Latest COVID updates: WHO says repeat boosters not good strategy

COVID news from January 11: UN health agency calls for new vaccines that better protect amid emerging variants.

A health worker prepares an injection with a dose of the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
A health worker prepares an injection with a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico [File: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Repeating booster doses of the original COVID-19 vaccines is not a viable strategy against emerging variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) said as it predicts that more than half of Europe’s population will be infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant within the next six to eight weeks.

Meanwhile, five million residents in China’s central city of Anyang on Tuesday started home confinement in a new lockdown to curb the spread of the highly transmissible strain, according to state media.

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure amid a new surge in cases after an email was leaked inviting about 100 staff to bring drinks to a party at his home during the country’s first lockdown in May 2020.

The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for January 11.

Argentina registers daily record for new COVID-19 cases

Argentina has hit a record number of COVID-19 infections in 24 hours. The government reported 134,439 new cases on Tuesday – 34,000 more than the previous record set on Friday.

More than 117,000 people have died of coronavirus complications in the country since the beginning of the pandemic.

Chicago mayor tests positive for COVID-19

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that she tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, but she credited the vaccine for only experiencing “cold-like symptoms”.

“This is an urgent reminder for folks to get vaccinated and boosted as it’s the only way to beat this pandemic,” Lightfoot wrote on Twitter.

Fauci slams Republican US senator over attacks in heated exchange

Top American scientist Anthony Fauci has slammed a Republican senator for repeatedly attacking him, saying that he has received death threats and his family has faced harassment because of the attacks.

The 81-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases hit back at Senator Rand Paul during a congressional hearing on Tuesday.

The heated exchange came as COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant soared, sending hospitalisations to an all-time high of 145,982, beating out a previous record of around 142,000 in January 2021.

Paul said Fauci was the “lead architect” of America’s Covid response, blaming him for the around 450,000 deaths that occurred since President Joe Biden took office – although the vast majority were unvaccinated, and health officials including Fauci have consistently advocated for vaccines.

“You personally attack me and with absolutely not a shred of evidence of anything you say,” Fauci responded.

“All of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have life threats upon my life, harassment of my family, and my children with obscene phone calls.”

Bernie Sanders pushes to send N95 masks to all US households

US Senator Bernie Sanders announced on Tuesday that he will introduce legislation “for N95 masks to be sent to every household in the country”.

Government officials had advised the public not to purchase N95 masks early in the pandemic to save them for healthcare workers. But with the special masks no longer in shortage, health experts say they are better than cloth masks in preventing COVID-19 infections.

Pfizer to cut US sales staff as meetings move to virtual

Pfizer Inc said it is reducing its United States sales staff as it expects doctors and other healthcare providers to want fewer face-to-face interactions with salespeople after the pandemic ends.

The move comes as the company is expected to announce more than $80bn in revenue in 2021 on strong sales of the vaccine it developed with Germany’s BioNTech. That would be record sales for a pharmaceutical company, according to Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

France breaks daily record

France smashed its daily record as the highly contagious Omicron variant races through the population. There were 368,149 infections reported within 24 hours, the French health authority said.

The previous record, set last Wednesday, was 332,252 cases. The moving nationwide incidence rate stands at 2,790 per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

To stem the tide, the French government wants to tighten restrictions on the unvaccinated by mid-January. If the plan gets final approval, those unvaccinated will no longer have access to restaurants, cultural activities and long-distance transport.

People queue for COVID-19 tests in front of a testing booth outside a pharmacy in Paris amid the spread of the coronavirus disease
People queue for COVID-19 tests in front of a testing booth outside a pharmacy in Paris amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in France [Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters]

Rugby: Five Champions Cup matches cancelled

Five Champions Cup matches that were postponed because of the French government’s travel restrictions have been cancelled, organisers announced.

The five games, and two more in the Challenge Cup, will be classified as 0-0 results.

This weekend’s third round fixtures are expected to go ahead as scheduled, however, with the French government set to lift a mandatory 48-hour isolation period for visitors.

Canada’s Quebec plans health tax for residents who refuse vaccination

Canada’s Quebec province is working on a plan to require a “health contribution” from residents who refuse to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons, Premier Francois Legault said.

“The vaccine is the key to fight the virus. This is why we’re looking for a health contribution for adults who refuse to be vaccinated for non-medical reasons,” Legault told reporters at a briefing.

