As the Omicron variant raises anxiety levels across Australia and the world, the head of the European Union’s executive arm says it’s time to talk about making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory.
The US confirmed early on Thursday morning it has detected its first case of Omicron.
Meanwhile, Australia’s medical regulator has approved the use of a fourth COVID-19 treatment.
Here’s a wrap of the latest coronavirus news on Thursday morning.
European Commission president backs mandatory-vaccine talks
A surge in coronavirus cases has led many European countries to reintroduce mask rules and testing requirements.
Now health authorities are on alert after the spread of Omicron in major cities.
But only 66 per cent of people across the European Union are vaccinated.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said too many vaccine doses were going to waste because nearly 150 million people had refused to protect themselves and others.
“Two or three years ago, I would have never thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic, we have the life-saving vaccines but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And thus this is an enormous health cost,” Ms von der Leyen said.
She said it was “understandable and appropriate” for state leaders to “encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union”.
“This needs discussion, this needs a common approach, but I think it’s a discussion that has to be led,” Ms von der Leyen said.
German Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz said he would back a proposal to mandate coronavirus vaccines for all next year.
In Austria, it’s expected vaccines will be mandatory for all residents from February.
Greece plans to fine people over 60 if they don’t get vaccinated, while Slovakia is considering paying senior citizens more than $500 to get vaccinated.
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday morning, Ms von der Leyen stressed that she was expressing a personal view rather than raising a new policy.
Addressing the issue of Omicron, she said it was necessary to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”
Omicron is in the US
The US has identified its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in California, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says.
The US health agency said the person was a traveller who returned from South Africa and was fully vaccinated.
For days, US health officials have said the variant – first detected in South Africa and announced on November 25 – was likely already in the US as dozens of other countries also detected its arrival.
Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation, is being studied to see if it is more contagious or causes severe illness than other variants.
It has also been detected in several countries, including Spain, Canada, Britain, Austria, Portugal, Nigeria and Brazil.
Australians given access to fourth COVID treatment
Medical regulators have approved a new antibody treatment for COVID-19.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration granted approval for the use of tocilizumab (sold under the name Actemra) to treat patients hospitalised with COVID-19 who require oxygen.
It’s the fourth treatment for the virus given the green light for use by the administration.
Tocilizumab reduces inflammation by blocking receptors and slowing the effects of the virus.
“Tocilizumab has been shown to decrease duration of hospitalisation, risk of being placed on medical ventilation and risk of death for those with severe COVID-19,” the administration said in a statement.
“Tocilizumab is not intended to be used as a substitute for vaccination against COVID-19.”
The treatment had previously been approved for treating inflammatory conditions and arthritis.
Calm urged over Omicron
The approval comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison said lockdowns would not return despite a growing number of Omicron variant cases being detected in the country.
“Everything we were doing up until now, we are going to keep doing,” he said.
While the new variant appears to be more transmissible than the Delta variant, there is an indication the strain causes a milder infection.
There have been six cases of the variant detected in NSW, with Premier Dominic Perrottet also calling for calm.
The variant has led to a two-week pause of the return of visa holders to Australia without them needing to apply for a travel exemption.
International arrivals must quarantine for 72 hours, while Australians returning from southern African countries must quarantine for two weeks.
More than 92,000 COVID-19 vaccines were administered across Australia on Tuesday, with the latest figures revealing 87.2 per cent of people over 16 are fully vaccinated.
NSW on Wednesday reported 251 cases.
South Australia reported two cases, with former premier Jay Weatherill reportedly testing positive to COVID-19 after attending a high school reunion on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, three people have been caught in the Northern Territory accused of breaking out of the Howard Springs quarantine facility early on Wednesday.
Victoria had 1179 additional cases and six more deaths, while the ACT had four cases.
One new case was detected in Queensland on Wednesday. The person was infectious while at a Gold Coast shopping centre last Friday.