India confirms first Omicron-related death as virus cases surge

A health worker wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suit interacts with patients inside a ward at the Commonwealth games (CWG) village sports complex, temporarily converted into COVID-19 coronavirus care center, in New Delhi on Jan 5, 2022. (MONEY SHARMA / AFP)

JERUSALEM / TOKYO / BANGKOK / ANKARA / SYDNEY / MANILA / NEW DELHI – A diabetic man who died in the western state of Rajasthan was India's first fatality from the Omicron COVID-19 variant, the health ministry said on Wednesday, adding that overall infections had doubled to 58,097 over the past four days.

The health ministry reported that total Omicron infections had risen to at least 2,135, just over a month since the first case was detected in the country.

The health ministry reported that total Omicron infections had risen to at least 2,135, just over a month since the first case was detected in the country

Government officials privately say daily cases in the country's third wave of infections could surpass the record of more than 414,000 hit last May. They also warn that many people are taking the Omicron variant lightly and not wearing masks as most cases have been mild.

Top health official Vinod Kumar Paul declined to estimate a new peak but said even mild cases could put pressure on the country's health systems.

"There is no room for complacency," he told a weekly media briefing, adding Omicron was driving surges in the cities. "Don't take it for granted. We don't know, the system can get overwhelmed, your household can get overwhelmed."

Nevertheless, the government reduced the number of home quarantine days for mild and asymptomatic patients to a week, from 10 or 14 days previously.

Another official at the briefing said the elderly man from Rajasthan, whom he did not identify by name, died of a heart attack a few days ago. Genetic tests later showed he had been infected by the Omicron variant.

Despite cases rising and restrictions on movement announced in several regions, political parties have continued to hold mass rallies ahead of state elections due in the next weeks and months.

Health authorities plan to meet election commission officials on Thursday over the matter, officials said, as private health experts raise concerns that the rallies would again lead to a big spike in cases, like in April and May last year.

On Wednesday, the southern state of Tamil Nadu, home to manufacturing plants of companies such as Renault-Nissan, Eicher Motors, Hyundai Motor, Caterpillar Inc and Foxconn, announced a one-day lockdown on Sunday and a daily night curfew, with some exceptions for industries.

Many other states or cities have also placed curfews and closed schools.

Experts, meanwhile, have called for hospitals to get ready.

"With infections expected to be skyrocketing we need: clear communication about self-care to prevent panic-driven trips to the hospitals," Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, wrote on Twitter.

"Scale up hospital capacity and optimise care to those who really need it," she said.

New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences cancelled a winter holiday for staff between Jan 5 and 10. Many doctors and nurses have contracted the virus in recent days.

Authorities, especially in Delhi, have repeatedly said only those who need round-the-clock monitoring should go to hospital while others should recover at home.

Delhi tightened up virus mitigation measures on Tuesday, ordering people to stay home on the weekends, in addition to a night curfew.

India has had more than 35 million COVID-19 cases, the second highest tally after the United States. The health ministry reported 534 new deaths on Wednesday, taking that toll to 482,551.

In this file photo taken on Dec 22, 2021, health workers conduct PCR tests at the St Vincent's Bondi Beach COVID-19 drive through testing clinic in Sydney, as the number of COVID-19 cases keeps on the rise across the New South Wales state ahead of the Christmas festivities. (MUHAMMAD FAROOQ / AFP)


Australia's daily COVID-19 cases hit a record high for the third consecutive day on Wednesday, further straining hospital resources and testing facilities as public anger grows over the handling of the fast-moving Omicron outbreak.

Many Australians, already unhappy about long queues at public testing centers and a shortage of at-home tests, were further incensed when news broke that tennis world number one Novak Djokovic had been given a medical exemption to enter the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under pressure at the start of an election year, has sought to reassure voters that his center-right Liberal-National Party coalition has the situation under control, while keeping tight control on the purse strings.

"There are no silver bullets here," Morrison told reporters ahead of a meeting of national cabinet, the group of federal and state and territory leaders tasked with handling the pandemic.

"You've just got to work the problem, work it together and push through."

Officials reported a record 64,774 new cases, the majority in New South Wales and Victoria, the country's most populous states. That easily exceeded the previous day's national tally of around 47,800.

Total infections have surged more than 50 times from around 1,200 since late November, when the first Omicron case was detected in the country.

People admitted to hospitals in NSW and Victoria rose 10 percent over the previous day, and authorities warned those numbers would rise further over the next several weeks.

The rapid surge in cases in recent weeks has led to long lines at publicly-funded PCR testing centers. That prompted authorities to ask people to only seek PCR tests if symptomatic, which in turn led to a shortage of rapid antigen tests, which can be used at home but must be purchased privately.

Morrison, who must call a federal election before May, has ruled out subsidizing the majority of the at-home testing kits, citing a heightened role for "personal responsibility".

Some state leaders are expected to press Morrison at Wednesday's cabinet meeting to subsidize rapid antigen tests.

A medic prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at Ichilov Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on Jan 3, 2022. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)


A fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine boosts antibodies five-fold a week after the shot is administered, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday, citing preliminary findings of an Israeli study.

