In this photo, diners are seen at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia on Dec 15, 2021. (BIANCA DE MARCHI / AAP IMAGE VIA AP)
DHAKA / DUBAI / HANOI / JERUSALEM / MUMBAI / NEW DELHI / SYDNEY / WELLINGTON / YANGON – Australia sought to relieve pressure on overrun COVID-19 testing facilities on Thursday by narrowing its definition of close contacts of infected people and relaxing requirements for tests, as daily cases topped 20,000 for the first time in the pandemic.
Australia is grappling with the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant after most states eased tough restrictions, and like other countries, is betting on the highly transmissible variant being much less severe than previous variants.
On Thursday, the most populous state of New South Wales reported 12,226 new cases, 746 hospitalized patients and one related death
The rules are being relaxed to also stop asymptomatic people being forced into isolation, especially in healthcare, hospitality and airlines, and cut long lines of people forced to get PCR tests for interstate travel or because they have been at a public site with a confirmed case.
"With Omicron, we cannot have hundreds of thousands of Australians and more taken out of circulation based on rules that were set for the Delta variant," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters.
Australia's daily infections have shot up from around 1,200 a month ago, when Omicron was first detected in Australia, to 21,329 on Thursday.
From Friday, Morrison said "close contacts" will be redefined as people who live in the same household with an infected person. They would have to isolate for seven days and would only have to get a PCR test if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
"If you're anything other than a close contact and you're not symptomatic, you don't need to go and get a test," Morrison said after a meeting of the national cabinet.
The proposed rules mean health officials will rely more on at-home rapid antigen tests, while PCR tests will be used for people with COVID-symptoms and the vulnerable.
However Australia's doctors have criticized Morrison's redefinition of close contacts, saying it would further accelerate the outbreak.
"(Omicron) doesn't care if you are a family member, a coworker, a drinker in the pub or breathing the same air in a lift," Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid said in a tweet.
Australia's three most populated states, battling the nation's largest outbreaks of COVID-19, will celebrate the New Year with slightly modified versions of their traditional fireworks displays.
On Thursday, the most populous state of New South Wales reported 12,226 new cases, 746 hospitalized patients and one related death.
Despite the escalating infections, the NSW government's overall message is that residents, having endured months of lockdowns this year, must now use more "personal responsibility" as they "learn to live" with COVID-19.
As such, crowds are expected to pack the Sydney Harbour foreshores on Friday to watch fireworks light up the night skies in the capital city's New Year's Eve celebrations.
Asked this week whether people should reconsider going out to celebrate, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said "No, what I would say is… take personal responsibility, socially distance and follow the rules that are in place."
However, there will be concessions made to hopefully contain a potential super-spreader event. Spectators, for example, will need to book a ticket for most of the city's viewing areas. Previously huge crowds would have freely gathered.
Bangladesh will administer 40 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine every month from January next year, a minister has said.
"We are taking the initiative to give vaccines in every ward of the country starting next month. Hopefully, we will be able to meet our targets by next May-June," Zahid Maleque, minister for Health and Family Welfare, was quoted as saying in a report of leading local news agency UNB on Wednesday.
On the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the minister warned that vaccines alone will not contain its surge.
"We have to follow the proper hygiene," he said a day after Bangladesh on Tuesday started administering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots in the backdrop of the rapid transmission of the new variant.
Frontliners and the elderly will be given priority for booster shots, Lokman Hossain Miah, senior secretary of Bangladesh's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told journalists.
The Bangladeshi government subsequently halted administering the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine after India banned vaccine exports.
According to the figures released Wednesday by the Directorate General of Health Services under the Ministry of Health, about 120 million vaccine doses have so far been administered, including more than 89 million Chinese vaccine doses.
An Indian health worker prepares to administer the Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 to the travelers at a bus stand in New Delhi, India, Dec 29, 2021. (ALTAF QADRI / AP)
Indian authorities started to impose stringent rules on Thursday to prevent mass gatherings at parties and public venues ahead of new year celebrations as the nation sees a spike in COVID-19 infections.
Night curfews have been imposed in all major cities and restaurants ordered to limit customers, officials said.
However, state authorities were finding it difficult to limit crowding in markets, religious sites and holiday destinations as they were allowed to remain open, the officials said.
The country reported 13,154 new COVID-19 cases and 268 deaths in the last 24 hours, the federal health ministry said, with urban centers reporting a big jump. It was the highest number of daily infections since October.
