COVID Coordinator: Latest Variant Surge Won’t Match January, Vax ‘Holding Up’

The White House COVID coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, said on Sunday he doesn’t expect a surge in infections like the one in January from the latest coronavirus virus variant.

In an interview on ABC News’ “This Week,” Jha praised an effort to regard hospital admissions and capacity rather than rising cases as the benchmark for viewing COVID amid the continuing pandemic.

“I don’t expect a surge at all like what we saw in January. I think that is extremely unlikely. But we’ve got to take these things seriously, monitor it closely and see where it goes,” he said.

Still, he added, “our vaccines are holding up just fine, especially if you’re boosted.”

“The bottom line is that [the new variant] is more transmissible, does not cause more severe disease and the vaccines are holding up so it’s that transmissibility that’s really causing it to increase in terms of infections across the country,” he said.

Jha also praised the way the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is viewing the COVID infections.

“The CDC says we should look at a variety of things,” he said. “We should be looking at cases, should be one of the factors. But we should also be looking at hospitalizations, obviously, because that matters more. And then we should be looking at hospital capacity and we should be making decisions based on all of those factors. …that’s what the CDC guidance recommends, and I certainly agree that that’s what we should be using.”

“The pandemic is not over,” Jha added. “As much as we wish it were, we’re in much better shape, but we have to keep plugging away at managing the virus to get back to our lives.”

Jha advised a second booster for those over 60 years old.

“The data out of Israel is pretty compelling,” he said. “That’s what drove both the [Food and Drug Administration] and CDC to make the decisions it did. People over 60 when they got that second booster four months after their first, not only did they have fewer infections, but it also reduced mortality by a significant amount. If you’re over 60, you should be out there getting that second booster.”

Those 50-59 are eligible for the booster, and it’s “worth having a conversation with your physician,” he said.

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New Hybrid Omicron Variant XE is Most Transmissible Yet

As the coronavirus continues to mutate, we are now seeing the emergence of the most transmissible variants ever. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that a hybrid of the BA.1 and BA.2 omicron mutation named XE was first detected in the U.K., and now China is reporting COVID-19 cases of two novel omicron subvariants that don’t match any existing sequences. Experts are not sure whether the latest outbreaks caused by these variants are transient or could eventually cause problems around the world.

“If the Chinese authorities’ efforts to constrain transmission are ineffective against a highly, highly transmissible virus, like an omicron variant, this could become a threat for the rest of the world,” said Rajeev Venkayya, an expert in global vaccine issues who has done extensive research on neutralizing omicron and its subvariants for Aerium Therapeutics, according to Bloomberg. “We know that uncontrolled transmission of the virus can lead to more viral evolution and an evolution around vaccines and therapeutics, potentially making them less effective.”

According to reports, the XE variant is 10% more transmissible than the BA.2 subvariant, which has been the most contagious mutation so far, according to Express.co.uk. The WHO says that the BA.2 is still the most dominant mutation of the omicron virus with 86% of all sequenced cases attributed to it. So far, the XE accounts for only a small fraction of COVID-19 cases, but its extremely high transmissibility means it could become the dominant strain in the future.

The Food and Drug Administration is holding a hearing this week to investigate what booster shots are needed and what strains of viruses they should target. While the number of infections from these variants isn’t significant at this time, scientists say they still should be monitored to avoid a global health threat. So far, most of the infections in China and Hong Kong have been caused by existing variants, says virologist Stephen Goldstein, of the University of Utah.

“I don’t really expect a new variant to emerge from the omicron epidemics in Hong Kong and China,” he said. “That said, this virus has certainly surprised us before, and we need to stay vigilant.”

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FDA Limits Antibody COVID Treatment in 8 States

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday reversed its emergency use authorization for Sotrovimab, the monoclonal antibody used to treat COVID-19, in eight states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, because it is not effective against the new BA.2 variant.

“Today, considering the most recent data available, FDA is announcing that Sotrovimab is no longer authorized for use at this time in the following states and territories: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands,” the agency announced Friday.

“New data included in the health care provider fact sheet shows that the authorized dose of Sotrovimab is unlikely to be effective against the BA.2 sub-variant. Based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Nowcast data, the BA.2 sub-variant is estimated to account for more than 50% of cases in the states and territories in Regions 1 and 2 listed above as of March 19, 2022.”

