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UK Approves Updated Covid-19 Vaccine From Moderna, Targets Omicron And Original Strain 

The United Kingdom has become the first nation to approve an updated version of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine booster, meant to target the omicron strain as well as the original virus that first appeared in 2020. 

“An updated version of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Moderna that targets two coronavirus variants (known as a “bivalent” vaccine) has today been approved for adult booster doses by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) after it was found to meet the UK regulator’s standards of safety, quality and effectiveness,” read an official government release.

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“Half of the booster, called Spikevax bivalent Original/Omicron, targets the original coronavirus strain while the other half targets Omicron,” it said.

The MHRA, the UK government’s independent expert scientific advisory board, endorsed the decision to approve of the new vaccine after carefully reviewing the evidence. 

The clinical trial by Moderna reported that the booster targets Omicron and showed a stronger immune response against the variant in addition to the original strain. The company said the “updated booster showed a potent response against BA.4 and BA. 5 sub variants.” 

“The side effects are the same as for the original Moderna booster dose and found to be typically mild and self-resolving. No serious safety concerns were identified,” the UK government release said.

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MHRA Chief Executive Dr. June Raine said that “the new Moderna booster will help keep communities protected.

“The first generation of COVID-19 vaccines being used in the UK continue to provide important protection against the disease and save lives. What this bivalent vaccine gives us is a sharpened tool in our armory to help protect us against this disease as the virus continues to evolve.”

The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization will advise on the vaccine’s rollout, as it is not yet clear who will be offered the booster or when. 

Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said on Twitter he was “delighted the vaccine had been approved.”

“This represents the first authorization of an Omicron-containing bivalent vaccine, this bivalent vaccine has an important role to play in protecting people in the UK from Covid-19 as we enter the winter months.”

Besides Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech have been testing two Covid-19 vaccine boosters that will also target the Omicron variant.

Covid

China Slowly Recovering From Worst Surge Of Covid-19 Since Pandemic’s Start 

The capital city of Beijing, China took a step towards Covid-19 recovery by allowing restaurants to resume in-store dining this week, after a hiatus of nearly a month. Most other businesses are also able to restore in-person operations. 

Shanghai, which has been locked down for nearly two months, also announced reopening plans for their restaurants and in-person businesses, as well as outdoor activities like camping and local parks. 

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The traffic rates in both major metropolitan areas increased this week after weeks of nearly no congestion due to lockdown procedures. Virus testing in both cities has relaxed from every two days to every three days as well. 

Surges of Omicron cases have been spiking throughout China since March, prompting the nation to reinstate many of their “dynamic zero-Covid” policies. The nationwide daily Covid case cound has now fallen to well below 50, according to official data.

“The unsynchronized lockdowns and reopenings across major cities suggest that China’s ongoing post-lockdown growth recovery should be less steep than the V-shaped one in spring 2020.”

“Our high-frequency trackers suggest that barring another severe Covid resurgence and related lockdowns, mobility, construction and ports operation could recover to pre-lockdown levels in around one month,” said Goldman Sachs China Economist Lisheng Wang in a report.

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Local authorities have been enforcing strict travel bans and stay-home orders to control the spread of the virus, a method they’ve been using since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. 

The report from Goldman Sachs also stated that “businesses in the service sector that involve close human contact would find it challenging to achieve a full recovery any time soon.”

The Dragon Boat Festival holiday weekend in China indicated to the government that overall economic recovery will likely be slow. Spending on domestic tourism during the holiday dropped 12.2% when compared to last year. 

The Purchasing Managers’ Index in China showed continuous declines in business plans for hiring new employees as well due to a lack of income overall. 

Even with Beijing and Shanghai reopening, many specific apartment complexes and neighborhoods could remain closed off due to contact with Covid cases. 

BA.2 Subvariant Nows Makes Up 72% Of New COVID-19 Cases

Another day, another COVID-19 subvariant that could once again send safety protocols back into full effect. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Nowcast, the BA.2 strain made up 72.2% of cases within the U.S. from March 27 to April 4. Other members of the Omicron family include BA.1.1, which made up 25%, and B.1.1.529, making up a miniscule 2.5%.

Of course, the subvariant isn’t just making waves in the States. Across the globe, Omicron accounted for 99.8% of COVID-19 cases within the last week, with BA.2 making up 93.6% of that. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), BA.2 is now dominant within all six of its regions and in 68 countries where data sequencing is available.

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Among the countries that have been most hit by the subvariant include the U.K. — which saw over 225,000 new cases on March 21, the most for them in a single day since early January — Germany, where over 3 million new cases have occured between March 24 to April 6, and Italy, which had close to two million cases in that same span.

As Scientific American notes, BA.2 is vastly different from its predecessors in terms of its genetics. While BA.2 shares many of the 60 mutations BA.1 ended up acquiring that were not in the original SARS-COV-2 virus, BA.2 possesses 28 unique mutations of its own. It also holds the dubious honor of being 30% to 50% more contagious than BA.1.

Still, despite the strong push of the highly-transmissible subvariant in the U.S. and world, health experts like Dr. Christopher Murray maintain that Americans shouldn’t be worried of another possible outbreak that could take improvements two steps back.

Speaking to NBC News, Murray — a University of Washington professor of health metrics sciences — said that he would not be “hugely concerned” with BA.2, and explained he expects it to remain at low levels as the weather warms up over the next few months.

“Right now we’re in this period where immunity is high and we’re heading into the summer and transmission tends to be a bit lower, so the combination should lead in the Northern Hemisphere to pretty low levels after the BA.2 wave.”

Indeed, despite the 72% mark, BA.2 hasn’t made a surge in cases. April 6 saw over 49,000 new cases, but the country has steadily remained around a seven-day average of 29,000 to 30,000 for nearly a month. That’s a significant improvement over the seven-day averages from December to late February, which ranged from 100,000 to 800,000. Meanwhile, the seven-day average for daily deaths has dropped from 1,059 on March 16 to 558 on April 6.

If projections like Murray’s hold true, it would be the first time a COVID-19 subvariant has taken over as the dominant strain in the U.S. without causing an uptick in cases. Of course, there may be several factors at play for why cases haven’t statistically increased just yet, one being that the government is no longer offering free tests for uninsured.

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Another possible reason why is that Americans have built up an immunity, with the latest CDC seroprevalence survey showing that around 95% of the population have some level of combined infection and vaccine-induced seroprevalence. 43% are estimated to have antibodies from just past infections, though attempting to build up protection this way certainly wouldn’t be recommended.

Of course, just because a country-wide outbreak might not occur doesn’t mean specific areas wouldn’t be at risk of severe case rises, some experts told Today. People that live in an area with high population density, along with a low vaccination rate, should be more precautious than those who live in an area with a low population density or higher vaccination rate.

COVID-19

US Covid-19 Infections Likely To Rise Again, According To Fauci 

 Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Joe Biden’s top advisers, said this week that a likely rise in Covid-19 cases will probably not result in a full-scale surge, or prompt a renewal of widespread health and safety procedures. 

“The bottom line is we will likely see an uptick in cases, as we’ve seen in European countries, particularly the U.K.. Hopefully we won’t see a surge. I don’t think we will.”

The BA.2 subvariant of the omicron variant is driving up cases in both Europe and Asia, specifically in Hong Kong which has been dealing with a sudden major surge of new cases within the past couple of weeks. 

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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made the argument that the US needs to be prepared to resume health and safety measures in public spaces, while Fauci claims that he doesn’t think that’s going to happen: “right now, at this point, I don’t see that happening.”

Covid-19 hospitalizations, deaths, and cases in general have been continuing to decline in the US. BA.2 is reportedly 50% more transmissible than the original strain of omicron, however, like omicron it doesn’t cause more severe illness or evade immunity from vaccinations or an earlier infection, according to Fauci. 

Fauci and US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy have been urging Congress to pass a Covid-19 relief package that has been stalled for quite some time now. The White House has sought out $22.5 billion in funding for relief efforts and supplies. 

The Biden Administration, however, has also warned that it will have to wind down certain programs and therapeutic treatments soon due to a lack of funding. 

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“As much work as we’ve done in the last two years to get the right tools, we’ve got to continue funding them and supporting them so they’re available to people across the country.”

“That’s why Congress moving to provide that funding is so critical,” Murthy said on Sunday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also argued that too much of the money meant to be allocated for Covid-19 programs and protocols has yet to be spent. 

“They ought to reprogram some of this massive amount that was spent last year that’s not out the door yet,” McConnell said on Sunday.

Fauci, 81, also discussed speculation over his retirement: “I can’t stay at this job forever. I want to make sure we’re really out of this before I really seriously consider doing anything different. We’re still in this. We have a way to go. I think we are clearly going in the right direction. I hope we stay that way.”

Austria Lifts Lockdown For Unvaccinated Individuals As Europe Pulls Back On Covid Restrictions  

Countries throughout Europe have been easing up on Covid-19 restrictions as hospital admissions have begun to level out. Austria has lifted the lockdown that was in place for unvaccinated individuals while Switzerland is preparing for a “turbo” reopening of public spaces. 

The Danish government declared that Covid-19 “should no longer be categorized as a socially critical disease after January 31st.” The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and France have all begun taking steps to ease up on restrictions and return to some sense of normalcy. 

While the Omicron variant is continuing to cause cases to rise in Europe, hospital and intensive care admissions have not been surging in line with new cases, meaning most individuals who are getting it are likely vaccinated and protected from severe disease. 

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Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said that from “next Saturday, shops and restaurants would be able to stay open until midnight and the maximum number of people able to participate in events will rise from 25 to 50.”

The nation also has become the first EU member state to make vaccination legally compulsory for adults. Under this law, individuals who refuse to get their inoculations are liable for fines up to €3,600.

Unvaccinated individuals in Austria can now leave their houses, but are barred from eating in restaurants or shopping for non-essential items as the government continues to try to increase western Europe’s vaccination rates; where the rates are currently lowest. 

In Switzerland, experts who studied both Swiss and German infection rates said “Omicron was significantly more infectious, but seemingly less severe, than the Delta variant and was unlikely to cause record numbers of admissions to ICUs.”

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Around 40% of Swiss companies have previously reported major staff shortages. Alain Berset, the Swiss health minister, has now called for remaining restrictions to be lifted by mid-February as a means of “turbo reopening” the economy. 

Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, also said “the government should be laying the foundations for a smooth return to normal, even though the peak of the Omicron wave may still be several weeks away, business requires a planning horizon.”

Germany initially had the goal of getting 80% of its population vaccinated by the end of January, and currently have 75.8% of the population vaccinated. This puts Germany behind other larger countries such as Italy, France, and Spain. 

The World Health Organization has said it is “plausible that the Omicron variant, which seems to cause less severe symptoms in the fully vaccinated, may signal the pandemic’s transition towards a more manageable phase and eventual endgame, but the situation remains unpredictable.”

T-Cells From Common Colds Could Help Create A ‘Variant-Proof’ Covid Vaccine 

According to new research from the Imperial College London, T-cells that are generated as part of the body’s natural immune response to the common cold could help protect against serious Covid-19 illness, and potentially lead to a vaccine that would be effective against new variants of the virus. 

The recently published study began back in September 2020 and followed 52 household contacts of people who had tested positive for Covid-19. The data showed that 26 people who were exposed to the virus, but didn’t show any symptoms, had significantly higher cross-reactive T-cells, which were generated by previous common colds.

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“The conclusion should not be that if you’ve had a common cold you don’t need to worry about contracting COVID-19. This is so for a number of reasons, including that not all colds are caused by coronaviruses, and T-cells’ ability to fight off symptomatic infections wanes over time,” Professor Aljit Lalvani, one of the authors of the study, explained. 

“What the study tells us is that there is a mechanism, a natural mechanism of natural protective immunity, that is triggered by previous common cold coronavirus infections, so we want to harness that naturally occurring protective immunity to develop better vaccines.”

Lalvani explained that the majority of the current Covid-19 vaccines out there specifically target the virus’ spike protein, as that’s the part that attacks healthy human cells. The vaccines then cause the body to produce antibodies and T-cells that can respond to that protein. 

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He then explained how the new research found that T-cells created after a common cold caused by other coronaviruses (which are common) can attack a type of protein that remains similar among all the known Covid-19 variants. These proteins are what give the virus the ability to replicate itself. 

“The fact that the T-cells can attack the internal proteins of each of these related COVID-19 variants means that they give what’s called a broad cross-protection. That’s in sharp contrast to the surface spike protein, which is the target of antibodies induced by vaccines.”

“Clearly, SARS-CoV-2 is under huge, intense pressure in the global population because most people now have these antibodies, whether induced by vaccination or infection, so the virus is trying naturally to evade that immunity through mutation, and that’s why Omicron has such a high number of mutations in the spike protein. But the internal proteins are relatively unchanged,” Lalvani stated. 

“We’re very fortunate to have found what immunologists refer to as the ‘Holy Grail,’ so we’re keen for people to understand this and to see that, at last, there is a path towards dealing with future variants.”

