Some health officials were optimistic about a major private study in South Africa that suggests omicron causes less severe illness than earlier variants, though the study also found it was more resistant to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine commonly used there. As the spread highlights vaccine inequality, advocates are urging the Biden administration to follow through on a pledge to ensure countries waive intellectual property protections on vaccines and share them with the developing world.
Here’s what to know
- Pfizer’s anti-covid pill prevents severe illness and should work against the omicron variant, the company announced Tuesday.
- The United States on Tuesday surpassed 800,000 deaths from the coronavirus as the pandemic approaches the end of a second year.
- The NFL and NBA are facing a sharp increase in virus cases, with stars sidelined in both leagues. Positive coronavirus tests also forced the NHL to postpone games and threw into question whether it will send players to the Beijing Olympics.
MORE ON THE OMICRON VARIANT
British health official says omicron variant doubling fast across U.K.
A senior British health official said Wednesday that the omicron variant of the coronavirus was spreading faster than expected, with cases doubling in under two days across most parts of the country.
The variant is “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic,” said U.K. Health Security Agency Chief Executive Jenny Harries, but she added that more work remained necessary to understand its clinical severity.
“We are still learning a lot about the variant,” she told the BBC. The extent to which cases could lead to hospitalizations or severe illness remains unclear. “The world probably is still at too early a stage.”
Britain has ramped up its booster campaign in an attempt to control what Prime Minister Boris Johnson described this week as an omicron “tidal wave.” The head of the European Commission also said Wednesday that the new variant could overtake the delta variant as the dominant version of the virus in mid-January.
“The difficulty is the growth of this virus has a doubling time … which is shortening, i.e. it’s growing faster, and in most regions of the U.K. is now under two days,” Harries said, adding that earlier estimates had expected a period of four or five days.
“We’re starting to see it and feel it now,” she added. “We’re very sure that there are levels growing across most communities in the U.K., now, although there is quite a lot of regional variation still.”
Early data shows omicron variant could pose higher risk of reinfection, WHO says
The WHO has said there’s preliminary evidence suggesting existing coronavirus vaccines may have less efficacy against the omicron variant and that the variant could pose a higher risk of reinfection.
However, the health body in its weekly update added that more information was needed as scientists race to understand the level of protection the vaccines still provide against severe disease and death.
While the omicron variant appears to be spreading faster than the delta variant, not only in South Africa but also in countries with a high delta incidence such as Britain, data on its clinical severity remains limited, the WHO said.
Moderna’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, also cited the risks of reinfection linked to the omicron variant on Wednesday. “I think it’s a serious variant,” he said on Sky News. “Data from South Africa have shown that it can reinfect people, and has a doubling time that’s very fast.”
As pharmaceutical giants including Moderna explore ways to adapt their shots, a major private study said this week that the omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness than earlier variants but is more resistant to the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine widely used in South Africa. The study by Discovery Health showed the risk of hospital admissions among adults who developed covid-19 was 29 percent lower than in the pandemic wave of March 2020.
The NBA’s coronavirus problems are worsening
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden entered the coronavirus protocols Tuesday, the latest sign of mounting coronavirus concerns for the league as its annual Christmas Day showcase games approach. Antetokounmpo has been ruled out for a Wednesday game against the Indiana Pacers, the Bucks said. Harden missed Brooklyn’s overtime win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday.
Per the league’s protocols, fully vaccinated players such as Antetokounmpo and Harden are generally exempt from daily testing and must undergo testing only if they are symptomatic, come into close contact with an individual who tests positive or are required to test in compliance with local governmental guidelines. But the NBA instituted enhanced testing of all players regardless of vaccination status in the days after Thanksgiving, and more than 30 players have entered the protocols in December.
Secretary of State Blinken ends Southeast Asia trip early after press corps member tests positive for virus
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken cut short his trip to Southeast Asia on Wednesday after a member of the press corps accompanying him on his visits tested positive for the coronavirus.
Blinken dropped a slate of planned meetings with government officials in Thailand from his swing through Southeast Asia, which included stops in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The omicron variant of the virus is spreading rapidly across the globe, disrupting business and international travel. The victims now include Blinken’s first official visit to Southeast Asia, where he has hoped to counter Chinese influence in the strategic and economically dynamic region.
Maryland school cancels rest of 2021 classes after coronavirus outbreak
Twenty-one students at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School tested positive for the coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon, causing the Maryland private school to cancel 2021’s two remaining in-person instruction days.
The Catholic high school, located in Olney, has seen an increase in coronavirus cases among its student body, said Cheryl Plainte, a Good Counsel spokeswoman.
Wednesday and Thursday were scheduled to be midterm exam days before students were released for the winter holiday break. But given the surge in cases on campus, administrators decided to make Tuesday the last day before the calendar year ends.
A quieter Christmas: White House to skip big holiday parties because of covid
The White House is cutting back its holiday party season this year, opting instead for “open houses” that will let people see its Christmas decorations, officials said Tuesday, a reflection of the persistent pandemic that threatens to disrupt Americans’ year-end festivities for a second straight season.
The holiday party circuit in Washington usually kicks into full gear by mid-December — culminating in a series of glitzy receptions at the White House for diplomats, lawmakers and others — but this year President Biden’s aides have settled on events that do not entail large gatherings.
White House officials were at pains to emphasize that this does not mean they will ignore the holiday season, and Biden is not fully abandoning large get-togethers with wealthy and powerful associates.
More Americans are worried about infection, but they’re less cautious, poll shows
More Americans are worried about themselves or their family members getting infected with the coronavirus, as the newly emerging omicron variant swiftly spreads across the globe, according to a recent poll.
But fewer Americans are taking precautions such as avoiding nonessential travel, staying away from large groups and wearing masks when around others, it found. The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research surveyed 1,089 adults in the United States from Dec. 2 to Dec. 7.
The apparent contradiction between fears and actions represents peoples’ tendency to become less cautious about more familiar threats, said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, according to the Associated Press.
Around 36 percent of respondents in the poll said they were extremely or very worried about themselves or their loved ones contracting the coronavirus when asked in early December, just days after the omicron variant was first found in the United States. That was up from 25 percent in October, when a surge in cases that had swept the country in the late summer was slowly declining.
At the same time, fewer than 60 percent said they were staying away from large groups or wearing a mask when around others. Those figures were down from around 80 percent in February , when around 30 percent of Americans said they were extremely or very worried about getting infected with the coronavirus.
But vaccinated individuals were more likely to take precautions than unvaccinated people, the poll found. At least 60 percent of those who said they were vaccinated also said they were staying away from large groups and wearing masks, compared to under 45 percent of unvaccinated people who said they were taking those precautions.
Biden urges Americans to get vaccinated ‘to honor the memory’ of 800,000 covid victims
President Biden called on Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus after the United States on Tuesday surpassed 800,000 deaths from a pandemic nearing the end of its second year.
The highly contagious omicron variant also intensified calls for the immunized — nearly 61 percent of the nation’s population — to get booster shots. Disease trackers fear the latest variant could spawn a wave of illness that adds to the strain on health systems currently attributed to the delta variant.
In an effort to rein in the virus, the Biden administration and Democratic and Republican governors in many states have repeatedly appealed to residents to get vaccinated and boosted.
“As we head into the winter and confront a new variant, we must resolve to keep fighting this virus together,” Biden said in a statement on the latest death toll. “I urge all Americans: do your patriotic duty to keep our country safe, to protect yourself and those around you, and to honor the memory of all those we have lost. Now is the time.”
The toll, nearly equal to the population of San Francisco, comes as the number of infections ticks back up, with people traveling during the holiday season and medical experts bracing for more omicron circulation worldwide. Two of the most populous U.S. states, California and New York, are also reinstating mask mandates.
Analysis: What’s keeping people from getting vaccinated? Their own social circles.
By Sharif Amlani, Ross Butters and Spencer Kiesel6:15 a.m.
By Monday, almost two years after the “novel coronavirus” first made headlines, about 800,000 deaths from covid-19 had been reported in the United States. In recent months, covid-related deaths have been concentrated largely among the unvaccinated.
Public health officials continue to stress the urgency of containing the pandemic through mass vaccination efforts and encourage booster shots to fight existing and new variants. Yet vaccinating the unvaccinated remains a huge challenge in the United States. Why do so many people hesitate to get vaccinated?
Existing research describes how people make health decisions and discuss political issues among their closest associates. Our research looked specifically at coronavirus vaccinations: Do the vaccination status and attitudes in an individual’s core social network — the group of friends, family and associates with whom they frequently have discussions — inhibit or motivate vaccination?
Australia announces mRNA plant that could make 100 million doses a year
Australia, which was initially criticized for the slow start to its rollout of coronavirus vaccines, announced Tuesday it would build a plant that could produce up to 100 million mRNA vaccine doses a year.
The factory will be built in Victoria state, in a partnership between vaccine manufacturer Moderna and the federal and state governments. It is expected to open by 2024.
The announcement came amid a jump in case numbers worldwide, including in Australia, that health officials are attributing to the highly contagious omicron variant. Canberra in recent days shortened the timeline for boosters, advising residents who have received two doses of vaccine to get a third after five months instead of six.
“This investment will continue to secure Australia’s future economic prosperity while protecting lives by providing access to world-leading mRNA vaccines made on Australian soil,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement Tuesday.
Australia produces the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine under license but doesn’t have the ability to manufacture messenger RNA vaccines — which hobbled its vaccination program in the early days when worries about rare blood clots made Australians hesitant to get immunized.
Countries around the world have ramped up their vaccine-making capabilities during the pandemic. Britain announced plans last year for a state-of-the-art facility capable of producing millions of doses each month. Previously, it had just one plant, in Liverpool, making seasonal flu vaccines and another, in Scotland, making a niche product, Japanese encephalitis vaccine, according to local media reports.
