Coronavirus news live: Thailand to consider ending quarantine-free travel; EU set to back Novavax vaccine


The Natural History Museum has been forced to close its doors from Tuesday due to “front-of-house shortages” as a result of Covid-19.

The South Kensington museum will remain closed for one week in the hope that “staffing levels will have recovered”.

In a statement, it said: “We have made the difficult decision to close our South Kensington site from Tuesday December 21 due to front-of-house staff shortages which have been impacted by Covid-19 infections and isolation requirements.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly but the safety of staff and visitors must always come first.

“If you have bought tickets for Wildlife Photographer of the Year or Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature for these dates, these will be cancelled and refunded. If you’ve bought tickets to one of our events we will email you with further information.”


Moderna says booster of its vaccine appears to protect against Omicron

Moderna Inc said on Monday that a booster dose of its Covid-19 vaccine appeared to be protective against the fast-spreading Omicron variant in laboratory testing and that the current version of the vaccine would continue to be Moderna’s “first line of defence against Omicron”.

The vaccine maker said the decision to focus on the current vaccine, mRNA-1273, was driven in part by how quickly the recently discovered variant is spreading, Reuters reports. The company still plans to develop a vaccine specifically to protect against Omicron, which it hopes to advance into clinical trials early next year.

“What we have available right now is 1273,” Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said in an interview. “It’s highly effective, and it’s extremely safe. I think it will protect people through the coming holiday period and through these winter months, when we’re going to see the most severe pressure of Omicron.”

The company said a two-dose course of its vaccine generated low neutralising antibodies against the Omicron variant, but a 50 microgram booster dose increased neutralising antibodies against the variant 37 fold. A higher, 100 microgram booster dose of the same vaccine drove antibody levels even higher – more than 80 times pre-boost levels.

Moderna Inc said on Monday that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine appeared to be protective against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Moderna Inc said on Monday that a booster dose of its Covid-19 vaccine appeared to be protective against the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock


Israeli ministers on Monday agreed to ban travel to the US, Canada and eight other countries amid the rapid, global spread of the omicron variant.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett’s office announced the decision following a cabinet vote, AP reports.

The rare move to red-list the US comes amid rising coronavirus infections in Israel and marks a change to pandemic practices between the two nations with close diplomatic relations. The US will join a growing list of European countries and other destinations to which Israelis are barred from traveling, and from which returning travellers must remain in quarantine.

A parliamentary committee is expected to give the measure final approval. Once authorised, the travel ban will take effect at midnight on Wednesday morning.


Jon Henley

The CEO of BioNTech, the German company behind the Pfizer vaccine, has said early data on the shot’s efficacy against the Omicron variant looks “reassuring”, but warned that vaccines alone would not stop the pandemic.

Ugur Sahin tole Le Monde in an interview that preliminary data from Britain and South Africa suggested “an efficacy of around 70% after the third dose, and around 20% to 40% after the second dose”. He said he thought South Africa’s estimate of 70% efficacy against severe forms of the infection after just two doses appeared on the low side.

“The rate of primary infection is high in South Africa,” Sahin said, “so the control group, the one our vaccine is being compared to, is undoubtedly better protected than a conventional population. So I’m waiting for the next real-life UK data on the subject.”

Sahin said he was waiting for real-life data to assess the accuracy of a German study suggesting a rapid drop in efficacy to about 25% after three months, even after three doses. “There will be a loss of effectiveness against Omicron over time, it is very likely, but we still have to measure the speed,” he said.

“I will not base predictions on preliminary laboratory data but on real-life data. It’s obvious we are far from the 95% effectiveness that we had against the initial virus. But after the third injection our vaccine seems to provide 70% or 75% protection against any form of the disease, which is still a good result for a vaccine in general – and I think we will be well beyond that for severe forms.”

However, Sahin warned that the vaccine alone will not stop the pandemic. “Even triple-vaccinated people can transmit the disease, and they will have to be tested, especially around vulnerable people,” he said. “With the Omicron variant becoming dominant, protective measures will remain essential, especially this winter.”

