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Coronavirus Update: EU meets to discuss response to omicron variant as France restricts travel from UK, and CDC panel to discuss rare side effect from J&J vaccine

The omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 dominated headlines on the pandemic on Thursday, as European Union leaders met to coordinate a response to its fast spread across the continent and France imposed fresh restrictions on travelers from the UK.

The French move came after the UK suffered a one-day case record on Wednesday of 78,610 confirmed infections, government data showed, the most since the start of the pandemic and topping the peak of 68,053 reported last Jan. 8. The number of omicron cases detected climbed to 10,017 from 4,671 on Tuesday.

France will restrict arrivals from Britain, put limits on reasons for traveling and require 48-hour isolation upon arrival to await test results, the government said Thursday, as the Associated Press reported.

The new measures will take effect first thing Saturday, just after midnight, “in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the U.K.”, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said in a statement.

The French government is holding a special virus security meeting Friday that will address growing pressure on hospitals in France from rising infections in recent weeks. Delta remains the dominant variant in France, but omicron is spreading so fast in the UK, it’s raising concerns across the Channel.

EU leaders will seek to ensure a consistent set of rules for dealing with omicron across its 27 member states. While the omicron variant is more transmissible than other ones and appears to reduce the efficacy of vaccines, it remains unclear whether it’s more lethal, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, pending further studies. Preliminary research indicates that boosters may strengthen the immune response to omicron. 

“The one answer to the omicron right now is the acceleration of our vaccination program, with a particular emphasis to the booster shots,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. “In Greece, we are one of the first European countries to open booster shots to the entire population.”

See now: Drug makers keep developing new COVID-19 booster candidates amid the spread of omicron

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, reiterated his belief that there’s no need for new boosters designed specifically to combat omicron.

“Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron,” he said during a White House briefing on Wednesday. “At this point there is no need for a variant-specific booster.”

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is set to meet Thursday to discuss safety concerns associated with Johnson & Johnson’ s JNJ, +1.15% COVID vaccine.

The shot has raised concern due to the risk of thrombocytopenia syndrome, a type of rare blood clot that occurs with low platelets. The condition is more likely to occur in women than men, at a rate of about 7 per 1 million vaccinated women between 18 and 49 years old, according to the CDC.

The committee is tasked with making recommendations about vaccines for the general public. It will also discuss how to monitor the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines in elementary school-aged children.

The U.S. is averaging about 1,300 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and about 120,00 new cases. New Hampshire and Rhode Island are leading by new cases, measured on a per capita basis. But Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have the highest hospitalization rates and some hospitals are struggling to treat the high number of patients.

CDC data shows that 56.1 million of the 202.8 million people living in the U.S. that are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose.

A growing number of studies indicate Omicron is more resistant to current vaccines than previous Covid variants, though boosters seem to help. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez gets an exclusive look inside a lab testing how antibodies interact with Omicron. Photo illustration: Tom Grillo

In other news, Denmark has become the first EU country to authorize Merck’s MRK, +1.22% COVID antiviral for at-risk patients with symptoms, AFP reported. The pill, called Lagevrio, has been approved since November in the UK and is in the process of being approved in the US.

Queen Elizabeth II has canceled a pre-Christmas family lunch because of the surge in Covid-19 cases in the UK, CNN reported, citing a source at Buckingham Palace. The 95-year-old monarch usually hosts the annual event for her extended family.

Sweden is ending vaccine pass exemptions for its Nordic neighbors, the AP reported. The move means sthat citizens from fellow Nordic countries will have to show a valid COVID-19 vaccination certificate when entering Sweden starting next week.

In New Zealand, there were protests in the capital Wellington on Thursday against vaccines and lockdowns, as the country reached 90% vaccination rate, Reuters reported. The government has mandated vaccinations for teachers, workers in the health and disability sectors, police and other public service sectors.

Don’t miss: ‘The pandemic is not quite tired of us’: Higher education moving classes and exams online and canceling events as campuses cope with a COVID resurgence

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 272.3 million on Thursday, while the death toll edged above 5.33 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. continues to lead the world with 50.4 million cases and 802,538 deaths. 

India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.7 million and has suffered 476,478 deaths. Brazil has second highest death toll at 617,271 and 22.2 million cases.

In Europe, Russia has the most fatalities at 288,240 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 147,249.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 112,636 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.

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