Moderna, under intense pressure to send more of its coronavirus vaccine to lower-income countries, announced in October it would build a manufacturing plant in Africa capable of producing 500 million doses of mRNA vaccine a year.
“The mRNA vaccines have proven to be, I’d argue, the biggest scientific discovery over the course of this pandemic,” Morrison said. “And that means that they are a massive part of the future of vaccines, not just here in this country but all around the world.”
Key coronavirus updates from around the world
Here’s what to know about the top coronavirus stories around the globe from news service reports.
- Infections are jumping in many countries that are bracing for a potential omicron wave — from Kenya, which saw its highest figures since easing restrictions in the fall, to Singapore, which is tightening rules for the unvaccinated.
- Denmark surpassed 1,000 daily cases of omicron for the first time as the European Union predicted the variant would become the dominant version of the virus in the 27-nation bloc by mid-January.
- Italy imposed new coronavirus restrictions for people arriving from other E.U. countries ahead of the holiday travel season, requiring all travelers to show proof of a negative test. The country also extended a state of emergency until March.
- The Philippines reported its first omicron cases in two people who came to the country from abroad.
- Pfizer and BioNTech will replace AstraZeneca next year as the main suppliers of coronavirus vaccines to Covax, the global initiative to get doses to the world’s poorer countries.
Air Force discharges 27 service members in first apparent dismissals over vaccine refusal
The Air Force removed 27 people for not obeying orders to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, a spokeswoman said Monday, apparently marking the U.S. military’s first dismissals of those who refuse the shots.
More than 94 percent of the Air Force is fully vaccinated, according to the service’s data. But tens of thousands of active-duty members across all services have declined the vaccines, a show of defiance in a culture built around following orders. Many have sought rarely given exemptions.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek acknowledged that those dismissed Monday were the first active-duty Air Force members to be discharged over the Pentagon’s vaccination requirements for military members.
Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac to assess efficacy against omicron
Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinovac says it is assessing how the omicron variant will affect the efficacy of its vaccine, after initial, small studies found “inadequate” immunity responses among people who had a full course of its shot.
“Sinovac is conducting further research on how antibodies change in the blood serum at different phases after vaccination, so that we would be able to get a more comprehensive review of the omicron’s impact on our vaccine efficacy,” company spokesman Liu Peicheng told The Washington Post, after China recorded two omicron cases this week.
Late Tuesday, the University of Hong Kong issued a statement saying it had tested antibodies in the blood serum of 25 people fully vaccinated with Sinovac’s shot, called Coronavac, and none showed sufficient antibodies to neutralize omicron — raising early questions about whether tens of millions of people relying on the Chinese shot would be protected against the new variant. Sinovac, which has supplied 2.3 billion shots to China and dozens of other countries, is the world’s largest supplier of coronavirus vaccine.
The study, not yet peer-reviewed, is available online as a preprint in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Pfizer and BioNTech said last week that a third shot, which is being offered in the United States and other countries, would increase protection against omicron. The Hong Kong scientists also recommended a third vaccine dose as soon as possible. But whether a third dose of the current Sinovac vaccine will enhance efficacy against omicron remains unclear, they said.
Sinovac and the state-owned Sinopharm, whose vaccines are based on the original SARS-CoV-2 strain that was first detected in Wuhan, China, have both started preparing for booster shots targeting omicron, although neither has proceeded to clinical trials. The National Institutes for Food and Drug Control — essentially China’s Food and Drug Administration — cited initial lab trials in saying that mix-and-match shots are 10 times more effective and provide better protection against omicron than three shots of the vaccines by Sinovac or Sinopharm.
More than 80 percent of the Chinese population is fully vaccinated, most with Sinovac or Sinopharm shots, and the government is signaling it has no intention of loosening its strict border controls for its policy of zero tolerance against coronavirus cases.
Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai-based infectious-disease expert who advises China’s covid response policy, said Sunday at a science event that China needs to rethink its vaccination strategy if things get worse.
“In a worst-case scenario, increased transmissibility and strong virulence [of omicron] would render booster shots ineffective,” he said. “If that happens, then we would need a new strategy on vaccine and a tougher policy on prevention and control.”
Analysis: Wealthy nations rush boosters as poorer ones await first doses
Omicron has led to a rush in wealthy nations for boosters. On Sunday evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country would aim to offer all eligible adults a booster shot by the end of the year, citing the exponential spread of the new variant.
Other high-income countries are also pushing ahead with boosters, overcoming earlier hesitation about offering extra doses outside of the standard one- or two-dose regimen initially approved, depending on the manufacturer.
“We’re getting booster shots to 1.1 million Americans a day — more people boosted per day than ever before,” White House covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said told reporters Monday.
But while these extra shots are being administered faster than ever, many people in poorer nations are still waiting for their first doses. Roughly 54 million booster shots had been administered in the United States as of Sunday, compared with 64 million doses administered in total in low-income nations, according to Our World in Data. And that gap may soon close: While the pace of vaccination in low-income nations is increasing, all together they have only administered more than a million shots a day three times so far.