News Item: Omicron Covid-19 variant updates from 27 November – 15 December 2021
We have collected all the top news stories about the new Omicron Covid-19 variant from across the past weekend and will continue to update it across the week (w/c 29 November 2021).
UK readies new Covid rules as third Omicron case emerges
28 November 2021
Britain’s government on Sunday defended the pace and scale of its response to the new Omicron strain of Covid-19 as officials reported a third case of the emerging variant, and warned of more to come.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said mandatory mask-wearing would return to shops and public transport in England on Tuesday, but told families to plan for Christmas “as normal”, despite new rules to combat Omicron.
Also effective Tuesday, the government’s website is instructing all passengers entering the UK to take a PCR test for Covid-19 two days after their arrival, and to self-isolate until the receive a negative result.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had announced the tougher measures at news conference on Saturday, hours after the UK confirmed its first two Omicron cases, but did not specify when they would take effect.
A third case was confirmed on Sunday by the UK Health Security Agency, but it said the person had already left the country after visiting the Westminster area of London — where parliament is located — having travelled from southern Africa.
The agency said it was “very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days… as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing”.
British Airways meanwhile said it had taken the “difficult decision” to suspend flights to Hong Kong after a crew member tested positive for Covid, having been negative on leaving the UK.
Services to and from the former UK colony in China have already been scaled back sharply due to its strict Covid curbs.
Johnson was widely criticised for his own travel and quarantine policy earlier in the pandemic when he kept UK borders open even as infection rates surged, yielding Britain one of the world’s worst per-capita death tolls from Covid.
The government controversially dropped the masks mandate in July for England, after a prior lockdown, while the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland kept it in place.
All four UK nations are expected to adopt the same PCR rule, after England again diverged in July by requiring only a simple lateral flow test for incoming passengers on flights, ships and trains.
– ‘Holes in the defences’ –
Travel from 10 countries in southern Africa is now banned because of Omicron, but Javid conceded that hundreds of passengers had arrived on flights from South Africa on Friday without being tested.
But he told BBC television: “I think the speed at which we acted at could not have been any faster.”
Javid added that the government was “nowhere near” reintroducing social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance, which were also controversially discarded in England earlier this year against the advice of scientists.
He said it was too soon to judge the effectiveness of existing vaccines against Omicron, as drugs manufacturers rush to research new treatments against the emergent strain.
But the government is seeking approval from its Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to expand the rollout of booster jabs, shortening the time-frame between second and third shots, and broadening the age range to all over-18s.
The JCVI is expected to respond early next week, Javid said.
The opposition Labour party said the government was again doing too little, too late after Omicron emerged.
Even after Tuesday, passengers can enter Britain without a pre-departure test and travel freely from their port of entry on public transport, Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Nandy noted.
“We desperately want to see them tighten up the travel restrictions,” she said on Sky News.
“There is a real problem when for 18 months the government has been warned that there are holes in those defences and still hasn’t taken action to plug (them).”
G7 ministers meet as new Covid strain spreads around the globe
29 November 2021
G7 health ministers were to hold an emergency meeting Monday on the new Omicron Covid-19 strain spreading the globe and forcing border closures, as experts race to understand what the variant means for the fight to end the pandemic.
The meeting was called by G7 chair Britain, which is among a steadily growing number of countries detecting cases of the heavily mutated new strain.
Omicron, first discovered in southern Africa, represents a fresh challenge to global efforts to battle the pandemic. Several countries have already re-imposed restrictions many had hoped were a thing of the past.
“We know we are now in a race against time,” said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. Vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations”, she added.
A long list of countries has already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, as well as the United States, Britain, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands.
Angola became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on countries to lift the travel bans “before any further damage is done to our economies”.
Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders.
The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new Covid strain.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti.
– Race to determine threat level –
Dutch health authorities said they had identified at least 13 cases of Omicron among 61 quarantined passengers who tested positive for coronavirus after arriving from South Africa.
Border police there announced Sunday they had arrested a couple on a plane at Schiphol Airport after they fled a hotel where the passengers were being quarantined.
Despite the new threat, tens of thousands rallied in Austria to protest the government’s introduction of compulsory vaccination — the first EU country to do so.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was “a minor interference” compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.
With many European nations, including Germany and France, already re-introducing restrictions to counter surges in infections, Swiss voters firmly backed a proposed Covid pass law in a referendum Sunday.
