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ImageCredit…Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Pfizer and BioNTech are expected this week to apply for regulatory approval for a booster shot of their coronavirus vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. If approved, the shot would be the first booster available to people under 18.
The Food and Drug Administration could authorize extra shots within roughly a week, the people said.
The move would come as President Biden seeks to reassure the nation about Omicron, a new variant of the coronavirus. On Monday, he called the variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
“I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe,” Mr. Biden said at the White House.
The news of Pfizer’s plans was first reported by The Washington Post.
The new variant has yet to be detected in the United States, and scientists have not determined how much of a threat it will pose. Vaccine manufacturers are racing to figure out whether their existing products will work against it or whether modified vaccines will be required.
About 10 days ago, federal health agencies authorized booster shots of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for everyone 18 and older. That opened up eligibility for extra injections to tens of millions more fully vaccinated adults. All adults who were vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a single shot, were already eligible for a booster.
Last month’s regulatory moves simplified eligibility and formally allowed a practice already in place in numerous states. Multiple governors had already offered boosters to everyone 18 and older ahead of the holidays.
Asked about the plan to request broader access, a Pfizer spokeswoman said the company would provide an update when available.
Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Prompted by growing concerns about the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said that all American adults “should” get booster doses of the available coronavirus vaccines.
Adults aged 18 and older should get a booster shot when they are six months past the initial immunization with the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or two months after the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the agency said.
The C.D.C. had previously said that Americans over age 50, as well as those ages 18 and older living in long-term care facilities, “should” get booster shots while all other adults “may” decide to do so based on their individual risk.The shift in language signals a growing concern about Omicron, despite the limited information available about the variant.
Scientists do not yet know whether vaccines will continue to protect people from Omicron. The variant contains many mutations that suggest the shots may be less effective against Omicron than against other variants, though evidence to support those fears has yet to be established.
Dozens of labs worldwide are now trying to assess exactly how much less effective the vaccines might be. They are not expected to have results for at least two weeks.
“Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the C.D.C., said in a statement.
“I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well.”
Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna plan to test whether booster shots of their vaccines will bolster the immune system enough to fend off the new variant. The boosters have been shown to raise antibody levels significantly. Those antibodies may not be able to neutralize Omicron entirely, but having more antibodies is generally beneficial, experts have said.
Dr. Walensky also urged Americans to get tested for the virus if they develop symptoms, and to practice prevention strategies known to limit transmission of the virus.
In just the week after it was first detected, the Omicron variant has been spotted in at least 16 countries. The variant has about 50 mutations, including more than 30 in the spike, a viral protein on its surface that the vaccines train the body to recognize and attack.
Biden Urges Vaccinations Amid Omicron Variant Concerns
President Biden called the new Omicron coronavirus variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and urged Americans to get vaccinations and booster shots. The variant has not yet been detected in the United States.
The very day the World Health Organization identified the new variant, I took immediate steps to restrict travel from countries in Southern Africa. But while we have that travel restrictions can slow the speed of Omicron, it cannot prevent it. But here’s what it does. It gives us time, gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster. The — sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States. We’ll have to face this new threat just as we faced those that come before it. This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion. In the event — hopefully unlikely — that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool. I want to reiterate: Dr. Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection against the new variant and the boosters strengthen that protection, significantly. We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed, but so that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.
President Biden called the new Omicron coronavirus variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and urged Americans to get vaccinations and booster shots. The variant has not yet been detected in the United States.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
President Biden sought to reassure the nation on Monday about the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus as crucial questions about it remain, telling Americans that the variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and that his administration was working with vaccine manufacturers to modify vaccines and booster shots should that prove necessary.
“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” Mr. Biden said at the White House, adding, “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”
The president is expected to visit the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, and said he would outline “a strategy for how we are going to fight Covid this winter, not with shutdowns or with lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” The variant has yet to be detected in the United States.
Mr. Biden has already restricted travel from eight nations, including South Africa, a move that experts said would buy the United States time in determining how to respond. But it will likely be a week, possibly two weeks, before experts know more about the new variant. It has mutations that scientists fear could make it more infectious and less susceptible to vaccines, though evidence to support those fears has yet to be established.
Despite significant questions about the variant itself — including whether it causes mild or severe disease — countries around the world have rushed to defend against its spread, with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.
Mr. Biden was elected on a promise to bring the pandemic under control — a task that is proving easier said than done. Viruses are dedicated to ensuring their own survival, and that is especially true of the virus that causes Covid-19. Just as Mr. Biden was about to declare “independence from the virus” on the July 4 holiday, the Delta variant swept across the United States, causing another wave of hospitalizations and deaths.
Now there is Omicron, discovered in southern Africa and designated by the World Health Organization on Friday as a “variant of concern,” popping up just as the holiday travel season gets underway.
Mr. Biden is trying to project calm and keep the country from panicking while also ensuring that Americans get vaccinated and take other precautions, including masking and social distancing. He was joined at the White House by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who said that current P.C.R. tests were able to detect the new variant.
The emergence of the new variant is also increasing pressure on Mr. Biden and his administration to do more to share vaccines with the rest of the world.
South Africa, whose scientists detected the variant, has fully vaccinated only 24 percent of its population, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. It has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent, but has asked vaccine makers to stop sending doses: It is having trouble getting shots into arms, in part because of distribution bottlenecks and in part because many people are hesitant to take them.
Elsewhere in Africa, the vaccination rate is much lower, and in some countries, even health care workers have had trouble getting their shots. The W.H.O. reported last week that just 27 percent of health workers in Africa had been fully vaccinated.
The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than a billion vaccine doses to other nations, and so far it has shipped 275 million doses to 110 countries. The president said, as he has in the past, that the United States has donated more doses than any other nation. He implored other foreign leaders to increase their donations.
“Now we need the rest of the world to step as well,” he said.
But activists and some global health experts said the administration needed to move faster, arguing that vaccine inequities were the reason for the emergence of the variant.
“This is precisely what experts have been predicting was going to happen — that the extraordinary inequities and gaps between low-income countries and high-income countries creates this massive vulnerability, and it’s going to continue to generate these dangerous variants,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That point is glaringly obvious, and it’s painful.”
