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COVID-19 live updates: Omicron cases spread to UK, Germany

The WHO classified omicron as "a variant of concern."

As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, more than 5.1 million people have died from the disease worldwide, including over 776,000 Americans, according to real-time data compiled by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Just 59.1% of the population in the United States is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Israel to close borders for 2 weeks

Israel has become the latest country to institute a travel ban due to the newly emerged omicron variant -- and it's going a step further than other countries.

The country announced Saturday it will be closing its borders to all foreign travelers -- not just those from southern Africa -- for two weeks starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday, the government said. Unvaccinated Israelis who return from overseas will be forced to take a PCR test upon landing and enter home isolation. They will receive a second PCR test on the third day of isolation and be allowed to resume their normal activities if negative.

Israelis returning to the country from certain high-risk countries will be forced to isolate at a hotel until receiving two negative tests.

The country said plans instituted last week to deal with Hanukkah celebrations, including limits on the size of gatherings, will remain unchanged. Hanukkah begins on Sunday.

-ABC News' Joshua Hoyos


South Africa says it's being 'punished'

South Africa has complained it is being punished for discovering the new variant

A statement by the South African International Relations & Cooperation Department criticized the travel bans and said the bans were "akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker."

"Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement from the South African goverment also read.

"A combination of South Africa’s capacity to test and it’s ramped-up vaccination programme, backed up by world class scientific community, should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic. South Africa follows and enforces globally recognised COVID-19 health protocols on travel. No infected individuals are permitted to leave the country," the statement continued.

South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor said: "Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise. Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business."

South Africa has already started engaging countries that have imposed travel bans with the view to persuade them to reconsider.


2 confirmed omicron cases in Germany

Two cases of the new omicron COVID-19 variant have been confirmed in Germany on Saturday.

The cases were confirmed in Bavaria and involve two poeple who arrived in Munich on Nov. 24 on a flight from South Africa, the Bavarian Ministry of Health and Care said.

Both travelers had returned to Bavaria on Wednesday after an extended stay in South Africa. They had been in domestic isolation since Nov. 25 after testing positive for PCR.

After reporting on the new variant, the two individuals had proactively arranged for themselves to be tested for the variant, a ministry spokeswoman said. The PCR test was positive in both of them, she said. The samples were further tested today at the Max von Pettenkofer Institute in Munich using a variant-specific PCR test, which detected the highly contagious omicron variant.

In the coming week, an additional whole genome sequencing should be carried out, said Munich virologist Oliver Keppler. However, according to Keppler, the PCR procedure carried out today "allows a clear differentiation from other SARS-CoV-2 variants." Together with the travel history, the detection of omicron can be considered "doubtless," he said.

The Bavarian Health Ministry urged passengers who arrived from South Africa on the same flight on Nov. 24 to report immediately to their local health department. All persons who traveled from South Africa in the past 14 days should immediately reduce their contacts, take a PCR test indicating their travel history and contact the health office immediately, the ministry said, adding: "Do everything to prevent spread."

Moreover, all persons entering southern Africa from areas classified by the Robert Koch Institute as virus-variant areas must be quarantined for 14 days -- this also applies regardless of vaccination status.

"We must do everything we can to prevent the spread of the new variant in the Free State and in Germany," said a ministry spokeswoman in Munich. It is not yet clear whether the new variant is actually more contagious and leads to more hospitalizations, she said. "Until the science is clearer, however, we must exercise caution," the spokeswoman stressed.

Earlier, Hesse's Social Affairs Minister Kai Klose of the Green Party announced another suspected case. According to the report, several mutations typical for this variant were found in a traveler returning from South Africa. The fully vaccinated person had reportedly entered the country via Frankfurt Airport on Nov. 21 and developed symptoms over the course of the week. An exact result is expected in this case on Monday.

-ABC News' Rashid Haddou



US will "take it one step at a time" on omicron: Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris says she has been briefed on the omicron variant and when asked if there will be any additional travel restrictions, she said they will be "taking it one step at a time."

Harris said that for now, the administration believes they’ve done "what we believe is necessary," and they will "take every precaution" to protect Americans.

-ABC News' Justin Gomez