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Live Reporting

Edited by Alice Cuddy

All times stated are UK

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  1. Thanks for joining us...

    Internationals arrivals terminal at Heathrow airport
    Image caption: Dozens of countries have re-imposed travel bans

    We're closing our live page coverage for today. Here's a summary of the latest developments:

    • The WHO has classified a new variant first detected in Botswana as being "of concern" and has given it the code name "Omicron"
    • Early evidence suggests it is more transmissible and carries a higher risk of re-infection than other variants
    • The head of the lab that first sequenced the new Omicron variant has told the BBC that there are "a lot of mutations that are new and that we haven't seen before"
    • Dozens of countries around the world, including the US, EU and UK, have imposed travel bans against a number of southern African nations in a bid to stop the spread of a new coronavirus variant.
    • The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has warned that the new variant is likely to spread quickly within the EU and may escape protection offered by vaccines.
    • And there have been fresh protests in the Netherlands, after Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced new restrictions, including the closure of all hospitality settings by 17.00.

    Today's live page was edited by Hamish Mackay, Rob Corp, Francesca Gillett, Alice Cuddy and Tom Spender and was written by Jack Hunter, Dulcie Lee, Mal Siret, Paul McLaren, Mary O'Connor, Adam Durbin, Matt Murphy and George Wright.

  2. Reality Check

    Which countries have the lowest vaccination rates?

    Unloading of vaccine shipment at Goma airport, DR Congo
    Image caption: Vaccine supplies arriving earlier this year in DR Congo

    There have been repeated calls for wealthier countries who have fully vaccinated a significant proportion of their populations to share doses with others who haven’t.

    A WHO target for 10% of the world’s population to be fully vaccinated by the end of September was missed by dozens of countries, many of them in Africa.

    The average for Africa is currently around 7% fully vaccinated, with some countries as low as just 3%.

    There are some countries elsewhere in the world with very low vaccination rates - often in conflict zones - like Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Myanmar.

    But Asia, Europe and the Americas have on average already gone past 40% of their populations fully vaccinated, which is the WHO target for the end of this year.

  3. Will new variant spark change in vaccine policy?

    person in parys south africa

    It's no surprise that a new variant has emerged given the unequal distribution of vaccines to poorer countries, the co-chair of the African Union's Vaccine Delivery Alliance for Covid has told the BBC.

    But Dr Ayoade Ala-kija expressed doubt that there would now be a change of policy.

    "The lack of political will and the failure to vaccinate the world was going to result in variants emerging. I think my surprise is that there are more variants out there not just in Africa but all over the world," she said.

    She said South Africa deserved praise for detecting the mutation but the Omicron variant might not have originated there and could already be spreading around the world.

    Travel bans affecting southern African nations were "shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted", she said.

    "So will it mean that people will suddenly discover their sense of morality and and begin to distribute vaccines more equitably across the African continent? I'm not holding my breath."

    Dr Ala-kija pointed out that the likes of the UK, Israel and the EU haven't placed travel bans on Belgium, despite it reporting a case of the new variant.

  4. Netherlands: New restrictions, fresh protests

    Demonstrators protest in the Hague against new Covid-19 measures
    Image caption: Anti-vaccination protesters demonstrated in The Hague

    A rise in Covid cases - unrelated to the new Omicron variant - has prompted fresh restrictions in the Netherlands.

    From Sunday all hospitality venues must close from 17:00 to 05:00 local time, though some essential business such as supermarkets may remain open until 20.00. Amateur sports will also cease at 17.00.

    Schools will remain open, but students in secondary schools will have to wear masks.

    "From Sunday, the whole of the Netherlands is effectively closed between 5pm and 5am," PM Mark Rutte told reporters during a press conference.

    Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said the tougher restrictions were necessary to prevent the country's health system being overwhelmed.

    A small group anti-vaccination protesters gathered near parliament in The Hague, but they were outnumbered by riot police who kept watch.

    Emergency orders have been issued for the centre of The Hague and several other Dutch towns and cities to avoid a repeat of last weekend's riots.

  5. Omicron mutations not seen before - SA lab head

    The head of the lab that first sequenced the new Covid variant Omicron has told the BBC that the strain has mutations not seen before.

    Professor Anne von Gottberg of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg said that most strains of the virus have about five to 10 spike mutations, but the Omicron has around 25 to 32.

    "So it really was immediately noticeable that something unusual had happened," she said.

    "There are a lot of mutations that are new and that we haven't seen before," she said.

    She said it was as yet unclear what can be determined from the multiple mutations.

    But she said it was precisely because they couldn't fully understand its characteristics that merited further study and a cautious approach to the new strain.

  6. Which countries are bringing in travel bans?

    Passengers queue to get a PCR test against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) before traveling on international flights, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa

    As we've been reporting, a number of countries are tightening their travel restrictions after a new coronavirus variant was identified in southern Africa earlier this week.

