Latest COVID updates: Moderna working on booster shot for Omicron

COVID news from January 10: Moderna CEO says Omicron-specific booster vaccine is about to enter clinical trials.

Syringes are prepared with the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19
Syringes prepared with the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 at a vaccination centre in Munich, Germany, on Thursday, December 2, 2021 [File: Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg]

The CEO of pharma company Moderna said the company is currently working on an Omicron-specific booster shot, which will be ready by the late 2022.

In Sweden, the prime minister announced a flurry of new restrictions, including early closings for bars and restaurants and a cap of 500 people at public gatherings, as the country registers record numbers of COVID cases fuelled by the Omicron coronavirus variant.

People in Italy who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 are barred from restaurants or taking domestic flights under new regulations.

Meanwhile, a study conducted in the United Kingdom says that T-cells from common cold illnesses may protect people from COVID-19, which can influence the development of future vaccines against the pandemic.

The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for January 10.

COVID cases in Premier League drop for second successive week

The Premier League has revealed a drop in the number of positive coronavirus tests among players and staff for a second successive week.

“The Premier League can today confirm that between Monday 3 January and Sunday 9 January, 12,973 COVID-19 tests were administered on players and club staff. Of these, there were 72 new positive cases,” a Premier League statement said.

The lower number of positive cases in the English top-flight comes after the Christmas schedule was severely disrupted by postponements.

Omicron takes over as Czech Republic’s dominant coronavirus variant

The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus has become the dominant strain in the Czech Republic, the country’s National Institute of Public Health (SZU) said.

The central European country of 10.7 million expects the Omicron wave to culminate in late January, with about 50,000 daily cases detected, but that may not be a complete picture because of the expected strain on testing capacity, the government and independent experts have said.

The SZU said that Omicron had accounted for more than 50 percent of positive tests as of January 8, with samples from mainly big cities on January 9 showing 79 percent of COVID-19 cases were the Omicron variant.

US breaks COVID-19 hospitalisation record as Omicron surges

COVID-19 hospitalisations in the United States reached a fresh high of 132,646, according to a Reuters tally, surpassing the record of 132,051 set in January last year, amid a surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Hospitalisations have increased steadily since late December, doubling in the last three weeks, as Omicron quickly overtook Delta as the dominant version of the virus in the US.

Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Wisconsin have reported record levels of hospitalised COVID-19 patients recently.

People queue for a COVID-19 test in Times Square New York
People queue for a COVID test in Times Square as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in New York City, US [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

EU takes southern Africa off no-travel list

The European Union has agreed to take southern African countries off its no-travel list, as Omicron cases in the European bloc soar, the French presidency of the European Union said.

Travellers coming from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will still have to show negative PCR tests taken no more than 72 hours earlier, in line with rules for most other countries.

“Member States have agreed this morning … to lift the emergency brake to allow air travel to resume with southern African countries,” the French presidency of the EU tweeted.

“Travellers from this area will still be subject to the health measures applicable to travellers from third countries.”

Moderna working on COVID-19 booster that targets Omicron, CEO says

An Omicron-specific booster shot could be ready by late 2022, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said.

The booster is about to enter clinical trials.

“We need to be careful to try to stay ahead of a virus and not behind the virus,” he said.

The current Moderna booster shot, a half dose, increases neutralising antibody levels against Omicron 37-fold over the second shot. A full dose increases effectiveness 100-fold.

‘Deltacron’ likely result of lab error: experts

Experts said that an alleged hybrid coronavirus mutation dubbed “Deltacron” reportedly discovered in a Cyprus lab is most likely the result of lab contamination, and not a new worrying variant.

Cypriot media reported the discovery Saturday, describing it as having “the genetic background of the Delta variant along with some of the mutations of Omicron”.

“The Cypriot ‘Deltacron’ sequences reported by several large media outlets look to be quite clearly contamination,” Tom Peacock, a virologist with the infectious diseases department at Imperial College London, tweeted during the weekend.

Chicago fight with teachers union stretches into 2nd week

Chicago school leaders cancelled class for a fourth day in the nation’s third-largest district as negotiations with the teachers’ union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols failed to produce an agreement during the weekend.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a joint statement on Sunday evening that there wasn’t “sufficient progress” in talks to resume in-person classes Monday, extending disruptions into a second school week. But they promised negotiations would continue “through the night”.

Disputed issues included testing and metrics to close schools. The Chicago Teachers Union wants the option to revert to districtwide remote instruction, and most members have refused to teach in-person until there’s an agreement, or the latest COVID-19 spike subsides. But Chicago leaders reject districtwide remote learning, saying it’s detrimental to students and schools are safe. Instead, Chicago opted to cancel classes as a whole two days after students returned from winter break.

Pfizer seeks conditional EU authorisation for COVID-19 pill

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it has started evaluating an application by Pfizer for its pill to treat the effects of COVID-19.

Pfizer’s two-drug regimen called Paxlovid, which is meant to be taken at home for five days soon after onset of COVID-19 symptoms, was authorised for people aged 12 and older by the US Food & Drug Administration in December.

In a clinical trial, it was nearly 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness.

Chile starts fourth vaccine dose as coronavirus cases rise

Chile is implementing a fourth vaccination dose for some citizens as the number of daily coronavirus infections rises.

President Sebastian Pinera was present when two adults with immunosuppression problems received a fourth vaccination for COVID-19 at a Santiago hospital.

Chile is applying a fourth dose early because the current daily infection rate of 4,000 coronavirus cases could rise to 10,000 or more, Pinera said.

A woman receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus disease COVID-19
A woman receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus disease COVID-19 at a vaccination centre in Santiago, on January 10, 2022 [Javier Torres/AFP]

Sweden tightens restrictions as virus surges

Sweden announced a slew of new virus curbs as the country registers record numbers of cases fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Bars and restaurants will have to close at 11pm, a vaccine pass will be required for indoor public gatherings of more than 50 people, and indoor private gatherings will be capped at 20 people.

“Right now we are in a situation with record levels of transmission,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference. The measures will come into force on Wednesday.

The Public Health Agency said it believed the measures would be necessary until the middle of February, but they would be re-evaluated every two weeks.

Mexican president calls Omicron spikes ‘a little COVID’

As coronavirus cases spike in Mexico and tests become scarce, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told Mexicans to just assume they had COVID-19 if they had symptoms.

The number of confirmed cases in Mexico spiked by 186 percent last week.

Lopez Obrador claimed the Omicron variant is “a little COVID,” noting hospitalisations and deaths had not increased at the same rate. However, experts say those are both lagging indicators that may not show up for weeks after infections spike.

Three people are sitting in chairs waiting to be tested for COVID-19 in Mexico City
People wait to be tested for COVID-19 in Mexico City, Monday, August 9, 2021 [File: Marco Ugarte/AP Photo]

Slovakia eases COVID measures as Omicron surge yet to hit

Slovakia is easing coronavirus restrictions after a decline in new infections while the fast-spreading Omicron variant is yet to fully hit the country.

The changes include the cancellation of the overnight curfew between 8pm and 5am.

The move allows bars and restaurants, stores and others to stay open without restrictions. Only fully vaccinated people and those who have recovered from COVID-19 are eligible to enter bars, restaurants, hotels, ski resorts, religious services and stores selling nonessential goods.

Italy tightens COVID-19 restrictions for unvaccinated citizens

People in Italy who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 are barred from restaurants or taking domestic flights under new rules which came into force as schools reopened nationwide.

The majority of schools opened for a new term under government orders, despite calls from headteachers, the doctors’ union and some mayors to delay the return to class for at least two weeks.

Top virologist Massimo Galli at the Sacco de Milan hospital said opening schools was “imprudent and unjustified”, while public health expert Walter Ricciardi described the situation as “explosive”.

The virus is “in an exponential phase. The reopening of schools will bring additional stress, and I fear the number of infections will grow at least until the end of January,” virologist Fabrizio Pregliasco said.

Pope backs COVID-19 immunisation campaigns

Pope Francis condemned “baseless” ideological misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, backing national immunisation campaigns and calling healthcare a moral obligation.

Francis spoke in his yearly address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, sometimes called his “State of the World” address because it is a broad survey of the global situation.

His words to diplomats from nearly 200 countries marked the closest he has ever come to a de facto backing of vaccine mandates, which have become controversial in Italy and other European countries.

“We have realised that in those places where an effective vaccination campaign has taken place, the risk of severe repercussions of the disease has decreased,” he said.

Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass
Pope Francis spoke in his yearly address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican [File: AP]

Swab throat too when using rapid COVID-19 test: Israeli official

People self-testing for COVID-19 should swab their throat as well as their nose when using rapid antigen kits to increase the chances of detecting the Omicron variant, a top Israeli health official said.

The recommendation goes against the advice of the US Food and Drug Administration, which has said manufacturers’ instructions should still be followed and that any incorrect use of throat swabs could pose a safety risk.

On Israeli Army Radio, Sharon Alroy-Preis, Israel’s public health chief, said antigen tests, used widely in the country, are less sensitive than PCR tests in detecting illness.

A traveler receives a nasal swab
A traveller receives a nasal swab at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport [File: Bing Guan/Reuters]

T-cells from common colds can provide protection against COVID-19: studying

High levels of T-cells from common cold coronaviruses can provide protection against COVID-19, an Imperial College London study has found, which could inform approaches for second-generation vaccines.

The study, which began in September 2020 and was published on Monday, looked at levels of cross-reactive T-cells generated by previous common colds in 52 household contacts of positive COVID-19 cases shortly after exposure, to see if they went on to develop an infection.

It found that the 26 who did not develop infection had significantly higher levels of those T-cells than people who did get infected. Imperial did not say how long protection from the T-cells would last.

“We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection,” study author Dr Rhia Kundu said.

WHO: More evidence that Omicron causes milder symptoms

More evidence is emerging that the Omicron coronavirus variant is affecting the upper respiratory tract, causing milder symptoms than previous variants and resulting in a “decoupling” in some places between soaring case numbers and low death rates, a World Health Organization official said.

