The governor of New York on Friday declared a state of emergency as COVID transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020, while warning that the troubling new variant of COVID that first emerged in Botswana is 'coming'.
Earlier on Friday, the U.S. banned flights from eight Southern African countries to try and prevent the mutant strain, Omicron, from arriving.
Kathy Hochul, the Empire State governor, said that all non-urgent procedures could be postponed beginning December 3 if the hospital's capacity falls dangerously low.
If a hospital finds that it has less than 10 percent of 'staffed bed capacity' free, then it will be permitted to cancel non-urgent, or elective, procedures, she ruled.
She also issued a declaration of disaster emergency, noting that COVID transmission is at a level not seen since April 2020. The declaration unlocks sweeping powers for her to take emergency measures, without the usual state congressional approval.
'We continue to see warning signs of spikes in COVID this winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it's coming,' Hochul tweeted.
Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, on Friday warned the state that the new COVID variant, Omicron, was on its way, tweeting: 'It's coming'. She issued an executive order allowing hospitals whose bed capacity falls dangerously low to cancel elective operations
President Joe Biden on Friday banned travel from eight African countries - shaded red in the map. South Africa is the only one to have direct flights to the United States, with 13 a week. Now citizens of the eight countries, or anyone who has been there recently, are unable to enter the US
A nurse operates a ventilator for a patient with COVID-19 who went into cardiac arrest and was revived by staff at a hospital in Yonkers in April 2020. COVID transmission is now as high as it was then, the NY governor said on Friday
Hours earlier, President Joe Biden confirmed that travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region - Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi - had been halted.
The new variant was first found in Botswana and has since moved to South Africa, where it is spreading rapidly through six provinces.
It has also been found in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Hochul's declaration of a disaster emergency acknowledges that the state is struggling - even before Omicron possibly hits.
'A disaster has occurred in New York State, for which the affected local governments are unable to respond adequately,' the declaration states.
'New York is now experiencing COVID-19 transmission at rates the State has not seen since April 2020.
'The rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions has been increasing over the past month to over 300 new admissions a day.'
It means that she can acquire pandemic supplies and enact the emergency hospital plan.
Hochul's predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, had declared a disaster emergency on March 7, 2020.
It ran until June 24 of this year and was ended amid controversy, with Cuomo's critics saying he had used the emergency powers to consolidate his own personal power and rule in an authoritarian way, bypassing the legislature.
Cuomo said at the time that the decree could be lifted because of progress made in combatting the pandemic.
'Given New York's dramatic progress against COVID-19, with the success in vaccination rates, and declining hospitalization and positivity statewide the state of emergency will expire,' he had said.
Hochul said Friday that the current data is worrying, and again urged New Yorkers to get vaccinated, noting that just under 10 percent of adults in the state had still not received their first jab.
'The vaccine remains one of our greatest weapons in fighting the pandemic, and I encourage every New Yorker to get vaccinated, and get the booster if you're fully vaccinated,' she said.
Biden on Friday announced that travel will be banned from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
U.S. citizens and green card holders will still be able to travel into the U.S. from the banned countries, but no one else will be allowed.
Biden made the announcement hours after his top COVID expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said in an interview that it was too soon to enact such measures.
The World Health Organization (WHO) named the new variant on Friday and officially categorized it as a strain of concern.
President Biden spoke with reporters today outside The Nantucket Tap Room where he said he decided on the ban out of an abundance of caution. He is Nantucket celebrating Thanksgiving with his family
FULL BIDEN OMICRON STATEMENT
This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises.
For now, I have two important messages for the American people, and one for the world community.
First, for those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness – fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults -- the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible. Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast. They are safe, free, and convenient. Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season.
Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today. This includes both children and adults. America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now – but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection. If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time.
Finally, for the world community: the news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations. The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity.
In addition, I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally. I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly.
Speaking outside the Nantucket Tap Room where he had lunch on Friday afternoon, Biden told reporters that he'd spoken with his team for half an hour on Friday, and that the ban was the result of that meeting.
'We don't know a lot about the variant except that it is a great concern and seems to spread rapidly,' he said.
'I've decided that we're going to be cautious and make sure there is no travel to and from South Africa and six other countries in that region, except for American citizens who are able to come back.
'I spent about a half hour this morning with my covert team led by Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and so that was the decision we made.'
The U.K. had already halted flights as had some European countries, but Biden said he waited until the medical experts told him he should impose restrictions.
He also reiterated the need for everyone to get vaccinated and then get booster shots as soon as they can.
'The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,' he said.
A reporter asked Biden why the emergency precaution will take effect Monday, rather than immediately.
'Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team,' Biden said.
'Here's the deal: Every American who has not been vaccinated should be responsible and be vaccinated from age five years and up.
'Everyone eligible for booster shots should get the booster shot immediately upon being eligible.
'That is a minimum that everyone should be doing,' he said.
Biden added: 'You know, we always talk about whether this is about freedom. I think it's a patriotic responsibility.'
Forty percent of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have already assured that they will be able to update their vaccine technology to tackle Omicron, should it be necessary.
