As Africa grapples with the new Omicron coronavirus variant, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has pledged to deliver another billion doses of vaccines to countries on the world’s least vaccinated continent.
The announcement from Mr. Xi is part of China’s continuing effort to burnish its image as a responsible global power helping to fight the pandemic, and it comes at a crucial time for countries in Africa, especially the southern region, where Omicron was first documented. Scientists fear that Omicron could already be spreading rapidly there, but they cautioned that much about the variant remains unknown, including where it originated.
Health officials in South Africa said on Monday that Omicron appeared to be driving a new wave there. The daily average of new cases in the country has increased by more than 1,500 percent over the past two weeks, according to data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, although the case numbers remain far below the year’s earlier peaks.
Still, officials urged the public not to panic over the variant, and said it was still too soon to accurately assess whether it has a higher rate of transmission or causes more hospitalizations or severe illness.
With wealthy nations hoarding most of the global vaccine supply, Africa has the lowest vaccination levels of any continent, with just 10.3 percent of the population receiving at least one dose, compared with rates of at least 60 percent to over 80 percent in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States and Canada.
But in recent weeks, vaccine doses have started to flow into parts of Africa, and countries including South Africa — where nearly one-quarter of people are fully inoculated, one of the highest rates on the continent — are now dealing with the challenge of how to rapidly administer them. Shabir Mahdi, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said that where doses are available, “countries are struggling to scale up.”
Mr. Xi’s announcement, made in a speech late Monday via video link at the opening of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, also appeared to be part of an effort to shift attention away from Beijing’s missteps in its early handling of the coronavirus crisis.
He said that 600 million of the one billion vaccine doses would be donated, and that the rest would be provided through other means, like joint production between Chinese companies and African countries. He also said that China would send 1,500 medics and public health experts to Africa.
China aims to help the African Union achieve its goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, Mr. Xi said.
Chinese officials had previously said that Beijing would make its vaccines affordable and give priority to Africa, where it has rapidly increased its investments in recent years. The new pledge of one billion doses comes after the more than 155 million shots that China had previously pledged to the continent. Of those, about 107 million have been delivered to 46 African countries so far, according to Bridge Beijing, a consultancy that tracks China’s impact on global health.
After Omicron emerged, The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in thwarting the transmission of the coronavirus, and said the West was paying the price for its selfish policies.
“Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” the piece read. “But they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.”
Questions remain, however, about the efficacy of the Chinese-made vaccines. Several countries that had relied heavily on them to inoculate large parts of their populations were spooked by subsequent outbreaks this year.
Omicron adds to the uncertainty, as scientists around the world race to find out whether the current vaccines protect against it. Sinovac Biotech, one of China’s main vaccine producers, told The Global Times that it was also studying its vaccine’s effectiveness against Omicron.
Two cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus were detected in the Netherlands more than a week ago, several days before the arrival of two flights from South Africa on Friday, Dutch health officials reported on Tuesday.
“We have found the Omicron coronavirus variant in two test samples that were taken on Nov. 19 and Nov. 23,” the Dutch health ministry said in a statement. “It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa.”
The announcement suggests that the variant had already reached Europe before the World Health Organization last Friday labeled it a “variant of concern,” prompting countries around the world to race to ban flights from southern Africa, where researchers first identified it.
Although little is known yet about how transmissible Omicron is, or whether it can evade existing vaccines, its discovery in Botswana and South Africa has presented the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious Delta variant emerged this spring.
The announcement from Dutch health officials came after a chaotic series of closures in Amsterdam, which left around 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa stranded on Friday. Some 61 passengers tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 14 of them were determined to be carrying the variant.
As the world reels from the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, a panel of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration will meet on Tuesday to discuss an antiviral pill from Merck, the first in a new class of treatments that could work against a wide range of variants.
The expert committee will vote on whether to recommend authorizing the drug, known as molnupiravir, for high-risk patients. The treatment — which has been shown to modestly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, predominantly from the Delta, Mu and Gamma variants — could be authorized in the United States within days, and available soon after, if the committee endorses the drug and the agency follows the recommendation. The panel’s meeting on Tuesday is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Eastern time and can be watched here.
In the coming weeks, the F.D.A. may also greenlight a similar pill from Pfizer that appears to be significantly more effective than Merck’s.