According to the agency, Sotrovimab is used for the treatment of “mild-to-moderate” COVID-19 in adults and children over the age of 12 and who are at “high risk” for progressing to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization and death.

The drug is still authorized in other states and regions where there is a different dominant variant than BA.2, the agency said.

The BA.2 omicron variant accounts for almost 35% of COVID-19 cases nationwide as of March 19 but has dramatically risen in regions 1 and 2 in the northeast to more than 50% of cases, according to the CDC.

As an alternative, the FDA said that other therapeutics including Paxlovid, Veklury (remdesivir), bebtelovimab, and Lagevrio (molnupiravir), which the agency believes are effective against the BA.2 variant and are authorized to treat certain patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 are still available in those regions.

“We will continue to monitor BA.2 in all U.S. regions and may revise the authorization further to ensure that patients with COVID-19 have effective treatments available,” the FDA announcement said. “Health care providers should also monitor the frequency of BA.2 in their region as they choose appropriate treatment options for patients.”

As of Thursday, the CDC reported 39,076 new COVID-19 cases, and 894 deaths nationwide.

The agency also reports that 65.5% of the population is fully vaccinated, and 76.8% have had at least one dose of the available vaccines.

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Study: Covid Variant in NYC Sewage Could Be Caused by Rats

The variant of COVID-19 found in New York City sewage last year could have originated in the city’s rat population, according to a new study published in Nature Communications earlier this month.

The study, co-authored by University of Missouri virologist Marc C. Johnson, found that the amino acid changes detected in the new variant “has not been seen in patients. Ever. But this amino acid change has been seen in rodent-adapted virus,” Johnson told Curbed.

“In immunocompromised patients, you see a lot of similar mutations, but this one particular mutation right at the receptor-binding site has just not been found,” he added. “If these lineages are coming from an immunocompromised patient, it is probably that, a single patient, and it’s really hard to believe that this much signal could come from one person.”

Johnson noted that the “alpha, beta, and gamma” strains of COVID-19 “have gained the ability to infect rodents, but the original strain of COVID could not.”

When asked why the authors specified rats as a possible source, Johnson said, “There was a figure in the paper where we actually show that these lineages have all gained the ability to utilize the rat receptor. It was this suspicion that led us to do the experiment that confirmed this: I was like, ‘Well, probably not rats, but if it is rats, then it should have gained the ability to infect rat cells,’ and sure enough, the virus did.”

However, he did note that scientists have yet to uncover evidence that COVID-19 is widely circulating among rats.

“I think the important thing to keep in mind here is that every time the virus replicates, it has a possibility to mutate,” said another of the study’s co-authors, Monica Trujillo, a microbiologist at Queensborough Community College. “So if there is a population where you are not aware where the virus is replicating, that is worrisome. That is why it’s important to know where these cryptic sequences are coming from.”

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EXPLAINER-Scientists on Alert over Rising Cases Caused by Omicron Cousin BA.2

The highly transmissible Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – the most common form of which is known as BA.1 – now accounts for nearly all of the coronavirus infections globally, although dramatic surges in COVID cases have already peaked in some countries.

Scientists are now tracking a rise in cases caused by a close cousin known as BA.2, which is starting to outcompete BA.1 in parts of Europe and Asia. The following is what we know so far about the new subvariant:

“STEALTH” SUBVARIANT

Globally, BA.1 accounted for 98.8% of sequenced cases submitted to the public virus tracking database GISAID as of Jan. 25. But several countries are reporting recent increases in the subvariant known as BA.2, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to BA.1 and BA.2, the WHO lists two other subvariants under the Omicron umbrella: BA.1.1.529 and BA.3. All are closely related genetically, but each features mutations that could alter how they behave.

Trevor Bedford, a computational virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has been tracking the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, wrote on Twitter on Friday that BA.2 represents roughly 82% of cases in Denmark, 9% in the UK and 8% in the United States, based on his analysis of sequencing data from the GISAID database and case counts from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

The BA.1 version of Omicron has been somewhat easier to track than prior variants. That is because BA.1 is missing one of three target genes used in a common PCR test. Cases showing this pattern were assumed by default to be caused by BA.1.