Mr. Biden’s top health advisers, including Dr. Fauci, spent much of the holiday weekend consulting with their South African counterparts.
Dr. Fauci told the president that it would take approximately two weeks to learn more about the variant’s transmissibility and severity, but that “he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases” of Covid, according to a statement from the White House.
Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.
Credit…Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register, via Associated Press
A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked the Biden administration’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for health care workers in the 10 states that had filed a lawsuit against the government this month.
The mandate requires all 17 million health care workers in Medicare- and Medicaid-certified medical facilities, which receive government funding, to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Jan. 4.
The injunction, issued by Judge Matthew Schelp of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, prevents the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from enforcing the mandate while the case is in court.
The judge said in his ruling that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of the case in part because Congress had not granted the agency authority to issue a vaccine mandate.
“C.M.S. seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans,” wrote Judge Schelp, who was nominated by President Donald J. Trump. “Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism.”
The lawsuit was filed by the states of Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. It said that by prompting health care workers to leave their jobs if they did not want to get vaccinated, the mandate could “exacerbate an alarming shortage of health care workers, particularly in rural communities, that has already reached a boiling point.”
Judge Schelp’s ruling is the second setback this month for the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.
A three-judge panel in New Orleans affirmed a federal appeals court’s decision to temporarily block a requirement that companies with at least 100 employees test their unvaccinated workers weekly beginning in January. The judges said the mere existence of the regulation had resulted in “untold economic upheaval in recent months.”
“The public interest is also served by maintaining our constitutional structure and maintaining the liberty of individuals to make intensely personal decisions according to their own convictions,” wrote Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt, a Trump appointee.
Omicron Demonstrates Need for Global Covid Response, W.H.O. Says
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said the new Omicron coronavirus variant underlined a need for better global pandemic cooperation, and that the current system “disincentives” countries from alerting new threats.
If there is one thing we have learned, it’s that no region, no country, no community and no individual is safe until we are all safe. The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is. South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalized. Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics. Our current system disincentives countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores. We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more risk of reinfections or more risk of evading vaccines. Scientists at W.H.O. and around the world are working urgently to answer these questions.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said the new Omicron coronavirus variant underlined a need for better global pandemic cooperation, and that the current system “disincentives” countries from alerting new threats.CreditCredit…James Gourley/EPA, via Shutterstock
The World Health Organization warned on Monday that the global risk posed by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus was “very high.” And despite significant questions about the variant’s possible effects, countries around the world rushed to defend against its spread, with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.
Scotland, Portugal and Spain identified new cases of the highly mutated variant with officials in eastern Germany reporting an Omicron infection in a 39-year-old infected man who had not been to South Africa or anywhere outside of Germany.
More countries responded by restricting travel, with Japan joining Israel and Morocco in banning all foreign visitors, even as scientists cautioned that the extent of the threat posed by Omicron remained unknown — and as the patchwork of travel measures were so far proving unable to stop its spread.
In a technical briefing note to member countries, the W.H.O. urged national authorities to step up surveillance, testing and vaccinations, reinforcing the key findings that led its technical advisers on Friday to label Omicron a “variant of concern.”
The agency warned that the variant’s “high number of mutations” — including up to 32 variations in the spike protein — meant that “there could be future surges of Covid-19, which could have severe consequences.”
Experts including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a top adviser to President Biden, have said that it could be two weeks or longer before more information about the variant’s transmissibility, and the severity of illness it causes, is available. So far, scientists believe that Omicron’s mutations could allow it to spread more easily than prior versions of the virus, but that existing vaccines are likely to offer protection from severe illness and death.
Still, the makers of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, were preparing to reformulate their shots if necessary. And some countries, including Britain, were preparing to expand booster programs to protect more people.
The W.H.O. stressed the need for countries to accelerate vaccinations as rapidly as possible, particularly for vulnerable populations and for those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. It also called on health authorities to strengthen surveillance and field investigations, including community testing, to better determine Omicron’s characteristics.
The recommendation underscored that the steps taken by some countries to wind down testing and tracing capacity in recent months — as the pandemic appeared to be receding thanks to rising vaccination rates — are moving in the wrong direction.
“Testing and tracing remains fundamental to managing this pandemic and really understanding what you’re dealing with,” said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the agency. “We’re asking all countries to really look for this variant, to look if people who have got it are ending up in hospital and if people who are fully vaccinated are ending up in hospital.”
The briefing note adds that P.C.R. tests are an efficient tool for detecting the new variant because they do not require as long a wait for an outcome as genetic sequencing tests that require laboratory capacity not available in all countries.
“It’s very good news,” Ms. Harris said. “You can much more quickly spot who’s got it.”
But while the agency had previously cautioned against imposing travel bans, the briefing note took a more flexible line, calling for a “risk-based approach” to travel restrictions that could include modified testing and quarantine requirements. The agency said it would issue more detailed travel advice in the coming days.
At the same time, W.H.O. member states were beginning a three-day meeting of the World Health Assembly to discuss a global agreement on how to deal with pandemics, a deal long pushed by the agency to address weaknesses in the response to Covid-19. The European Union has argued for a treaty that would require greater information sharing and vaccine equity, but the United States has sought to keep open the option of an agreement that would not be legally binding.
Credit…Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
The Defense Department has rejected an attempt by the governor of Oklahoma to exclude the state’s National Guard from a federal vaccine mandate.
On Monday Lloyd J. Austin III, the secretary of Defense, sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt that said the troops must comply with the requirement for all service branches.
The letter, which was widely expected, sets the stage for Guardmembers in the state to lose their jobs should they refuse.
“One could elect not to take the vaccine, of course,” John Kirby, a spokesman for Mr. Austin, said on Monday, “but then you would be putting at jeopardy your ability to stay in the National Guard.”
Earlier this month, the newly appointed head of the National Guard in Oklahoma said that troops would not be required to get vaccinated. The policy defies a Pentagon directive that makes vaccination mandatory for all troops, including the National Guard, by deadlines set by each service branch.
Mr. Kirby said that Guardmembers who refuse to get the shots will be “denied training opportunities,” and potentially “that would then lead to no longer being able to serve in the National Guard.” Guard troops are under the authority of the governor unless federally deployed, but Pentagon officials insist that does not obviate the federal vaccine requirement.