“This is now a definitive green light to move forward and develop a T-cell inducing vaccine to internal core proteins, which should protect against current and future variants,” he said.

Omicron Could Infect 50% Of Europeans Within Next Two Months

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that a west-to-east “tidal wave” of new Omicron infections could infect more than half of Europe’s population within the next two months. The WHO stated that the wave of infections could potentially shut down multiple health systems across Europe which would leave more individuals at risk for infection. 

The WHO’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, said that the region has already recorded more than 7 million new cases of Covid within the first week of 2022, which is two-times the amount of infections when compared to two weeks ago. More than 1% of the European population is catching Covid each week within 29 countries, according to WHO’s data. 

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Kluge also explained how the Omicron variant has been reported in 50 out of Europe’s 53 states, and was becoming the dominant strain in western Europe.

“At this rate, more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks. We’re deeply concerned, as we have yet to see its full impact in countries where levels of vaccination uptake are lower, and where we will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated,” Kluge explained. 

Kluge explained that Omicron cases have specifically “exploded” in Denmark, where the current Covid-19 hospitalization rate for unvaccinated patients is six times higher than for those who are fully vaccinated. 

“While vaccines provide good protection against severe disease and death, rising hospital admissions are still challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries … and threaten to overwhelm them in many more.”

The WHO warned that countries in Europe that have yet to be impacted by Omicron have a small window of time to protect themselves and their most vulnerable citizens. 

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Kluge explained how every country’s government should be mandating high-quality masks in every closed and indoor space, as well as ensuring individuals have their full vaccine series and booster doses when applicable. 

“Where the Omicron surge has begun, the priority should be to avoid and reduce harm among the vulnerable, and minimize disruption to health systems and essential services.”

“This means prioritizing vulnerable people for primary course and booster doses, advising them to avoid closed, crowded spaces, and offering the possibility to work remotely wherever possible until the infection surge passes,” Kluge said.

He continued to explain how PCR testing should be prioritized for critical workers and individuals more at risk for severe disease, and rapid tests should be sent out at a larger rate. 

Keeping schools open had “important benefits for children’s mental, social and educational wellbeing, so we’re urging governments to review protocols on testing, isolation and quarantine of classroom contacts to minimize disruption to learning,” Kluge explained.

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaii Likely To Tighten Travel Restrictions In 2022

Covid-19 cases are once again on the rise in the US due to the highly contagious Omicron variant and lack of vaccination throughout the nation. Restrictions on inbound international travel have already begun to tighten, as travelers need to show proof that they’re fully vaccinated with a negative test result that’s no more than one day old. 

The state of Hawaii already has limited on-island medical centers and resources, so they’re considering strengthening their own requirements for those arriving to the islands. Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green is pushing for tighter travel restrictions to be implemented in the near future. 

“The recommendation should be that you’re either boosted or tested, real straightforward, and I think that will come in the New Year.”

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Throughout the entire pandemic Hawaii has implemented some of the strictest interstate entry requirements. 

After Hawaii launched its Safe Travels program, the state was met with a large number of tourists who were looking to escape to the islands. Governor David Ige responded to this uptick in travel by pleading with visitors to delay their visits so the hospitality industry could recover from the past summer. 

With the sudden and rapid increase in Omicron infections, Hawaii-bound travelers may find themselves facing stricter restrictions in the coming weeks. 

According to Jessica Lani Rich at the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii (VASH), there’s been an “increase in calls coming in from visitors who test positive while they’re already in the destination. The new CDC guidance has encouraged some such infected vacationers to ride out their on-island isolation period and then salvage the remainder of their trip, rather than just returning home.”

“The majority of our visitors do not have the funds to spend an extra two weeks during the holidays and so, for those visitors, they are happy that the CDC has changed the rules,” she told local KITV4 News.

World Health Organization

WHO Director-General Worries COVID-19 ‘Tsunami Of Cases’ Could Drive Health Systems Towards Collapse

With COVID-19 cases once again rising — while breaking daily records — in countries like the United States, France, and Britain, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned in a press conference that an uptick could put a strain on health systems globally.

“I’m highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” Tedros stated, adding that the COVID-19 surges could force “immense pressure on exhausted health workers.”

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Additionally, Tedros voiced his concerns that the new variants could grow further and become more resistant to the vaccines in place, putting greater importance on boosters. “As this pandemic drags on, it’s possible that new variants could evade our countermeasures and become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations.”

