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COVID-19 live updates: Biden proposes no new pandemic restrictions, urges vaccination in response to Omicron variant

Scientists have detected a new variant of COVID-19, called B.1.1.529 (or Omicron), which appears to have originated in southern Africa but has already been detected in several other countries. Initial indications are that an unusual constellation of mutations make the variant far more infectious than the Delta variant and potentially vaccine resistant.

The World Socialist Web Site will be posting live updates throughout the day.

Biden proposes no new pandemic restrictions, urges vaccination in response to Omicron variant

US President Joe Biden released a statement Friday afternoon noting that he had been briefed by his chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other members of his COVID response team about the spread of the newly detected Omicron variant.  He announced as a “precautionary measure until we have more information” a travel ban on flights from South Africa and seven other southern African countries to go into effect on Monday, November 29. 

Biden, however, announced no new measures to halt the spread of the virus, which is surging throughout the country even prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Instead, Biden encouraged Americans to get vaccinated or to get their booster shot. “If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated,” Biden said, “now is the time.”

Biden has made the full reopening of schools and businesses—before the virus has been brought under control and while millions of children remain unvaccinated—a pillar of his administration. Under Biden’s watch, state governors have abandoned almost all mitigation measures, such as state-wide mask mandates, even as close to 100,000 people fall ill and more than 1,000 die every day from COVID-19 in the United States. 

Jan. 21, 2021, President Joe Biden reacts to a reporters question after signing executive orders in the State Dinning Room of the White House, in Washington [Credit: AP Photo Alex Brandon, File]

While vaccines are a critical tool in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have insisted that vaccination is not a “magic bullet” which will end the pandemic. Lockdowns, in coordination with a robust testing, contact tracing and quarantine program, are essential to controlling the spread of the disease. Allowing the virus to continue to propagate internationally, scientists have repeatedly warned, will lead to new and more infectious variants, such as Omicron, that could evade the immunity that the vaccines provide. 

Even in countries where vaccination rates are higher than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, infections are surging.

So far, just 59 percent of the US population is fully vaccinated, with the rates varying widely by state. In Vermont, where 73 percent are fully vaccinated, the highest rate in the country, cases and hospitalizations have surged to their highest level of the pandemic in recent weeks.

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World governments scramble to implement travel restrictions following announcement of Omicron variant

The Biden administration announced on Friday afternoon that the US would restrict most travel from South Africa and other African countries following the announcement of a new, highly infectious variant of COVID-19.

Earlier in the day, the European Commission proposed that its members implement an “emergency break” on travel from countries in southern Africa. The variant has so far been identified in South Africa and Botswana, as well as Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

In addition to South Africa and Botswana, the restrictions announced by Biden—which do not apply to US citizens and permanent residents—will affect travel from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The Omicron variant was first detected in Botswana on November 12, more than two weeks ago. Since then, it has spread rapidly in neighboring South Africa, where COVID-19 cases have risen fourfold. Initial indications are that the variant is far more infectious and deadly even than the Delta variant, which has driven the surge of cases globally over the past several months.

The travel restrictions have the character of stop-gap measures, which will come too late to stop the spread of the variant globally. The removal of all restrictions on the virus in the US and the major European countries (including the reopening of schools and workplaces) guarantees that if the variant has been introduced it is already rapidly spreading.

The emergence of the new variant is product of the decision of the major capitalist governments to reject a strategy of eliminating COVID-19, instead allowing it to run rampant. Scientists have been warning for months that so long as the virus continues to spread, new, more infectious and possibly vaccine-resistant variants will emerge.

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World Health Organization calls new COVID-19 strain “variant of concern”

Scientists have detected a new variant of COVID-19, called B.1.1.529 (or Omicron and also referred to as the Nu variant). The variant appears to have originated in southern Africa but has already been detected in several other countries. Initial indications are that an unusual constellation of mutations make the variant far more infectious than the Delta variant and potentially vaccine resistant.

On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized the strain as a “variant of concern” (VOC). In a statement, the WHO said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs,” including the Delta variant.

The Omicron variant was first detected on November 12 in Botswana, a landlocked country in southern Africa. It is now quickly sweeping through South Africa, supplanting the Delta variant.

In just two short weeks, the seven-day moving average of daily new cases in South Africa has risen fourfold, from 265 to 1,043. Yesterday, South Africa reported 2,465 new infections. Seventy-five percent of all currently sequenced cases are the latest variant. New infections are exploding in highly urbanized Gauteng, a small northeastern province in South Africa, which accounts for less than two percent of the country’s land area and is home to one quarter of its population.

Dr. Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatician at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, and director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation, explained that the variant is “really worrisome at the mutational level.” It possesses over 50 mutations, with 32 on the virus’ spike protein, which it uses to bind to human respiratory cells and gain entry.

The rate at which Omicron is displacing Delta is exceptionally remarkable and horrifying. According to Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, a complex system physicist who has been studying pandemics for nearly two decades, current rough estimates indicate that it is six times more transmissible than the original variant and twice as transmissable as the Delta variant. More concerning is that the crude mortality estimates for Omicron are eight times higher than the original variant.

Currently, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium have identified infected patients with the Omicron variant, which means that the current iteration of the virus has already spread globally. In Israel, one of the infected individuals who returned from Malawi was previously fully vaccinated. Two others are in quarantine, awaiting further testing.

Pentagon dispatches medical teams to Michigan as record case surge overwhelms hospitals

As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to surge in Michigan, the Pentagon is dispatching medical teams to the state to assist doctors and nurses treating patients at the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. The two teams of 22 members consist of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists. Hospital administrators had appealed to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to seek assistance from the Biden administration. 

Michigan leads the US in per capita infections and hospitalizations over the last two weeks, with more than 8,500 newly confirmed cases per day and nearly 4,000 hospitalized. Newly confirmed infections are at an all-time high for the pandemic, and hospitalizations will soon surpass previous peaks. An average of 79 people are dying every day in the state, up from less than three in the second week of August. 

“It’s actually as bad as or worse than it was during our last big peak in April or the peak that we saw the November-December before that,” Aron Sousa, interim dean of the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University, told the Guardian.

As elsewhere, schools have been the leading contributor to the growth in cases. More than two dozen school districts in the state, including Detroit and Ann Arbor, closed for the entire Thanksgiving week in the face of growing infections among students and staff demands for action. As the WSWS reported last week, students and staff walked out at Martin Luther King High School to protest the administration's handling of the pandemic. 

Despite the crush of cases overwhelming hospitals and growing opposition from workers and students, Governor Whitmer has taken no substantial action to stop the spread of the virus and ease pressure on hospital workers. Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory that urged residents to wear masks at indoor gatherings and suggested businesses could implement their own mask mandates. 

No statewide mask mandate is apparently forthcoming, and Whitmer has ruled out a lockdown to break the chain of transmission, instead insisting that vaccination alone would be enough to control the virus. 'A year ago we did not have vaccines,' the governor declared at a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway Tuesday. 'Now we have the tools to stay safe.'

Whitmer, who was the target of a fascist murder plot last year over her implementation of limited pandemic mitigation measures, has followed the line of the Biden administration, which has pushed for the full reopening of schools and businesses and ruled out lockdowns as the pandemic continues to rage. The result has been more deaths from COVID-19 this year than in 2020, despite the widespread availability of vaccines. 

WSWS Editorial Board Chairman David North calls for global elimination of COVID-19 following announcement of new variant

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WHO provides update on B.1.1.529 variant: “...the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see”

Scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam says new variant mortality eight times the original variant

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Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam is an American scientist and founding president of New England Complex Systems Institute. He is an expert in the quantitative analysis of pandemics and was an advisor to policymakers on the West Africa Ebola virus epidemic.

British epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani warns about the need for action in the face of new variant

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A leading voice in the fight against the pandemic, Dr. Deepti Gurdasani posted this thread Friday morning raising her concerns about the newly detected variant which has a large number of concerning mutations and is spreading rapidly in southern Africa and has already reached Asia and Europe.

Rockefeller University virologist expresses concerns over Omicron variant’s mutations

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In a Twitter exchange between virologists on the potential consequences of the number of mutations in the Omicron variant’s receptor binding domain, Theodora Hatziioannou wrote, “I wish I was as optimistic as @jbloom_lab [affiliated with Fred Hutch]. Our polymutant spike [labs are studying how SARS-CoV-2 spike mutations lead to escape from antibodies] has 20 [amino acid] substitutions [compared to the original strain] and is almost completely resistant to neutralization by almost all vaccinated and convalescent plasma we tested. This new one [Omicron variant] has more [mutations] in overlapping [shared] regions.”

“Staggering”: Feigl-Ding notes rapid spread of new variant in South Africa

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Germany’s incoming government vows to let COVID-19 run rampant

Germany’s incoming government led by the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who is replacing the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel after 16 years as Federal Chancellor, has declared war on the working population before it is even in office.

When the so-called “traffic light coalition,” consisting of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), presented their government program on Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 deaths surpassed 100,000, according to the official count by the Robert Koch Institute. This gruesome coincidence had great symbolic power.