In Oklahoma, 89 percent of airmen in the Guard have been vaccinated, while only 40 percent of Army guardsmen have had shots.
Roughly 97 percent of the 1.3 million active-duty service members in the United States have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
“The secretary reiterated that he wants them to keep that press up to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Mr. Kirby said, describing a meeting Mr. Austin had with all the service secretaries.
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has alarmed many scientists because of the sheer number of genetic mutations it carries — about 50 in all, including at least 26 that are unique to it. But more does not necessarily mean worse: Mutations sometimes work together to make a virus more fearsome, but they may also cancel one another out.
“In principle, mutations can also work against each other,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “However, in this case evolutionary selection is more likely to lead to the spread of a new variant with favorable than unfavorable combinations of mutations.”
Still, this phenomenon, called epistasis, is why scientists are reluctant to speculate on Omicron’s attributes, even though individual mutations in the variant are associated with greater transmissibility or with an ability to dodge the body’s immune defenses.
“It is important to get a sense of the full virus,” said Penny Moore, a virologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa.
Dr. Moore’s team is among dozens worldwide trying to understand whether current vaccines will work against Omicron. The researchers are creating artificial versions of the virus that contain all of Omicron’s mutations, rather than making judgments based on a subset of mutations.
It’s a lesson researchers learned last year, when the Beta variant emerged in South Africa. They estimated that variant’s ability to evade immunity based on one particular mutation, E484K. But Beta also had two other mutations that turned out to affect sensitivity to vaccines.
“The combination of those three mutations was more resistance than a virus that contained only E484K,” Dr. Moore said. Studying the single mutation “turned out to be misleading.”
Omicron carries a mutation called N501Y, which is thought to allow the virus to bind to human cells more tightly. This mutation was also present in the Alpha variant and was linked to its contagiousness.
“Nonetheless, it ended up being Delta, which doesn’t have that particular mutation, that was more even more transmissible than Alpha,” Dr. Bloom said. “That’s because Delta had other mutations that enhance transmissibility.”
A variant’s contagiousness depends on how well the virus binds to receptors on human cells, but also on the stability of the virus, where in the airways it replicates and how much of it is exhaled.
Omicron has a cluster of mutations that are all linked to tighter binding to human cells. “But acting together, they might have a somewhat different effect,” Dr. Bloom said. For that reason, he added, he cannot predict how the variant will act in the body.
That will require laboratory studies, which are underway across the globe.
South African Scientists Advise Against Panic Over Omicron Variant
South African health officials said that while they need more data to be sure, existing precautions and treatments seem to be effective against the new coronavirus variant.
“There is just no basis for some of the leaders of countries which have imposed these restrictions on traveling for us in South Africa, and other countries in southern Africa. There is no basis for South Africans to panic. We’ve been here before. We still have to understand, led by our scientists, such as the transmissibility of this virus, those that matter which our scientists and epidemiologists are working on, whether there’s any age differentiation in terms of its transmissibility and illness, whether there is increased reinfection for those who have already been infected before, and including also breakthrough infections for those who are those of us who are already vaccinated.” “In terms of clinical presentation, there’s not enough data yet. We’ve seen some anecdotal information. We’ve seen clinicians commenting, but you have to understand that patients coming into a clinical setting are biased in terms of their severity, and what we are seeing. What we are seeing is anecdotal information suggest similar presenting illnesses, mainly in younger people for obvious reasons, and that younger people are less vaccinated. So you will see more cases there. But we simply do not have, you know, sound reliable data on the clinical presentation, but we have no red flags that have been raised, so far.”
South African health officials said that while they need more data to be sure, existing precautions and treatments seem to be effective against the new coronavirus variant.CreditCredit…Jerome Delay/Associated Press
South African health officials urged the public on Monday not to panic over the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which appears to be driving a new wave of cases in the country.
It is still too soon, they said, to make solid assessments of whether Omicron has a higher rate of transmission or will cause more hospitalizations or severe illness.
“We simply do not have sound, reliable data on the clinical presentation,” said Salim Abdool Karim, a leading epidemiologist and H.I.V./AIDS researcher who is part of the country’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. “But we have no red flags that have been raised so far.”
Scientists are racing to understand the effect of the cluster of mutations seen in the Omicron variant. Still, comparing its mutations with those of other “variants of concern” identified by the World Health Organization suggests that Omicron can be expected to have enhanced transmissibility and some level of immune escape, Mr. Karim said.
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
The concern in South Africa was prompted in part by a sudden increase in the country’s test positivity rate, which rose to nearly 10 percent from 1 percent, according to data released by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
The increase largely stems from cases in Gauteng Province, a densely populated economic hub that is home to Johannesburg, said Michelle Groome, head of public health surveillance and response at the institute. But based on the data, the number of new recorded cases is still lower in South Africa, relative to its population, than in many European countries.
The country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, where 219 people are hospitalized with Covid, is at the center of the new wave, according to data from the institute. But scientists do not yet know how many of these hospitalizations were a direct result of Omicron.
While new hospital admissions are still relatively low, there has been a “steep rise” over the past two weeks, said Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
The rate of fatalities has not increased, Ms. Jassat said. While new cases were highest among people under 35, hospitalizations were more common among people over 65 and very young children.
Existing coronavirus treatments seemed to be effective against Omicron, Mr. Karim said, though there was not enough data yet on the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies, which are rarely used to treat Covid-19 in South Africa.
It is also still too early to know whether the potency of the variant warrants tightened precautions like travel bans, scientists said.
In a separate briefing on Sunday, Botswana’s health minister, Edwin Dikoloti, said that most of the 19 Omicron cases that have been detected in his country were “imported,” and that the first four were diplomats who had already left the country.
He criticized early references to Omicron as the “Botswana variant,” saying that “detection was treated as origination.”
Mr. Dikoloti said that new coronavirus cases had been declining in Botswana, and that “the emergence of this variant” threatened “to reverse all gains that we have made over the months.”
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Justice Stephen G. Breyer turned away an emergency application on Monday from workers at a hospital chain in Massachusetts who objected to its requirement that they be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Justice Breyer did not ask for a response to the application or refer it to the full Supreme Court, and he gave no reasons for his ruling. Those were all signs that he viewed the legal question in the case as insubstantial.
