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Coronavirus: Free to read

Coronavirus: Week of Dec. 12 to Dec. 18, Australia daily cases hit record high

WHO clears Indian version of Novavax shot; Tokyo traces contacts after omicron case at stadium

Health care workers administer COVID-19 tests at a drive-through testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Dec. 17.    © Reuters

Nikkei Asia is tracking the spread of the coronavirus that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Cumulative global cases have reached 273,639,343, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The worldwide death toll has hit 5,343,939.

For more information about the spread of COVID-19 and vaccination progress around the world, please see our interactive charts and maps.

-- Global coronavirus tracker charts

-- Status of vaccinations around the world

UPDATES CLOSED

Saturday, Dec. 18 (Tokyo time)

11:28 a.m. Australia reports a record daily high of over 4,000 new COVID-19 cases, with outbreaks growing in the nation's two most populous states. New South Wales recorded 2,482 new cases and Victoria hit 1,504 new infections. Elsewhere, Queensland reported 31 cases, with the total from the three states topping the country's previous peak of 3,820 infections, marked a day earlier. However, Reuters reports that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is continuing to downplay the risks as the government eases pandemic curbs.

3:16 a.m. Canada will lift a ban on travelers from 10 African nations including South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt that was imposed last month as part of a campaign to fight the omicron variant of COVID-19, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says. Duclos also tells reporters that Canada once again will require people returning home after foreign trips of less than 72 hours to produce a negative test.

2:11 a.m. The World Health Organization authorizes the Serum Institute of India's version of Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, which allows the two companies to ship their doses for the COVAX program.

The emergency use listing for Covovax marks a significant milestone for Novavax after the vaccine had been caught up with delays, especially in ramping up production. Nasdaq-listed shares of Novavax were up 11% on the news in midday trading.

Friday, Dec. 17

6:30 p.m. South Africa's health minister says the government believes that vaccines and high levels of prior COVID-19 infection were helping to keep the disease milder in a wave driven by the omicron variant. "We believe that it might not necessarily just be that omicron is less virulent, but ... coverage of vaccination [and] ... natural immunity of people who have already had contact with the virus is also adding to the protection," Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a news conference. "That's why we are seeing mild illness."

Fans watch a semifinal of the Emperor's Cup soccer tournament on Dec. 12. Authorities are now calling on about 80 people to get tested after they sat near a man who was later found to be infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19.   © Kyodo

3:50 p.m. The Tokyo metropolitan government says a man in his 20s has been found to be infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus, and is calling on some 80 people who sat near him at a soccer match and over 100 of his colleagues to undergo testing. The man, who has been hospitalized since Wednesday, is an acquaintance of a woman who was found infected with the variant after returning from the United States on Dec. 8. After meeting with the woman, the man watched a semifinal of the Emperor's Cup soccer tournament at Todoroki Stadium in Kanagawa Prefecture.

3:00 p.m. South Africa says it will donate roughly 2 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine to other African countries. The shots will be made available next year through a medical supplies platform set up by the African Union. South Africa has fully vaccinated about 38% of its adults, more than in many other African countries but well short of the government's year-end target. It recently delayed some vaccine deliveries due to oversupply as the pace of inoculations slowed.

1:22 p.m. Tokyo stocks were dragged down by the Bank of Japan's decision to halt some emergency COVID stimulus measures. The blue-chip Nikkei Stock Average at one point dropped over 500 points, or 1.8%, during Friday afternoon trade as investors worried about the BOJ scaling back funding while fears over rising inflation continued to spook investors.

A bottleneck forms as people head to the St Vincent's Hospital Drive testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney, on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.   © AP

12:15 p.m. With new cases hitting a record high for the second day in a row, Australian authorities rush to track down hundreds who last week attended a Taylor Swift album party in Sydney that turned into a superspreader event. At least 97 cases, including some potential omicron transmissions, have been detected among people who attended the party. A record 3,820 cases were reported nationwide on Friday, with the bulk coming in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria. Around 3,400 cases were reported across the country on Thursday.

12:11 p.m. The Bank of Japan decides to wrap up some of its emergency COVID monetary stimulus measures during a two-day policy meeting that ended on Friday. The central bank will end its purchases of corporate bonds and commercial paper at the end of March, as scheduled. It will also curtail one-year interest-free loans to banks aiding pandemic-hit businesses, ending those for large corporations at the end of March, while extending those for small businesses by six months.

9:17 a.m. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has spoken with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the phone in a bid to secure the delivery of 120 million doses of the company's COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2022.

Of more than 200 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S., around 16 million received the J&J vaccine, the CDC says.   © Reuters

7:55 a.m. A panel of outside advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention votes to recommend Americans choose to receive one of the other two authorized COVID-19 vaccines over Johnson & Johnson's shot, due to rare but sometimes fatal cases of blood clotting. The CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization voted unanimously to recommend shots from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. Of more than 200 million fully vaccinated people in the United States, around 16 million received the J&J vaccine, according to CDC data.

7:15 a.m. U.S. President Joe Biden warns that the omicron variant is going to spread rapidly in the U.S. and that a winter of severe illness and death awaits the unvaccinated. Getting an update on the pandemic from top health advisers, Biden also said it is past time for people to get booster shots and urged them to do so as quickly as possible.

3:00 a.m. As cases soar in the U.K., Queen Elizabeth has canceled her pre-Christmas lunch with family members, Reuters reports, citing a Buckingham Palace source. The annual event was also called off in 2020.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth attends the Commonwealth Games baton relay launch, outside Buckingham Palace in London, in October.   © Reuters

2:18 a.m. The U.K. reports 88,376 daily new cases in data provided Thursday local time, breaking the record of 78,610 marked the day before and doubling from the 43,992 reported Dec. 5. Daily new cases involving the omicron variant came to 1,691 in data up to 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Health Security Agency says, compared with the day-earlier 4,671. The news comes the day after the agency's chief executive, Jenny Harries, called omicron "probably the most significant threat we've had since the start of the pandemic."

1:30 a.m. A worker at Osaka's Kansai International Airport has tested positive for the omicron variant, Japan's health ministry reports. Officials suspect the worker, who is employed at a quarantine facility that houses travelers with COVID-19, was infected on the job.

Thursday, Dec. 16

11:24 p.m. The European Union's drug regulator approves a COVID-19 treatment from British-U.S. duo GSK and Vir Biotechnology and another from Swedish drugmaker Sobi. The approval of GSK-Vir's antibody drug Xevudy and Sobi's arthritis drug Kineret comes as governments struggle with soaring infections and worry about the swiftly spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.

10:52 p.m. France says it will not allow people, including the vaccinated, to enter the country from the U.K. starting Saturday due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant there. Exceptions will be made for French residents, medical personnel, students, drivers and some others if they meet certain conditions.

5:30 p.m. The Philippine central bank keeps its policy rate at a record low, maintaining support for the economy amid uncertainty over the fallout of the new omicron variant, while saying that the inflation environment remains "manageable." The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas kept the rate on the overnight reverse repurchase facility at 2.0%, as expected by all 22 economists in a Reuters poll. Annual inflation reached 4.2% in November, above the central bank's 2% to 4% target.

After discovering its second case of the omicron COVID-19 variant, Malaysia announced a ban on large New Year's gatherings.   © Reuters

3:30 p.m. Malaysia announces new COVID-19 restrictions, including a ban on mass gatherings and requiring booster doses for high-risk groups, as it reported its second case of the omicron variant in an 8-year-old traveling with family from Nigeria, where the child's family resided, via Qatar. To curb omicron risks, large New Year gatherings will be banned and those attending private New Year and Christmas celebrations must self-test for COVID-19. Malaysians over 60, and all adult recipients of the Sinovac vaccine, are required to get a booster dose by February to keep their status as "fully vaccinated."

3:26 p.m. Japan's blue-chip Nikkei Stock Average jumped on investor relief about the outlook for U.S. interest rate increases. The index rose more than 600 points, or 2.1%, and closed above the 29,000 mark for the first time in almost three weeks. The Federal Reserve has announced that it will accelerate its tapering of bond purchases and signaled that it plans to raise interest rates at least three times in 2022, within the market consensus. U.S. stocks surged overnight as investors welcomed clarity on the Fed's policy, prompting Tokyo stocks to follow along.

2:58 p.m. Sinovac Biotech says that a third shot of its COVID-19 vaccine is 94% effective against the omicron variant, defending its jab after a study suggested the regular two-shot regimen provides inadequate protection.

1:10 p.m. Indonesia has identified its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant, the country's health minister says. The variant was detected Wednesday evening in an employee at the Wisma Atlet hospital in Jakarta who had no history of overseas travel. The health minister said so far there was no community transmission, but there were five more suspected omicron cases, including two Indonesians who had recently returned from the United States and from Britain, and three Chinese nationals currently in quarantine in Manado, North Sulawesi.

12:30 p.m. Japan approves Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine for its booster program that began this month. The move comes a day after health ministry experts approved the mRNA shot, used mostly at workplace inoculation sites to date, for third, or booster, shots for those 18 and older. That's the same standard applied to the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech that has been injected as a booster about 71,000 times so far, or in 0.1% of Japan's population.

11:11 a.m. South Korea announces renewed curbs to stem a resurgence of the pandemic. A total of 7,850 new cases were reported on Wednesday, the most since the pandemic started. Thursday's total came in slightly lower at 7,622.

Sydney, Australia, on November 19, 2021, after the lifting of lockdowns led to a surge in all kinds of activities.   © Reuters

11:00 a.m. Australian employment blew past all expectations in November as coronavirus lockdowns were lifted, driving the unemployment rate sharply lower. A record 366,100 jobs were added in November, government data shows, eclipsing market forecasts of a 205,000 gain. A sharp 4.5% increase in hours worked also points to a strong rebound in economic growth after a delta-driven contraction in the third quarter.

9:30 a.m. New Zealand health regulator Medsafe has granted provisional approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11, the health ministry says. The provisional approval is for two doses of the pediatric Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, given at least 21 days apart, it says. If approved by the cabinet, the introduction of the pediatric Pfizer vaccine is expected to start in New Zealand no later than the end of January 2022.

8:46 a.m. New Zealand's gross domestic product shrank 3.7% in the third quarter from the previous quarter, the second largest decline on record, as the economy was hit by an outbreak of the delta variant of COVID-19, official data shows. The figure was not as bad as expected by economists polled by Reuters, who had forecast production-based growth would shrink 4.5% for the quarter, while the Reserve Bank of New Zealand had penciled in a drop of 7.0%.

7:14 a.m. The Metropolitan Opera in New York says it will require audiences and staff to show proof of a COVID booster shot starting in January amid growing concern over the omicron variant.

5:50 a.m. Two doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac coronavirus vaccine "do not produce sufficient levels" of antibodies against the heavily mutated omicron variant, according to a study released by the University of Hong Kong.

None of the 25 Sinovac recipients in the study had enough antibodies in their blood to neutralize the variant, compared with five out of 25 people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The effectiveness of a third shot has yet to be determined. The study was released as a preprint, meaning that it has not been peer-reviewed.

4:57 a.m. Canada implores residents not to leave the country for travel, as Ottawa sends millions more COVID-19 vaccine doses and rapid tests to the 10 provinces to combat the fast-spreading omicron coronavirus variant.

COVID-19 case numbers are rising as Canadian hospitals struggle to clear backlogs from months of postponed procedures.

People get tested for COVID-19 at a mobile testing unit in Manhattan, New York.   © Reuters

4:00 a.m. An omicron-specific coronavirus vaccine is not needed at this time because booster doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines are likely to offer a substantial increase in protection, says Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. medical adviser on the pandemic response.

Fauci cited preliminary data from an analysis of the Moderna vaccine, showing that while two doses produced a negligible antibody response against omicron in the laboratory, protection shot way up after a third dose.

"Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron. At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster," Fauci says at a White House coronavirus briefing.

Wednesday, Dec. 15

9:51 p.m. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cuts short his trip to Southeast Asia due to a COVID-19 case among his traveling party, according to a State Department official.

7:55 p.m. A panel of experts at Japan's Health Ministry agrees that Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines could be used for booster shots for those 18 and older, setting the stage for official government approval.

7:05 p.m. Preliminary evidence indicates that COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against infection and transmission linked to the omicron variant, which also carries a higher risk of reinfection, the World Health Organization says. The WHO, in its weekly epidemiological update, said that more data was needed to better understand the extent to which omicron may evade immunity derived from either vaccines or previous infection. "As a result of this, the overall risk related to the new variant of concern omicron remains very high," it says.

5:50 p.m. The U.S. embassy in Jakarta said a journalist traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his Southeast Asia tour tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Malaysia on Tuesday night. The embassy said "all members of the traveling press tested negative" when they arrived in Jakarta earlier on Monday.

Passengers wait at the departure area of Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines in June. Two people arriving from abroad were confirmed to be infected with the omicron variant.   © Reuters

2:29 p.m. The Philippines reports its first two omicron cases -- an overseas Filipino worker who arrived from Japan on Dec. 1 and a Nigerian national who arrived from Nigeria on Nov. 30. Both are currently asymptomatic, but the Filipino showed signs of a cold and cough upon arrival, the government said.

11:35 a.m. Vaccine maker Serum Institute of India (SII) has pledged 50 million pounds ($66.2 million) to the University of Oxford to establish a research facility that would also house SII, a primary contributor to the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 shot, Reuters reports. The investment will be made through the Indian company's Serum Life Sciences unit.

10:12 a.m. Cambodia has detected its first case of the omicron variant in a local person who had traveled from Ghana. The 23-year-old had returned from Ghana via Dubai and Bangkok, the government said in a Tuesday statement.

9:48 a.m. South Korea reports a record daily high of 7,850 cases -- up from 5,567 the previous day -- bringing the country total to 536,495 with 4,456 deaths. The government is considering tighter social distancing rules while encouraging the public to get booster shots.

9:46 a.m. Concerns over the omicron variant and fresh travel restrictions have led to a surge in hotel booking cancellations worldwide, said online hotel search company Trivago on Tuesday, threatening to upend a fragile recovery in tourism. Cancellation rates increased to 35% since November and online traffic related to holiday travel planning has slowed, growing only 4% since the variant was discovered. By comparison, 2019 Christmas travel increased 34.7% over the same one-to-two-week period. The company did not say what the cancellation rates were prior to November.

5:37 a.m. U.S. President Joe Biden says he is encouraged by data released by Pfizer on its COVID-19 antiviral medicine and his administration has ordered enough of the pills to treat 10 million Americans.

5:00 a.m. Almost 100 Conservative lawmakers join opposition Labor Party colleagues in voting against some new coronavirus restrictions, dealing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson another embarrassing blow over measures he says are necessary to curb the spread of the new omicron variant.

The vote hands Johnson the biggest rebellion against his government so far by his party over some of the measures, which included ordering people to wear masks in public places and use COVID-19 passes for some venues.

Tuesday, Dec. 14

Pfizer said that a final analysis of its antiviral COVID-19 pill showed near 90% efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk patients.   © Reuters

11:45 p.m. A final analysis of Pfizer's antiviral COVID-19 pill still showed near 90% efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk patients, and recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against the fast spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus, the drugmaker says.

11:00 p.m. A study finds that COVID-19 infections are more likely than vaccines to cause rare cardiovascular complications such as heart inflammation, British researchers say after analyzing data from 38 million people 16 and older.

The study, led by Oxford University scientists, compares the risks of myocarditis, pericarditis and cardiac arrhythmia following a first and second dose of COVID-19 vaccines -- from AstraZeneca-Oxford, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna -- and coronavirus infections.

8:59 p.m. Singapore signals an intention to make three doses of COVID-19 vaccines the standard for "full inoculation," likely sometime next year.

5:30 p.m. Singapore will allow up to 50% of workers currently working from home to return to their offices from Jan. 1, its health ministry says. Singapore reported 339 new coronavirus cases on Monday, the fewest since early September.

5:00 p.m. At least 20 listed companies including Zhejiang Mustang Battery, Guobang Pharma and textile dyes maker Zhejiang Runtu have shut operations in virus-hit areas in Zhejiang, a province in eastern China which accounts for about 6% of the country's gross domestic product. Tens of thousands of Zhejiang residents are in quarantine and some domestic flights have been suspended as a national health official said the outbreak in three cities -- Ningbo, Shaoxing and Hangzhou -- was developing at a "relatively rapid" speed.

12:00 p.m. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno says there have been no reports of severe illness among people infected with the omicron variant in Japan, but that the government "does not have enough scientific information on the severity of the virus at this time." Japan has confirmed 17 omicron cases so far.

11:30 a.m. Malaysia's health ministry says it has given conditional approval for the use of the single-dose antibody cocktail Ronapreve, developed by Regeneron and Roche, to treat COVID-19. It has also approved a request from Merck & Co for a clinical trial import license for that company's COVID-19 pill Molnupiravir, to be used as part of studies being conducted in Malaysia.

10:30 a.m. Toyota Motor says it will extend stoppages at some factories in Japan as it runs short of components from plants in Southeast Asia where production has been disrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns. Lost output from the latest halts will now total about 14,000 vehicles in December.

U.S. drugmaker Moderna plans to produce millions of mRNA vaccines a year in Australia.   © Reuters

10:10 a.m. U.S. drugmaker Moderna will produce millions of mRNA vaccines a year in Australia after agreeing to set up one of its largest manufacturing facilities outside the United States and Europe. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the plant in Victoria state is expected to produce up to 100 million mRNA vaccine doses every year when it begins operating in 2024.

9:00 a.m. The Asian Development Bank slashed growth estimates for Vietnam and Malaysia this year after third-quarter contractions, while trimming its forecast for developing Asia in 2022 because of the emergence of the COVID-19 omicron variant.

7:07 a.m. New York state can continue enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on health care workers for now, the U.S. Supreme Court rules. The state regulation allows medical exemptions but not religious exemptions, following a revision made after Kathy Hochul took over as governor from Andrew Cuomo earlier this year. Doctors and nurses sued and sought an emergency injunction, claiming religious objections to the vaccine. In late October, the Supreme Court had denied a similar request by health care workers in Maine.

6:00 a.m. Total U.S. coronavirus infections to date surpass 50 million, with deaths approaching 800,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of infections reached 25 million in January 2021, almost a year after the first coronavirus case was reported in the U.S. But the cases rose from 25 million to 50 million in less than a year. The faster pace indicates that the pandemic shows no signs of abating despite the availability of vaccines.

Medical workers collect swabs from residents at a COVID-19 testing site in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China.   © Reuters

1:00 a.m. China confirms its first omicron case on the mainland, in Tianjin. Authorities say the individual, who does not have symptoms, arrived from overseas. Omicron cases have already been confirmed in Hong Kong. China is on high alert for a possible omicron outbreak ahead of the Beijing Olympics slated for February.

Monday, Dec. 13

10: 45 p.m. At least one person has died in the United Kingdom after contracting the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson says. Since the first omicron cases were detected on Nov. 27 in the U.K., Johnson has imposed tougher restrictions and has urged people to get booster shots.

The U.K. government says it expects a "tidal wave" of omicron infections.   © Reuters

5:00 p.m. Britain says the omicron variant of coronavirus was spreading at a "phenomenal rate" and accounts for about 40% of all infections in London. The government is pushing people to get a third vaccine dose as two jabs are not enough to prevent symptomatic infection. Since the first cases of the omicron variant were detected on Nov. 27 in the the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed stricter restrictions and told the nation on Sunday that a "tidal wave" of omicron was about to hit.

3:10 p.m. Indonesia will start administering COVID-19 vaccinations to children aged 6 to 11 on Tuesday, a health ministry official says, becoming one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to immunize the very young. Indonesia approved China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine for the age group last month, and about 26.5 million children have been targeted for vaccination. The Sinovac vaccine is the only shot that has been given the go-ahead for children in the nation.

People in Jakarta line up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in August. Indonesia will start administering shots to children aged 6 to 11 from Tuesday,   © Reuters

2:21 p.m. India reports 7,350 new infections in the last 24 hours, marking the 17th consecutive day with under 10,000 cases and bringing the country's total to about 34.7 million. Fatalities rose by 202 to 475,636. The country -- which has so far reported 38 omicron cases -- has administered a total of 1.33 billion vaccine doses nationwide with over 86% of its eligible adult population of 944 million having received at least one shot while about 55% have got both doses.

1:30 p.m. China's Brii Biosciences says lab studies show its COVID-19 antibody cocktail "retained activity" against the omicron variant, although one of the antibodies showed a substantial drop in activity when tested alone. Test details for the dual-antibody treatment, which last week became the first approved COVID antibody cocktail in China, will not be available until publication in a scientific journal, but results from three independent labs showed similar patterns, says Brii chief executive Hong Zhi. Although no purchase order for the treatment has been announced, the company has been able to secure manufacturing capacity for 1 million doses for both 2022 and 2023, Hong says.

China's Brii Biosciences says its COVID-19 antibody cocktail works against the omicron variant.   © AP

11:50 a.m. South Korea reports 5,817 new coronavirus cases for Sunday, down from 6,689 a day earlier and falling below 6,000 for the first time in six days, according to Yonhap News Agency. The number of critically ill patients reached 876, the second-highest tally, after hitting an all-time high of 894 the previous day.

9:00 a.m. Japan's core machinery orders, a highly volatile leading indicator of capital spending in the coming six to nine months, rose 3.8% in October from the previous month, government data shows. It was the first rise in three months, a welcome sign of company spending, a broader economic recovery and an easing of constrained supplies. The economy is set to post a solid rebound this quarter after a larger-than-expected contraction in July-September, although the outlook is blurred by uncertainties around the omicron variant.

8:57 a.m. Business sentiment among Japan's large manufacturers has plateaued after five straight quarters of improvement, according to the Bank of Japan's latest Tankan survey. The headline diffusion index of sentiment among large manufacturers came to plus 18 in December, the same as in September.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa began feeling sick after leaving the State Memorial Service in honor of former Deputy President FW de Klerk in Cape Town.   © Reuters

5:35 a.m. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa tests positive for COVID-19, showing mild symptoms, the presidency said. "The President started feeling unwell after leaving the State Memorial Service in honor of former Deputy President FW de Klerk in Cape Town earlier today," the statement says. "The President, who is fully vaccinated, is in self-isolation in Cape Town and has delegated all responsibilities to Deputy President David Mabuza for the next week."

5:07 a.m. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson launches a campaign to accelerate the rollout of booster shots after finding that two doses were not enough to protect against the omicron variant. "Everyone eligible aged 18 and over in England will have the chance to get their booster before the New Year," Johnson said in a televised address. "A tidal wave of omicron is coming, and I'm afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need."

2:16 a.m. Britain raises its COVID alert level in response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant as medical authorities warn that hospitalizations are likely to rise sharply over the coming weeks. The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommend an increase to alert level 4 from level 3 on its 5-point scale, which means they judge transmission of the virus to be high. "Early evidence shows omicron is spreading much faster than delta and that vaccine protection against symptomatic disease from omicron is reduced," the medical officers said in a joint statement. "Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalizations from omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly."

1:00 a.m. The United States reaches 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths as it braces for a potential surge in infections due to the highly virulent omicron variant and colder weather pushing people to spend more time indoors. Even with vaccines widely and freely available, the country has lost more lives to the virus this year than in 2020 due to the more contagious delta variant and people refusing to go in for shots. Since the start of the year, over 450,000 people in the U.S. have died after contracting COVID-19, or 57% of all U.S. deaths from the illness since the pandemic started. It took 111 days for U.S. deaths to jump from 600,000 to 700,000, according to Reuters' analysis. The next 100,000 deaths took 73 days.

Sunday, Dec. 12

11:56 p.m. Three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine is the "optimal care" but two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remains the U.S. government's official definition of fully vaccinated, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said on Sunday. Health officials will continue to evaluate what should constitute the official designation, Fauci said on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

8:38 p.m. The number of registered COVID-19 cases in Russia now exceeds 10 million, data from the government's coronavirus task show, but the latest wave has lost its momentum and the number of deaths is declining. Russia reports 29,929 new COVID-19 infections for the past 24 hours, its lowest single-day tally since Oct. 13, taking the headline number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 10,016,896. Russia also reports 1,132 virus-related deaths, the lowest total since late October. Accumulated fatalities in Russia now stand at 289,483.

7:28 a.m. Australia says it will shorten the wait time for COVID-19 boosters following a rise in cases of the Omicron variant. Australia had previously said it would offer the booster to everyone over 18 who had had their second vaccine dose six months earlier. But with rising Omicron case numbers, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the interval will be shortened to five months.

6:32 a.m. Brazil's Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso issues a ruling that the country must demand proof of vaccination for visitors seeking to enter the country.

President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied requests of the state health regulator to demand vaccination proof from visitors. But Barroso says in his decision that Brazil needs to avoid supporting what he called "anti-vaccine tourism."

5:38 a.m. Israeli researchers find that a three-shot course of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine provided significant protection against the new omicron variant. The findings are similar to those presented by BioNTech and Pfizer last week, which were an early signal that booster shots could be key to protect against infection from the newly identified variant.

5:28 a.m. The first six cases of the omicron variant have been detected in Turkey, state broadcaster TRT Haber reports. Five of the cases were in the western city of Izmir and one in the largest city of Istanbul, but none of those affected needed hospital treatment, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca says, according to the state broadcaster.

2:00 a.m. The U.K. records 54,073 new cases and 132 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to official data. The figures compared with 58,194 cases and 120 deaths reported on Friday.

Saturday, Dec. 11

11:08 p.m. The British government may need to introduce tougher restrictions to slow the growth of the omicron variant and prevent a new surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, British scientists say. Omicron is spreading much more quickly than the delta strain and is likely to replace it, U.K. researchers say, becoming the dominant variant in Britain within days. The U.K. recorded 58,194 coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest number since January, though what portion were the omicron variant is unclear.

5:25 p.m. China orders some border cities to bolster vigilance against COVID-19 with measures such as mandatory testing for travelers, in an effort to prevent clusters caused by viruses arriving from abroad. Since mid-October, locally transmitted symptomatic cases have risen to more than 2,000, with several small northern towns on the borders with Russia or Mongolia, among the hardest hit.

People who intend to leave from border cities with overland ports of entry must show proof of negative test results within 48 hours before departure, said the notice, which excluded those from cities with ports of entry linked to Hong Kong or Macau. Arrivals in such cities must take at least one COVID-19 test. The testing measures will run until March 15.

3:27 p.m. Taiwan detects the island's first cases of the omicron variant in three people arriving from abroad. According to the Central Epidemic Command Centre, the infection was detected in three travelers from outside the island. The three, two Taiwanese and one American, had arrived from Eswatini in southern Africa, Britain and the United States. They have been in quarantine.

12:16 p.m. South African scientists see no sign that the omicron coronavirus variant is causing more severe illness, they say, as officials announced plans to roll out vaccine boosters with daily infections approaching an all-time high. Hospital data show that COVID-19 admissions are now rising sharply in more than half of the country's nine provinces, but deaths are not rising as dramatically and indicators such as the median length of hospital stay are reassuring.

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To catch up on earlier developments, see last week's latest updates.

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