The omicron variant is offering more hints about what it may have in store as it spreads around the globe: A highly transmissible virus that may cause less severe disease, and one that can be slowed — but not stopped — by today’s vaccines.
An analysis Tuesday of data from South Africa, where the new variant is driving a surge in infections, suggests the Pfizer vaccine offers less defense against infection from omicron and reduced, but still good, protection from hospitalization.
The findings are preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed — the gold standard in scientific research — but they line up with other early data about omicron’s behavior, including that it seems to be more easily spread from person to person.
The spread can be seen in Britain, the United States and Denmark, where confirmed omicron cases are increasing at a worrisome pace, said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.
“Omicron is moving extraordinarily fast, faster even than the most pessimistic among us thought it was going to move,” Lemieux said.
During past waves of the pandemic, the U.S. could look to Europe and Britain for an early signal of what was coming, Lemieux said. “With omicron, it seems to be happening everywhere all at once with extremely rapid kinetics.”
It’s unclear whether omicron’s rapid spread will overwhelm hospitals. In South Africa, although case numbers are rising, hospital admissions for adults diagnosed with COVID-19 are 29% lower compared to the wave the country experienced in mid-2020, after adjusting for vaccination status, according to the new analysis.
Still, some experts cautioned that it’s too soon to draw conclusions since the variant is quite new and hospitalizations can lag weeks behind infections.
When omicron reaches broader populations more useful information will emerge, said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“To date, omicron has disproportionately infected young adults — people who probably have more social contacts and are more likely to attend large gatherings,” Dowdy said. Young adults may be more likely to be sick without knowing it, have more intense exposures and experience milder disease, he said.
“Our society needs to learn how to wait, rather than either panicking or dismissing early findings,” Dowdy said.
U.S. health officials estimate that a small, but growing proportion of new COVID-19 infections are due to omicron, and that the rise is particularly dramatic in some places.
Two weeks ago, omicron accounted for less than 0.5% of the coronaviruses that were genetically sequenced in the U.S. That rose to about 3% last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.
But it varies from place to place, and is as high as 13% in the New York/New Jersey area, according to the agency.
The CDC is tracking how fast the percentage doubles, and as more cases come in, it may be better able to predict whether — or when — the omicron variant becomes the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S, health officials say.
In Britain, omicron cases are doubling every two to three days. Health officials say the variant will replace delta as the dominant coronavirus strain within days.
In the new South Africa findings, people who received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine appeared to have just 33% protection against infection, compared to those who were unvaccinated, during the country’s current omicron-fueled surge, but 70% protection against hospitalization. The analysis was conducted by Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer, and the South African Medical Research Council.
The study did not look at booster shots, which are not yet prevalent in South Africa but which data from elsewhere has indicated improves protection.
The Pfizer vaccine’s 70% protection against hospital admission during the omicron surge compares to a 93% protection level seen in South Africa’s delta-driven wave, according to the new analysis.
That’s a big drop in vaccine protection from severe illness requiring hospitalization, said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
“What we don’t know yet is whether the booster will restore that back to greater than 90% and for how long,” Topol said.
The analysis in South Africa was based on examining more than 211,000 COVID-19 test results that date from Sept. 1 to Dec. 7 — 41% of which were for adults who had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which is the most commonly used one in South Africa.
Experts now say that omicron accounts for more than 90% of all new infections in South Africa, according to Discovery Health chief executive Dr. Ryan Noach.
Researchers around the world are rushing to figure out what the variant will mean for the coronavirus pandemic, now well into its second year. More information came Tuesday from Pfizer, which announced that its experimental pill to treat COVID-19 — separate from its vaccine — appears effective against omicron.
In the weeks since the variant was detected, South Africa has experienced rapid spread of the virus. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in the country rose over the past two weeks from 8.07 new cases per 100,000 people on Nov. 29 to 34.37 new cases per 100,000 people on Dec. 13, according to Johns Hopkins University. The death rate hasn’t increased during that same period.
Some say there’s still not enough data to draw broad conclusions about hospitalizations and the severity of disease caused by omicron.
“Is omicron milder, or more severe than delta?” said Dr. Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, wrote of the study. “Time will tell. The world’s finest scientists, including many in the global south such as in South Africa, will find out. For now, national-level decision-makers have to consider that discretion is the better part of valor.”
—Andrew Meldrum, The Associated Press
COVID-19 vaccine targeting multiple variants needed: expert – CTV News
Health Canada’s chief medical adviser says variant-specific vaccines can be approved faster than the general ones first issued to combat COVID-19, but one targeting the Omicron strain still likely won’t be ready in time to help with the latest wave.
Dr. Supriya Sharma said what is really needed are vaccines that can possibly stop more than one variant at a time, including those yet to come.
Omicron became the dominant variant in Canada in just over two weeks, and the Public Health Agency of Canada said Friday it’s now believed to be responsible for more than 90 per cent of all COVID-19 cases.
Studies suggest two doses of the existing mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are not good at preventing infection from Omicron.