He said that the 10 percent of the province’s population who are unvaccinated account for about half of those in intensive care units.

Ireland expected to relax restrictions for COVID-19 close contacts

Ireland is expected to lift restrictions on the movement of people who have been in close contact with someone suffering from COVID-19 if they are fully vaccinated with a booster and have no symptoms.

“The main change and recommendation is as follows: if you have boosted immunity currently you are asked to restrict your movements for five days. That requirement would go completely. So no restricted movement if you have boosted immunity,” Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said.

Nurse Christina McCavana prepares the vials of the Pfizer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine for use at a pop-up vaccination clinic in the Central Fire Station in Belfast, Northern Ireland,
A nurse prepares vials of a vaccine for use at a pop-up vaccination clinic in the Central Fire Station in Belfast, Northern Ireland [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

Turkey logs record level of more than 74,000 cases in a day

Turkey has recorded 74,266 new coronavirus cases in the space of 24 hours, its highest daily figure of the pandemic, health ministry data showed, prompting the health minister to warn of the danger represented by Omicron.

There were 137 deaths related to coronavirus in the same period, the data showed. In late December, daily cases stood at about










































“As cases due to the Omicron variant become dominant, Omicron will be a source of danger for those in risk groups and it may lead to death among the elderly and the chronically ill,” Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Twitter.

Central American bank funds Cuban vaccine drive

The Central American Bank for Economic Integration said it would give Cuba a loan of $53.1m to help bolster the country’s COVID-19 vaccine programme.

The fresh funds will underwrite the production of 200 million additional shots, according to a statement from the bank.

A nurse prepares a booster dose of the Abdala vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Havana, Cuba
A nurse prepares a booster dose of the Abdala vaccine against the coronavirus, in Havana, Cuba [File: Natalia Favre/Reuters]

UK records most COVID-19 deaths since last February

The United Kingdom has recorded an additional 379 deaths from COVID-19, its highest since last February when the country registered 442 fatalities.

The numbers bring deaths since the start of the pandemic to 150,609.

The government data also showed there were an additional 120,821 cases in the UK in the last 24 hours, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to more than 14.7 million.

Israel shortens isolation for asymptomatic cases

Israel cut the isolation time for asymptomatic cases from 10 days to seven, hoping to keep schools and the economy open, the Ministry of Health said in a statement. Those showing symptoms were required to continue to isolate for 10 days.

The decision came after a ministry study of 80 COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant of the virus. Lab tests showed that the likelihood of virus growth after seven days of illness was 6 percent, the ministry said.

Italy’s doctors warn cancer treatment at risk due to COVID surge

The latest wave of COVID-19 in Italy is increasing pressure on hospitals and jeopardising the treatment of some 11 million cancer patients, a medical association said.

“The postponement of surgery may lead to the development of tumours in more advanced stages, with less chance of a cure,” the Federation of Oncologists, Cardiologists and Haematologists (FOCE) said in an appeal published on its website.

FOCE said Italy’s hospitals suffered from a lack of investment and inadequate staffing levels, and warned that the current scenario was starting to resemble the early months of 2020. As a result of the pandemic, non-COVID hospital admissions declined by 1.3 million in 2020 compared with the previous year, the federation said.

Medical staff fixes the thermoplastic mask on a patient's face before undergoing CT at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center San Pietro FBF, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Rome, Italy
Medical staff fixes the thermoplastic mask on a patient’s face before undergoing CT at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center San Pietro FBF, during the COVID-19 outbreak, in Rome, Italy [File: Yara Nardi/Reuters]

Scotland to begin easing restrictions

Scotland will start lifting COVID-related restrictions that were introduced late last year, starting with the removal of limits on crowds at large outdoor events like football and rugby matches, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon said that, while the situation was undoubtedly serious, the rate of increase in hospitalisations was starting to slow. She also announced a change to the vaccine certification that is needed to get into some venues in Scotland.

Now it requires a booster dose rather than just the initial two, if the second shot was more than four months ago, although a negative lateral flow test can also be used.

Mexico expecting nearly 27m jabs in coming weeks

Mexico is expecting delivery of nearly 27 million additional vaccine doses in the coming weeks, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said, without specifying what kind of jabs they would be.

“We’re going to receive 11.7 million more doses soon … and before March, a further 15 million, with which we estimate that the numbers needed by the health ministry will be met,” Ebrard said during a regular news conference.

