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Covid Live Updates: Omicron News, Vaccines and More


ImageStreets in Amsterdam were near-empty on Monday, after a coronavirus-related lockdown came into effect.
Credit…Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Two people who tested positive for the coronavirus in the Netherlands more than a week ago were infected with the Omicron variant, Dutch health officials reported on Tuesday.

The timing is significant because it suggests that the variant was already present in the country for at least a week before the arrival of two flights from South Africa on Friday, and before the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” the step that prompted countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa, where researchers first identified the variant.

“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 on Tuesday. “It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa.”

The two samples were taken by municipal health services at public testing sites, and health authorities have started contact tracing in those areas, Dutch health officials said.

Although little is known yet about how transmissible Omicron is, or whether it can evade existing vaccines, its detection in Botswana and South Africa has created the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious Delta variant emerged in the spring.

The announcement from the Netherlands also highlighted that scientists still cannot say with certainty where or when the variant originated. So far, the first known sample of the Omicron variant was collected on Nov. 9 in South Africa, according to Gisaid, an international database for disease variants.

Officials across Europe fear that Omicron will add pressure on countries that are already in the grip of some of the worst coronavirus surges they have seen. Among them was France, which on Tuesday reported about 47,000 new cases over the past 24 hours and sharply rising hospitalizations — mostly thought to be driven by the Delta variant.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said on Tuesday that so far, 44 cases of the new variant have been confirmed in 11 European countries. And in Britain, health officials announced at least 22 confirmed cases involving Omicron, including 13 in England and 9 in Scotland, bringing a new wave of tightened public health restrictions.

Andrea Ammon, the agency’s director, told an online news conference that all the confirmed cases in Europe have exhibited mild symptoms or none at all, and that authorities were analyzing six further “probable” cases. She said that health officials were conducting additional tests on people who have recovered from illness brought on by Omicron to help assess how the variant behaves in vaccinated people, and that more information was expected in a “couple of weeks.”

Countries across the European Union have scrambled to reinforce travel restrictions in the hope of curbing the spread of the heavily mutated variant, as the W.H.O. warned that the risk it posed was “very high.”

But the W.H.O.’s top official on Tuesday cautioned countries that their responses were “not evidence-based.”

“We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

The Dutch officials’ announcement about the two Omicron cases came after a chaotic series of closures in Amsterdam, which left some 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa stranded for a time on Friday. Some 61 passengers on those flights tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 14 of them were found to be carrying the Omicron variant.

The Netherlands imposed tighter restrictions starting on Sunday in response to a Covid wave that began before Omicron was identified, ordering many businesses, including bars, restaurants and theaters, to close from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Dutch health officials reported more than 22,000 new coronavirus cases on Monday, one of the country’s highest daily totals since the pandemic began.

Reporting was contributed by Carl Zimmer, Adeel Hassan, Megan Specia and Aurelien Breeden.

Credit…Seyllou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

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.

Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

As the world reels from the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, a panel of advisers to the Food and Drug Administration is meeting 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 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.

In a presentation to the committee members, Daria Hazuda, a Merck executive, said molnupiravir’s activity is similar across known variants and that the drug works in a way that makes it likely to be active against new variants.

Another Merck executive, Dr. Nicholas Kartsonis, told the panel on Tuesday that the company is “feverishly working” to collect samples from people infected with the Omicron variant that it can use in laboratory studies to help determine whether the drug will work against the new version of the virus.

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, prompting fears about a winter surge fueled by Omicron, indoor holiday gatherings and the refusal of tens of millions 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.

Representatives from Merck and from the F.D.A. reviewed the results of safety studies in cells, animals, and clinical trials. “The overall risk of mutagenicity in humans is considered low,” Dr. Aimee Hodowanec, a senior medical officer at the F.D.A., said at the meeting, referring to the potential for the drug to induce mutations in the DNA of people taking it.

However, when rats were given extremely high doses of molnupiravir compared to what people would get, they experienced some concerning effects. When pregnant rats got these high doses, their fetuses sometimes suffered deformities or died. Young rats that received high doses of molnupiravir experienced a disruption of their bone growth.

Children and pregnant women were excluded from the clinical trials of the drug.

Dr. Kartsonis said that while the company was not recommending use of the treatment in pregnant or breastfeeding women, it believes the F.D.A. should allow for exceptions in cases in which the benefit of treatment might outweigh the potential risks. He also said the company would start a pregnancy surveillance program to monitor the outcomes of women exposed to molnupiravir during pregnancy.

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.

Dr. Kartsonis spent much of his presentation to the panel describing the interim results from the clinical trial, based on just 775 patients. In that analysis, molnupiravir reduced hospitalization and death by 50 percent. That result led the trial’s safety committee to halt the trial, since the benefit was already clear.

Within the last ten days, the full results from 1,433 volunteers were unblinded, Dr. Kartsonis said. Analyzing the full results, researchers found that the effectiveness dropped to 30 percent.

The drop was the result of a shift in outcomes in the trial. Late in the trial, a lower percentage of people who got the placebo ended up in the hospital. When asked to interpret the results, Dr. Kartsonis did not offer an explanation. “It doesn’t really add up to us,” he said.

Dr. Hodowanec said that the F.D.A.’s review of the full trial results “is currently ongoing.”

“As we enter the winter months, another surge is imminent,” Dr. Kartsonis said. “We remain in dire need of novel, effective well tolerated and conveniently administered therapies to treat Covid-19 in the outpatient setting.”

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Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece said those 60 or older who have not gotten their first shot by Jan. 16 would face a monthly fine of 100 euros ($113).CreditCredit…Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters

In a bid to bolster vaccinations among older people, the prime minister of Greece announced on Tuesday that Covid shots would be obligatory for people ages 60 or older, and that those who failed to book a first shot by Jan. 16 would face fines.

Τhe move came as the Greek health authorities try to curb a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths, while bracing for the possible effect of the Omicron variant.

About 500,000 people in Greece ages 60 or older have yet to be vaccinated against Covid-19, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a cabinet meeting. Those who fail to meet the deadline will face a monthly fine of 100 euros ($113), the revenue from which will go toward funding state hospitals that have been stretched by the pandemic, he said.

Describing the policy as “an act of justice for the vaccinated,” Mr. Mitsotakis said he had worried about penalizing people but hoped they would see the move as an act of “encouragement, not repression.”

He said: “I felt a duty to stand by the most vulnerable, even if it might temporarily displease them.”

Greece is averaging more than 6,400 new cases a day, among the highest numbers since the start of the pandemic, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. With concerns that the winter holidays will lead to the further spread of the virus, Mr. Mitsotakis said that more free testing kits would be made available over the next two months.

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

More than 60 percent of Greece’s population is fully vaccinated. This month, Greece barred unvaccinated people from cinemas, theaters, museums and gymnasiums, joining a growing number of European nations imposing new restrictions on those who have not had Covid shots.

Austria announced this month that vaccines would become mandatory for all adults starting in February, the first Western democracy to take such a step.

The spread of the Omicron variant has unnerved the Greek authorities, who last week barred travelers from nine African countries after researchers in southern Africa announced that a new variant had been detected. Five Greek citizens returning from Africa were placed in quarantine on Saturday even after testing negative for the virus.

The European Union’s public health body said it had confirmed 42 cases of the variant across the bloc, all of which were mild or asymptomatic.

The origins of the variant, and the threat it poses, remain uncertain.

Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Regeneron said on Tuesday that its Covid-19 antibody treatment might be less effective against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, an indication that the popular and widely beneficial monoclonal antibody drugs may need to be updated in case the new variant spreads aggressively.

The company said that previous laboratory analyses and computer modeling of certain mutations in the Omicron variant suggest that they may weaken the effect of the treatment. But studies using the variant’s full sequences have not been completed, it said.

The company said it had already been testing future antibody drug candidates, and that preliminary analyses indicated that some of those “may have the potential to retain activity against the Omicron variant.” More data is expected in the coming month, it said.

“What we have to admit is, in the course of the past six days, our urgency has increased,” Dr. George Yancopoulos, Regeneron’s president and chief scientific officer, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “What started out as a backup plan has now been made a lot more urgent.”

The Omicron variant has caused alarm among scientists because it contains mutations in the spike protein, the target of the government-supplied monoclonal antibody treatments made by Regeneron and Eli Lilly.

Scientists have also been scrambling to gather data on how effective the current vaccines will be against Omicron. Antiviral pills, including drugs from Merck and Pfizer that federal regulators are considering authorizing soon, are expected to hold up well against the variant because they target a different site of the virus from where Omicron’s mutations are clustered.

Monoclonal antibody treatments, given in a single infusion, use lab-made copies of the antibodies that people generate naturally when fighting an infection. They have been shown to significantly shorten patients’ symptoms. Regeneron’s cocktail reduces the risk of hospitalization by 70 percent.

The company said the treatment was effective against the Delta variant, which remains the dominant form of the virus in the United States.

Credit…Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

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.

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

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.

Credit…Kim Won Jin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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:

Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street on Tuesday, driven lower by the likelihood that the Federal Reserve will hasten the removal of its supports for the economy just as a worrying new variant of the coronavirus has begun to spread.

The Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that inflation was likely to persist well into next year and that the Fed would consider tapering off its bond-buying program more quickly in response.

“At this point, the economy is very strong, and inflationary pressures are high,” Mr. Powell said during a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. “It is therefore appropriate in my view to consider wrapping up the taper of our asset purchases, which we actually announced at our November meeting, perhaps a few months sooner.”

The Fed’s efforts have been a crucial factor in the swift rise of stocks since the start of the pandemic. The S&P 500, which had been down roughly 0.5 percent for much of the morning, tumbled after of Mr. Powell’s comments. The index was down 1.7 percent at midday, more than giving up its gains from Monday.

Short-term bond yields, which are heavily influenced by expectations for Fed rate hikes, spiked. The yield on the two-year Treasury note rose to 0.56 percent from roughly 0.43 percent in relatively short order, as investors interpreted Mr. Powell’s statements as an acknowledgment that inflation — which the central bank has long described as “transitory” — would force the Fed toward favoring higher interest rates sooner than many investors had expected.

“The Fed is the ultimate owner of the ‘transitory’ characterization, and the chair’s decision to move beyond that is a decidedly hawkish step,” Ian Lyngen, head of U.S. rates strategy at BMO Capital Markets in New York, wrote in a note to clients shortly after Mr. Powell’s comments.

Stocks prices were falling around the world before Mr. Powell’s testimony as investors struggled to understand the danger posed by the Omicron variant. The Stoxx Europe 600 fell 0.4 percent. In Asia, the Nikkei 225 in Japan and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong had each dropped more than 1 percent.

Investors have been closely watching updates on the Omicron variant since last week, and remain particularly attuned to the effectiveness of vaccines against it.

The chief executive of Moderna, a vaccine maker, said in an interview on Tuesday 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.

Financial markets have been unsteady 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 as politicians around the world cautioned against panic, even as some put travel bans in place. Relatively little is known about the Omicron variant. Scientists have detailed its mutations, and it will be a couple of weeks before they know how it responds to existing vaccines and if it causes severe disease.

Still, investors say it’s unlikely that the Omicron variant would trigger the same kind of response from governments, business or individuals as it did when Covid first emerged in early 2020. Even if Omicron is a greater threat than the Delta variant before it, investors expect the market effects of the virus’s new iteration will most likely be far less than the nearly 34 percent crash share prices suffered between February 2020 and the following month.

“The worst case is not March 2020 again,” said Jeb Breece, principal at Spears Abacus, an independent money management firm in Manhattan. “Fear and unknowns were such a big component of that. I don’t see us doing that again.”

Coral Murphy Marcos contributed to this report.

Credit…Prakash Mathema/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Covid-19 has thrown the already turbulent political scene in Nepal into further disarray, as the embattled top judge of its highest court has been hospitalized to treat an infection.

Cholendra Shumsher Rana, chief justice of Nepal’s Supreme Court, tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday evening, said Dr. Prabin Nepal, a spokesman for the Armed Police Force Hospital outside the capital, Kathmandu. The chief justice also had pneumonia but was in stable condition, Dr. Nepal said.

Mr. Rana has been hospitalized just as he faces growing pressure to resign over corruption accusations. He has denied any wrongdoing and has said he would not resign.

The chief justice has been a central figure in the political turmoil within the top government ranks in Nepal, a Himalayan country hit hard economically by the coronavirus. Lockdowns and other restrictions have cut into remittances from Nepalis working abroad, while tourism revenue from climbers seeking to scale Mount Everest and other peaks has come back only slowly.

Officially, more than 11,520 people have died from Covid-19 in Nepal.

Mr. Rana was once considered an ally of former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. But twice this year, in February and July, the Supreme Court under Mr. Rana overturned efforts by Mr. Oli to dissolve the Parliament and hold early elections. The second time, the court installed the opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister.

Mr. Rana’s ties with the new government have since come under scrutiny. Court lawyers and other judges have accused him of maneuvering to get loyalists appointed to key constitutional bodies and to the cabinet. One of his relatives, Gajendra Hamal, resigned within a few days of his appointment as a minister in the face of a public outcry, although he denied any impropriety.

Mr. Rana’s critics also accused him of steering certain cases toward judges inclined to make rulings in line with his own preferences. Members of Nepal’s bar association boycotted the court, and after pressure from frustrated members of Nepal’s ruling coalition, Mr. Rana agreed to support a lottery system to assign judges to cases.

Court watchers in Nepal said there was a good chance that Mr. Rana would not return to the bench.

“Given the context, I don’t think he will be back to court,” said Dinesh Tripathi, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court. “Instead, corona could be a way of his graceful exit.”

Credit…Seth Wenig/Associated Press

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 available.

Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Israel’s swift response to the discovery of the Omicron variant — including closing its borders to nonresident foreigners — was influenced in part by a government-wide “war game” held earlier in November, officials said.

In that exercise, senior officials simulated how they would respond to a fictional scenario that bore striking similarities to what is happening now.

In a daylong drill on Nov. 11, Israeli officials had to respond to a hypothetical new “Omega” virus strain that would be more resistant to vaccines and would spread to Israel from two foreign countries during the second of half of November.

In the simulation, officials including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett decided to keep Israel’s borders open to tourists into December, only to find that by the later stages of the exercise, the country’s hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. The correct decision, the participants concluded afterward, would have been to close Israel’s borders to most foreigners immediately, according to Yaacov Ayish, a retired general who helped plan the drill.

“It was one of the lessons,” Mr. Ayish said. “Suddenly, all the government agencies and the military had to analyze it as an option.”

The outcome was one of the factors that influenced Israel’s real-life decision on Saturday night to bar all foreign visitors, a move it made before any other country, said Keren Hajioff, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bennett.

Throughout the drill, participants were shown fictional television news reports to help set the scene for the next stage of the simulation. The participants in the drill drew at least one more conclusion that is reflected in Israel’s response: Officials realized that the stock of P.C.R. tests on hand at that time might not be advanced enough to detect future variants of the virus.

That helped prompt the Israeli government to order millions of higher quality P.C.R. tests, which are now being used to screen for Omicron, Ms. Hajioff said.

Israel’s cabinet on Sunday also granted Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency, temporary permission to access the phone data of people with confirmed cases of Omicron in order to trace who those people met recently. The agency was given similar powers during earlier waves of the pandemic.

Credit…Remko De Waal/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Omicron variant gained world attention a week ago, when researchers in southern Africa detected a version of the coronavirus that carried 50 mutations.

Thirty of these mutations are on the spike protein — arguably the most important part of the virus — and of those, 26 were unique mutations we hadn’t seen before. By contrast, the Delta variant had 10 unique mutations and Beta had 6.

When scientists look at coronavirus mutations, they worry about three things: Is the new variant more contagious? Is it going to cause people to get sicker? And how will the vaccines work against it?

This episode of “The Daily” explores when there will be answers to these three questions, and looks at the discovery of the variant and the international response to it. Listen below:

The Daily Poster

Listen to ‘The Daily’: What Is the Omicron Variant?

The World Health Organization has declared that this mutation of the coronavirus poses a very high risk to public health. How did they come to that conclusion?


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