The plaintiffs, employees of Mass General Brigham, objected to the hospital chain’s decision not to grant them religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate, saying that the decision violated federal anti-discrimination laws. They sought an injunction that would allow them to continue to work.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, unanimously rejected the workers’ request, saying that an injunction was not the proper remedy. If the workers were right, the court said, they would receive compensation at the conclusion of their lawsuit.
“Money damages would adequately resolve all of the alleged harms,” Judge Sandra L. Lynch wrote for the panel. “Moreover, as the deadline for being vaccinated has passed, the appellants cannot point to an ‘impossible choice’ as a special factor here; they have already made their choices.”
The Supreme Court has previously rejected challenges to vaccination requirements from health care workers in Maine, students at Indiana University and personnel in New York City’s school system. Two challenges from health care workers in New York are pending.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, will tell lawmakers on Tuesday that inflation is likely to last well into next year and that the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus creates more uncertainty around the economic outlook, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.
The remarks by Mr. Powell, who will testify before the Senate Banking Committee alongside Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, convey a sense of wariness at a time when price increases are running at their fastest pace in three decades.
“It is difficult to predict the persistence and effects of supply constraints, but it now appears that factors pushing inflation upward will linger well into next year,” Mr. Powell plans to say. “In addition, with the rapid improvement in the labor market, slack is diminishing, and wages are rising at a brisk pace.”
Mr. Powell will also address the new variant, which governments and scientists are racing to assess and contain.
“The recent rise in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation,” Mr. Powell said. “Greater concerns about the virus could reduce people’s willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the labor market and intensify supply-chain disruptions.”
Ms. Yellen will also warn that the path of the recovery depends on the pandemic.
“Of course, the progress of our economic recovery can’t be separated from our progress against the pandemic, and I know that we’re all following the news about the Omicron variant,” Ms. Yellen will say, adding that vaccines continue to be a crucial tool. “We’re still waiting for more data, but what remains true is that our best protection against the virus is the vaccine.”
The Treasury secretary will also urge lawmakers to raise or suspend the nation’s borrowing cap next month. Ms. Yellen has said that the United States could be unable to pay its bills sometime after Dec. 15. At that point, Social Security checks and military paychecks could be delayed and the country would face a deep recession.
“I cannot overstate how critical it is that Congress address this issue,” Ms. Yellen will say. “America must pay its bills on time and in full. If we do not, we will eviscerate our current recovery.”
Much is unknown about the new variant of the coronavirus, but it represents something Fed officials worry about: The possibility that the pandemic will continue to flare up, shutting down factories, roiling supply lines and keeping the economy out of balance. If that happens, as it did with the Delta variant earlier this summer and fall, it could perpetuate high prices.
Inflation has surged in 2021 as strong consumer demand has crashed into the barrier of limited supply. Production line closures, port pileups and parts shortages have kept goods from getting onto shelves and to customers, prompting companies to charge more. At the same time, a dearth of labor in certain industries caused by virus wariness and pandemic-related child-care shortages has been pushing up wages and prices for some services.
It’s too early to know if the new virus strain will contribute to those trends, making inflation last longer than it otherwise would. But the new variant strikes at a delicate moment for monetary policy.
Central bankers are slowing their bond-purchase program, a move that should give them more flexibility to raise interest rates — their more traditional and powerful tool for stoking the economy — if doing so should prove necessary next year.
Several Fed officials have signaled that they may speed up their so-called bond-buying “taper” given how high and how stubborn inflation is proving. Many economists think officials could announce a plan to do so at their meeting in December.
But if the coronavirus again hits the economy, it could make such a decision — and the timing and pace of eventual rate increases — more challenging.
That’s because the Fed balances two goals, controlling inflation and stoking employment, when it sets its policy. A faster and fuller removal of help for the economy might slow down price gains by weighing down demand, but it would likely slow business expansions and hiring in the process.
“We will use our tools both to support the economy and a strong labor market and to prevent higher inflation from becoming entrenched,” Mr. Powell plans to say, after once again acknowledging that the Fed realizes “high inflation imposes significant burdens, especially on those less able to meet the higher costs of essentials like food, housing, and transportation.”
Mr. Powell, whom President Biden plans to reappoint for a second term as Fed chair, will tell lawmakers that the Fed is “committed to our price-stability goal.”
On Monday, Mr. Biden called Omicron “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and his press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that she was not aware of any projections by the administration’s economic team for how the variant might affect hiring, growth and inflation. “It is something obviously we will continue to assess,” she said.
Jeanna Smialek and
Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock
Britain expanded its vaccine booster program to all adults on Monday, stepping up its response to the newly discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The government also announced two new cases of the variant in England, just hours after Scotland said that six cases had been detected there and that contact tracing was being conducted. Nationally, Britain has identified 11 cases.
Scottish officials said that some of the six people infected had not traveled recently — suggesting community transmission in the country — but that there was no evidence of “sustained or widespread” transmission. All of the infected individuals are in isolation, and none have been hospitalized, said Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new mask mandates and testing requirements for travelers to Britain. While the government has not ordered people to work from home where possible, or mandated the use of vaccine passports or masks in English restaurants, officials have not ruled out the possibility.
Jonathan Van-Tam, Britain’s deputy chief medical officer, said that while there was still a high level of uncertainty about the variant, the country would expand the vaccine program right away.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Mr. Van-Tam said, noting that it could take scientists weeks to better understand the variant. “But whilst we wait for the mist to clear on what this concerning variant actually means, there is no time to delay. It’s our opportunity to get ahead, and vaccine boosting is the thing we can do most effectively while we wait for that mist to clear.”
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
The British government was widely criticized for a sluggish response to the Delta variant earlier this year, and its reaction to the Omicron variant came markedly quicker.
Britain’s vaccine advisory board, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, advised everyone ages 18 to 39 to get a booster shot; previously, people 40 and over were eligible. It reduced the required waiting period between the initial vaccine series and the booster from five months to three.
The board also said children ages 12 to 15 could receive a booster shot and recommended that those who are severely immunocompromised receive a fourth dose.
The Education Department has advised students in England ages 11 and up to wear face masks in communal areas beginning Monday.
