Covid Live Updates: W.H.O. Warns of ‘Very High’ Risk From Omicron as Questions Remain

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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.

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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 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.

Many of the restrictions aimed at corralling Omicron, which was first identified last week by researchers in South Africa, were aimed at travelers from southern Africa, drawing accusations that Western countries were discriminating against a region that has already been set back by vaccine shortages caused by rich nations hoarding doses.

In a statement on Monday, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said he was “deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries” and favored rigorous testing over travel bans. He had “long warned” that low vaccine rates in Africa could be a breeding ground for new variants, Mr. Guterres added.

Xavier Becerra, the U.S. health and human services secretary, did not address that issue explicitly at a special session of the World Health Assembly on Monday, saying that the Biden administration appreciated the efforts of officials in South Africa “for moving so swiftly and transparently,” and said Washington was “working closely with sister ministries in southern Africa.”

But South Africa’s health minister Joe Phaahla, told reporters on Monday that he delivered a blunt message to Mr. Becerra when the two men met a day earlier. “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,” he said.

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.

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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.

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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…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.

Credit…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.

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…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.”

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.”

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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.

“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.”

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.

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.

Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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