Social Democratic Party, SPD, chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, second right, stands with the Green party leaders Annalena Baerbock, left, and Robert Habeck, second left, and the Free Democratic Party chairman Christian Lindner, right, as they arrive for a joint news conference in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The number of new infections every day is increasing exponentially and was 76,000 on Wednesday, more than twice as high as at the height of the second and third waves. Desperate parents and teachers do not know how to protect children. Every day, 350 people are dying from COVID-19. The intensive care units are overcrowded and preparing for triage. Without drastic countermeasures, the number of fatalities will double to 200,000 by spring, according to expert estimates.

But the new government is acting even more inhumanely and criminally than the old one. A week ago, the SPD, Greens and FDP used their majority in parliament to end the COVID-19 emergency, the legal basis for lockdowns and similar measures.

Scholz’s appearance in front of the press on Wednesday was reminiscent of the notorious Emperor Nero, who fiddled while Rome was on fire. Scholz and his coalition partners praised and celebrated each other, but apart from a general appeal for vaccinations and the establishment of a crisis team in the Chancellery, they did not propose a single measure against the pandemic.

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The Thanksgiving holiday weekend threatens surge of COVID-19 infections across the US

On November 24, 2021, Thanksgiving Eve in the US, the World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during the COVID-19 press conference, warned that the rising number of COVID-19 deaths and cases in Europe and other countries are translating into unsustainable pressures on the health care systems that are exhausting health care workers.

He also raised concerns that many countries’ governments have grown complacent with employing and maintaining public health measures due largely to their sole reliance on COVID-19 vaccines against the coronavirus.

Travellers queue up to enter a shuttle bus to a rental car facility as the Thanksgiving Day holiday approaches Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at Denver International Airport in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

He said, “In many countries and communities, we are concerned about the false sense of security that vaccines have ended the pandemic and that people who are vaccinated do not need to take any other precautions. Vaccines save lives, but they do not fully prevent transmission. Data suggests that before the arrival of the Delta variant, vaccines reduced transmissions by about 60 percent. With Delta, that has dropped to about 40 percent. If you are vaccinated, you have a much lower risk of severe disease and death. But you are still at risk of being infected and of infecting others.”

In line with concerns raised by the WHO director-general for Europe, coronavirus cases in the US are exploding. On November 22, 2021, more than 162,000 COVID-19 infections were reported. The seven-day average has reached 95,000 cases per day, 25 percent above the averages two weeks ago. Deaths, a lagging indicator, have now turned upwards. Hospitalizations have once more exceeded 50,000 admissions. There are currently 38 states and the District of Columbia that are seeing growth in COVID-19.

Michigan hospitals and Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer have asked the federal government for immediate emergency staff to be sent in to support the catastrophe laying waste to the health care systems there.

The Henry Ford Health System, a health care organization in Metro Detroit, has seen COVID-19 cases skyrocket by 50 percent in just three weeks. Statewide hospitalizations have now surpassed over 4,000, bringing many health care systems to their knees. Adnan Munkarah, Henry Ford’s chief clinical officer, noted, “Our emergency departments and our hospitals are functioning beyond full capacity. That means our beds are full, and we have patients waiting in the emergency department for hours for beds to open.”

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The global pandemic and World War I: The ruling class decides for death

As the conclusion of the second year of the pandemic approaches and as mass death continues seemingly without end, the analogy to World War I is being tragically and brutally substantiated.

Already, the death toll from the pandemic is comparable to the death toll from World War I. Estimates of the total deaths of military personnel during the four years of the war range from between 9 million and 11 million. Civilian deaths are estimated at between 6 and 13 million, bringing a total estimated death toll to between 15 and 24 million.

By comparison, the number of deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic now stands at close to 5.2 million worldwide, according to official figures. We know, however, that this figure far understates reality. The Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington estimates that the total number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 (“excess deaths”) is more than 12.1 million, and possibly as high as 17.5 million.

Over the past several months, there has been a murderous shift in ruling class policy. Governments throughout the world are abandoning any pretense of ending the pandemic. The signal was given by Biden in July, when he announced that the US was “declaring our independence from a deadly virus… We can live our lives, our kids can go back to school, our economy is roaring back.”

“Independence” from the virus has not meant that infections and deaths would decline but rather that no significant effort would be made to stop death on a mass scale. The same policy has been implemented in Europe, and enormous pressure has been brought to bear on countries that had pursued an elimination strategy (including New Zealand and other countries in the Asia-Pacific) to reverse course. Lockdowns, contact tracing, testing and all other public health measures essential to controlling and eliminating the virus have been systematically abandoned.

The consequences were both predictable and catastrophic. The claim that the virus could be stopped through vaccination alone is exposed by the massive spike in new cases globally.

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