Ms. Sturgeon said she and the leader of Wales, Mark Drakeford, had written to Mr. Johnson to demand that all travelers to Britain be required to take a coronavirus test on the second and eighth day after their arrival, and that they be required to isolate for that whole period. Under the most recent guidance, arrivals will only have to take a test on the second day.
Ms. Sturgeon and Mr. Drakeford have also called for a joint meeting of the British government’s top emergency committee, Cobra, to better coordinate the response to the new variant.
There are no plans for further restrictions on regional travel, Ms. Sturgeon said, but that could change.
“I still hope, really fervently hope, to be having a normal Christmas with my family,” she said. “Can I say that with 100 percent certainty? No, but that’s what I hope, and that’s what I think we should all be hopeful for.”
Unlike many countries in Europe, Britain has had relatively few restrictions in place since the summer, and the government has repeatedly said there are no plans for another lockdown.
Speaking in front of Parliament on Monday, the British health secretary, Sajid Javid, reinforced that philosophy. If Omicron proved to be “no more dangerous” than the Delta variant currently dominant in Britain, he said, then “we wouldn’t keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary.”
Megan Specia and
Global markets steadied on Monday, with stocks on Wall Street and oil prices gaining, as investors contemplated more carefully the knowns and unknowns of a new Covid-19 variant.
The S&P 500 rose 1.3 percent, rebounding from a 2.3 percent drop on Friday. That was its worst day since February and came after initial news of the discovery in southern Africa of the new variant, called Omicron. The World Health Organization labeled it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category.
Shares of companies in industries that had been bouncing back in recent months, like airlines and other travel firms, took big hits as governments reintroduced limits on movement across borders. Oil prices plunged on concerns about the economic toll of potential restrictions, while government bond yields fell amid an investor flight to the relative safety of sovereign debt.
On Monday, with quick answers about the threat from Omicron hard to come by, investors seemed less focused on potential disaster, and some of Friday’s moves were undone. While the new variant might turn out to be more contagious and vaccine resistant, it could also prove to be less dangerous to the health of the vaccinated or previously infected. Scientists haven’t come to firm conclusions, and it could take up to two weeks before the tests of current vaccines on the new variant have results. And Covid-related stock market drops are getting milder and shorter.
When the virus first emerged in early 2020, the S&P 500 fell for a month and a half before recovering. In October 2020, a resurgence of cases led to a drop of 5.6 percent over a few days, but markets had rebounded within a week. In July of this year, the emergence of the Delta variant triggered a one-day slide of 1.6 percent that was recouped within a few days.
“We don’t know how dangerous it is to health, though early reports that it isn’t very dangerous, while downplayed by the cautious experts, are very seductive,” Kit Juckes, a strategist at Société Générale, wrote in a note to clients. “Against that backdrop, some of Friday’s madness has been reversed, but only part of it.”
Stocks in Europe also rose on Monday, with the Stoxx Europe 600 closing 0.7 percent higher. The FTSE 100 in Britain rose 0.9 percent, while stock indexes in France and Spain were also higher.
Futures of the two major oil benchmarks, Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate, gained 1 percent and 2.6 percent. With crude oil rebounding, shares of energy companies also climbed. Enphase Energy was up 3.8 percent, while Diamondback Energy gained about 2.3 percent.
Government bond yields also climbed. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose 4 basis points, or 0.04 percentage points, to 1.52 percent. On Friday, the yield had dropped 16 basis points, the steepest one-day fall since late March 2020. Concerns over newly imposed travel restrictions mostly eased on Monday, with travel and leisure stocks trading higher as President Biden said on Monday that the administration’s plan to combat Covid in the winter did not does not include “shutdowns or lockdowns,” and would instead rely on more testing, vaccinations and boosters.
Royal Caribbean Group rose 2.8 percent on Monday, while Norwegian Cruise Line was up 0.8 percent. Shares of United Airlines also rose. Moderna, the vaccine maker, rallied more than 10 percent.
Not every market rebounded, however. With Japan sealing its borders just days after reopening to short-term business travelers and international students, shares in Asia tumbled. The Nikkei 225 fell 1.6 percent, while stocks in Hong Kong fell 1 percent.
Carlos Tejada and Stephen Gandel contributed reporting.
Eshe Nelson and
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and a top South African health official on Monday accused the United States and other rich countries of contributing to the neglect and isolation of Africa by imposing travel bans intended to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
Many of the steps taken to contain Omicron, which was first identified last week by researchers in South Africa, have been aimed at travelers from that region, drawing accusations that Western countries were discriminating against an area that has already been beset by vaccine shortages caused by the hoarding of doses by wealthy nations.
Over the weekend, a handful of countries including the United States and the European Union imposed restrictions. On Monday, several others joined in, including Japan, Israel and Morocco, even as scientists cautioned that the threat posed by Omicron remained unknown and experts debated the effectiveness of such actions in the past.
“I am now deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries due to new COVID-19 travel restrictions,” Mr. Guterres said in a statement on Monday during an emergency meeting to coordinate the international response.
Mr. Guterres said he has “long warned” that low vaccinations rates, caused, in part, by the failure of rich countries to subsidize an effective mass vaccination campaign in Africa, made the continent a “breeding ground” for the spread of virus mutations that would, in turn, afflict wealthier nations in Europe and North America.
“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa — and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” he added.
South Africa’s health minister, Joe Phaahla, told reporters on Monday that he delivered a blunt message to the U.S. health and human services secretary, Xavier Becerra, when the two men spoke ahead of the special session of the World Health Assembly on Monday.
“What you can do is to say to your president and your government that the travel bans are not helping us, they’re just making things more difficult,” Mr. Phaahla said.
South Africa’s number of daily infections — 2,828 on Friday — was a fraction of case counts in other countries.
Yet just over 10 percent of people across the continent of Africa have received one dose of a vaccine, compared with 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe.
On Monday, President Biden and his aides pushed back against the claim that the U.S. ban was intended to punish or marginalize the country, or the continent.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking to reporters on Monday, said that South Africa had rejected offers from the United States to increase vaccine shipments because the country’s health officials were struggling to overcome the reluctance of its citizens.
