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Omicron variant found in almost one-third of U.S. states

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The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread to about one-third of U.S. states, but the Delta version remains the majority of COVID-19 cases nationwide, U.S. health officials said on Sunday.

Though the emergence of the new variant has caused alarm worldwide, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, told CNN “thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it” but he added that it was too early to draw definitive conclusions and more study is needed.

Fauci also hoped the United States would lift its ban on travelers from southern African countries in a “reasonable period of time.”

The South African government has complained it is being punished – instead of applauded – for discovering the new variant and quickly informing international health officials.

Fauci praised South Africa for its transparency and said the U.S. travel ban was imposed at a time “when we were really in the dark” and needed time to study the variant.

“We all feel very badly about the hardship that that might have put upon not only South Africa but the other African countries,” he added on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

At least 15 U.S. states have reported Omicron cases: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally.

Many of the cases were among fully vaccinated individuals with mild symptoms, although the booster shot status of some patients was not known.

Despite several dozen Omicron cases, the Delta variant still accounts for 99.9% of the 90,000 to 100,000 new cases of COVID each day in the United States https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told ABC News in an interview.

“We are everyday hearing about more and more probable cases so that number is likely to rise,” she said.

Louisiana’s Department of Health said on Saturday that a Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd cruise ship set to dock in New Orleans with more than 3,000 passengers has detected 10 cases of COVID-19 on board.

The Norwegian Breakaway left New Orleans on Nov. 28 and had stops in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, officials said, adding everyone on board would be tested and provided with post-exposure and quarantine public health guidance by the CDC.

COVID-19 vaccine makers are looking to quickly tweak their shots to target Omicron and U.S. regulators have vowed speedy reviews, but that could still take months.

“Certainly, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will move swiftly and CDC will move swiftly,” Walensky said.

Moderna Inc has said it could seek U.S. approval for an updated vaccine as soon as March, but company officials in television interviews on Sunday said it still take time to increase output.

Moderna Co-founder and Chairman Noubar Afeyan told CNN it would take another seven to 10 days to gather key Omicron data. Then, it “will take a good 60 to 100 days” to deploy an Omicron-specific shot, although other options like a higher dose of the current booster are being explored, he said.

U.S. government officials are also working with vaccine makers Pfizer Inc and Johnson & Johnson on updated shots.

Pfizer and Merck & Co Inc are also pursuing COVID-19 pill treatments.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Mexican president has cardiac catheterization, health said to be good

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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador underwent a cardiac catheterization in hospital on Friday and was found to be in good health, the interior ministry said in a statement.

“In this procedure, the heart and the arteries of the president were found to be healthy and functioning appropriately,” the statement said.

Lopez Obrador, 68, who had a serious heart attack in 2013 and recently recovered from his second coronavirus infection, underwent the procedure as part of a check-up every six months that include lab tests, electrocardiograms, stress tests and CT scans, the government said.

The medical team said the latest results indicated the need for a cardiac catheterization, without providing further details on why they performed what they described as a 30-minute procedure.

The government said “no other type of intervention” was needed and that Lopez Obrador was in “perfect health.”

The procedure inserts a thin tube into a large blood vessel leading to the heart and can detect how well the heart is working.

Lopez Obrador said he had mild symptoms from both bouts of COVID-19. In the most recent case earlier this month, he went into isolation for a week before returning to public activities, including lengthy daily news conferences.

On his first day back, he praised honey, pain reliever paracetamol and VapoRub, a topical ointment popular in Mexico, for helping ease his symptoms.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Dave Graham and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by William Mallard)

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Small children getting less sick from Omicron; Genetic mutation protects against severe COVID

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The following is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that has yet to be certified by peer review.

Small children are getting less sick from Omicron

In very young children, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus causes less severe disease than the Delta variant, according to a new study.

Researchers reviewed data on nearly 80,000 U.S. children under age 5 with a first infection, including 7,201 infected in late December or early January when Omicron was causing more than 90% of cases. After accounting for other risk factors, including medical conditions and socioeconomic circumstances, researchers found children infected during the Omicron surge had a 29% lower risk of emergency department visits, a 67% lower risk of hospitalization, a 68% lower risk of needing intensive care, and a 71% lower risk of needing machines to breathe, compared to children infected with Delta. However, “because of Omicron’s increased transmissibility, the overall number of emergency department visits, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and mechanical ventilator use in children may still be greater” with Omicron than with Delta, according to a report posted on medRxiv ahead of peer review.

The investigators have also observed that infection rates were disproportionately higher in Black and Hispanic children for both Omicron and Delta for this age group, and the gap widened for infections with Omicron, said study leader Rong Xu of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Not yet published data shows that “children under 5 had the highest infection rate with Omicron” compared to older children and adults in all age groups, she said.

Genetic mutation protects against severe COVID-19

New findings add to evidence that people with a certain version of a gene are less likely to develop severe COVID-19.

Earlier research had identified a specific group of genes, called the OAS1/2/3 gene cluster, as being involved in the risk for severe COVID-19. One version of a gene in that cluster – passed down from Neanderthals – appeared to protect against severe disease, reducing the risk by about 23%. The earlier research was done mainly in people of European ancestry. According to a report published in Nature Genetics, researchers now see the same association of this genetic variant with less severe COVID-19 in people of African ancestry.

“The fact that individuals of African descent had the same protection allowed us to identify the unique variant in the DNA that actually protects from COVID-19 infection,” coauthor Dr. Jennifer Huffman of said in a statement. OAS genes are involved in a cascade of effects that help cells fight viruses, the researchers said. Understanding of these genes and their effect on COVID-19 risks could aid development of future drugs, they added.

Fewer Delta breakthroughs with Moderna vs Pfizer/BioNTech

When the Delta variant of the coronavirus was prevalent in the United States, recipients of two doses of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine were less likely to experience a breakthrough infection – and if they did, were slightly less likely to be hospitalized – than recipients of two doses of the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, a large study found.

Researchers analyzed health records of more than 637,000 vaccine recipients who were not previously infected with the virus and had not gotten a booster shot. As reported on Thursday in JAMA, breakthrough infections steadily increased every month from July to November 2021, with higher rates in the Pfizer/BioNTech group. In November, there were 2.8 cases among every thousand people vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech shots, compared to 1.6 cases per thousand recipients of the Moderna vaccines. The vaccines protected equally well against death, but the hospitalization rate was 12.7% for infected Moderna recipients and 13.3% for Pfizer/BioNTech recipients. When the researchers compared 62,584 Moderna recipients to a closely-matched equal-sized group of Pfizer/BioNTech recipients, the risk for breakthrough infection was 15% lower in the Moderna group.

“Although there is a difference in breakthrough infections, both vaccines are highly protective against SARS-COV2 infection and especially against the most severe consequences of infection,” said coauthor Pamela Davis of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in a statement.

Click for a Reuters graphic on vaccines in development.

 

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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FDA expands use of remdesivir to patients with high risk of hospitalization

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The U.S. health regulator on Friday expanded its approval for the use of Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir to treat non-hospitalized patients 12 years and older for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 disease with high risk of hospitalization.

Previously, the use of Veklury was limited to patients requiring hospitalization.

 

(Reporting by Leroy Leo in Bengaluru; editing by Diane Craft)

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