Mexican Red Cross paramedics press on her arm after receiving a booster shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Mexican Red Cross paramedics press on her arm after receiving a booster shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Repeated COVID-19 boosters not a viable strategy: WHO experts

A WHO technical body said that current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be reworked to ensure they are effective against Omicron and future variants of the coronavirus.

The technical group, made up of independent experts, said it would consider a change in vaccination composition and stressed that shots needed to be more effective in protecting against infection.

“COVID-19 vaccines need to … elicit immune responses that are broad, strong, and long-lasting in order to reduce the need for successive booster doses,” it said.

“A vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable,” it added.

Finland’s local authorities rebel against school quarantines

Finland’s local authorities have refused to implement strict isolation measures to stem infections in schools despite advice from the government.

Krista Kiuru, the minister overseeing the pandemic response, warned that long COVID could become the country’s largest chronic disease and that children were also at risk. She said she feared returning to school was not safe and called for local authorities to implement strict quarantines at schools in which one pupil’s infection would result in quarantine for the entire exposed class.

But Taina Isosomppi, Helsinki’s chief epidemiologist, told Reuters the capital region’s municipalities were not going to follow the minister’s advice saying that large-scale quarantines are not effective anymore.

 Pupils walk towards Kirsti primary school as it reopens after after eight weeks of lockdown due to the coronavirus
Pupils arrive at the Kirsti primary school as it reopens after eight weeks of lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread in the country, in Espoo, Finland [File: Heikki Saukkomaa/Reuters]

US secures 600,000 more doses of GSK-Vir’s therapy

The US has agreed to buy 600,000 more doses of a COVID-19 antibody therapy – developed by GSK and Vir Biotechnology – for an undisclosed sum.

The additional doses of the drug, called sotrovimab, would be delivered in the first quarter of 2022, the drugmakers said, taking the tally of doses secured by nations worldwide to roughly 1.7 million. Canada and the EU have signed deals, too.

The drug belongs to a class of medicines called monoclonal antibodies which are lab-generated compounds that mimic the body’s natural defences. Tests have indicated sotrovimab works against Omicron.

Russia braces for ‘very intense’ rise in Omicron cases

Moscow is ready to mobilise its health system to combat a “very intense” rise in Omicron cases, a public health official said.

Speaking at a televised meeting of the government’s coronavirus task force, Anna Popova said the country had so far recorded 305 cases of Omicron across 13 of its regions.

A specialist wearing personal protective equipment sprays disinfectant while sanitizing a chapel inside the building of the Leningradsky railway station in Moscow, Russia
A specialist wearing personal protective equipment sprays disinfectant while sanitizing a chapel inside the building of the Leningradsky railway station amid the coronavirus outbreak in Moscow, Russia [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

Omicron is Brazil’s dominant coronavirus variant, minister says

Brazil’s Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga has said that Omicron has become the dominant strain in the country.

“Regardless of any health measure you may try to adopt, it ends up coming in. Unfortunately, it already is the predominant variant in Brazil, we are seeing cases rising,” Queiroga told reporters.

He said Brazil did not expect to see higher hospitalisation and death levels, citing its strong vaccination programme.

WHO warns against treating COVID-19 like flu

The WHO has warned against treating COVID-19 as an endemic illness like flu, rather than as a pandemic, saying the spread of Omicron has not yet stabilised.

“We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges,” WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, told a news briefing. “We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic,” she added.

Such warning came after Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it may be time to change how the world tracks COVID-19’s evolution. As its lethality has fallen, he argued, the coronavirus should be tracked as a flue, hence be treated as an “endemic illness”, rather than a pandemic.

Slovenia reports 52 percent increase in cases

Slovenia reported a record 5,164 new COVID-19 cases, a 52 percent rise from a week before, amid the spread of Omicron.

Slovenia has vaccinated 67.3 percent of its population with at least two doses so far, according to the National Institute for Public Health.

Omicron to infect more than half of Europe’s population in 6 to 8 weeks: WHO

Hans Kluge, the WHO’s top Europe official, has predicted that more than half of the continent’s population will get infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant within the next six to eight weeks.

Europe saw more than seven million newly reported COVID-19 cases in the first week of 2022, more than doubling across a two-week period, Kluge, the WHO’s Europe director, told a news briefing.

“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” Kluge said.

Mexico’s President Obrador tests positive, again

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he tested positive for the coronavirus again amid the latest wave of infections in the country fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Obrador, who overcame his first bout of COVID-19 in early 2021, announced on Monday that he had tested positive for the virus and was experiencing mild symptoms.

“I inform you that I am infected with COVID-19 and although the symptoms are mild, I will remain in isolation and will only do office work and communicate virtually until I get through it,” tweeted Lopez Obrador, who received the AstraZeneca vaccine booster shot in December last year.

Read more here.

Bulgarian leaders in self-isolation after security meeting

Bulgaria’s prime minister, president and several senior ministers have gone into precautionary self-isolation after a participant at a security meeting they attended tested positive for the coronavirus.

Chief health inspector Angel Kunchev said all of the participants of the consultative National Security Council on Monday were in good health but they would stay in self-isolation after Parliament Speaker Nikola Minchev tested positive for the virus.

Along with Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and President Rumen Radev, the meeting was attended by the ministers of interior, defence and finance, as well as a deputy foreign minister and senior members of main political parties.

China orders suspension of some US flights

China’s aviation regulator has ordered the cancellation of more than 60 scheduled flights from the US in recent weeks, after numerous passengers tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in China.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has mandated the cancellations of 22 total scheduled US passenger airline flights for Shanghai under its COVID-19 pandemic rules: 10 by Delta Air Lines, six from United Airlines and six from American Airlines.

Delta said it cancelled Detroit to Shanghai flights last Friday and for January 14 due to the Chinese rule requiring “all affected carriers”, whose passengers test positive for COVID-19, “to cancel inbound service on certain China flights”.

The CAAC said on Tuesday that it would cancel another two Delta flights from Detroit to Shanghai and another six Delta flights from Seattle to Shanghai from next week – bringing total cancellations to 10 for the airline.

Indonesia to kick off booster campaign

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has announced that the country will start giving third doses of COVID-19 vaccines to its population at no cost amid concerns about the spread of Omicron.

The booster programme will start on Wednesday, with priority given to the elderly and other vulnerable groups, Widodo said.

“I have decided that third doses will be free for all of the Indonesian people because the safety of the people is our priority,” he said in a press conference.

Officials had earlier said that only citizens categorized as poor would be eligible for free boosters. First and second shots are also given for free to all Indonesians. More than 170.5 million of 270 million Indonesians have been vaccinated against COVID-19, with nearly 117 million having received the second dose.

A million set to throng India’s Ganges for holy dip despite COVID

Nearly one million Hindu worshippers are expected to gather on the banks of the Ganges River this Friday and Saturday for a holy bath despite rising COVID-19 infections across the country, an official has told the Reuters news agency.

India on Tuesday reported 168,063 new infections, a 20-fold rise in a month despite testing being well below capacity.

Most infected people have recovered at home and the level of hospitalisations has been less than half of that seen during the last major wave of infections in April and May.

Read more here.

Spain’s PharmaMar says potential treatment shows efficacy against Omicron

Spain’s PharmaMar has said that trials made in vitro and on animals showed its plitidepsin drug had positive antiviral effects on the variants of COVID-19, including Omicron.

The results of phase one trials have shown the drug, also known as Aplidin, had a powerful antiviral activity against all the variants in vitro and a distribution into the lungs of animals tested, resulting in a 99 percent reduction of viral load in the lungs, the company said.

The results of the trials were released in a paper published in the scientific journal Life Science Alliance, PharmaMar said.

The paper also reported positive effects of phase one and two trials on patients.

British minister: I understand the hurt caused by lockdown party claims

The allegations of parties at Johnson’s Downing Street office will have caused hurt to people who lost loved ones to COVID-19 but there must be time for a full investigation to establish what happened, junior health minister Edward Argar said.

“I can understand the hurt that these reports, these allegations, will have caused, particularly for those who’ve lost loved ones,” Argar told Sky News following a new report of alleged rule breaking, adding it was right that Johnson had previously commissioned a civil servant to investigate similar allegations.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate … for me to comment on those ongoing conversations or her ongoing investigation. We’ve got to give a space to conclude that investigation.”

Heathrow hit by Omicron cancellations in December

The United Kingdom’s biggest airport Heathrow handled 19.4 million passengers in 2021, less than one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels and lower than 2020, after Omicron sparked a run of cancellations in December.

The airport to the west of London said that at least 600,000 passengers cancelled travel plans from Heathrow in December as new travel restrictions came into force.

Infographic showing the global vaccine divide as of Jan 2022
(Al Jazeera)

Poland’s total death toll passes 100,000

Poland’s health minister has said that the country’s total COVID-19 death toll has passed 100,000.

“Today we can say it is another sad day, but especially so because we have passed the level of 100,000 COVID deaths,” Adam Niedzielski told private broadcaster TVN24.

Australia’s Omicron surge puts pressure on hospitals

Australia’s COVID-19 infections have surged to near-record levels due to the Omicron variant putting a strain on hospitals already stretched by staff isolating after being exposed to the virus.

Australia reported nearly 86,000 cases on Tuesday, with two states due to report later.

“There is significant pressure in our health system,” the premier of Victoria state, Daniel Andrews, told a media briefing, adding about 4,000 hospital and 400 ambulance staff in the state were isolating due to virus protocols.

Chicago teachers to end COVID-19 walkout that shut out 340,000 students

Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest US education district, will resume in-person classes on Wednesday after a union backed ending a walkout over COVID-19 fears in an agreement it said would boost safeguards.

The teachers agreed to reinstate virtual instruction and a push for more rigorous safety protocols, including wider testing, as the Omicron variant spread.

The walkout had affected 340,000 students in Chicago, the third-most populous city in the US.Infographic showing the number of days since each country recorded its highest number of COVID-19 cases 2022

Hong Kong airport to ban transit from high-risk nations

Bloomberg News is reporting that Hong Kong’s international airport is set to ban transit by passengers from designated high-risk countries from January 15 to February 14.

The report said that the ban will not apply to diplomats, government officials, athletes and staff participating in the Winter Olympics, which open on February 4 in Beijing.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday that the city will start vaccinating children over five years old. She also announced the suspension of face-to-face classes among kindergartens and primary schools until after the Lunar New Year, which will be on February 1 this year.

US weighs recommending N95 or KN95 masks against Omicron

According to a new Washington Post report, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is considering updating its mask guidance amid the new surge in cases due to the Omicron variant.

The report published late on Monday said that the CDC will likely advise people to opt for the highly protective N95 or KN95 masks worn by healthcare personnel.

Earlier on Monday, the US reported a record number of hospitalisations reaching 142,388 on Sunday – the highest since the pandemic began.

Duterte: We can’t wait for new law to restrain unvaccinated amid new surge

Amid the record-breaking number of cases in the last few days, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that he cannot wait for a new law to be passed that would allow unvaccinated Filipinos to be restrained.

“As I said, we have every right to restrain. We can’t wait for a law. Passing a law is very tedious in a democracy,” CNN Philippines quoted Duterte as saying during a recorded address to the nation that aired before midnight on Monday.

The Philippines hit a new daily record of more than 33,000 news cases on Monday, while also logging a new record positivity rate of 44 percent. On Tuesday, Duterte’s daughter, Sara Carpio, who is running for vice president, said she is against her father’s order to arrest or limit the movement of the unvaccinated.

‘Bring your own booze!’: More party revelations hit Boris Johnson

The UK’s death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 150,000, and the Omicron wave is fuelling a new wave of admissions to hospital [File: Peter Cziborra/Reuters]

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure following revelations of a Downing Street party during the United Kingdom’s first lockdown in May 2020.

In an email leaked to ITV News, an aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson invited more than 100 people working in 10 Downing Street to “socially distanced drinks” in the garden.

“Please join us at 6pm and bring your own booze!” it concluded.

About 30 to 40 people accepted the invitation.

At the time, people in the UK were allowed to meet only one person from outside their household in an outdoor public space provided they remained two metres apart.

Merck: Molnupiravir should be effective against Omicron

Merck’s COVID-19 oral pill molnupiravir can work against Omicron and any other variant, the company says.

“We’re very confident that it will affect Omicron … This mechanism in molecule (will) work for Omicron, and I would imagine against any variant that comes up,” Dean Li, president of Merck Research Laboratories, said at JP Morgan’s annual healthcare conference.

Data on molnupiravir’s effect against Omicron is not yet available, but the pill was shown to be 30 percent effective at reducing hospital admissions and deaths, based on data from 1,433 patients released in November.

The pill has secured regulatory authorisation from the US, UK, Japan and India.

Read all the updates from Monday here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies