsible for coronavirus testing. The health ministry on Wednesday announced it had detected the country's first imported cases of the variant, but did not say how many cases had been identified.

China is accelerating research and development of COVID-19 vaccines targeting the Omicron variant, a health official said on Thursday. Mainland China has not detected any Omicron case yet. "We are rapidly pushing forward the research and development of Omicron-specific vaccines based on different technologies," Zheng Zhongwei, who heads a group tasked with COVID-19 vaccine development in China, told state broadcaster CCTV.

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. Germany imposes curbs on unvaccinated and aims to make shots mandatory

Germany announced restrictions on the unvaccinated as it sought to break a dramatic surge in daily coronavirus infections exacerbated by the discovery of the Omicron strain.

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor Olaf Scholz agreed with leaders of Germany's 16 states to bar the unvaccinated from access to all but the most essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and bakeries.

They also agreed to pass legislation in the national parliament to make vaccination mandatory.

Eager to avoid lockdowns that could derail a fragile recovery of Europe's biggest economy, they kept businesses open to the almost 69% of the population that is fully vaccinated as well as those with proof of having recovered from COVID-19.

"The situation is very serious," Merkel said during a news conference with Scholz, who is expected to be elected as chancellor by the Bundestag (lower house) next week. "The number of infections has stabilized, but on a far too high a level."

Merkel said an ethics committee will be asked to draft legislation to make vaccination mandatory and the Bundestag would debate and vote on the disputed measure in February at the latest.

Authorities fear the fourth wave of COVID-19 risks overwhelming intensive care units and on Thursday it resulted in more than 73,000 new infections and 388 deaths.

Virologists blame the renewed outbreak on resistance to vaccination by a significant section of society, and have criticized politicians for acting too late to rein in contagion.

3. Biden sets new travel rules and adds free COVID tests

US President Joe Biden on Thursday laid out his strategy to fight the Omicron and Delta coronavirus variants over the winter, including free and insurer-funded, at-home COVID-19 testing and new requirements for international travellers.

The US government will require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests, administration officials said, and make 50 million tests available free through rural clinics and health centres for the uninsured.

Reimbursement for tests will not kick in, however, until January, missing the crucial holiday period when many families and groups gather indoors.

"We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, while warning that infections will rise this winter.

The United States also plans to require inbound international passengers to be tested for COVID-19 within one day of departure, regardless of vaccination status. Mask requirements on airplanes, trains and public transportation vehicles will be extended to 18 March.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.