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BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine may be less effective against Omicron, study finds – Financial Times



The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine may be less effective against Omicron than other strains of coronavirus while still offering a degree of protection, according to a South African study that offers an early if incomplete analysis of how the jab will handle the new variant.

Researchers from the African Health Research Institute reported the loss of immune protection from the vaccine was “extensive but incomplete” in the first published study that pitted the jab against Omicron.

The researchers took 14 plasma samples from 12 participants that had been vaccinated with two doses of the BioNTech vaccine and tested the ability of the plasma to neutralise Omicron.

The laboratory experiments found Omicron infection resulted in a 41-fold reduction in virus-blocking antibodies compared with the original strain of the virus detected in Wuhan almost two years ago.

Omicron also escaped antibody neutralisation “much more extensive[ly]” than the Beta variant that was previously dominant in South Africa, the study’s authors found.

However, Alex Sigal, head of research at the Durban-based laboratory, said that despite the significant reduction in antibody production, Omicron did not evade the vaccine entirely.

In a much more positive finding, the researchers reported that people who had previously been infected with Covid-19 in addition to having been double-vaccinated retained “relatively high levels” of antibody protection. That would “likely confer protection from severe disease in Omicron infection”, they added.

The preliminary results follow the rapid spread of the Omicron variant since it was first identified in South Africa in late November, raising concerns among health experts that it could evade existing vaccines.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, responded to the publication of the South African study by saying the company expected to publish its own data later this week. “I would be more optimistic,” he told NBC.

Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said the results suggested vaccine makers would probably have to develop a new class of Omicron-specific boosters.

“It looks like what we’d expect, going along with the many vaccine breakthrough cases that have already been reported with Omicron,” he added.

Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said the South African study raised hopes that “boosted people would typically be safe”.

The study showed that doubled-jabbed people who had also previously been infected were “all in the safe zone”, according to Altmann, who said this group was in some ways comparable with people who had received three doses.

Jacob Glanville, a computational immunologist and founder of US therapeutics company Centivax, said the study suggested most double-vaccinated people would be susceptible to infection from Omicron.

“The reason [public health officials] are asking people to boost is because . . . [double-vaccinated] people will have a little bit of antibody protection but most won’t have enough to usefully neutralise the virus,” he added.

Still, Glanville added that T-cells, which target a wider portion of the virus than antibodies, would allow double-vaccinated people to “retain protection against severe disease”.

Morgan Stanley said the African Research Institute’s data suggested a significant drop in vaccine effectiveness below 50 per cent against symptomatic disease with Omicron.

“While we await further data from Moderna and Pfizer, we believe the likelihood of a variant specific booster is increased,” said Matthew Harrison, an analyst at Morgan Stanley.

Last week, Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, warned that the new variant would likely result in a “material drop” in vaccine effectiveness.

Separately, researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet said they had observed “exceptionally variable” loss of neutralisation against Omicron, with some samples “showing almost no loss” and some showing considerably more.

The average loss of potency of neutralisation was “lower than feared”, which would make Omicron worse than Delta but “not as extreme as we expected”, said Ben Murrell, one of the investigators. The researchers used a pseudovirus engineered to look like the new strain in their experiments.

They said that what was common between the South African and Swedish studies was that “neutralisation is not completely lost for all samples, which is positive”.

Neutralisation assays cannot predict perfectly whether a vaccine will be effective. Earlier on Tuesday, Kate O’Brien, the head of vaccines at the World Health Organization, said: “We know already that antibody performance against variants is one piece of information” but that more complete studies on effectiveness would not be complete for some time.

Additional reporting by Peter Wells in New York

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Canadian vaccine mandate to lead to inflation, empty shelves, trucking executives say



Canadian consumers should soon see higher prices and some empty shelves in supermarkets and other retail outlets because of disruptions stemming from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, top trucking executives warned this week.

The mandate, imposed by Ottawa to help curb the spread of the virus, has cost six Canadian trucking companies about 10% of their international drivers, and many are hiking wages to lure new operators during what they said is the worst labor shortage they have experienced.

Within the next two weeks, consumers will see “there’s not as many choices on the shelves,” said Dan Einwechter, chairman and chief executive officer of Challenger Motor Freight Inc in Cambridge, Ontario.

“Eventually the prices will be passed on from the sellers of those products, because we’re passing on our increases to them,” he said.

Canada’s inflation rate hit a 30-year high of 4.8% in December and economists said the vaccine mandate may contribute to keeping prices higher for longer. In the United States, inflation surged 7% on a year-on-year basis in December, the largest rise in nearly four decades.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has championed vaccine requirements for federal employees, has resisted pressure from industry to delay or drop the mandate that was announced in November.

The vaccine requirement to enter Canada started on Jan. 15, and the one to enter the United States begins on Saturday.

Since more than two-thirds of the C$650 billion ($521 billion) in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travels on roads, truckers were deemed essential workers until now and traveled freely even when the border was closed for 20 months.

Trudeau defended the mandate on Wednesday, saying Canada was “aligned” with the United States, its largest trading partner.

“We will continue to make sure that we are getting what we need in Canada while, as always, putting the safety and health of Canadians as our top priority,” Trudeau said.

As many as 32,000, or 20%, of the 160,000 Canadian and American cross-border truck drivers may be taken off the roads by the mandate, the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) estimates. The industry was short some 18,000 drivers even before the mandate, CTA said.

“We raised our base rate for cross-border drivers effective Jan. 1 by almost 20% … and it didn’t gain us any drivers,” said Rob Penner, president and CEO of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Bison Transport. “There’s more freight than there is people right now.”

Canada’s transport ministry said in a statement the measure was not negatively affecting the supply of goods, while cross-border truck traffic had not varied significantly since the mandate came into effect.


The six executives who manage nearly 9,200 trucks between their companies and have a combined 173 years in the industry say strong demand for freight during a labor shortage will inevitably translate into higher prices for consumers.

“We’ve been oversold by 5% or 10%, depending on the day, for the last four or five months … The timing of all this couldn’t have been worse,” said Mark Seymour, CEO of Kriska Transportation Group in Prescott, Ontario.

Canadian firms see labor shortages intensifying and wage pressures increasing, according to a Bank of Canada survey released on Monday. Investors increasingly expect the central bank to raise interest rates next week for the first time since 2018.

Fresh foods are particularly sensitive to freight problems because they expire rapidly, though all imports from the United States could be affected, the trucking managers said.

“We have to move the milk, we have to move food. But the rates are going to be much higher,” said Doug Sutherland, president of Sutherland Group Enterprises in Salmo, British Columbia.

“Inflation is going to be the biggest impact of what’s going on here.”

($1 = 1.2478 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Paul Simao)

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Natural immunity against COVID lowered risk more than vaccines against Delta variant, new study says – Euronews



Unvaccinated people who had previously contracted COVID-19 were better protected against the Delta variant than those who were only vaccinated, a new study published on Wednesday by a US health authority said.

Despite this, “vaccination remains the safest strategy” against the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said when publishing the data.

It also pointed out that contracting the disease exposes you to serious complications, while vaccines have proven to be extremely safe and effective.

The study was conducted before booster doses were widely available, and before the emergence of the Omicron variant, which now accounts for more than 99 per cent of new cases in the US. It is therefore possible that the balance has shifted towards vaccination being more effective than immunity following infection.

However, the results published on Wednesday provide key insights into the differences between vaccine-acquired and post-infection immunity.

The health authorities studied cases in the states of New York and California from late May to November 2021. Delta became the majority disease in the US at the end of June.

During the entire period under analysis, the people with the least protection by far were those who had neither been vaccinated nor fallen ill in the past.

But before Delta, vaccinated people who had never contracted COVID-19 were better protected than unvaccinated people who had already fallen ill.

After the introduction of Delta, the ratio was reversed.

Less risk to infected but not vaccinated people

The study analysed the risk of getting Delta compared to the risk of those most likely to get it, in other words, people who had neither been vaccinated nor infected in the past by the beginning of October.

Those that had been vaccinated but never infected with COVID-19 were six times less likely to get it in California, and about five times less likely in New York.

But the risk was even lower for previously infected but not vaccinated individuals: by 29 in California, and by 15 in New York.

When analysing the risk of hospitalisation, this time in California only, the researchers found a similar reversal between the two periods.

“This could be due to different immune response stimuli” caused either by encountering the real virus or a vaccine, the CDC explained.

The reversal also “coincided with the onset of vaccine-induced immunity decline in many people” before booster doses, the study authors added.

The CDC noted too that work on Delta in other countries “has also demonstrated increased protection of previously infected individuals, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, compared with vaccination alone”.

They emphasised that further studies were needed to investigate the durability of protection conferred by infection with each of the variants, including Omicron.

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Europe considers new COVID-19 strategy: accepting the virus – The Globe and Mail



A woman wearing a face mask reads a book on a subway in Madrid, Spain, on Jan. 20.Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press

When the coronavirus pandemic was first declared, Spaniards were ordered to stay home for more than three months. For weeks, they were not allowed outside even for exercise. Children were banned from playgrounds, and the economy virtually stopped.

But officials credited the draconian measures with preventing a full collapse of the health system. Lives were saved, they argued.

Now, almost two years later, Spain is preparing to adopt a different COVID-19 playbook. With one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and its most pandemic-battered economies, the government is laying the groundwork to treat the next infection surge not as an emergency but an illness that is here to stay. Similar steps are under consideration in neighbouring Portugal and in Britain.

The idea is to move from crisis mode to control mode, approaching the virus in much the same way countries deal with flu or measles. That means accepting that infections will occur and providing extra care for at-risk people and patients with complications.

Spain’s center-left prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, wants the Europe Union to consider similar changes now that the surge of the omicron variant has shown that the disease is becoming less lethal.

“What we are saying is that in the next few months and years, we are going to have to think, without hesitancy and according to what science tells us, how to manage the pandemic with different parameters,” he said Monday.

Sánchez said the changes should not happen before the omicron surge is over, but officials need to start shaping the post-pandemic world now: “We are doing our homework, anticipating scenarios.”

The World Health Organization has said that it’s too early to consider any immediate shift. The organization does not have clearly defined criteria for declaring COVID-19 an endemic disease, but its experts have previously said that it will happen when the virus is more predictable and there are no sustained outbreaks.

“It’s somewhat a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about severity, and it’s about impact,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

Speaking at a World Economic Forum panel on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases doctor in the U.S., said COVID-19 could not be considered endemic until it drops to “a level that it doesn’t disrupt society.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has advised countries to transition to more routine handling of COVID-19 after the acute phase of the pandemic is over. The agency said in a statement that more EU states in addition to Spain will want to adopt “a more long-term, sustainable surveillance approach.”

Just over 80% of Spain’s population has received a double vaccine dose, and authorities are focused on boosting the immunity of adults with third doses.

Vaccine-acquired immunity, coupled with widespread infection, offers a chance to concentrate prevention efforts, testing and illness-tracking resources on moderate to high-risk groups, said Dr. Salvador Trenche, head of the Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine, which has led the call for a new endemic response.

COVID-19 “must be treated like the rest of illnesses,” Trenche told The Associated Press, adding that “normalized attention” by health professionals would help reduce delays in treatment of problems not related to the coronavirus.

The public also needs to come to terms with the idea that some deaths from COVID-19 ”will be inevitable,” Tranche said.

“We can’t do on the sixth wave what we were doing on the first one: The model needs to change if we want to achieve different results,” he said.

The Spanish Health Ministry said it was too early to share any blueprints being drafted by its experts and advisers, but the agency confirmed that one proposal is to follow an existing model of “sentinel surveillance” currently used in the EU for monitoring influenza.

The strategy has been nicknamed “flu-ization” of COVID-19 by Spanish media, although officials say that the systems for influenza will need to be adapted significantly to the coronavirus.

For now, the discussion about moving to an endemic approach is limited to wealthy nations that can afford to speak about the worst of the pandemic in the past tense. Their access to vaccines and robust public health systems are the envy of the developing world.

It’s also not clear how an endemic strategy would co-exist with the “zero-Covid” approach adopted by China and other Asian countries, and how would that affect international travel.

Many countries overwhelmed by the record number of omicron cases are already giving up on massive testing and cutting quarantine times, especially for workers who show no more than cold-like symptoms. Since the beginning of the year, classes in Spanish schools stop only if major outbreaks occur, not with the first reported case as they used to.

In Portugal, with one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared in a New Year’s speech that the country had “moved into an endemic phase.” But the debate over specific measures petered out as the spread soon accelerated to record levels – almost 44,000 new cases in 24 hours reported Tuesday.

However, hospital admissions and deaths in the vaccinated world are proportionally much lower than in previous surges.

In the United Kingdom, mask-wearing in public places and COVID-19 passports will be dropped on Jan. 26, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday saying that the latest wave had “peaked nationally.”

The requirement for infected people to isolate for five full days remains in place, but Johnson said he will seek to scrap it in coming weeks if the virus data continues to improve. Official statistics put at 95% the share of the British population that has developed antibodies against COVID-19 either from infection or vaccination.

“As COVID becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance, urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others,” Johnson said.

For some other European governments, the idea of normalizing COVID-19 is at odds with their efforts to boost vaccination among reluctant groups.

In Germany, where less than 73% of the population has received two doses and infection rates are hitting new records almost daily, comparisons to Spain or any other country are being rejected.

“We still have too many unvaccinated people, particularly among our older citizens,” Health Ministry spokesman Andreas Deffner said Monday.

Italy is extending its vaccination mandate to all citizens age 50 or older and imposing fines of up to 1,500 euros for unvaccinated people who show up at work. Italians are also required to be fully vaccinated to access public transportation, planes, gyms, hotels and trade fairs.

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