Health officials around the world have been counting on the new treatments to reduce the number of severe cases and save lives. If Omicron causes a surge in severe infections, it could make them even more important.
Scientists have yet to run experiments to see how well the pills block Omicron viruses from replicating. But there are reasons to think they would remain effective even if the variant can sometimes evade vaccines.
Omicron has more than 30 mutations on the so-called spike protein that latches on to human cells. Some of those mutations may make it hard for vaccine-produced antibodies to attack the virus.
But the pills do not target the spike protein. Instead, they weaken two proteins involved in the virus’s replication machinery. Omicron carries only one mutation in each of those proteins, and neither looks as if it would stop the pills from doing their jobs.
Virus cases are rising in many regions of the United States, notably the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Nationwide, cases have risen since the start of November, raising fears about a winter surge fueled by the Omicron variant, indoor holiday gatherings and the refusal of tens of millions of Americans to be vaccinated.
In a clinical trial, molnupiravir was found to reduce by 30 percent the risk of hospitalization or death when given to high-risk, unvaccinated volunteers within five days after they started showing symptoms. It appears to be substantially less effective than Pfizer’s pill, which was found to lower risk by 89 percent, and monoclonal antibody treatments, which have been found to cut it by at least 70 percent.
If molnupiravir is authorized in the United States, supply is expected to be limited at first, though it will be more abundant than Pfizer’s pill. The Biden administration has ordered enough courses of treatment, at about $700 per person, for 3.1 million people. Merck is expected to supply those pills before February.
The treatment is given within five days of the start of symptoms and is taken as 40 pills over five days.
The F.D.A. advisory panel, a group of experts on antimicrobial drugs, will vote on whether the treatment should be authorized for people with Covid who are at high risk of becoming severely ill. That would cover tens of millions of Americans who are older or have medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease.
The panel is also set to discuss safety concerns that some scientists have raised about Merck’s pill. The treatment works by inserting errors into the virus’s genes. Some scientists say there is a theoretical risk that it could trigger mutations in cells as well, potentially causing reproductive harm or a long-term risk of cancer.
Merck says its laboratory tests and clinical trial data indicate that the drug is safe and does not cause worrisome mutations in humans.
Britain, which authorized Merck’s pill earlier this month, recommended that it not be given to pregnant or breastfeeding women, and that women who could become pregnant use contraception while taking the drug and for four days after. The F.D.A. panel will discuss whether there are some situations in which the drug may be appropriate during pregnancy.
The Omicron variant has stirred alarm in India, which was hit hard this year by a devastating Covid wave fueled in part by another variant.
The new variant has forced the Indian government to review its decision to resume scheduled international flights beginning on Dec. 15. The flights had been stopped when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, though some resumed after it established air travel bubbles with several nations.
While experts say it will most likely be weeks before more is known about Omicron’s transmissibility and the severity of the illness it produces, countries have scrambled to introduce new travel restrictions to halt its spread.
On Monday, Mr. Modi held an emergency meeting to review India’s travel rules. The country had only recently resumed issuing tourist visas as it reported the lowest daily cases since the pandemic began. India has also restarted exports of vaccines manufactured domestically.
Hospitals in New Delhi, the capital, where the earlier wave driven in part by the Delta variant shook the health care system, have been asked to remain on high alert. New Delhi’s top elected official, Arvind Kejriwal, asked Mr. Modi’s government to halt all flights from countries where the new variant had been found.
Instead, the Indian authorities reissued guidelines on Monday for travelers arriving from countries where cases of the Omicron variant have been reported. Passengers arriving from Europe, South Africa and other affected countries now face mandatory testing on arrival. They must quarantine at home for seven days after testing negative, and take another test on the eighth day.
Starting on Wednesday, the authorities said, they will require passengers to produce their travel history over the previous 14 days, along with results of a negative P.C.R. test before boarding any plane flying to India. Government officials said they had designated a hospital to treat and isolate any individual who tests positive for Omicron.
Officials in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, said that over the past 15 days, at least 1,000 travelers have landed in the city from African countries where Omicron has been detected.
Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, announced on Tuesday that it had allocated more than 4.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to North Korea, which is not believed to have administered any shots yet.
North Korean officials did not immediately respond to the announcement.
The reclusive government has not reported any coronavirus cases, and has turned down several previous offers of doses, including from Covax, China and Russia. But in June, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said that lapses in his country’s anti-pandemic campaign had caused a “great crisis” that threatened “grave consequences,” according to state media. He did not clarify whether he was referring to an outbreak in the country.
Though it claims to be Covid-free, North Korea has taken measures to respond to the coronavirus crisis, sealing its borders in January 2020 and skipping the Tokyo Olympics this year.
The World Health Organization said its shipments of medical goods, along with other international supplies destined for North Korea, had been stranded in China when Pyongyang closed its borders. Last month, the agency said it had resumed shipments of medical supplies to North Korea, in what appeared to signal a relaxation of the closed-border policies enforced by Pyongyang early in the pandemic.
Europe is once again at the epicenter of the pandemic. More cases are being reported each day than at any previous point in the pandemic. And governments have been forced to reimpose the types of strict restrictions that most Europeans thought were behind them.
The discovery of the Omicron variant has added urgency to European leaders’ efforts to curtail the surge. Cases of the new variant have so far been detected in travelers to more than 10 European countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain.
European leaders have tried to strike a balance between increasing caution and avoiding panic in responding to the new threat. But the winter surge has highlighted the disparities in vaccination rates across the continent. Although cases are rising in many countries, only those with the lowest vaccination rates are seeing deaths from Covid-19 reaching the levels that came after similar surges last winter.
Here is a closer look at where cases are rising in Europe:
Global stocks fell on Tuesday, following a short respite the day before, as traders were once again unnerved by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus and its potential ability to evade existing vaccines. Oil prices also dropped.
The chief executive of Moderna, a vaccine maker, said in an interview that there could be a “material drop” in the effectiveness of current vaccines to the new variant. The executive, Stéphane Bancel, told The Financial Times that it might be months before an Omicron-specific vaccine could be produced at scale, but added that it would be risky to shift the company’s entire vaccine production while other variants are still prevalent.
Futures indicated the S&P 500 would open down by about 1 percent. The Stoxx Europe 600 fell 1.2 percent. In Asia, the Nikkei 225 in Japan and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong each dropped 1.6 percent.
Stocks have been volatile since the discovery of the new variant in southern Africa late last week. The S&P 500 suffered its worst day since February on Friday, dropping 2.3 percent. On Monday, it began to recover, climbing 1.3 percent, as politicians around the world cautioned against panic, even as some put travel bans in place.
Still, relatively little is known about the Omicron variant. Scientists have detailed its mutations, but it will be a couple of weeks before they know how it responds to existing vaccines and if it causes severe disease.
On Tuesday, investors sought the relative safety of government bonds. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes declined 8 basis points, or 0.08 percentage point, to 1.42 percent, the lowest level in more than two months.
Oil futures fell, with West Texas Intermediate crude slumping 2.4 percent to $68.27 a barrel. Its price has dropped 18 percent this month.
The emergence of the new variant complicates the work of the Federal Reserve, which had begun tightening monetary policy because of higher inflation. But if the new variant restrains economic growth, it could ease the pressure on prices.
“The emergence of the Omicron variant pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation,” Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, will tell lawmakers later on Tuesday, according to prepared remarks.
Pfizer and BioNTech are expected this week to apply for regulatory approval for a booster shot of their coronavirus vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. If approved, the shot would be the first booster available to people under 18.
The Food and Drug Administration could authorize extra shots within roughly a week, the people said.
The move would come as President Biden seeks to reassure the nation about Omicron, a new variant of the coronavirus. On Monday, he called the variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
“I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe,” Mr. Biden said at the White House.
The news of Pfizer’s plans was first reported by The Washington Post.
The new variant has yet to be detected in the United States, and scientists have not determined how much of a threat it will pose. Vaccine manufacturers are racing to figure out whether their existing products will work against it or whether modified vaccines will be required.
About 10 days ago, federal health agencies authorized booster shots of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for everyone 18 and older. That opened up eligibility for extra injections to tens of millions more fully vaccinated adults. All adults who were vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a single shot, were already eligible for a booster.
Last month’s regulatory moves simplified eligibility and formally allowed a practice already in place in numerous states. Multiple governors had already offered boosters to everyone 18 and older ahead of the holidays.
Asked about the plan to request broader access, a Pfizer spokeswoman said the company would provide an update when availadble.