    Here are some of the major restrictions that have been announced so far:

    The United States is banning on South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. US citizens and lawful permanent residents will be exempt from the restrictions, but will still need to test negative before flying.

    Canada is shutting its borders to all foreign travellers who have been to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in the past 14 days.

    EU nations will impose an emergency flight ban on countries in southern Africa, after Europe's first case of the variant was discovered in Belgium.

    The ban will be applied to travellers from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, EU Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said.

    Switzerland will require a 10-day quarantine period and a negative Covid test for travellers from Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, as well imposing travel bans on southern African countries, Reuters news agency reports.

    The UK has temporarily halted flights from six southern African countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Lesotho

    Singapore, Italy, France and Israel have also placed Mozambique on their red lists.

    A number of North African and Middle-Eastern nations including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco have introduced varying bans on travellers from the eight countries.

    Japan has announced that from Saturday, travellers from much of southern Africa will need to quarantine for 10 days and take four tests during that time.

    India has ordered more rigorous screening and testing for travellers arriving from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, local media is reporting.

    And Iran will ban travellers from six southern African countries, including South Africa. Iranians arriving from the region will be admitted after testing negative twice, state TV said.

  7. What do we know about Omicron so far?

    Picture showing new Omicron variant and the mutations to its spike proteins

    The World Health Organization has designated the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 as being "of concern", following its discovery by South African scientists.

    But what do we know about it so far?

    Broadly speaking there are thousands of different types, or variants, of Covid circulating around the world. Which is to be expected because viruses mutate constantly.

    But what has experts particularly worried with this strain of the virus, which is also known as B.1.1.529, is that it has mutated heavily and is very different to the original coronavirus strain which emerged in China, which current vaccines were designed to fight.

    There are 50 genetic changes in total and of these, 32 are in the spike protein of the virus - the part which is the target of vaccines.

    However, it is too soon to know how much of a omicron threat poses to vaccine efficacy and it will take several weeks before we have enough data to know for sure, experts have said.

    Read more about what we know about omicron here.

  8. 'Some of these mutations have worrying characteristics'

    Video content

    Video caption: WHO name Omicron 'variant of concern'

    Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead, has been telling the BBC about the body's decision to label Omicron a variant of concern.

  9. WTO postpones meeting over Omicron variant

    The World Trade Organization (WTO) has postponed its first ministerial meeting in four years due to the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

    Ministers from more than 160 WTO members were due to meet next week in the Swiss city of Geneva for an event seen as a test of the body's relevance.

    WTO members reportedly took the decision at an urgent meeting held tonight.

  10. Variant likely to spread across EU - European CDC

    The European Centre for Disease Control (CDC) says that it has classified the new Omnicron coronavirus variant as being "of concern".

    Officials say that the level of risk associated with the variant is "very high" and that it is extremely likely that the variant will spread across the EU.

    The agency added that it feared the profile of the variant may mean that the effectiveness of vaccines could be reduced and that natural immunity may be decreased.

  11. Watch: Failure to vaccinate world will come back to haunt us

    Former UK PM Gordon Brown has been speaking to BBC Newsnight about pandemic and the emergence of new variants.

    He says, as he has done previously, that the UK government must do more to vaccinate poorer nations around the world.

    Video content

    Video caption: Gordon Brown: The West’s failure to vaccinate 'will come back to haunt us’
  12. Vaccine makers look to tackle Omicron

    A worker fills a syringe from a vial of Novavax vaccine

    The pharmaceuticals manufacturer Novavax has begun work on a new version of its Covid-19 vaccine, aimed at targeting the Omicron variant.

    It says it hopes the vaccine will be ready for testing and manufacturing within a matter of weeks.

    Other vaccine companies have also been cautiously optimistic about their ability to counter any potential new challenges posed by the variant.

    BioNTech says it could produce and ship an updated version of its vaccine within 100 days if the new Covid variant detected in southern Africa is found to evade existing immunity.

    And AstraZeneca says it is already conducting research in Botswana and Eswatini, where the variant has been identified, to collect real-world data on how its shot performs against the new variant.

    Moderna has also said it will develop a booster shot for the new variant.

  13. What's the latest?

    Travelers read information at a Covid-19 testing center at the departure area of the International Airport in Duesseldorf, Germany, 26 November 2021.
    Image caption: People read information at a Covid-19 testing centre at the International Airport in Duesseldorf

    Here's a round-up of the latest developments if you're just joining us:

    • The World Health Organization has named the new Covid variant Omicron and says it is a "variant of concern"
    • Preliminary evidence suggests that Omicron carries a higher risk of reinfection than other variants, the WHO says
    • The US and Canada have joined the list of countries to impose travel restrictions on southern African nations after the variant's discovery
    • Earlier, the EU also agreed to impose an emergency flight ban on countries in southern Africa
    • The variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Wednesday. It has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel
    • UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid says there is "huge international concern" over the variant. The UK has temporarily halted flights from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Lesotho
    • Stock markets across the world fell sharply on Friday, amid investor fears over the potential economic impact of the variant
  14. What do we know about the key variants of Covid-19?

    Table showing the main variaints of Covid-19's names and origin countries

    Omicron is not the first "variant of concern" to have emerged during the pandemic.

    There are many different types of Covid-19 circulating around the world, which is to be expected because viruses mutate regularly.

    The most potentially dangerous ones are given the "variants of concern" classification and are kept under close observation. These include:

    • Delta (B.1.617.2), first identified in India and now the most common type circulating in the UK
    • Alpha (B.1.1.7), first identified in the UK but which spread to more than 50 countries
    • Beta (B.1.351), first identified in South Africa but which has been detected in at least 20 other countries, including the UK
    • Gamma (P.1), first identified in Brazil but which has spread to more than 10 other countries, including the UK

    For more on the key Covid variants click here.

  15. Biden calls for vaccine patent waivers to combat Omicron

    Joe Biden

    US President Joe Biden has called on countries meeting at the World Trade Organization next week to agree to waive intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines in the wake of the new variant's discovery.

    He has reissued a call originally made in May by the US government for a temporary lift on patent protections

    This could allow vaccines to be manufactured faster and in more places around the world, as production would not be restricted by the patent rights owned by the pharmaceutical companies who developed them.

    However, manufacturers say it will not have the desired effect and critics argue it strips financial rewards and incentives from cutting-edge developers.

    The president also said other nations need to ramp up their vaccine donations to "match America’s speed and generosity".

    "The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," he said in a statement.

  16. Canada joins the US in curbing travel restrictions

    More now on the United States announcing travel restrictions on southern Africa.

    The travel ban will start on Monday, and include South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, officials told reporters.

    The restrictions will not apply to US citizens and lawful permanent residents, but they will still need to test negative for coronavirus prior to travelling.

    Officials say the policy is being implemented "out of an abundance of caution". There was no indication of how long the bans will be in place.

    Canada is also shutting its borders to foreign travelers who have recently been to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

    Foreign citizens will be banned from Canada if they have been to the seven nations in the past 14 days, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.

    The US and Canada join the UK, EU and others in tightening border controls over the Omicron variant.

  17. Your questions answered

    Variants, vaccines and possible lockdowns?

    Video content

    Video caption: James Gallagher and Caroline Davies answer your questions on the new Covid variant.

    In case you missed it earlier, here's our health correspondent James Gallagher and transport correspondent Caroline Davies answering viewers' questions on the new variant and travel restrictions.

    The questions they look at included:

    • Why is this new variant so worrying?
    • What will its impact be on vaccines?
    • Are we heading back into a lockdown?
  18. UK PM discusses new variant with South African president

    UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa
    Image caption: Boris Johnson and Cyril Ramaphosa previously met at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June

    We've recently heard that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa this afternoon after the UK announced a travel ban on six nations in the region to limit the spread of the new Covid variant.

    A Downing Street spokesman said the two leaders "discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel".

    He said Johnson praised South Africa's rapid genomic sequencing and "leadership in transparently sharing scientific data", with the pair agreeing to "stay in close contact" as they continue to deal with the pandemic.

  19. BreakingUS announces travel curbs over variant

    The United States has joined the European Union, UK and others in implementing travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa after the discovery of a new Covid variant.

    A senior administration official said that the restrictions will apply to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.

    The curbs were being “implemented out of an abundance of caution in light of a new Covid-19 variant circulating in Southern Africa”, the official said.

  20. New variant will reach the UK - scientist

    Prof John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage)

    Prof John Edmunds, a member of the UK's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which advises the government, says the new variant, B.1.1.529, is a "huge worry" and could escape current Covid vaccines.

    "The molecular data is extremely worrying...[it] would point to that perhaps this thing might be able to evade the immune response," he tells BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

    Asked if the new variant could be resistant to current vaccines, Edmunds - an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - confirms this is scientists' "great fear" but it is not yet known to what extent the variant might be able to do so.

    "Our fears are it would do so to a large extent," he adds.

    Citing cases of the new variant in Belgium and Israel, Prof Edmunds warns the new variant will reach the UK and calls on the government to be prepared to take extra action for when it does.

    He says ministers will need to look at whether border restrictions need to be extended, and suggests mass Covid testing and localised measures should be considered alongside making the booster jabs rollout quicker.

    Explaining that a "rapid rise" in the new variant in South Africa had followed a "huge wave" of the Delta strain, he warns the UK is "still fighting a Delta wave" and does not want to be "fighting both at the same time" as it could create a "very, very, very difficult situation".