When pressed on the travel ban, Ms. Psaki said administration officials had determined that the “hundreds, if not thousands of cases” in South Africa warranted such restrictions, while the smaller number of cases in Europe did not warrant similar steps. At least not yet.
“The objective here is not to punish, it is to protect the American people,” said Ms. Psaki.
When a reporter reminded her that Mr. Biden had accused former President Donald J. Trump of xenophobia for imposing similar restrictions in early 2020, she replied that Mr. Biden was responding to a “xenophobic tweet” by Mr. Trump and not the use of such restrictions when appropriate.
Glenn Thrush and
N.Y.C. Officials Reinforce Indoor Mask Guidance
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said the city was “doubling down” on its current advice that all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. He also extended the city’s vaccine mandate to all child care workers.
“There are no Omicron cases here in New York City at this moment. It is very likely there will be, but there are no cases at this moment. But nonetheless we are preparing to take action, and our entire focus, once again, is going to be on vaccination.“ “I am also issuing a commissioner’s advisory strongly recommending that all New Yorkers wear a mask at all times when indoors and in a public setting, like at your grocery or in building lobbies, offices and retail stores. This includes those that are vaccinated and those who’ve had Covid-19. Higher quality masks like KN-95s or KF-94s can offer an additional layer of protection, and masks are still required for everyone in public transit, health care settings, schools and congregate settings.” “We’re doubling down on it, basically. We had given that advice a long time ago. Obviously, things had gotten a lot better, and it’s not surprising if people had started to change their habits. It’s time to re-up that advisory and make it very, very clear this is a smart thing to do at this point. Today, we’re announcing an additional vaccine mandate related to child care programs. This is for child care and early intervention programs citywide, a total impact reaching 102,000 employees of these programs. These are all over the five boroughs. There are 90,000 employees who are in child care programs; 12,000 in early intervention programs. So again, 102,000 total. We’re putting this mandate in place with a deadline of Dec. 20 for all those employees to get vaccinated.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said the city was “doubling down” on its current advice that all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. He also extended the city’s vaccine mandate to all child care workers.CreditCredit…Jason Szenes/EPA, via Shutterstock
With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus appearing likely to be detected in New York City any day now, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that he was strengthening the city health department’s standing advice that New Yorkers — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — wear masks in indoor public settings.
“We’re doubling down on it, basically,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It’s time to re-up that advisory and make it very, very clear this is a smart thing to do at this point.”
Masks are already required aboard mass transit and in hospitals and schools, but Mr. de Blasio stopped short of making them mandatory in all indoor public spaces. He said that indoor dining would continue as before, with vaccinations required for guests, and that the city’s plans for a New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square would still move forward.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear masks in public indoor settings wherever there are high rates of community transmission. All of New York City and its suburbs are in that category.
Separately, Mr. de Blasio said on Monday that he would expand New York City’s vaccine mandate to encompass all workers in child care settings and in the city’s early intervention program, which serves children who are lagging developmentally. The mandate will affect 102,000 workers, who will need to have received at least one dose of a vaccine by Dec. 20. Mr. de Blasio said the mandate extension had been in the works before the discovery of the new variant.
Broadly, the mayor and his advisers struck a vigilant but non-alarmist tone as officials worldwide awaited data showing how readily the Omicron variant spreads, whether it causes more severe illness and how well vaccines protect against it. Evidence to support fears over its possible threat has yet to be established.
No Omicron cases have been identified anywhere in the United States, where the Delta variant remains dominant. Genetic sequencing is required to confirm which variant of the virus a patient has; New York City sequences samples from hundreds of cases a week for that purpose.
“I fully expect it to arrive,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said Monday, adding that the state was monitoring the situation and that the Omicron variant had already been detected in Ontario, which she said could see from her home. “We have some ways to defend against this. We are not defenseless like we were one year ago.”
She noted that a recent executive order goes into effect on Friday, allowing hospitals with limited capacity to pause nonessential and non-urgent procedures. She also encouraged New Yorkers to get vaccinated, to get boosters, to get tested and to wear masks.
There is no statewide mask mandate for the general public, but masks are required in certain areas, regardless of vaccination status, such as inside child care facilities. Ms. Hochul voiced support for county officials who have reinstated mask mandates indoors, regardless of vaccination status, such as in Eerie County.
“I encourage other leaders to do the same,” Ms. Hochul said. “That is something that takes courage, it’s not always the most popular thing to do in certain areas of the state.”
State health officials requested that labs across the state immediately notify the health department if they detect the Omicron variant.
“Covid is going to be with us for the rest of our lives,” said Dr. Mitchell Katz, the chief executive of New York City Health and Hospitals. “It’s not going anywhere, and it’s all about how we learn to live with this virus. And so far, the data do not suggest that this variant is more harmful in terms of hospitalization or in terms of serious illness.”
Dana Rubinstein and
Credit…Antonio Cotrim/EPA, via Shutterstock
Portugal on Monday said it had identified 13 cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, all tied to Belenenses, a soccer club that was forced to take part in a top-flight game over the weekend that was abandoned while in progress.
The country’s national health institute said that the 13 people were isolating and that they were all players or staff members of Belenenses, which fielded a depleted team of only nine players against Benfica on Saturday after reporting a coronavirus outbreak.
The institute also confirmed that one of the 13 people was a player who had recently returned to Portugal from South Africa, whose scientists helped identify Omicron. Benfica’s players will be tested for the virus, the country’s general health director, Graça Freitas, told the local TSF radio station.
Later in the day, Spain announced its first case of the Omicron variant, contracted by a person who traveled over the weekend from South Africa. The patient, a 51-year-old man, has been quarantined at the Gregorio Marañón hospital in Madrid since Sunday following a trip from South Africa with a stopover in Amsterdam, according to the regional government in the capital. Officials said in statement that the man is showing only mild symptoms of the illness.
Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.
Before the game on Saturday, as many as 17 players and staff members of the Belenenses club tested positive for the virus, although it was unclear at the time whether those cases involved the new variant. The Belenenses players sought to have the game canceled, but officials reportedly told them that it had to go on.
Separately, Portugal’s health authorities said they were tracing more than 200 passengers who had arrived in Portugal on Saturday from Maputo, Mozambique. At least two people on the flight had tested positive for the virus, but the authorities said it was too early to confirm whether these were Omicron cases.