Cases of infection by the Omicron variant rose to 961 across India.
"It is being seen that social gatherings are going on in an unrestricted manner with people flouting all social distancing norms…we are trying our best to control the spread of the virus," said Rajesh Tope, the health minister of the western state of Maharashtra of which Mumbai is the capital.
Tope said the next 48 hours were critical for authorities to prevent an escalation of fresh COVID-19 cases.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of India's eastern state of Bihar said the third wave of COVID-19 has already started in the state, local media reported on Wednesday.
"The third wave of COVID-19 pandemic has started in the state and all necessary arrangements are being made to save the people from it. The medical staff has made various preparations regarding this," Kumar told media while inaugurating the 96th national conference of the Indian Medical Association in the capital city Patna on Tuesday.
Reports said the Bihar government was also keeping an eye on rising cases of the new Omicron variant, and has ordered the closure of all the parks from Dec 31 to Jan 2.
"It has been also decided that the New Year celebration will not take place in any park here. The decision has been taken to avoid the crowd on New Year," local media quoted a government order as saying.
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a coronavirus vaccination center in Jerusalem, Dec 22, 2021. (ODED BALILTY / AP)
Israel's Oramed Pharmaceuticals said on Wednesday its Oravax Medical unit signed a deal with Vietnam's Tan Thanh Holdings for the pre-order of 10 million doses of its oral COVID-19 vaccine that is in clinical trials.
The agreement gives Tan Thanh, a drug distributor, the right to sell Oravax’s oral vaccine in development throughout the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, Oramed said.
"The parties have agreed to negotiate follow-on orders potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars," it said, adding the ASEAN region has a prospective patient population of about 660 million.
Nadav Kidron, chief executive of Oramed, said its oral COVID vaccine is undergoing Phase I clinical trials and results should be available in early 2022. The vaccine has been shown to work in animal tests, he said.
Health workers give a first dose of COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine to a woman, part of the 65 years and older tier, at a school being used as a vaccination site in Yangon on Feb 5, 2021. (STR / AFP)
Over 15 million people have been fully vaccinated in Myanmar while more than 5.5 million received their first jab of COVID-19 vaccines as of Tuesday, according to Myanmar's Ministry of Health on Wednesday.
The number of COVID-19 infections has risen to 530,276 in Myanmar after 276 new cases were reported in the past 24 hours, the ministry said.
With two new deaths reported, the death toll has increased to 19,262 on Wednesday.
A total of 507,806 patients have been discharged from hospitals.
Vietnam reported 13,889 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, including 13,873 locally transmitted and 16 imported, the Ministry of Health said.
Among the localities, the Vietnamese capital Hanoi continued to log the highest number of infections on Wednesday with 1,766 cases, followed by southern Tay Ninh province with 938 cases and southern Vinh Long province with 917 cases.
The infections brought the country's total tally to 1,694,874 with 31,877 deaths, said the ministry. Nationwide, as many as 1,302,542 COVID-19 patients have so far recovered, up 38,260 from Tuesday.
Some 148.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including 67.3 million second shots, have been administered, according to the ministry.
Vietnam has by far gone through four waves of increasing scale, complication and infectivity. As of Wednesday, the country has registered around 1.7 million locally transmitted COVID-19 cases since the start of the current wave in late April, the ministry said.
READ MORE: Vietnam's confirmed COVID-19 cases exceed 1m
The United Arab Emirates
The protein-based vaccine manufactured by China's Sinopharm will be used as a booster jab in the UAE, which has fully vaccinated over 91 percent of its population
The United Arab Emirates has approved the emergency use of a new recombinant protein vaccine manufactured by China's Sinopharm, the health ministry said on Tuesday.
In a statement published on its official website, the ministry said "the emergency use of the new vaccine is in full compliance with the regulations and laws for a faster review of licensing procedures."
The UAE health authority said the protein-based Sinopharm vaccine was approved after strict monitoring and evaluation of the data of the study conducted in the UAE, which included individuals who were previously vaccinated with two doses of the Sinopharm inactivated vaccine.
The protein-based vaccine will be used as a booster jab in the UAE, which has fully vaccinated over 91 percent of its population.
The new Chinese vaccine demonstrated an improved immune capacity against the new variants, "with a high safety rate that allows rapid production and easy storage and distribution," the ministry added.