FirstFT: China reports its first case of Omicron


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The Omicron coronavirus variant has been discovered for the first time on mainland China, according to health authorities, piling pressure on officials already contending with an outbreak in one of the country’s most important manufacturing hubs.

Officials and state media said the Omicron case was “imported” by an arrival in the port city of Tianjin, south-east of Beijing, where travellers are quarantined before they are allowed to continue on to the Chinese capital.

President Xi Jinping’s administration is pursuing a “zero Covid” policy across the world’s most populous nation, in part because of concerns about the relatively low efficacy of China’s homemade vaccines and the potential death toll if Covid-19 spread freely among the country’s 1.4bn people.

China has reported only about 100,000 confirmed Covid cases since the virus emerged in Wuhan almost two years ago — less than the number of daily cases in the US and UK.

The discovery of Omicron in Tianjin came as tens of thousands of people in China have been subjected to new lockdowns owing to Covid-19 outbreaks. Authorities are rushing to contain dozens of cases in the Yangtze river delta, a vital manufacturing centre.

The cities of Hangzhou, Shaoxing and Ningbo — all in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai — have reported almost 200 new cases this week, prompting authorities to impose restrictions on movement until March 2022.

The first report of an Omicron case in China comes as the highly transmissible variant, first discovered in southern Africa, begins to take hold in Europe.

New infections in the UK are running at 200,000 a day, according to an estimate from the UK Health Security Agency, and is expected to become the dominant variant in London in the coming days. The UK reported its first death from the Omicron variant yesterday.

Denmark is also seeing a surge in Omicron cases and its health authority said it expected the variant to become dominant this week.

Epidemiologists say the UK and Denmark, which both have sophisticated genetic sequencing operations, offer an early warning of how infections and hospital admission rates could spike across Europe this winter and show the need for effective booster programmes to be in place.

Thanks for reading FirstFT Americas. Here’s the rest of today’s news — Gordon

1. Blinken blasts ‘aggressive’ China US secretary of state Antony Blinken has criticised “Beijing’s aggressive actions” against its neighbours on his first visit to south-east Asia since taking office. In a speech in Jakarta, Blinken said that President Joe Biden planned to host regional leaders at a summit to be held in the US in coming months as he tries to rebuild credibility after the damaging impact of Donald Trump’s administration.

2. White House scrambles to salvage Build Back Better bill Joe Biden spoke with Joe Manchin, the obstructive Democratic senator from West Virginia, yesterday afternoon as he rushes to pass the $1.75tn Build Back Better bill by the end of the year.

3. Israel’s NSO Group considers Pegasus sale or shutdown The spyware manufacturer whose military-grade malware has been condemned by human rights groups is considering a sale of the company or a shutdown of its Pegasus unit, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

4. Apple probed over alleged whistleblower retaliation The US Department of Labor is investigating the iPhone maker over claims that it retaliated against employee Ashley Gjovik, a former senior engineering program manager who complained of workplace harassment and unsafe working conditions.

5. Harley-Davidson to spin off electric motorcycle division The motorcycle maker is spinning off its electric bikes division and listing it on the stock market through a merger with a blank-cheque company. Harley’s electric motorcycle unit, LiveWire, is set to merge with AEA Bridges Impact Corp in a deal with an enterprise value of $1.8bn.

Coronavirus digest

  • Hong Kong is preparing to resume quarantine-free travel to China despite the discovery of the first case of the Omicron variant on the mainland. Carrie Lam, chief executive, said Hong Kong officials would meet their mainland counterparts in Shenzhen today “to take forward the preparatory work”.

  • Developing countries in Asia will grow at a slower pace than anticipated this year and next, the Asian Development Bank said today, after renewed outbreaks of Covid-19 hit the region’s economies.

  • California has become the latest US state to announce it will reinstate its indoor mask mandate in an effort to tame a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases since Thanksgiving. The mandate, which takes effect on Wednesday, will remain in effect until January 15, state health officials said yesterday.

  • Less than three weeks after scientists in South Africa and Botswana first alerted the world to Omicron, researchers are beginning to understand the implication of its mutations. Science editor Clive Cookson explains why the human immune system finds it so hard to detect the new variant.

Chart showing that preliminary data from South Africa suggest that among adults, the share of Covid patients requiring acute or intensive care is lower than in past waves

Thanks to all those readers who voted in yesterday’s poll. More than two-thirds supported the US government’s mandate. A quarter disagreed and nearly 10 per cent were undecided.

The day ahead

Federal Reserve meets The US central bank begins its final rate-setting meeting of the year and is expected to discuss accelerating the tapering of its stimulus programme.

Debt ceiling vote The US Senate is expected to vote today on raising the US government’s $28.9tn borrowing limit. The process cleared a hurdle last week after the House and Senate approved a procedural change that would allow for the debt ceiling to be increased on a one-time basis by using a simple majority vote.

Economic data The labour department’s producer price index is forecast to have risen 0.5 per cent month-on-month in November, according to a Refinitiv poll. The PPI is expected to have risen 9.2 per cent year-on-year, topping October’s pace of 8.6 per cent, which was the quickest annual rate of wholesale inflation in records going back more than a decade.

What else we’re reading

Why investors are watching the yield curve closely For some investors, the so-called flattening of the yield curve is an ominous sign for the durability of the rebound from the pandemic. Use our interactive charts to explore the significance of the yield curve, and find out what different yield curves sound like.

Spectre of wars pose danger to America’s dominance Joe Biden’s administration is facing militarised crises in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Collectively, they amount to the biggest challenge to US global power since the end of the cold war, writes Gideon Rachman.

Need relief from screen time? There’s an app for that Searching for peace on a smartphone is a perverse endeavour. Yet digital wellness has been a pandemic success story. Mindfulness start-ups seem like a lucrative solution to the problems the tech sector has created, writes Elaine Moore.

Ghislaine Maxwell trial shines light on class divide Class is threaded through the story of Jeffrey Epstein, the late sex offender. At its centre was Maxwell, an Oxford-educated socialite, who witnesses said lured them when they were young and poor into a world beyond their imaginations.

Crunch time for the ECB The European Central Bank has sounded more dovish than most central banks. But scarred by past criticism of having raised interest rates too soon, the ECB is reluctant to wind back its support after struggling for years with low inflation and sluggish growth.


Film critic Danny Leigh reviews the best films that take you to Hong Kong. “Paris has romance and New York has the skyline. Hong Kong has heartache, mystery — and . . . a wealth of stylised, site-specific, vastly influential action and crime movies,” he writes as part of the FT Globetrotter guide to the territory.

A portrait of a now-vanished Hong Kong: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai’s gorgeous ‘In the Mood for Love’ © Album/Alamy

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