BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Germany agreed new COVID-19 restrictions on Thursday and the United States prepared to do the same, while U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the Omicron variant showed the pandemic could be around for "some time".
The new variant is spreading across the globe, with countries including the United States, India and France reporting their first cases and investors rattled by the prospect that it could hurt the global economic recovery.
In an interview with Reuters, Yellen said she hoped the pandemic would not completely stifle economic activity, adding that the U.S. stimulus at the start of the pandemic had helped fuel a very strong recovery.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries, just as parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant.
The new measures agreed by the government in Germany included restrictions on the number of people who can meet inside, and closures to some discos and clubs.
"We have understood that the situation is very serious and that we want to take further measures in addition to those already taken," Chancellor Angela Merkel told a news conference.
"To do this, the fourth wave must be broken and this has not yet been achieved," she said, referring to Germany's latest surge in cases.
Merkel added that a nationwide vaccination mandate could take effect from February 2022 after it is debated in the Bundestag and after guidance from Germany's Ethics Council.
The European Union's public health agency said Omicron could be responsible for more than half of all COVID infections in Europe within a few months, lending weight to preliminary information about its high transmissibility.
South Africa said it was seeing an increase in COVID-19 reinfections in patients contracting Omicron - with people who have already had the illness getting infected again - in a way that it did not see with other variants.
European stock indexes fell on Thursday, reversing gains from the previous session, but Wall Street futures pointed to a slightly stronger open in the U.S. session. Markets first dropped on worries about the new variant last Friday, and since then have see-sawed.
In the United States, the Biden administration was expected to announce steps included extending requirements for travellers to wear masks through mid-March later on Thursday.
By early next week the United States will require inbound international travellers to be tested for COVID-19 within a day of departure, regardless of vaccination status.
It will also require private health insurance companies to reimburse customers for at-home COVID-19 tests, a senior administration official said.
(GRAPHIC: OMICRON VARIANT MAP - https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-VARIANT/zdvxonlxxpx/Omicron.jpg)
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Nick Macfie and Frances Kerry)