The panic surrounding the new variant has been sudden and has sent shivers through the stock market: the Dow plummeted by 1,000 points on Friday.
President Biden said the drop was 'expected' but that he is not worried about the markets.
Additional details on what new restrictions will be imposed on non-US citizens and green card holders are expected to be announced imminently.
The Biden administration is also in contact with African officials to keep an eye on the situation.
'We are in close contact with the Southern African public health officials and working closely with them to understand more,' a senior administration official said.
It comes amid fears of the newly-emerged COVID variant, which scientists fear could be the most infectious strain of the virus to date.
Earlier Friday morning, White House COVID tsar Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that the U.S. had no immediate plans to restrict travel from South Africa until officials can study the variant more - despite the U.K., Israel and European countries doing so.
It remains unclear exactly how deadly the latest variant is among unvaccinated people, and American health agencies are yet to make any form of warning about it but there are fears it is more transmissible than any other variant yet and that it may also render some vaccines ineffective.
South African health officials are trying to calm other countries and have called the sudden panic a 'storm in a teacup.'
'It seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate. We're finding more about it,' Fauci said.
He added that there is 'no indication' the mutation is in the U.S., but that it is possible.
'When you look at a mutation it can give you a hint or prediction that it might evade the immune response you need to get that sequence of the virus, put it in the lab and test the antibodies.
'Right now, we're getting the material together to get a situation where you can directly test it.
'Right now it's a red flag that it might be an issue but you don't know.
'Once you test it, you know for sure whether it does or does not evade the antibodies, for example, that we make for a vaccine.
'The answer is, we don't know right now but we're going to find out for sure.'
Why is Omicron so scary?
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the 'worst variant they have ever seen' and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body's immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won't know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are 'rarely seen together' and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body's cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent 'Alpha' variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African 'Beta' variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in five nations: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa where Johannesburg is based.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong and was spotted in someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.
What is the UK doing about the variant?
The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 4am on Sunday must stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
And the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a Variant Under Investigation, which means it has worrying mutations.
Experts will now conduct a risk assessment and may increase its ranking to Variant of Concern if it is confirmed to be more infectious, cause more severe illness or make vaccines and medicines less effective.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Since then, 77 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, two in Hong Kong and three in Botswana.
Health chiefs in Israel today announced it had one confirmed and two suspected B.1.1.529 cases, while there are two suspected cases in Belgium.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body's defenses.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Britain's Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: 'The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.'
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.
Dr Anthony Fauci said Friday there is not enough evidence about the South African variant to halt flights to the US despite the UK, Israel and Germany all suspending travel because of it
The variant, though still largely a mystery to scientists, has already sent shivers through the U.S. markets.
Dow futures fell 2.25 per cent, and both the NASDAQ and S&P Futures Indices were down by more than 1 per cent.
The price of Brent Crude, the market of the global price of oil, fell by six per cent.
The variant, B.1.1.529, is believed to have emerged in Botswana - from where there are no direct flights to the U.S. - and is also being found in neighboring South Africa.
Hong Kong reported a case after a passenger who had recently traveled from South Africa was found to be infected with the variant, and then infected another person while in the same hotel, quarantining.
Israel has also identified a case 'in a person who returned from Malawi,' with 'two more cases of people returning from abroad' placed in quarantine, the country's health ministry said Friday.
Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said initial data from the variant was worrying and border restrictions should be imposed.
'Looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant,' he tweeted, pointing out that the two patients in Hong Kong who had the variant were both doubled-jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine.
One of the two had recently been in Southern Africa. That person then passed it on to a second person, quarantining in the same hotel.
The only direct flight from South Africa to America is scheduled to land at Newark on Saturday. There were none today but United operates a nightly flight ordinarily from Johannesburg to Newark, with around 250 people on board. There are other flights that will land in the US having originated in South Africa, but that have gone through Doha first. Some that were scheduled to stop in Europe have been canceled
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen today called for all flights to be halted until more is known about the variant.
The Dow tumbled on Friday morning as did the Nasdaq and the price of Brent Crude - the global marker for oil- also sank while Europe and the UK panicked over the new strain. The Dow sank more than 1000 points on Friday
'It's very airborne,' Feigl-Ding said. 'The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swabs across both rooms.'
He added: 'I think border and travel restrictions make sense. Especially since Hong Kong only caught the case because of a mandatory hotel quarantine. Which countries in the west still have that??? Almost none.'
Botswana has four confirmed cases, South Africa 77 - with the real figure likely in the hundreds - and Hong Kong has two, meaning 83 cases of the variant are confirmed so far.
But South African scientists tried to backpedal on Friday, saying it was 'likely' that vaccines still offered 'high levels of protection' against hospitalizations and deaths from the variant.
The CDC page asks anyone traveling to and from South Africa to be fully vaccinated, or for those who are not to be tested for COVID.
It also recommends travelers follow measures in-place in South Africa, including wearing a mask and social distancing.
South Africa's infection rate spiked 93 per cent in a day on Thursday amid fears the strain is driving the surge.
Local scientists say it has likely spread to all the country's nine provinces, but there is yet to be a surge in hospitalizations in the epicenter, Johannesburg.