He said BioNTech was on target to deliver an mRNA vaccine tailored to Omicron by March, subject to regulatory approval. He said the virus’s spike protein remained “an essential target” for vaccines. But the company was also evaluating “other targets, located elsewhere on the virus” and carrying out “initial research work on different types of vaccines”, he said.


South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has returned to work after finishing a week of self-isolation due to testing positive for Covid-19, his office said on Monday, Reuters reports.

Ramaphosa, who was given Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine in February, tested positive on 12 December and received treatment for mild symptoms.

“The president has returned to duty and will chair the final cabinet meeting for 2021 on Wednesday,” the presidency said in a statement.

In the past few days, a nationwide outbreak believed to be linked to the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been infecting more than 20,000 people a day, even though the number of new recorded infections dropped below that over the weekend.


Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the UK government has got to “come out of hiding” and “put in place that pathway to getting on top of the virus and the infection”.

Reeves said people want the “advice and the knowledge” to know that they can spend Christmas with their families but do it in a “safe way”.

She told Good Morning Britain: “If you look at Wales, for example, they have pre-announced a package of measures that will come in just after Christmas to get a control of this virus.

“The Sage minutes, the government got those last Thursday. Four days on now, we haven’t heard from the prime minister, we haven’t heard from the chancellor and they have access to much more data and advice than any of us.

“The Labour party are ready to support the government in whatever measures are needed to protect public health.”


Twelve people have died with Omicron and 104 in hospital

Deputy prime minister and justice secretary Dominic Raab has said 12 people have died with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, and 104 are in hospital with it.

Raab did not confirm whether he is one of the 10 cabinet ministers who reportedly questioned modelling on the Omicron surge.

He told Times Radio: “If you look at Omicron, what we actually know is that it spreads very rapidly.

“We have got 104 hospitalisations at the moment which are Omicron-based, we have had 12 deaths. But there’s a time lag in the data and so we don’t know quite how severe it will be.

“The one thing we do know is that those that get the booster jab get over 70% effective protection, which is why the strategy we have got, I believe at the moment subject to being reviewed constantly, is the right one which is encouraging people to get their boosters.

“I think 53% of adults have now had their booster and then proceeding with plan B, which is encouraging people to work from home where they can and masks in particularly crowded places.”

He added: “I think that is the right strategy until we’ve got firmer, harder data.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has said twelve people have died with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, and 104 are currently in hospital with it.
Dominic Raab has said 12 people have died with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, and 104 are in hospital with it. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA


Asian stock markets followed Wall Street lower on Monday amid concern about the coronavirus’s latest variant and tighter Federal Reserve policy, AP reports.

Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sydney retreated at the start of a trading week that ends with many closing early for Christmas.

Wall Street fell on Friday as traders took money off the table after the Fed indicated it would fight inflation by speeding up the withdrawal of economic stimulus.

Meanwhile, the spread of the omicron variant fuelled fears that renewed curbs on business and travel might worsen supply chain disruptions and boost inflation.


Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison is set to hold an unscheduled national cabinet meeting as Omicron cases rise

Morrison will meet premiers and chief ministers for what he has characterised as an “informal” meeting of the national cabinet after a surge in Omicron cases as Australians travel in preparation for their Christmas break.

The prime minister told reporters in Brisbane the unscheduled leaders meeting, likely on Wednesday, would “give everybody an update on the most recent information we have” and also enable the states and territories to share information.

While the leaders meeting self-evidently reflects the changing circumstances, Morrison played down the significance of the discussion. “We are looking forward to catching up, it’s not unusual we would be meeting more regularly with Omicron being where it is.”

The prime minister said the conversation would be a “good opportunity” to update each other on all the relevant public health information ahead of the Christmas break.

Read the full story here.



Hello I’m Samantha Lock with you on the live blog today. Thanks for following along for all the latest coronavirus developments.

If you’ve just joined us, here is a quick snapshot of all the most recent news stories.

  • UK health secretary Sajid Javid has made clear that fresh Covid restrictions could be imposed before Christmas to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, with ministers set to make a decision in days.

  • A photograph of Boris Johnson pictured with wine and cheese alongside his wife and up to 17 staff in the Downing Street garden in May last year has been shared with the Guardian. The leaked photo raises questions over No 10’s insistence a “work meeting” was taking place.

  • Thailand is considering whether to reinstate mandatory quarantine for foreign visitors due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant, the nation’s public health minister said on Monday.
  • Germany is reporting a daily addition of 16,086 confirmed Covid cases and 119 deaths.
  • A 19-year-old Australian man who sparked 7-day lockdown has been fined $35,000.
  • The EU’s drug regulator will decide on Monday whether to approve a Covid jab by Novavax, which uses a more conventional technology that the US biotech firm hopes will reduce vaccine hesitancy, AFT reports.
  • US senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker confirmed they have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • Belgian police intervened to disperse stone-throwing youths on Sunday after the latest protest march in Brussels turned violent against anti-coronavirus measures.
  • US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said the Omicron variant is “raging around the world”, in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, adding that “the real problem” for the US hospital system is that “we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated.”
  • The Netherlands has entered a strict lockdown that meant the closure of non-essential stores, restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, museums and other public places until 14 January to push back the new wave.

Christmas shoppers swarm London’s West End amid record levels of Covid-19 infections, England, on 18 December.
Christmas shoppers swarm London’s West End amid record levels of Covid-19 infections, England, on 18 December. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock


Thailand is reporting its first locally transmitted case of the Omicron variant found in a Thai woman who tested positive after contracting the virus from her husband, a Colombian who returned to Thailand from Nigeria in late November, a health ministry official told a daily briefing on Monday.

“She is potentially the first in Thailand to get Omicron from an overseas traveller, her husband, and the first locally transmitted case,” said Chakrarat Pittayawonganon, an official from the Disease Control Department.

Both the husband and the wife had been fully vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, he said.

The couple had one high-risk contact, a taxi driver, who was being quarantined and pending a second coronavirus test due on Wednesday, Chakrarat added.

‘Vaccines are not the only answer’ say experts

Melissa Davey

Epidemiologist Prof Mary-Louise McLaws has spent the past week dialling in to meetings of the World Health Organization’s [WHO] infection prevention and control group, and said; “I don’t know of any outbreak manager who would not support wearing masks at the very minimum” in cities where Covid-19 cases are rising.

McLaws said:

WHO keeps reminding the world that vaccines are not the only answer because this virus keeps changing.

Vaccines certainly reduce the risk of death and severe infection. But you do need other measures, like physical distancing, and masks.”

Most eminent virology, infectious diseases and epidemiology experts agree that it is clear public health measures beyond vaccines are needed, especially as Omicron spreads rapidly. There is some disagreement, however, as to whether governments should mandate those additional measures, and which measures would be most useful to mandate.

Read the full story here.


Here is a snapshot of the Covid situation unfolding right now in Australia.

The nation’s most populous state of NSW recorded 2,501 new local Covid-19 cases. The numbers are nearly double that of Victoria, a reversal of a weeks-long trend of more infections below the border.

There were 1,302 new coronavirus cases recorded in Victoria with no deaths.

The national capital of the ACT recorded 13 new infections on Monday, with a large number of cases believed to have stemmed from people who tested positive after arriving in Canberra from interstate.

Three new Covid cases were also reported in Tasmania.

South Australia recorded triple digit Covid cases, officially recording 105 new cases.

he Northern Territory recorded three new Covid cases and lockdown has been extended by 48 hours until 5pm Wednesday.

Queensland recorded 59 new Covid cases as Omicron becomes the dominant strain.

Prime minister Scott Morrison says he will discuss the rising number of Omicron cases and the issue of state borders with the premiers at an unscheduled meeting of national cabinet.

Germany is reporting a daily addition of 16,086 confirmed Covid cases and 119 deaths.

The figures, released by the Robert Koch Institute are a significant drop on recent days.

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