"A week into the fourth dose, we know to a higher degree of certainty that the fourth dose is safe," Bennett said at Sheba Medical Center, which is giving second booster shots in a trial among its staff amid a nationwide surge in Omicron variant infections.

"The second piece of news: We know that a week after administration of a fourth dose, we see a five-fold increase in the number of antibodies in the vaccinated person," he told reporters.

"This most likely means a significant increase against infection and … hospitalization and (severe) symptoms," Bennett said in English.

Israel has played a leading role in studying the effects of COVID-19 vaccines, as the fastest country to roll out two-dose inoculations to a wide population a year ago and one of the first to give third shots as boosters.

It is now administering fourth doses to people over 60, health workers and immunocompromised patients.

A man (right) receives a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Tokyo Medical Center in Tokyo on Dec 1, 2021. (STR / JIJI PRESS / JAPAN POOL / AFP)


Japan's Okinawa region emerged on Wednesday as the epicentre of a new coronavirus surge with cases more than doubling from the previous day and officials were considering imposing emergency steps to contain it.

New infections in the southern prefecture jumped to 623 from 225 on Tuesday, the most since August when Japan was in the midst of its fifth and biggest wave of COVID-19

New infections in the southern prefecture jumped to 623 from 225 on Tuesday, the most since August when Japan was in the midst of its fifth and biggest wave of COVID-19.

Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki on Tuesday told reporters the region had entered a sixth wave of infections and the highly transmissible Omicron variant was responsible.

As of Tuesday, a total of 1,191 cases of the Omicron variant had been found in Japan, including 479 cases considered community transmissions, according to the health ministry.

Cases of the coronavirus are also increasing in Japan's major metropolitan areas.

Tokyo reported 390 cases, the most since September, and the governor of the prefecture of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, told reporters that daily infections there would likely exceed 200.

Okinawa health experts will meet later on Wednesday to determine whether to ask the central government to impose urgent measures, a prefectural official said.

It would be the first such declaration of what are known in Japan as quasi-emergency measures since Sept 30, when all states of emergency and quasi-emergency that had been in effect for a good part of 2021 were lifted.

People visit a park in Quezon city, east of Manila on New Year's Day on Jan 1, 2022.


The Philippines on Wednesday reported 10,775 new COVID-19 cases, the country's highest daily spike since Oct 10.

That brought the Southeast Asian country's total confirmed cases to date to 2.87 million, with its death toll climbing by 58 to 51,662, the Department of Health said in a bulletin.

Meanwhile, Philippine authorities have cancelled an annual procession, which normally draws millions of Catholic devotees accompanying a black wooden statue of Jesus Christ through the streets of Manila, for a second straight year due to coronavirus concerns.

The government's coronavirus task force cancelled the "Black Nazerene" procession, which is one of the country's largest religious festivals, before celebrations related to the Jan. 9 procession, were due to start on Friday because of rising COVID-19 infections.

Unlike last year, there will be no in-person masses in the church housing the centuries-old statue, and police will be deployed to discourage people from gathering outside the building, authorities said.

"We understand (the cancellation) for our safety and health reasons," Father Douglas Badong, Parochial Vicar of Quiapo Church, told a news conference. He said physical masses will take place in other provinces and online masses for devotees in the capital.

In prior years, devotees clad in yellow and maroon have thronged the life-sized tatute as it is paraded through the streets of Manila aboard a rope-pulled carriage.

Daily COVID-19 cases in the Philippines jumped to more than 5,400 on Tuesday from less than 200 on Dec 21, including some infections caused by the Omicron variant, forcing the government to tighten curbs this week.

"We have seen how quickly COVID-19 spread after the holiday season…we are calling for a suspension of all mass gatherings," Health Secretary Francisco Duque said late on Tuesday.

A fruit vendor counts money in the Chinatown area of Bangkok on Jan 4, 2022. (JACK TAYLOR / AFP)


Thailand's Ministry of Public Health said on Tuesday that a total of 2,062 Omicron cases of COVID-19 have been detected in the country.

Supakit Sirilak, medical sciences director-general from the Ministry of Public Health, noted that omicron cases in the country had spiked up quickly from around 700 before the Christmas and New Year holidays to over 2,000 cases currently.

According to the official, out of the Omicron infections, 1,105 were among foreign arrivals and the remainders are local transmissions.  Nevertheless, the Delta variant is still the prevailing variant in Thailand, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of the new infections.

Supakit warned that Omicron cases will continue to rise rapidly, as more testing and close monitoring of the situation are required to control the potential spread.

Six provinces – Bangkok, Kalasin, Roi Et, Phuket, Chonburi and Samut Prakan – have reported around 70 percent of these Omicron cases detected in the country.


Turkey on Tuesday reported 54,724 new COVID-19 cases, raising its tally of infections to 9,652,394, according to its health ministry.

The death toll from the virus in Turkey rose by 137 to 82,932, while 26,561 more people recovered in the last 24 hours.

A total of 382,888 tests were conducted over the past day, it said.