BA.2, sometimes known as a “stealth” subvariant, does not have the same missing target gene. Instead, scientists are monitoring it the same way they have prior variants, including Delta, by tracking the number of virus genomes submitted to public databases such as GISAID.

As with other variants, an infection with BA.2 can be detected by coronavirus home tests kits, though they cannot indicate which variant is responsible, experts said.

MORE TRANSMISSIBLE?

Some early reports indicate that BA.2 may be even more infectious than the already extremely contagious BA.1, but there is no evidence so far that it is more likely to evade vaccine protection.

Danish health officials estimate that BA.2 may be 1.5 times more transmissible than BA.1, based on preliminary data, though it likely does not cause more severe disease.

In England, a preliminary analysis of contact tracing from Dec. 27, 2021, through Jan. 11, 2022, by the UK Health Security Agency (HSA) suggests that household transmission is higher among contacts of people infected with BA.2 (13.4%) compared with other Omicron cases (10.3%).

The HSA found no evidence of a difference in vaccine effectiveness, according to the Jan. 28 report.

A critical question is whether people who were infected in the BA.1 wave will be protected from BA.2, said Dr. Egon Ozer, an infectious disease expert at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

That has been a concern in Denmark, where some places that saw high case counts of BA.1 infections were reporting rising cases of BA.2, Ozer said.

If prior BA.1 infection does not protect against BA.2, “this could be sort of a two-humped camel kind of wave,” Ozer said. “It’s too early to know if that will happen.”

The good news, he said, is that vaccines and boosters still “keep people out of the hospital and keep people from dying.”

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CDC Updates Healthcare Worker Quarantine Guidance Amid Omicron Surge

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance for Healthcare workers about how to handle quarantining and isolation as the highly contagious omicron COVID-19 variant surges throughout the country.

“As the healthcare community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a press release Thursday. “Our goal is to keep healthcare personnel and patients safe, and to address and prevent undue burden on our healthcare facilities. Our priority, remains prevention — and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”

The new guidance reduces the isolation time for healthcare workers before they can return to the job to try and keep staffing levels up as the number of omicron infections increase throughout the country.

According to the agency, workers who are asymptomatic can return to work with a negative test seven days after exposure, and possibly sooner if staffing levels are needed.

Those workers that are fully vaccinated and boosted do not need to quarantine at home following a high-risk exposure, the agency said.

The guidelines only apply to healthcare workers and could be revised to protect the health of the workers and patients as more information on the omicron variant comes to light.

The new variant, which appeared first in South Africa, has now spread dramatically, going from just 12% of new cases the week of Dec. 11, to 73% of new cases a week later, according to the CDC.

According to the updated guidance, healthcare providers that have even mild symptoms should make it a priority to get one of the Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization tests to see if they have been infected.

They may be retested at the discretion of the clinician treating the worker, and an infectious disease specialist should be consulted if the tests yield conflicting results.

Workers that exhibit mild to moderate illness, and who are not immunocompromised, should not return to work for seven days and only after a negative test result is logged.

The time away from work should be expanded to 10 days if there are no tests taken by the worker, according to the guidance.

Workers that have “severe to critical” illness should quarantine for 20 days since the symptoms began, and not return to work until 24 hours after their last fever without the use of fever-reducing medications, and the symptoms exhibited have passed.


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Tony Blair’s Mea Culpa: ‘Undiplomatic’ to Call Unvaccinated People Idiots

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted Wednesday he “was a little too undiplomatic” when he told people who are still unvaccinated despite being eligible and lacking health problems that they are “an idiot.”

“Frankly, if you’re not vaccinated at the moment and you’re eligible and you’ve got no health reason for not being vaccinated, you’re not just irresponsible, I mean you’re an idiot,” Blair said told Times Radio.

“I’m sorry, I mean that is, truthfully you are,” he continued. “Because this omicron variant is so contagious, if you’re unvaccinated and you’re in circulation, you’re going to get it. And … that is going to put a lot of strain on the health service.”

The former prime minister said Wednesday, “Possibly I was a little too undiplomatic in my use of language.”

“We have got a piece of work out in the field at the moment as an institute, and I think the government should do the same – just investigating what is the profile, what are the reasons why people are not getting vaccinated,” he added.