Portugal on Monday began suspending all flights to and from Mozambique, which is a former Portuguese colony and shares a border with South Africa, over concerns about the new variant.
Even before concerns about the new Omicron variant arose, China had refused calls to loosen its border restrictions, which are among the strictest in the world.
Now Chinese researchers are offering data to support the government’s decision to maintain its extreme “zero Covid” strategy.
A recent study published on the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention website found that China could face more than 630,000 coronavirus cases a day if it dropped its zero-tolerance prevention measures and lifted curbs on travel, in the way that some Western countries have.
That would be more than five times as many as the total number of cases reported in China, which has a population of 1.4 billion, in the years since the virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, according to a New York Times database. Such an outbreak would put a huge strain on the country’s resources, including its hospital system, said the report, which was published before the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern.”
The authors of the report, who are scholars at Peking University in Beijing, wrote that the findings “raised a clear warning” that the country was not ready to open up.
“More efficient vaccinations or more specific treatment, preferably the combination of both, are needed before entry-exit quarantine measures and other Covid-19 response strategies in China can be safely lifted,” they wrote.
While China has vaccinated more than 75 percent of its population, questions have been raised about the efficacy of the country’s homegrown vaccines.
The Beijing government has staked much of its political legitimacy on controlling the virus better than other countries. The strategy, so far, has worked: China has reported fewer than 5,000 deaths since the pandemic began and has managed to quickly tame sporadic outbreaks through severe, and sometimes impractical, measures. On Monday, China reported just 21 locally transmitted cases, most of which were reported in the northern region of Inner Mongolia.
While some critics have warned that China’s approach could be unsustainable and counterproductive, growing concerns about the new Omicron variant now make it even more unlikely that Beijing will ease its restrictions, which include at least two weeks of mandatory quarantine for visitors as well as snap lockdowns and mass testing campaigns in areas where the virus is detected.
Dr. Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s top infectious disease experts, said on Sunday that the country’s comprehensive approach to fighting the virus made it well placed to confront the evolving threat.
“If we can cope with the Delta variant, we can also cope with Omicron,” Dr. Zhang wrote on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform.
Amy Chang Chien and
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
As nations severed air links from southern Africa amid fears of another global surge of the coronavirus, scientists scrambled on Sunday to gather data on the new Omicron variant, its capabilities and — perhaps most important — how effectively the current vaccines will protect against it.
The early findings are a mixed picture. The variant may be more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune responses, both to vaccination and to natural infection, than prior versions of the virus, experts said in interviews.
The vaccines may well continue to ward off severe illness and death, although booster doses may be needed to protect most people. Still, the makers of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their shots if necessary.
“We really need to be vigilant about this new variant and preparing for it,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Even as scientists began vigorous scrutiny of the new variant, countries around the world curtailed travel to and from nations in southern Africa, where Omicron was first identified. Despite the restrictions, the virus has been found in a half-dozen European countries, including the United Kingdom, as well as Australia, Israel and Hong Kong.
Already, Omicron accounts for most of the 2,300 new daily cases in the province of Gauteng, South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday. Nationally, new infections have more than tripled in the past week, and test positivity has increased to 9 percent from 2 percent.
Scientists have reacted more quickly to Omicron than to any other variant. In just 36 hours from the first signs of trouble in South Africa on Tuesday, researchers analyzed samples from 100 infected patients, collated the data and alerted the world, said Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban.
Within an hour of the first alarm, scientists in South Africa also rushed to test Covid vaccines against the new variant. Now, dozens of teams worldwide — including researchers at Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — have joined the chase.
They won’t know the results for two weeks, at the earliest. But the mutations that Omicron carries suggest that the vaccines most likely will be less effective, to some unknown degree, than they were against any previous variant.
Credit…Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
In announcing on Monday that its borders would be closed to travelers from everywhere, Japan adopted a familiar tactic. The country has barred tourists since early in the coronavirus pandemic, even as most of the rest of the world started to travel again.
And it had only tentatively opened this month to business travelers and students, despite recording the highest vaccination rate among the world’s large wealthy democracies and after seeing its coronavirus caseloads plunge by 99 percent since August.
Now, as the doors slam shut again, Japan provides a sobering case study of the human and economic cost of those closed borders. Over the many months that Japan has been isolated, thousands of life plans have been suspended, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in limbo.
Video“It’s best to be extra cautious when dealing with the risk of a mysterious virus,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan said as he reversed a recent move to reopen the country’s borders to short-term business travelers and international students.CreditCredit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Ayano Hirose has not been able to see her fiancé, Dery Nanda Prayoga, in person for the past 19 months, since he left Japan for his native Indonesia, just two weeks after her parents blessed their marriage plans. The couple has made do with multiple daily video calls. When they run out of things to talk about, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese variety shows together online.
“We don’t want to suffer in pain at the thought of not being able to reunite in the near future,” said Ms. Hirose, 21, who has written letters to the foreign and justice ministries asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Dery to come to Japan. “So we will think positively and continue to hold out hope.”
Motoko Rich and
Credit…Pool photo by Vondrous Roman
President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, appointed the country’s new prime minister on Sunday while sitting inside a transparent cube.
Mr. Zeman, 77, was discharged from a hospital in Prague on Saturday and is currently required to isolate. He rolled in a wheelchair into the clear box, pushed by a worker wearing a full protective suit, in order to appoint Petr Fiala as prime minister. He was originally scheduled to take that step on Friday but the event was delayed after he tested positive.
If it had happened two years ago, the sight of a world leader confined to a cube might have been considerable cause for alarm, but on Sunday the event proceeded as normal, with the other participants masked and moving freely around the room. Mr. Fiala and the other speakers stood at a microphone and spoke toward the cube, while Mr. Zeman spoke from inside using another microphone.
Mr. Zeman’s health has been a source of concern and speculation inside the country; he has diabetes and neuropathy in his legs, which caused him to begin using a wheelchair in April. He was hospitalized in October, but the government offered little information on his specific health issues.