In Britain, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said new Covid rules will be enforced from Tuesday, including mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport in England, and tighter restrictions on passengers arriving from abroad.
As scientists try to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain, one South African doctor said dozens of her patients suspected of having the Omicron variant had only shown mild symptoms, such as fatigue.
Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told AFP she had seen 30 patients over the past 10 days who tested positive for Covid-19 and who all fully recovered without hospitalisation.
Senior US government scientist Anthony Fauci said he “continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid”, during a briefing on the new variant with President Joe Biden on Sunday.
– Israel raises ‘red flag’ –
Israel announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners — just four weeks after re-opening to tourists following a prolonged Covid-driven closure.
“We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
But the new strain has already slipped through the net and has now been found everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Botswana, Hong Kong and Australia.
Canada became the latest country to announce its first detected cases Sunday in two people who had travelled to Nigeria.
Scientists in South Africa said they had last week detected the new variant with a far greater number of mutations than in the cases of earlier strains like Beta or Delta — the latter of which dented the global recovery and sent millions worldwide back into lockdown.
The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome produced the first “image” of the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the Delta variant. But that does not mean it is more dangerous, the researchers said.
– ‘Race against time’ to tackle new Covid variant: EU chief –
First image of Omicron shows many more mutations than Delta
29 November 2021
The new Covid variant Omicron has many more mutations than the Delta variant, according to a first “image” of this new variant initially detected in South Africa, produced and published by the prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome.
On the three-dimensional “image”, which looks like a map, “we can clearly see that the Omicron variant presents many more mutations than the Delta variant, concentrated above all in one area of the protein that interacts with human cells”, the team of researchers said in a statement Sunday.
“This does not automatically mean that these variations are more dangerous, just that the virus has further adapted to the human species by generating another variant,” the researchers said.
“Other studies will tell us if this adaptation is neutral, less dangerous or more dangerous,” they added.
The research team focused on the search for mutations in “the three-dimensional structure of the spike protein”, Claudia Alteri, professor of clinical microbiology at Milan State University and a researcher at Bambino Gesu, told AFP.
The image was produced “from the study of the sequences of this new variant made available to the scientific community” coming mainly “from Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong”.
“This image, which represents a map of all the variations, describes the mutations of Omicron but does not define its role,” she said.
“It will now be important to define through laboratory experiments whether the combination of these mutations can have an impact on transmission or on the effectiveness of vaccines, for example,” she added.
Omicron variant raises new fears for pandemic-hit world economy
30 November 2021
Just as it was recovering from the body blow of the Covid-19 pandemic, the global economy has taken yet another hit from the Omicron variant of the virus, which has led to a raft of new travel restrictions.
First reported to the World Health Organization in South Africa less than a week ago, the new strain has rapidly spread everywhere from Africa to the Pacific, and from Europe to Canada, causing dozens of countries to announce travel restrictions.
The severity of the economic impact will depend on how dangerous the variant proves to be, and how well existing vaccinations stand up to it.
That has meant that even with the most favorable scenarios in mind, economists are already revising their 2022 forecasts downwards.
The International Monetary Fund, which expects growth of 4.9 percent for the next year, has been insisting for months that the coronavirus and its variants remain the main threat.
The economic impact could be “modest,” in the order of 0.25 percentage points on global growth in 2022, if Omicron causes “relatively mild symptoms” and the vaccines are “effective,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at Oxford Economics.
In the worst-case scenario, in which Omicron proves extremely dangerous and large swaths of the world are in lockdown again, 2022 growth could fall to around 2.3 percent, as compared to the 4.5 percent expected by Oxford Economics before the variant emerged.
And in such a scenario it is not certain that governments, which have stumped up trillions of dollars in aid since the start of the pandemic, would be willing to put in place further fiscal stimulus packages, especially if vaccines are available, Daco said.
Those aspects “are going to be really key to how it affects the global economy and people’s behavior,” said Erik Lundh, an economist at The Conference Board.
– Self-isolation –
Beyond government measures to contain the new strain, fear of infection could lead people to limit their own travel and economic activities, such as going to restaurants and reducing consumption, which will in turn impact growth, Lundh said.
Another risk is the exacerbation of the global supply chain crunch. Lundh pointed out that “a lot of air cargo is stored basically in the belly of passenger planes…It’s not just all sorts of FedEx planes.”
“So if there are cancellations, if there’s a lapse in demand for commercial flights for passengers, it does run the risk of limiting the route of trade,” which could in turn worsen inflationary pressures as goods become more scarce.
In addition, a wave of Omicron infections “could cause some workers to temporarily exit the workforce, and deter others from returning, making current labor shortages worse,” said Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics in a note.
Omicron has sparked more anxiety than any other variant since the emergence of Delta, itself already much more contagious than previous strains.
US President Joe Biden, however, said Monday that there was “not a cause for panic,” even if the United States has closed its borders to travelers from the southern African region where the variant was first detected.
As for vaccine manufacturers AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax have expressed confidence in their ability to combat the variant.
– Interest rate hike delayed? –
However, the threat of a potentially more serious variant will complicate the task of central banks which could “postpone plans to raise interest rates until the picture becomes clearer,” said Shearing.
The Federal Reserve is due to meet on December 15, with several others, including the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of England meeting the day after.
Pfizer CEO said Albert Bourla said it will be a few weeks before drug makers know most of what they need to know about the new strain.
In the meantime, “uncertainty is damaging,” said economist Daco.
“Every time you come back to a climate of uncertainty and fear, it slows down the recovery of the world economy.”
On Monday, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell himself warned that Omicron is a risk for the US economy, which together with China and the European Union is one of the engines driving the global economy.
Pfizer already working on Covid vaccine targeting Omicron: CEO
30 November 2021
Pfizer has already started working on a version of its Covid-19 vaccine specifically targeting the new Omicron variant in case the current inoculation is not effective against the latest strain, the US drugmaker’s CEO Albert Bourla said Monday.
Bourla told CNBC that his company on Friday began testing the current vaccine against the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa and has reignited fears of a global wave of Covid-19 infections.
“I don’t think the result will be the vaccines don’t protect,” Bourla said.
But the testing could show that existing shots “protect less,” which would mean “that we need to create a new vaccine,” Bourla said.
“Friday we made our first DNA template, which is the first possible inflection of the development process of a new vaccine,” he said.
Johnson & Johnson also said Monday that it is “pursuing an Omicron-specific variant vaccine and will progress it as needed.”
On Friday, Moderna, another leading Covid-19 vaccine maker, said it was developing a booster shot against the new variant.
Bourla likened the situation to the scenario earlier this year when Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech developed a vaccine in 95 days when there were concerns the previous formula would not work against Delta, though that version ultimately was not used.
The current vaccine is “very effective” against Delta, the executive said, adding that the companies expect to be able to produce four billion vaccine doses in 2022.
On Monday, the World Health Organization warned the new Covid-19 Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk globally.
Bourla said he was also “very confident” that Pfizer’s recently unveiled antiviral pill would work as a treatment for infections caused by the mutations, including Omicron.
Among newly-infected, high risk patients treated within three days of the onset of symptoms, Pfizer’s pill has been shown to cut hospitalization or death by nearly 90 percent.
Moderna boss says vaccines likely no match for Omicron: FT
30 November 2021
Existing Covid-19 jabs will struggle against the Omicron variant and it will take months to develop a new shot that works, the head of US vaccine manufacturer Moderna has told the Financial Times.
Stephane Bancel told the newspaper in an interview published Tuesday that data would be available on the effectiveness of current vaccines in the next two weeks but scientists were not optimistic.
“All the scientists I’ve talked to?… are like ‘this is not going to be good’,” he told the newspaper.
Bancel’s warning came as G7 health ministers held emergency talks on the new variant, which is spreading around the world and prompting nations to close their borders once again or impose fresh travel restrictions.
The World Health Organization has called the risk from Omicron “very high”.
Bancel said researchers were concerned because 32 of 50 mutations found in the Omicron variant were on the spike protein, a part of the virus that vaccines use to bolster the immune system against Covid.
He told the FT there would be a “material drop” in the effectiveness of current jabs against Omicron.
Moderna has already said it is working on an Omicron-specific vaccine, as is US drugmaker Pfizer.
Chief executive Bancel said his company could deliver between two billion and three billion doses in 2022 but it would be dangerous to shift all production to an Omicron-specific shot with other strains of the virus still in circulation.
His more alarming tone contrasts with efforts by politicians to project calm regarding Omicron.
US President Joe Biden said Monday the strain was “not a cause for panic”.
Regeneron says Covid antibody treatment may be less effective against Omicron
30 November 2021
US biotech firm Regeneron said Tuesday that its synthetic antibody treatment for Covid-19 may be less effective against the new variant, and it plans to conduct tests to determine by how much.
