US to offer free Covid tests as Omicron becomes dominant
File photo of a medic conducting a Covid-19 test at a medical centre Bertrand GUAY AFP

The United States said Tuesday it will distribute hundreds of millions of free Covid tests in the face of surging Omicron cases, which have forced governments worldwide to reimpose restrictions ahead of the holidays.

Washington also said Tuesday it will donate more than $500 million in international Covid aid to help countries battle the pandemic, while Israel announced tough new restriction on US travel.

The highly-mutated Omicron variant, now present in dozens of countries, appears to be more infectious and possibly have higher resistance to vaccines, despite early indications that it is not more severe than the Delta strain.

Its lightning dash around the globe has forced governments to reimpose restrictions ahead of the holidays, dampening hopes the worst of the pandemic is over.

US President Joe Biden was due to address the nation later Tuesday after a White House official said the government will distribute 500 million free Covid tests and mobilize military medical personnel if needed.

"We have the tools to get through this wave," the official said, noting there are no plans to impose new restrictions.

The United States will also give $580 million (654 million euros) in additional aid to international organizations to fight Covid in the face of surging Omicron cases, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

The announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Omicron now accounts for 73.2 percent of new US cases over the past week ending Saturday.

Biden took to Twitter late Monday to encourage people to get vaccinated and adopt safety measures like mask-wearing, warning that Omicron cases are on the rise.

"If you're an adult choosing to be unvaccinated, you will face an extremely difficult winter for your family and community," he said.

  • 'Celebrate later' -

As Omicron fears loomed large over the end of year holidays, Israel become the latest nation to reimpose tough restrictions in an effort to contain Omicron.

Lawmakers Tuesday banned citizens and residents from US travel, adding it to a list of more than 50 countries declared off-limits, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.

The news comes after WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for nations to redouble efforts to help end the pandemic, calling for new year events to be cancelled because it was better to "celebrate later than to celebrate now and grieve later."

"We have to focus now on ending this pandemic," he said Monday.

Paris has already cancelled its new year celebrations, and Germany is expected to roll out tight restrictions on private parties and to close nightclubs.

Spain's Catalonia region is considering a clampdown as well, while Morocco has announced a blanket ban on New Year's Eve celebrations.

London on Monday said it had cancelled a New Year's Eve event in central Trafalgar Square for 6,500 people.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out any further tightening of England's coronavirus rules over Christmas, while pledging to keep the situation "under constant review."

Queen Elizabeth II is nonetheless understood to have cancelled plans to spend Christmas at her Sandringham estate and will instead take "sensible precautions" and stay at Windsor Castle, according to British media.

The Netherlands has already imposed a Christmas lockdown, with EU officials warning that the Omicron variant could be dominant in Europe by mid-January.