He was discharged on Thursday after being treated there for six weeks, only to be readmitted to the hospital hours later after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Like much of Europe, the Czech Republic is dealing with a surge of the virus, setting a record on Friday with nearly 28,000 new cases reported. About 59 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World In Data.
Over the last two years, several other world leaders, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and former President Donald J. Trump of the United States, have contracted the coronavirus and recovered after hospital stays.
Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock
The Israeli domestic intelligence agency has been granted temporary permission to access the phone data of people with confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in order to trace who those people met recently. The agency was given similar powers during earlier waves of the pandemic.
Using emergency legislation, the Israeli cabinet voted on Sunday to permit the spy agency, the Shin Bet, to track Omicron patients’ phones until the end of the day on Thursday — but not to access the phone records of people infected with other forms of the coronavirus.
The Israeli Parliament is expected to vote this week on new legislation that would extend the permission by another two weeks, and allow it to be renewed every two weeks thereafter, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister said.
The government and its supporters said the decision was necessary to quickly identify potential virus carriers who need to be tested and quarantined, in order to curb the spread of the new variant.
“We have indeed reached a point at which we do need a ‘Big Brother’ keeping track of where we go,” Limor Yehuda, a criminology professor, wrote on Monday in Maariv, a centrist newspaper.
Critics said the move infringed civil liberties and contravened a Supreme Court decision last March. The court ruled then that the agency could use phone data in this way only to track people who had refused to comply with contact-tracing procedures.
“No other democratic country has chosen to use its security service to track people,” Gil Gan-Mor, a rights lawyer, wrote in Maariv on Monday. The renewal of Shin Bet tracking was “a terrible, illegal decision,” he added.
Critics of the step pointed to government data showing that, during an earlier wave of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of coronavirus patients were located by human trackers, rather than through the Shin Bet monitoring program.
Other parts of Israel’s response to the Omicron variant were shaped by the experience of a governmentwide coronavirus “war game” earlier in November. In that exercise, senior government officials, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, tested potential responses to a hypothetical new strain of the coronavirus.
Keren Hajioff, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bennett, said that the participants realized during the latter stages of the drill that they should have closed borders far earlier in the exercise. “So those insights were taken into account when they made the decision to close Israel’s borders to foreign tourists” on Saturday night, soon after the discovery of the Omicron variant was reported, Ms. Hajioff said.
Credit…Peter Dejong/Associated Press
The Dutch military police arrested a couple on Sunday who were about to fly out of the Netherlands when they were supposed to be in quarantine. One of the pair had tested positive for the coronavirus two days earlier after arriving from South Africa, the police said.
The married couple — the husband is Spanish, the wife Portuguese — had left a quarantine hotel and boarded a plane at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport when they were arrested, according to Dutch news media. The plane was bound for Spain.
Marianne Schuurmans, a local mayor and chair of the safety region that includes the airport, told Dutch morning television on Monday that the couple was in isolation at a hospital.
Ms. Schuurmans said that the authorities didn’t anticipate that someone might break quarantine after testing positive. “We were really taken by surprise that people don’t take this seriously,” she said.
Of the roughly 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa that landed in the Netherlands on Friday morning, 61 people tested positive for the coronavirus. Those people were told by officials to quarantine in a designated hotel or at home.
After sequencing the positive tests, scientists found that at least 13 of those people had the Omicron variant, Dutch public health officials said, adding that they expected that number to grow.
Passengers from those flights — negative and positive — spent about 30 hours together on the plane and in poorly ventilated rooms at the airport, according to Stephanie Nolen, a reporter for The New York Times who was on one of the planes. While the infected passengers were told to isolate, those who tested negative were allowed to fly onward or go home, despite their exposure.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — About 49 percent of prepandemic moviegoers are no longer buying tickets. Some of them, roughly 8 percent, have likely been lost forever. To win back the rest, multiplex owners must “urgently” rethink pricing and customer perks in addition to focusing on coronavirus safety.
Those were some of the takeaways from a new study on the state of the American movie theater business, which was troubled before the pandemic — attendance declining, streaming services proliferating — and has struggled to rebound from coronavirus-forced closings in 2020. Over the weekend, ticket sales in the United States and Canada stood at roughly $96 million, compared to $181 million over the same period in 2019.
The study, published online on Monday, was self-commissioned by the Quorum, a film research company led by David Herrin, the former head of research for United Talent Agency; Cultique, a consultancy run by the longtime brand strategist Linda Ong; and Fanthropology, which describes itself as a research, strategy and creative agency. They intend to run the survey once a quarter.
“The research clearly shows that theaters are suffering because the pandemic intensified, accelerated, amplified all of the nascent trends that were already underway,” Ms. Ong said. “That is the definition of a perfect storm — not that various problems exist at the same time, but that they have an intensifying effect on each other.”
The nascent trends? Rising ticket and concession prices. Decreasing “experiential value,” including the perception that moviegoing has become a hassle. The run-down state of shopping malls, which house many theaters. A generational shift toward streaming, gaming and other smartphone-based entertainment. “Before, maybe you went every now and again — overlooking the drawbacks,” Mr. Herrin said. “Now you add safety concerns to that mix, and you suddenly become a former filmgoer.”
The research companies surveyed 2,528 people who visited a movie theater in 2019. (Some bought a ticket once a week, while others went once a month. Others went “several” times a year.) About 51 percent of respondents said they had bought tickets in recent months, with some drawn by cinema-chain rewards programs. They are largely white men ages 25 to 45 who live in cities, according to Mr. Herrin. “Once you get outside of that demographic, you’re really starting to lose people,” he said.
The 49 percent no longer buying tickets were more likely to be in favor of a vaccine mandate for attendees. This group, predominantly female, was also more likely to be concerned about price and value, Mr. Herrin said. Still, he noted that roughly a third were “hopeful” about returning to theaters at some point. Among the changes most likely to bring them back: lower prices for classic concessions, newer seats, policing the usage of phones during films.
“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” Mr. Herrin said. “I don’t know how large a window there is for exhibition to win these people back,” he added, using Hollywood jargon for the multiplex business.
The “likely losts,” as the study identifies 8 percent of respondents who said they have not bought a ticket during the pandemic and can’t see themselves returning, are lower-income consumers. The group has a large proportion of Hispanic, Black and Asian women, the researchers noted.