“Prior in vitro analyses and structural modeling regarding the individual mutations present in the Omicron variant indicate that there may be reduced neutralization activity of both vaccine-induced and monoclonal antibody-conveyed immunity, including the current REGEN-COV antibodies,” the company said in a statement.
“Further analyses are ongoing to confirm and quantify this potential impact using the actual Omicron variant sequence.”
REGEN-COV is currently authorized in the United States as a post-exposure prophylaxis in high-risk individuals, and is pending full approval.
It is based on two lab-produced monoclonal antibodies — Y-shaped proteins that bind to the spikes that dot the surface of the coronavirus, stopping the pathogen from invading human cells.
The antibodies, called casirivimab and imdevimab, are injected intravenously.
But Omicron has a high number of mutations on its spike proteins, which worries health experts.
The World Health Organization in late September recommended Regeneron for Covid-19 treatment, but only in patients with specific health profiles, such as the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.
Pfizer/BioNTech says three doses 'effective' against Omicron
9 December 2021
Two doses of the BioNTech and Pfizer coronavirus vaccine may not be enough to protect against the Omicron strain, the companies warned Wednesday, but they stressed it was “still effective” after a third jab.
The companies’ news was called reassuring by experts, and came as the first independent data from labs around the world emerged, suggesting that the new variant is better at evading vaccine-trained immunity than those before it.
In preliminary results published on Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine “is still effective in preventing Covid-19, also against Omicron, if it has been administered three times”.
But they warned that “the Omicron variant is probably not sufficiently neutralised after two doses.”
According to early laboratory research using blood serum from vaccinated people, a booster third dose generated around the same level of antibodies against Omicron as is seen after a second dose with the initial strain.
Blood samples from around 20 people who had received two doses of the current vaccine showed on average a 25-fold reduction in neutralising antibodies compared to the early strain of the virus, the companies said.
But they added that another part of the immune response — from T cells — were probably still effective against the variant, adding that “vaccinated individuals may still be protected against severe forms of the disease”.
Their results have not been peer reviewed.
“We still need to be very measured and take a wait and see approach, but I think what we do have is at least encouraging,” virologist Angela Rasmussen of Canada’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization told AFP.
“Boosters will definitely be helpful in keeping the rate of Omicron breakthrough slower,” she added.
– Boosters urged –
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday summarized what is so far known about Omicron — it poses higher infection risks to people who have already had the virus or been vaccinated than previous variants, and there is a preliminary indication it could cause milder disease.
But even if confirmed to be less severe, the variant is likely even more transmissible than Delta, meaning it could reach and thus sicken more people.
Speaking at a press conference, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said that reducing the time required between second and third doses of the vaccine was the “right way to go” to increase protection through the winter.
The United Kingdom has begun giving booster shots to individuals at least three months after their second dose, while the delay to receive an additional shot is longer elsewhere.
The vaccine-makers said that an Omicron-specific version of the jab, currently in development by BioNTech, would be ready for delivery by March, pending regulatory approval.
The decision to switch production to the tailored vaccine would depend on Omicron’s spread.
– Emerging evidence –
The announcement comes after other preliminary results from a small study in South Africa suggested there was up to a 40-fold drop in the ability of the antibodies from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to neutralise Omicron, compared to an early strain.
The results suggest “that there is definitely much less neutralisation against Omicron compared to neutralisation against the original strains that came out of Wuhan initially,” said Willem Hanekom, executive director of the Africa Health Research Institute, which carried out the study.
But he cautioned that it was important to be “extraordinarily careful” interpreting the results because they only reflect a laboratory setting, while real world data was the true test.
Antibody reductions were also seen in a German study and one carried out in Sweden, but they varied in precise magnitude.
Omicron counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells, and a high degree of immune evasion was widely anticipated.
But Rasmussen said she was encouraged by a finding in the South African research that showed the Omicron variant used the same “receptor” — known as ACE2 — to enter cells, as opposed to mutating in a more fundamental way.
The detection of the first Omicron cases two weeks ago coincided with soaring infection numbers across the world, and the variant added fuel to concerns about a global Covid resurgence.
Dozens of nations have re-imposed border restrictions in response to the spread of the new virus variant and raised the possibility of a return of economically punishing lockdowns.
WHO sees unprecedented Omicron spread, 'probably' in most countries
The World Health Organization warned Tuesday Omicron was spreading at an unprecedented rate and urged countries to act, as drug maker Pfizer said its coronavirus pill was effective against the variant.
