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Coronavirus Update: Omicron variant remains a ‘very high’ risk as it spreads fast and shows resistance to vaccines, but WHO says more data needed to know if it’s more lethal

The omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 remains a very high risk and is spreading around the world faster than other variants, but for now there is too little data to be certain that it’s more lethal, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

In its weekly epidemiological update, the agency said omicron has been detected in 76 countries and appears to have a “growth advantage” over delta, the variant that has been most dominant until now. It’s spreading faster in South Africa, which has low delta circulation, but also in the UK, which has high levels of delta.

“The data on the clinical severity of omicron remains limited,” said WHO. “More information on case severity associated with omicron is expected in the coming weeks due to the time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an
increase in the incidence of severe cases, and deaths.”

For now, initial data suggests there is a reduction in efficacy of the existing vaccines in protecting against infection and an increased risk of reinfection. However, further studies are needed to better understand the impact on vaccines, said the agency.

New modeling analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning of an imminent surge in U.S. COVID cases, driven by omicron, according to a report in The Washington Post.

Officials at the CDC were briefed on a worst-case, triple whammy scenario — an omicron wave on top of delta cases and influenza — hitting healthcare systems, notably in low-vaccinated areas of the U.S.

Read also: Pfizer’s COVID-19 antiviral proves almost 90% effective in latest trial data, as U.S. passes 50 million confirmed cases of the illness

“The implications of a big wave in January that could swamp hospitals … we need to take that potential seriously,” said a federal health official who had knowledge of the briefing and asked to remain anonymous.

A second scenario showed a smaller omicron wave coming in the spring. Early data shows fully vaccinated individuals with a booster can be largely shielded from serious disease and death from COVID-19, but government data shows just 55 million of more than 200 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S. have gotten the booster.

See: Vir, GSK’s COVID-19 antibody treatment works against omicron in a lab study, and WHO no longer recommends convalescent plasma

The U.S. is still averaging about 1,300 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and passed 800,000 fatalities early Wednesday. New cases are averaging around 120,000 a day, and more than 67,000 people living in the U.S. are being hospitalized every day.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island are leading the country by cases, measured on a per capita basis. But Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have the highest hospitalization rates and some hospitals are struggling to treat the high number of patients.

The UK, meanwhile, set a fresh one-day case record of 78,610, according to government data, topping the previous peak of 68,053 reported last Jan. 8. The number of omicron cases detected has climbed to 10,017 from 4,671 on Tuesday.

There was bad news from Hong Kong in the form of a study that found China’s widely used Sinovac vaccine failed to produce sufficient antibodies to neutralize omicron. A team at the Department of Microbiology of the University of Hong Kong analyzed serum antibodies from 25 people fully vaccinated with CoronaVac, developed by Sinovac , as well as a separate group of 25 more who had received two doses of the COVID vaccine from Pfizer 

and its German partner BioNTech

Read: ‘The days you were considered fully vaccinated with two shots are going to be a thing of the past’

None of the 25 vaccinated with two doses of the Sinovac vaccine showed any neutralizing antibodies against the omicron variant. The authors recommend a third dose of COVID-19 vaccines, though they say it remains unclear how effective that will be in enhancing neutralizing responses against omicron. The study’s results have been accepted for publication in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, and available online as a preprint.

In more promising news, Sanofi SA


and GlaxoSmithKline PLC


said that a single booster dose of their vaccine candidate delivered consistently strong immune responses, as Dow Jones Newswires reported.

The European Medicines Agency said it would recommend Johnson & Johnson’s

COVID-19 vaccine as a booster dose when administered at least two months after the first dose in people aged 18 years and older. 

A growing number of studies indicate Omicron is more resistant to current vaccines than previous Covid variants, though boosters seem to help. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez gets an exclusive look inside a lab testing how antibodies interact with Omicron. Photo illustration: Tom Grillo

Elsewhere, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cut short a planned trip to Southeast Asia after a journalist traveling with his team contracted the virus, according to media reports. Blinken was due to meet with Thai officials on Thursday, after a visit to Indonesia and Malaysia.

Italy has imposed mandatory testing for all arrivals from fellow European Union countries, AFP reported. It will also require a five-day quarantine for unvaccinated travelers.

Greece, Italy, Spain and Hungary have started to vaccinate children aged 5 to 11, the Guardian reported. The move comes after the EMA approved a reduced-dose vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech.

Don’t miss: Cornell partially shuts down its campus due to nearly 500 COVID-19 cases in possible omicron outbreak

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 271.6 million on Wednesday, while the death toll edged above 5.32 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. continues to lead the world with 50.2 million cases and 800,821 deaths.

India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.7 million and has suffered 476,135 deaths. Brazil has second highest death toll at 616,970 and 22.2 million cases.

In Europe, Russia has the most fatalities at 287,135 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 147,085.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 112,498 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.

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