Tedros critiqued the failure of his goal for UN member states to reach 40% population immunization — only 102 out of 194 reached the mark — which he said was due to limited supply to low-income countries. “40% was doable. It’s not only a moral shame, it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate.”

Tedros — who wants to reach 70% immunization in every country by July — encouraged nations to support each other in faster manufacturing and rollouts of vaccines, while also welcoming innovative solutions for reaching at-risk communities. Right now, only 48.3% of the entire world is fully vaccinated, while 57.5% have received at least one dose.

Despite the Director-General’s worrisome remarks, he expressed hope that 2022 could be the year that not only ends the “acute stage” of the pandemic, but puts the world on track for better health security while stating that “it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

As NBC News notes, 1.8 million COVID-19 cases were reported last week in the U.S., a 69.3% increase from the week prior. Dec. 27 saw 441,278 new cases, the highest total recorded since the pandemic hit the country in March 2020. Holiday travel played an obvious part in the rise, and continues a trend – Dec. 2020 and Jan. of this year saw high U.S. daily case increases as well.

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According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the week ending on Dec. 25, Omicron made up 58.6% of total COVID-19 cases in the U.S., while Delta made up 41.1%. Omicron is up 36.1% from Dec. 18, while Delta is down 35.9%.

Meanwhile, Britain saw over 128,000 new cases on Dec. 27 — their highest ever recorded — while France saw over 104,000 on Dec. 25. Across the globe, over 2.5 million cases have been recorded since Monday, while the seven-day average is at 946,035.

Despite the increases and rapid transmissions, standard procedures continue to be relaxed. On Monday, the CDC lowered their recommended isolation time from 10 days to five days for both asymptomatic vaccinated and unvaccinated. The CDC also recommended the wearing of masks around people for five days after isolation time.

Similarly, the U.K. reduced their isolation period for those who have tested positive from 10 days to seven days, assuming they’ve received negative lateral flow tests. WHO has not given a firm opinion on the isolation changes, with emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan only saying that “these are judgement calls countries make.”

New York Implements New Vaccine Mandates As Omicron Continues To Spread 

As the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus continues to spread throughout the US, New York is taking action after becoming the first hub of breakout cases and surges. New York City in particular has implemented their latest vaccine mandate for private businesses to go into effect this week. 

New York state broke a single-day record for new cases with nearly 50,000 new infections being reported on Christmas Eve. Governor Kathy Hochul released data and a statement regarding the new cases and vaccine mandate. 

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“As we come home from holiday gatherings, it is as important as ever to take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 this season. The vaccine is the best tool we have to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe as we head into the new year.”

The newest mandate requires workers to have at least one vaccine dose by Monday, employees will no longer be able to opt out of vaccination requirements with weekly testing. Children between the ages of 5-11 are now required to show proof of at least one vaccination before having access to indoor dining, fitness or entertainment, and adults will be required to show proof of two vaccinations for those areas. 

“We need to take very bold action. We’re seeing restrictions starting to come back. We’re seeing shutdowns. We can not let those restrictions come back. We can not have shutdowns in New York,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are working to ease staffing shortages throughout the nation’s healthcare facilities. Workers in healthcare are able to return to work after testing positive after seven days of isolation if they’re asymptomatic and test negative. 

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The agency also specified that “health care workers don’t need to quarantine “following high-risk exposures if they’ve gotten all recommended vaccinations, including a booster shot. Quarantine refers to when people who have been exposed to the virus but have not yet been diagnosed with an infection need to avoid others. These new guidelines don’t extend to the general public and only apply to the healthcare workforce.”

About 74% of all ICU beds in the nation are being used while 21% of them are occupied by Covid-19 patients. Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke on Sunday and discussed how the Omicron variant poses a big threat to the healthcare system in America. 

“Even though we’re pleased by the evidence from multiple countries that it looks like there is a lesser degree of severity, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t get complacent about that because it might still lead to a lot of hospitalizations in the United States,” he explained. 

“We’re particularly worried about those who are in that unvaccinated class, that you know, tens and tens of millions of Americans who are eligible for vaccination who have not been vaccinated, those are the vulnerable ones when you have a virus that is extraordinarily effective in getting to people and affecting them the way Omicron is.”

Around 72.7% of the US population has now received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 61.7% are fully vaccinated with two doses. 31.5% have already received their booster shots as well.