Dutch primary schools will close early as Europe battles a fresh wave of infections and hospital admissions, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a major parliamentary test seeking to impose fresh Covid curbs.
Omicron, first detected by South Africa and reported to the WHO on November 24, has a large number of mutations, setting alarm bells ringing since its discovery.
Early data suggests it can be resistant to vaccines and is more transmissible than the Delta variant, which was first identified in India and accounts for the bulk of the world’s coronavirus cases.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the strain had been reported in 77 countries and “probably” spread to most nations undetected “at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant”.
Omicron now accounts for around three percent of cases in the United States, a figure that is expected to rise rapidly as has been seen in other countries.
The United States is the nation hit hardest by the pandemic, and it crossed 800,000 known Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
– ‘Dangerous situation’ –
Although Britain on Monday confirmed what is thought to be the world’s first Omicron death, there is no proof yet that the variant causes more severe illness.
The WHO on Tuesday provided room for cautious optimism saying Africa had recorded a massive rise in cases over the past week but a lower number of deaths compared with previous waves.
But it urged countries to act swiftly to rein in transmission, protect their health systems and guard against complacency.
WHO expert Bruce Aylward strenuously warned against “jumping to a conclusion that this is a mild disease”.
“We could be setting ourselves up for a very dangerous situation.”
The warning came as Pfizer on Tuesday said clinical trials of its Covid pill reduced hospital admissions and deaths among at-risk people by almost 90 percent.
The American drug maker said its new treatment, Paxlovid, held up against Omicron in lab testing.
Chief executive Albert Bourla called the news a “game changer” and said he expected approval from the US medicines regulator as early as this month.
“This news provides another potentially powerful tool in our fight against the virus, including the Omicron variant,” added US President Joe Biden.
A real-world study from South Africa has showed two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 70 percent effective in stopping severe illness from Omicron.
Researchers called the results encouraging, though it represented a drop compared with earlier strains, underlining the threat of the coronavirus.
And the WHO added that low vaccination rates in regions including Africa — where Omicron was first detected — would provide breeding grounds for new variants of the virus, which has known to have claimed more than 5.3 million lives around the world.
– Dutch schools to close –
Europe is the global coronavirus hotspot, recording 62 percent of the world’s total cases in the past seven days, while the five countries with the world’s highest infection rates are all European.
The Netherlands followed other European nations in reintroducing restrictions on Tuesday as Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced primary schools will shut next week and a night-time lockdown will be extended over Omicron fears.
Schools will close from December 20 instead of on December 25 due to concerns that children, among whom infection rates are the highest, could pass it on to older relatives.
France on Tuesday registered 63,405 new coronavirus cases — its highest daily total since April — even with more than 77 percent of its population having had at least one shot.
In neighbouring Britain, the ruling Conservative government on Tuesday suffered a major parliamentary rebellion as almost 100 of its MPs rejected new restrictions as the country responds to Omicron.
Boris Johnson’s administration will introduce new rules on mask-wearing, daily testing to avoid isolation and vaccine passes for certain settings in England.
But many MPs from his own party believe the measures — which only passed with opposition support — are excessive and undermine basic freedoms.
Scientists have predicted the true number already infected with Omicron in Britain could be as high as 200,000 a day, while the English Premier League reported a record caseload that threatened further disruption to fixtures.
Vaccine developer warns of 'more lethal' pandemic
9 December 2021
The lead developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine warned the next pandemic could be “more lethal”, urging better preparedness in a speech set to be aired Monday.
Sarah Gilbert, who is credited with saving millions of lives through her role in designing the jab, said the world must build on key lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both,” Gilbert said in her draft Richard Dimbleby Lecture, to be broadcast Monday evening.
“We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness.
“The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost,” Gilbert will say.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, which was the first coronavirus vaccine to be approved for use in the UK, is used in more than 170 countries globally.
It is significantly cheaper and easier to deliver than others, and is credited with increasing vaccine access in poorer countries.
Gilbert was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II earlier this year for services to science and public health for her role in its development.
She been making and testing vaccines for more than a decade, primarily using antigens from malaria and influenza, and initiated the Covid-19 vaccine project in early 2020 after the virus first emerged in China.
As the world now confronts the Omicron variant, with nearly 250 cases now identified in Britain alone, she urged continued caution.
“Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant,” Gilbert said.
“But as we have seen before, reduced protection against infection and mild disease does not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe disease and death.”