“We are seeing more and more studies pointing out that Omicron is infecting the upper part of the body. Unlike other ones, the lungs who would be causing severe pneumonia,” WHO Incident Manager Abdi Mahamud told Geneva-based journalists.

“It can be a good news, but we really require more studies to prove that.”

Schools reopen in Uganda after nearly two-year COVID-19 closure

Uganda has ended the world’s longest school closure, ordering millions of students back to the classroom after a gap of nearly two years.

Some 15 million pupils have not attended school in Uganda since March 2020 when classrooms were shut as COVID-19 swept the world.

Education Minister John Muyingo said all students would automatically resume classes a year above where they left off.

Read more here.

Children are seen at school in Uganda
Child rights groups had criticised Uganda’s decision to keep schools fully or partially shuttered for 83 weeks [File: Reuters]

Russia records 741 COVID-19 deaths in 24 hours

Russia reported 741 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours amid an continuing spike in cases.

Authorities reported 15,830 new cases in the past 24 hours, slightly up from 16,246.

 A woman receives a shot of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine
A woman receives a shot of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against COVIDS-19 in Moscow [File: EPA]

Hong Kong’s first 2022 legislature meeting may be online due to COVID-19

Hong Kong’s first legislature meeting of 2022 may have to be held online, its council president said, after more than 30 officials and MPs were quarantined following COVID-19 infections at a birthday party of a delegate to China’s legislature.

Andrew Leung, the city’s Legislative Council president, said four legislators remained in quarantine ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, while 16 others need to be tested again.

“If we cannot hold a physical meeting, then we will switch everything to zoom mode,” he told a media briefing.

Omicron causes almost eight-fold increase in India

The fast-spreading Omicron variant had led to an almost eight-fold rise in daily infections since the start of the year.

India reported 179,723 new cases on Monday, most in the country’s biggest cities – New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata – where Omicron has overtaken Delta as the most prevalent strain of the virus.

There were 146 deaths reported, bringing the toll to 483,936 since the pandemic first struck India in early 2020, the third-highest in the world.

Read more here.

A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus disease test swab in India
A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus test swab in New Delhi [File: Reuters]

Europe’s healthcare under Omicron pressure

Europe’s healthcare systems are being strained again by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant during the holiday period.

Despite early studies showing a lower risk of severe disease or hospitalisation from Omicron compared with the previously dominant Delta strain, healthcare networks across Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy and beyond have found themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

On Friday, the UK began deploying military personnel to support hospitals experiencing staff shortages and extreme pressures due to record COVID-19 cases in the country.

“Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them,” National Health Service (NHS) Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis said in a statement.

Dutch hospital staff increasingly infected

In the Netherlands, infection rates are also rising sharply among hospital staff, particularly nurses and nursing assistants, Dutch daily De Telegraaf reports, following a survey of eight main hospitals.

In the worst cases, one in four tested positive in the run-up to Christmas. At Amsterdam’s University Medical Center 25 percent of staff are now testing positive, compared with five percent a week ago.

Hospitals are mulling changing their quarantine rules so infected staff who do not have symptoms can come to work, as Dutch daily case numbers break records despite a strict lockdown since December 19.

Spain unprepared for Omicron surge

Rafael Bengoa, the co-founder of Bilbao’s Institute for Health and Strategy and a former senior World Health Organization official, says Spain has failed to take sufficient measures to reinforce vital services and pressure will continue to ratchet up for several weeks.

“Spain has several weeks – basically all of January – of rising cases … then hopefully we’ll hit a plateau that goes down just as fast,” he told the Reuters news agency.

Bengoa says he considers it unlikely that a more infectious variant that is also more deadly than Omicron will appear and is optimistic the current wave might signal the beginning of the pandemic’s end.

“Pandemics don’t end with a huge boom but with small waves because so many have been infected or vaccinated … After Omicron, we shouldn’t have to be concerned with anything more than small waves.”

People wait in queue to get vaccinated in Spain
People queue up to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Madrid [File: Sergio Perez/Reuters]

China’s Tianjin in partial lockdown

China’s main port of Tianjin may be facing the country’s first local outbreak of Omicron less than a month before the Winter Olympics open in nearby Beijing.

State broadcaster CCTV says the government has divided Tianjin and its 14 million residents into three levels of restrictions, starting with lockdown areas where people are not allowed to leave their homes at all.

The city began mass testing of all its residents on Sunday after a cluster of 20 children and adults tested positive for COVID-19, including at least two with the Omicron variant. Another 20 people tested positive on Sunday.

Australia to ‘push through’: PM

Australia must “push through” a rapidly growing Omicron outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, as the country’s total number of COVID-19 cases breached one million – more than half recorded in the past week alone.

The situation is a turnaround for Australia, which suppressed previous waves of the pandemic through lockdowns and strict border controls and quarantines.

“Omicron is a gear change and we have to push through,” Morrison told a media briefing in the capital, Canberra. “You’ve got two choices here: you can push through or you can lock down. We are for pushing through.”

Read more here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies