Tighter virus curbs in Philippine capital area over Omicron threat

A general view of people trooping to a Manila beach along Roxas Boulevard in Manila city on Oct 17, 2021.

ANKARA / BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN / CALANGUTE / HANOI / JERUSALEM / SEOUL / ULAN BATOR – The Philippines will impose tighter curbs in the capital region for the next two weeks, the acting presidential spokesperson said on Friday, to try to limit infections by the Omicron coronavirus variant that is spreading globally.

The health ministry on Friday recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections, a two-month high, and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 percent.

"In the coming days, we might see an increase in active cases," acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a televised announcement.

The region including the capital Manila is an urban sprawl of 16 cities that is home to more than 13 million people. It will be placed under the third of a five-scale alert system on Jan 3 to 15, Nograles said.

Level 3 bans face-to-face classes, contact sports, funfairs, and casinos. The government's coronavirus task force will also reduce the operating capacity for social events, tourist attractions, amusement parks, restaurant dine-in services, fitness studios, and personal care services.

With roughly 2.84 million total confirmed cases and 51,504 casualties, the Philippines has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia.

The Philippines has so far detected 10 Omicron cases, three of which three were domestic infections and the rest were from overseas travellers. The country's genome sequencing capacity is limited.

"It is prudent to assume that Omicron is already in circulation, or is already in the community," Health Secretary Francisco Duque said at a news conference on Friday.


Brunei's Prime Minister's Office announced on Thursday that the temporary suspension of cross-border activities between Brunei and Malaysia will be extended for another 15 days.

The temporary suspension on entry of foreign nationals via land and sea ports, including transits through Brunei, is extended by 15 more days until Jan 15, 2022, except for entry and transit travels that have been approved by the government.

Meanwhile, Brunei announced that based on the health ministry's risk assessment on the COVID-19 pandemic regionally and globally, the temporary suspension on traveling to and from eight countries namely South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe has been lifted.

According to the office, the conditions for the consideration of entry and exit travel mentioned above are subject to be reviewed by the COVID-19 Steering Committee from time to time.

Brunei reported five new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, including three local infections and two import cases, bringing the total tally to 15,470.

Noting that a total of eight Omicron variant cases have been reported, Health Minister Haji Mohd Isham said there is no need for panic as the cases are under control.

As of Dec 29, about 95 percent of Brunei's population had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 93 percent had completed their vaccination schedule of two doses and about 20 percent had received three doses.


Thousands of Indian tourists have thronged the beaches, pubs and nightclubs of Goa to see in the New Year, even as the government imposed tougher restrictions to curb the latest variant of the coronavirus.

India's suspension of international commercial flights due to the pandemic has boosted domestic tourism, with hotels and restaurants in popular destinations such as Goa enjoying roaring trade.

However, a spike in COVID-19 infections prompted India to tighten restrictions on Thursday, including night curfews in all major cities.

In Goa, authorities issued directives to hotels, restaurants and casinos to admit only guests with valid vaccination certificates or proof of a negative test result. 

The palm-fringed beach at Calangute in northern Goa was nonetheless abuzz with activity on Thursday as tourists zoomed around on jetskis and took selfies against the sunset.

Cruise boats and restaurants in Goa were busy, with managers and owners saying they were finding it hard to keep up with the surge in customers.

India 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.

READ MORE: India secures ADB loan to buy 667m COVID-19 vaccines

Israelis wait in line as a man receives a third Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug 1, 2021. (SEBASTIAN SCHEINER / FILE / AP)


Israel is to go ahead with second COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for people with weakened immune systems, the top government health official said on Thursday, but a final decision on wider usage is still pending.

An Israeli hospital administered fourth shots to a test group of health workers on Monday, in what it called the first major study into whether a second round of boosters will help contend with the Omicron coronavirus variant. Results are expected within two weeks.

A Health Ministry expert panel last week recommended that Israel offer a fourth jab of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to medical workers and those over 60 or with compromised immune systems

"Israel's strategy for overcoming Omicron is clear: the greater the wave, the greater the protection we will need to overcome it," Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said after the limited rollout was announced on Thursday.

A Health Ministry expert panel last week recommended that Israel offer a fourth jab of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to medical workers and those over 60 or with compromised immune systems.

Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash, whose approval is needed to launch a new booster campaign, did not immediately announce a decision, with some experts say there was not enough scientific data to justify fourth shots.

Ash told a news conference on Thursday he had decided that, for now, a second booster would be offered only to immunocompromised people, such as cancer patients and organ transplant recipients.


Mongolia recorded 116 new COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours, raising the national tally to 390,191, the country's health ministry said on Thursday.

Among the latest confirmed cases, 11 were imported from abroad, said the ministry.

In addition, the country's COVID-19 death toll rose to 1,985 after one more patient died in the past day, it said.

Currently, a total of 1,799 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized across the country, while 3,180 asymptomatic or mild cases are receiving home-based care, said the ministry.

So far, 66.5 percent of Mongolia's population of 3.4 million have received two COVID-19 vaccine doses, while 909,738 people have received a booster. 

Medical workers wearing protective gear prepare to take samples at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Dec 29, 2021. (LEE JIN-MAN / AP)South Korea

South Korea said on Friday it will extend stricter social distancing rules for two weeks amid a persistent surge in serious coronavirus infections and concerns over the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The government reinstated the curbs on Dec 18, six weeks after easing them under a "living with COVID-19" scheme, as record-breaking numbers of new infections and serious cases put a huge strain on the country's medical system.

Daily tallies have since decreased, with 4,875 new cases on Thursday, after spiralling near 8,000 two weeks ago, but the number of critically ill patients still hovers around their highest level of 1,000, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

"We should reserve sufficient beds that can cover some 10,000 cases a day, and we should also speed up booster shots and children's vaccinations," he told an intra-agency meeting.

The curbs, which will be effective until Jan 16, ban gatherings of over four fully vaccinated people, and require restaurants, cafes and bars to close by 9 pm (1400 GMT) and movie theatres and internet cafes by 10 pm.

Unvaccinated people can only dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services.

Total infections stand at 630,838, including 894 Omicron cases, with 5,563 deaths, the KDCA said.

South Korea has cancelled its traditional midnight bell-ringing ceremony for the second straight year, as the coronavirus stifles New Year celebrations and scaled back other festivities around the globe amid efforts to contain rampant transmission.

A healthcare worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine to a man at Kizilay Square in Ankara on July 11, 2021. (ADEM ALTAN / AFP)


Turkey began administering its domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine, Turkovac, at hospitals across the country on Thursday, amid a rapid surge in infections due to the Omicron variant.

Turkey has already administered more than 130 million doses of vaccines using shots developed by China's Sinovac and by Pfizer/BioNTech. It also began administering booster shots.

Turkovac received emergency use authorization from Turkish authorities last week, after its launch was beset by delays for months. 

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has urged citizens to get their booster shots.

Koca met with the country's coronavirus science council on Wednesday to discuss the Turkovac rollout and rising infections after receiving a booster shot with the domestic vaccine, but said no new restrictions were being considered for now.

"Our domestic vaccine Turkovac will begin to be administered at our city hospitals from (Thursday). It is possible to receive the booster shot with our domestic vaccine. No matter what type of vaccine you received before, you can get your booster vaccine with Turkovac," he added.

President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said his government would make Turkovac available globally, but Ankara has yet to release detailed information about the vaccine's efficacy rate or results from clinical trials.


Vietnam reported 17,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, including 16,980 locally transmitted and 20 imported, according to its Ministry of Health.

Among the localities, the Vietnamese capital Hanoi continued to log the highest number of infections on Thursday with 1,866 cases, followed by southern Ca Mau province with 1,008 cases and southern Tay Ninh province with 935 cases.

Also on Thursday, health authorities confirmed another 2,868 COVID-19 infections detected earlier in southern Ca Mau province.

The infections brought the country's total tally to 1,714,742 with 32,168 deaths, said the ministry. Nationwide, 1,336,644 COVID-19 patients have so far recovered, up 34,102 from Wednesday.

Vietnam has by far gone through four coronavirus waves of increasing scale, complication and infectivity. As of Thursday, the country has registered over 1.7 million locally transmitted COVID-19 cases since the start of the current wave in late April, the ministry said.