Multiple studies, however, suggest the vaccines are excellent at keeping symptoms mild, preventing hospitalizations, and shortening the stay and lowering the level of care for those who do get admitted to hospital. Fewer vaccinated Omicron patients, for example, need mechanical ventilation.
Both Pfizer and Moderna are working on new versions of their vaccines that specifically target the Omicron variant.
Moderna is hoping to get its product into trials early this year. Pfizer said it could have 100 million doses of theirs ready as early as March, and Canada has contracts for boosters from both companies that would include vaccines for variants too.
But Sharma said even with the expedited review process for vaccine variants, that’s “probably not” fast enough.
“By that time, based on what we’ve known about the Omicron wave, it might well and truly be through,” she said. “And then the question is always, ‘is there another variant that’s coming up?”‘
The solution, she said, likely lies with vaccines that can target more than one variant at a time.
The COVID-19 vaccine technical committee of the World Health Organization said the same thing on Jan. 11, noting Omicron is the fifth variant of concern in two years and “is unlikely to be the last.”
Booster shots that heighten antibody development became the immediate response to Omicron for many governments, including Canada.
Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a British Columbia pediatrician and co-chair of the WHO’s clinical research committee on COVID-19, told The Canadian Press that boosters aren’t a long-term viable option.
“Boosting your way out of a pandemic is going to inevitably shoot you in the foot in the sense that you’re going to have a future variant that’s going to emerge that’s going to cause problems,” he said. “It’s going to evade your vaccines, and then you’re going to have to scramble.”
Omicron doesn’t evade the existing vaccines entirely but a future variant could, he said. The issue largely stems from the fact that the original vaccines train the body’s immune system to recognize what is called the spike protein found on the surface of a virus, and that spike protein is mutating significantly.
Think of the mutated spike protein as a bit of a disguise that makes it harder for the immune system to recognize the virus and mount a defence to kill it off.
Omicron has more than 50 mutations, and at least 36 are on the spike protein.
Multivalent vaccines that use the spike protein from more than one variant, or that target the genetic components of a virus rather than the spike protein, are possibly the ones that could offer protection for both this pandemic and the next novel coronavirus that emerges.
“It’s pan-coronavirus, where it’s looking at big broad neutralizing responses and you don’t have to update it every season and so on,” said Murthy. “That’s been the Holy Grail of flu vaccinology for the past number of decades. We haven’t achieved that yet, because flu is a bit tricky, but we think that it’s achievable for coronavirus, specifically.”
The United States Army has a version heading into Phase 2 trials that can attach multiple spike proteins. A vaccine with the specific spike proteins from all five COVID-19 variants of concern would likely be more successful, even against future variants, because they all share some of the same mutations and what one might miss another may catch.
Moderna is working on trials for multivalent vaccines using combinations of the spike proteins from the original virus and one of the variants, or two of the variants together. It’s not clear when they would be ready for use.
Sharma said even if the vaccines aren’t working as well against variants as they were against the original virus, to her “they’re still miraculous.”
“To have a vaccine that was developed that quickly, that still has, through multiple variants ΓÇª with boosters, up to 70, 80 per cent effectiveness against serious disease, ailments, hospitalization and death,” she said. “That is miraculous for a new vaccine for a new virus.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2022.
Another COVID outbreak at BGH – Brantford Expositor
The Brant Community Healthcare system declared a COVID-19 outbreak Friday on Brantford General Hospital’s B5 surgical floor.
In a news release, BCHS, which operates BGH and the Willett urgent-care centre in Paris, said two people have tested positive for the disease. They did not indicate if those infections were in staff members or patients.
Visitors will not be permitted in the unit, though exceptions may be made for compassionate reasons.
BCHS said safety precautions remain in place, including enhancing cleaning and disinfection efforts, screening, mandatory masks, and contact tracing.
Outbreaks were declared Jan. 7 at three units at BGH – B6, B7 and B7- and on Jan. 5 at the Willett transitional unit.
Ontario woman who had cancer surgery delayed gets her date after media blitz – Timmins Times
Surgery will be at Mt. Sinai in two weeks
Cassandra Dimaria has a new surgery date.
The young Woodbridge woman was the subject of intense media attention last week after she revealed that life-saving cancer for her stage 4 colon cancer had been repeatedly cancelled.
On Saturday, Dimaria said her cousin, Vanessa Pilieci, had been in touch with Philomena Servidio, President and CEO of Colorectal Cancer Resource & Action Network.
“She’s been my advocate,” she said of Servidio.
“I had no idea people like her existed. If I’d known, my journey would have gone much smoother than it did.”
Her surgery is scheduled to happen in two weeks at Mt. Sinai; Dimaria needs a specific surgery that’s only done there, she said.
And she said she’s grateful for the media attention to her situation and to those who contacted her surgeon on her behalf.
“I am definitely relieved. I just want to have my surgery, heal, and put all this behind me.”
It’s been an experience, she adds, watching people come together to help her.
“In a matter of just a few days, look what the community has done for me. People I don’t know have helped fight for me.
“It shows you — share your story!”
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