Coronavirus: Latest on COVID-19 from around the world - Friday, January 28

Here's the latest on the pandemic from around the world.



After an uncomfortable but relatively brief return to coronavirus restrictions triggered by the Omicron variant, England is going back to "Plan A" - learning to live with a disease that is probably here to stay.

The bet is that booster jabs, antiviral pills and Omicron's lower severity will enable the government to manage outbreaks of a virus that cannot be shut out. Other countries equally keen to unshackle business and personal freedom will be watching.

Work-from-home guidance ended last week, and measures such as mask mandates and COVID passes, also introduced in England last month, lapsed on Thursday, returning the rules to where they were last July.

The UK Health Security Agency is preparing to switch focus to supporting vulnerable individuals rather than imposing national rules, according to a draft policy seen by Reuters.

"As we evolve to move to living with COVID, UKHSA's COVID-19 response will move from a whole nation approach to a targeted response, focused on protecting the vulnerable," read the paper, titled "UKHSA COVID-19 Vision - DRAFT".

"We will ensure that our future response is more streamlined, flexible, and convenient for citizens and delivers value for money."


The BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant, which is dominant in Denmark, appears more contagious than the more common BA.1 sub-lineage, Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said on Wednesday in a national address.

"There is no evidence that the BA.2 variant causes more disease, but it must be more contagious," Heunicke told a news conference.

The BA.1 lineage currently accounts for 98 percent of all cases globally but in Denmark has been pushed aside by BA.2, which became the dominant strain in the second week of January.


Greece will allow music in restaurants and bars again and extend their operating hours as it lifts some of the restrictions imposed last month now that coronavirus infections and the pressure on hospitals are easing, authorities said on Thursday.

The country last month forced bars, nightclubs and restaurants to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, following a surge of cases over the Christmas holidays due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

"We have decided to scale back the restrictions, taking into consideration the course of the pandemic in terms of cases which have been declining in recent weeks," Health Minister Thanos Plevris said in a televised statement.

He said that despite ongoing pressure on the health system, the rate of hospital admissions and discharges and a shorter duration and less severe illness for the Omicron variant compared to Delta allowed authorities to ease the curbs.


The number of new COVID-19 infections in Germany exceeded 200,000 in a day for the first time on Thursday, hitting staffing at companies including Lufthansa Cargo.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases reported 203,136 positive tests in the last 24 hours, 69,600 more than the same day a week ago.

The seven-day incidence per 100,000 people rose to 1,017 from 941 the previous day, while another 188 people died, bringing the death toll since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 to 117,314.

Uwe Janssens, a board member of the DIVI association of emergency and intensive care doctors, told Reuters that hospitals were not currently overloaded, but that could change in coming weeks.

He warned that if the number of daily infections rises above 300,000 then there could be problems for Germany's critical infrastructure. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has predicted daily cases could exceed 400,000 by mid-February.


Sweden has decided against recommending COVID vaccines for kids aged five to 11, the Health Agency said on Thursday, arguing that the benefits did not outweigh the risks.

"With the knowledge we have today, with a low risk for serious disease for kids, we don't see any clear benefit with vaccinating them," Health Agency official Britta Bjorkholm told a news conference.

She added that the decision could be revisited if the research changed or if a new variant changed the pandemic. Kids in high-risk groups can already get the vaccine.

Sweden registered more than 40,000 new cases on January 26, one of the highest daily numbers during the pandemic, despite limited testing. While the fourth wave has seen daily infection records shattered, the healthcare is not under the same strain as during previous waves.



Beijing has limited the movement of people in more parts of the city, even as it reported fewer COVID-19 cases on Thursday, to lower virus risks just over a week before the Winter Olympic Games begin in the Chinese capital.

Beijing's Fengtai district said late on Wednesday residents in more areas should not leave their residential compounds for unnecessary reasons and must have a daily COVID test.

The district, which has reported more local virus cases than others in the current outbreak in Beijing, had already locked down some compounds that house tens of thousands of people. Several other city districts have imposed mobility restrictions in certain areas.

Beijing reported five locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms for Wednesday, down from 14 a day earlier, the National Health Commission (NHC) said on Thursday.

Although case numbers are low compared to outbreaks globally, China's practice is to immediately contain any outbreak. Containment of the coronavirus takes on added urgency as the Olympics approach and as hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel during the Lunar New Year season.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong will cut quarantine for arriving travellers to 14 days from 21 starting February 5, leader Carrie Lam said on Thursday, a move that follows intense lobbying from finance executives and diplomats who said the measure was hurting competitiveness.

