Russia reports its first cases of omicron COVID-19 variant

Health

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has confirmed the first two cases of the omicron coronavirus variant in the country in travelers who returned from South Africa, health authorities said Monday.

The Russian public health watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, said a total of 10 people who returned from South Africa recently tested positive for COVID-19, but the new variant has only been confirmed in two cases so far, with other samples still being studied for omicron.

All those returning from South Africa in recent days have been quarantined in observation facilities, according to media reports. All travelers who tested positive for the virus have been hospitalized, Rospotrebnadzor said. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were hospitalized as a precaution or because they were seriously ill.

Russia restricted entry for all foreigners traveling from countries in southern Africa and required all Russian nationals returning from South Africa or neighboring countries as of Thursday to quarantine for 14 days because of the omicron variant, which was first reported by scientists in South Africa.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart coronavirus vaccines.

Last week, the developer of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine said that it will begin working on adapting its COVID-19 vaccine to counter the omicron variant.

The Gamaleya Center and the Russian Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled Sputnik V and its one-shot version Sputnik Light said in a joint statement that the existing vaccine should be efficient against the new variant, but offered no study data to back the claim.

Russia in recent months has faced its deadliest and largest surge of coronavirus cases, with officially reported infections and deaths regularly hitting all-time highs and only slowing in the past couple of weeks.

According to Russia’s state statistics agency, 74,893 people with COVID-19 died in October — the highest monthly tally in the pandemic.

Despite Russia being the first country in the world to register its vaccine against COVID-19, vaccination rates remain poor. Last week, more Russian regions imposed mandatory vaccination for people aged 60 and over, in an effort to boost vaccine uptake and keep contagion and fatalities down.

Russia on Monday reported 32,136 new cases and 1,184 deaths. The state coronavirus task force has reported a total of more than 9.8 million confirmed infections and 282,462 deaths in the pandemic. But a report released Friday by the state statistics agency Rosstat, which uses broader criteria, put the overall number of virus-linked deaths between April 2020 and October 2021 to over 537,000 — almost twice the official toll.

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