Omicron likely to spread beyond Canada and Brazil, says regional health agency

Syringes with needles are seen in front of a displayed stock graph and words "Omicron SARS-CoV-2" in this illustration taken, November 27, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Syringes with needles are seen in front of a displayed stock graph and words “Omicron SARS-CoV-2” in this illustration taken, November 27, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

BRASILIA, Dec 1 (Reuters) – The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus is likely to soon spread to other countries in North and South America after being detected in Canada and Brazil, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials said 24 countries have reported cases of the variant, prompting many nations to tighten their borders. read more

“It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease,” said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne, adding that it will take time to test the variant.

“Speed and transparency are especially critical at this time. But above all, we urge people not to be frightened.”

Until the neutralization tests and other laboratory assays are completed, experts will not have enough evidence to determine the degree of transmissibility or severity of the Omicron variant, or to assess the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines against it, Etienne told reporters on a webcast news conference.

Over the last week in North America, COVID-19 cases in Canada and the United States remained steady but high, while infections and deaths have dropped by over 20% in Mexico, the regional health agency said.

In Central America, every country except Panama has seen a reduction infections and deaths, PAHO reported.

In South America, cases in Southern Cone countries have increased steadily for the past several weeks, while in the Andean region and in Brazil, infections are plateauing.

Omicron was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday. read more

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Mark Porter and Lisa Shumaker

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First US omicron case detected in California

The U.S. has detected the nation’s first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Wednesday.

The individual is a fully vaccinated San Francisco resident who returned from South Africa on November 22, the CDC said. The person had mild symptoms, which are improving, and is self-quarantining.

All close contacts have also tested negative, the CDC added.

During a press briefing shortly after the case was disclosed, chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci urged Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and said that those who are eligible should get their booster shots, describing the vaccines as the best protection against the virus and the omicron variant.

“We know what we need to do to protect people,” Fauci told reporters while encouraging Americans to wear masks in congregate settings to prevent the spread of the virus.

“[T]he fact is that people should wind up getting vaccinated and boosted if they’re eligible for a boost. I keep coming back to that because that’s really the solution to this problem,” Fauci said.

He said the infected individual had not received a booster.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also told reporters that President Biden has been briefed on the omicron variant, noting that he meets with his medical team on a daily basis. Biden is slated on Thursday to outline plans to combat the coronavirus, and particularly the omicron and delta variants, during the winter months.

The person entered the U.S. four days before South Africa announced the discovery of the variant, and tested positive on Nov. 29, the same day the Biden administration’s ban on travelers from eight African countries took effect.

The ban has come under fire from prominent health experts and former administration officials who say it is ineffective and punitive against African countries, especially as Western countries have failed to deliver needed vaccine supplies and logistics to the continent.

Fauci, however, defended the policy as necessary to buy time to better understand the new variant but said it was only temporary.

“We did struggle with that,” Fauci said on Wednesday in response to a question from a reporter for Today News Africa. “We wanted to see if we could buy time, temporarily, so I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact on your country.”

Fauci also said he doesn’t think Americans should be doing anything differently with their lives, and emphasized the importance of the mitigation strategies that are known to be effective — getting vaccinated, masking in crowded public spaces and physical distancing.

In a joint statement, California and San Francisco public health officials said the case was identified “thanks to California’s large-scale testing and early detection systems.”

The agencies said they are increasing testing at airports for arrivals from several countries identified by the CDC.

“We must remain vigilant against this variant, but it is not a cause for panic,” the agencies said.

It was widely expected that the variant would be detected in the U.S. It has already been identified in other countries, including the U.K. and Canada, even after many nations moved to restrict travel from southern African countries, where the first known case was discovered at the end of last week.

“As the President said last Friday, it was only a matter of time before the first case of Omicron was detected in the U.S. We are prepared to meet this challenge with science and speed,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said in a statement.

“The President’s medical team continues to believe that existing vaccines will provide some level of protection against severe illness from Omicron, and individuals who have gotten boosters have even stronger protection. As such, we urge all adults to get their booster shots and to get themselves and their kids vaccinated, if they haven’t already,” Zients continued.

Officials say it will take at least two weeks to have a better understanding of the transmissibility and severity of omicron and the degree to which vaccines protect against it.

In the meantime, the Biden administration is working with the three vaccine manufacturers to prepare for the possibility that vaccines will need to be adjusted in order to provide protection against the new variant, but any changes will take time.

Brett Samuels contributed.

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UK ministers secure 114m more Covid vaccines for next two years

Extra Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs for 2022 and 2023 ordered to ‘future proof’ vaccine programme

Vial of the US manufactured Moderna Covid-19 vaccine
Some experts have warned that Covid-19 will have to be kept at bay by repeated vaccine campaigns, while others have said it is too early to tell whether annual vaccine boosters will be needed. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Ministers in the UK have secured new contracts to buy 114m more Covid-19 vaccines for the next two years.

The deals, for 2022 and 2023, were accelerated after the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant, officials said. Under the agreements, the UK will buy 54m more doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and 60m more doses from Moderna.

These purchases are in addition to the 35m extra Pfizer/BioNTech doses ordered in August for delivery in the second half of 2022, officials said. The UK is also still expecting 60m Novavax and 7.5m GSK/Sanofi doses in 2022.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said the new deals would “future proof” the UK’s vaccine programme and ensure protection for “even more people in the years ahead”.

There remains uncertainty about further health programmes. Some experts have warned that Covid-19 will have to be kept at bay by repeated vaccine campaigns, while others have said it is too early to tell whether annual vaccine boosters will be needed.

Officials at the Department of Health and Social Care said the new contracts included access to modified vaccines if needed to combat Omicron and future variants of concern.

A vaccination site at the 125th Devon County Show at the Westpoint Arena and Showground in Clyst St Mary near Exeter this summer.
Covid vaccine boosters in England: what has changed?

The government said it had enough supplies of both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech doses for the current expansion of the booster programme.

Ministers said this week that all adults in the UK would be offered a booster shot before the end of January, amid growing concerns about the Omicron variant. Vaccination experts advising the government have expressed preference for the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

Trial data suggest booster doses are generally well tolerated and provide a substantial increase in vaccine-induced immune responses, in particular, and that mRNA vaccines provide a strong booster effect.

Javid said: “These new deals will future proof the Great British vaccination effort, which has so far delivered more than 115 million first, second and booster jabs across the UK, and will ensure we can protect even more people in the years ahead.

“This is a national mission, and our best weapon to deal with this virus and its variants is to get jabs in arms. So when you are called forward, get the jab and get boosted.”

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