• 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: US introduces vaccine mandate for foreign cross-border workers; Indian capital to lift weekend curfew; Herd immunity 'unlikely' despite rapid spread of Omicron variant.

1. How COVID-19 is affecting the globe

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 342.7 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.57 million. More than 9.79 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday that non-U.S. essential workers such as truck drivers and nurses who are crossing land borders must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, effective Saturday.

India's capital is set to lift a weekend curfew and allow private offices to be partially staffed after a fall in new COVID-19 infections, The number of new cases in Delhi has more than halved from a peak of 28,867 on January 13 and more than 80% of COVID beds across the city's hospitals were unoccupied, according to government data.

France will ease work-from-home rules from early February and allow nightclubs to reopen two weeks later, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday. Limits on the number of people allowed into sports and entertainment venues will also be lifted on February 2, and masks will no longer be required outdoors from that date.

Poland will report a record 36,665 daily COVID-19 cases on Friday, a deputy health minister said, as an Omicron-driven fifth wave of infections takes hold. "In the coming days we will also have very high results, it worries us," Waldemar Kraska told private broadcaster Radio Plus, adding that daily cases would top 50,000 next week.

Israel will ditch mandatory quarantine for children exposed to COVID-19 carriers, the government said on Thursday, citing a need to relieve parents and schools as case numbers spiral due to the fast-spreading but low-morbidity Omicron variant.

Japan on Friday acted to contain a record surge in COVID-19 cases with a return to curbs that have shown diminishing results. Infections hit an all-time high of around 46,000 on Thursday.

Pakistan reported on Friday over 7,000 COVID-19 cases in a single day, its highest daily number of infections since the pandemic began. At least 7,678 cases in the past 24 hours pushed the positivity ratio to 12.93%, the highest ever in the last two years.

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. Dozens of firms to make cheap version of Merck COVID-19 pill for poorer nations

Nearly 30 generic drugmakers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will make cheap versions of Merck & Co's COVID-19 pill, under a landmark U.N.-backed deal to give poorer nations wider access to a drug seen as a weapon in fighting the pandemic.

Merck's early greenlight to production of its anti-viral pill molnupiravir by other companies during the pandemic is a rare example in the pharmaceutical sector, which usually protects its patented treatments for longer periods.

However, there are questions about molnupiravir which has shown low efficacy in trials and has raised concerns for side-effects, and lengthy procedures for appovals may delay supplies in many poorer nations for months.

Under the deal, negotiated by the U.N.-backed Medicines Patent Pool with Merck, the U.S. company will not receive royalties for the sale of the low-cost version of the pill while the pandemic continues.

3. Analysis: How Omicron highlights fading hope of herd immunity from COVID-19

The Omicron variant, which is spreading far faster than previous versions of the coronavirus, is not likely to help countries achieve so-called herd immunity against COVID-19, leading disease experts say.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, public health officials have expressed hope that it was possible to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19, as long as a high enough percentage of the population was vaccinated or infected with the virus.

Those hopes dimmed as the coronavirus mutated into new variants in quick succession over the past year, enabling it to reinfect people who were vaccinated or had previously contracted COVID-19.

Some health officials have revived the possibility of herd immunity since Omicron emerged late last year.

The fact that the variant spreads so quickly and causes milder illness might soon expose enough people, in a less harmful way, to the SARS-COV-2 virus and provide that protection, they argue.

Disease experts note, however, that Omicron’s transmissibility is aided by the fact that this variant is even better than its predecessors at infecting people who were vaccinated or had a prior infection. That adds to evidence that the coronavirus will continue to find ways to break through our immune defenses, they said.

“Reaching a theoretical threshold beyond which transmission will cease is probably unrealistic given the experience we have had in the pandemic,” Dr. Olivier le Polain, an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization (WHO), told Reuters.