Tough coronavirus rules have made Hong Kong one of the world's most isolated cities, with flights down as much as 90 percent.

Residents returning from more than 160 countries have been required to quarantine for 21 days in designated hotels and will now have to spend 14 days in a hotel, followed by seven days of self-monitoring, with further details to be announced. She did not say which countries would be covered by the new rules.

Middle East


Protesters against COVID-19 measures who liken themselves to Jews under Nazi persecution are stoking global anti-Semitism, the Israeli government said in a report marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Such Holocaust tropes have become "widespread" and, along with violent demonstrations linked to Israel's May war in Gaza, were main factors behind physical or online attacks on Jews in Europe and North America last year, said the 152-page report by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Several US and British politicians have in recent months apologised after suggesting vaccine or lockdown policies recalled Hitler's regime.

Some demonstrators against pandemic curbs have worn yellow stars like those the Nazis forced on European Jews.

Such displays showed factual knowledge of the genocide was eroding, the report said, adding that some COVID-19 agitators have been "consuming and disseminating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are responsible for the crisis and are using it for oppression, global domination, economic gain, etc".



President Joe Biden said on Thursday that 14.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance since November 1, attributing the progress to the passage of his pandemic relief package and the re-opening of an online health insurance marketplace last year.

The data includes more than 10 million who enrolled through a U.S government website during an open enrollment period, Biden said in a statement. He said the numbers were the "highest ever produced" during such an event.

The President also said one in seven uninsured Americans got covered between the end of 2020 and September 2021, with lower-income Americans gaining coverage at the highest rate, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"This did not happen by accident," Biden said. He said his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan did more to lower costs and expand health care access for Americans than any action since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday he had gone into isolation for five days after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, adding a rapid test result had come back negative.

"I feel fine and will be working from home. Stay safe, everyone – and please get vaccinated," Trudeau tweeted.

The news means Trudeau, 50, will miss the reopening of Parliament next Monday. Trudeau, Prime Minister since November 2015, was re-elected for a second time last September.

Vaccines, science and medicines

The European Union's drug regulator on Thursday gave the green light to Pfizer Inc's antiviral COVID-19 pill for treating adults at risk of severe illness, as the region scrambles to boost its arsenal to fight the Omicron variant.

The endorsement by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for a conditional approval, if followed as usual by the European Commission, allows EU member states to deploy the drug after the regulator gave guidance for its emergency use late last year.

Italy, Germany and Belgium are among a handful of EU countries that have bought the drug, branded as Paxlovid. The US in December authorised Paxlovid and Merck's similar drug molnupiravir.

Paxlovid, a two-drug antiviral regimen, was nearly 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to data from the company's clinical trial. Recent lab data suggests the drug retained its effectiveness against the Omicron variant as well.

In the trial however, it was only tested on unvaccinated individuals, raising questions on its potential use in high-risk patients who did get inoculated. EMA did not limit its endorsement to the non-vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the world's first medical trial authorised to deliberately expose participants to the coronavirus is seeking more volunteers as it steps up efforts to help develop better vaccines.

The Oxford University trial was launched last April, three months after Britain became the first country to approve what are known as challenge trials for humans involving COVID-19.

Its first phase, still ongoing, has focused on finding out how much of the virus is needed to trigger an infection while the second will aim to determine the immune response needed to ward one off, the university said in a statement on Tuesday.

Researchers are close to establishing the weakest possible virus infection that assures about half of people exposed to it get asymptomatic or mild COVID-19.

They then plan to expose volunteers - all previously naturally infected or vaccinated - to that dose of the virus's original variant to determine what levels of antibodies or immune T-cells are required to prevent an infection.

"This is the immune response we then need to induce with a new vaccine," said Helen McShane, Oxford University Professor of Vaccinology and the study's chief investigator.

And it's been found that COVID-19 boosters increase protection against death from the Omicron variant to 95 percent in people aged 50 or over, the UK Health Security Agency said on Thursday.

The UKHSA said that around six months after a second dose of any of the COVID-19 vaccines, protection against death with Omicron was around 60 percent in those aged 50 and over. However, this increased to around 95 percent two weeks after receiving a booster vaccine dose.

UKHSA added that data continued to show high levels of protection against hospitalisation from the booster. Effectiveness against hospitalisation was around 90 percent for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot (PFE.N), , dropping to 75 percent 10-14 weeks after the booster.

For Moderna, effectiveness against hospitalisation was 90-95 percent up to 9 weeks after the booster.

"The evidence is clear – the vaccine helps to protect us all against the effects of COVID-19 and the booster is offering high levels of protection from hospitalisation and death in the most vulnerable members of our society," said Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at UKHSA.