Blair also said he would be “immensely surprised” if the number of COVID-19 cases exceeded the official count of 100,000 that was recorded Wednesday.

“This is potentially the most serious moment in the pandemic,” he said. “You are at risk because if your hospitalizations start to rise then it will – by the time you have noticed that, and you have got a terrible problem – it will be too late to do anything about it.”


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Popular Broadway Shows Canceled Over COVID-19 Omicron Variant

New York City is canceling some of Broadway’s biggest shows, including “Tina,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and “Ain’t Too Proud” over the fear of the new COVID-19 omicron variant, according to reports.

The shows “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Freestyle Love Supreme” have also canceled a series of performances.

The show “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” announced it was postponing performances until next week “due to a limited number of positive covid test results within the Broadway company.”

The head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that New York and New Jersey are tracking infections of the omicron variant at a rate four times higher than the national average, NBC New York reported.

Broadway was shut down throughout most of 2020 and announced in July that all theatergoers would have to be vaccinated to attend shows in New York City.

The statewide average of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 was up 58% since Thanksgiving. The sharp increase, which New York Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul called “alarming,” caused her to issue an indoor mask mandate, according to Fox 5 New York.

Hochul was asked about state data showing the Manhattan region has the lowest rate of disease transmission in the state, according to the New York Post.

“Well, this is not — there’s very little difference between what we’re doing and what New York City has already done,” Hochul said. “So, if New York City had been — had not had taken their own steps, then we would have absolutely had that surgical approach.”

“And I would have looked at the numbers and seen [hospital] bed capacity, which is pretty good here in New York City; watching that closely,” the governor added. “Infections were not high.”


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Omicron Spreads Faster and Weakens Jabs: WHO

The Omicron coronavirus variant is more transmissible than the Delta strain and reduces vaccine efficacy but causes less severe symptoms according to early data, the World Health Organization said Sunday.

The Delta variant, first identified in India earlier this year, is responsible for most of the world’s coronavirus infections.

But South Africa’s discovery of Omicron — which has a large number of mutations — last month prompted countries around the world to impose travel bans on southern African countries and reintroduce domestic restrictions to slow its spread.

The WHO said Omicron had spread to 63 countries as of December 9. Faster transmission was noted in South Africa, where Delta is less prevalent, and in Britain, where Delta is the dominant strain.

But it stressed that a lack of data meant it could not say if Omicron’s rate of transmission was because it was less prone to immune responses, higher transmissibility or a combination of both.

Early evidence suggests Omicron causes “a reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission”, the WHO said in a technical brief.

“Given the current available data, it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where community transmission occurs,” it added.

Omicron infections have so far caused “mild” illness or asymptomatic cases, but the WHO said the data was insufficient to establish the variant’s clinical severity.

South Africa reported Omicron to the WHO on November 24. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer/BioNTech last week said three doses of their jabs were still effective against Omicron.

Countries with sufficient vaccine supplies such as Britain and France have encouraged their populations to receive a third “booster” jab to fight Omicron.



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Scientist Who First Detected New Omicron Variant Worried by Unusual Speed of Mutations


The scientist who first detected the new strain of the COVID-19 virus variant said on Friday that he is concerned about how fast it appears to have accumulated its unusual pattern of mutations.

Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a director for the Botswana Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory and a research fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the speed at which Omicron is mutating also raises further questions about how it evolved and just how transmissible it may be.

In a briefing first reported by Bloomberg, Moyo explained that viruses don’t typically accumulate mutations in a single step but that a lack of adequate sequencing of the coronavirus has made it difficult for scientists to understand just how early the new variant developed.

“We are still trying to understand how so many mutations arose for Omicron in a short space of time,” Dr. Moyo said. “If you look at the previous lineages, if you look at Alpha, if you look at Beta, you can see that the mutations accumulated over time.”

The emergence of Omicron has set public health officials on edge, with a number of countries reimposing travel bans and other restrictions in response.

Meanwhile, researchers have been trying to understand the nature of the new variant’s emergence, how transmissible it could potentially be, and whether or not it is a milder variant than the Alpha or Delta strains, the latter of which emerged earlier this year as the dominant strain.

In a preliminary study published on Dec. 3, researchers, led by Venky Soundararajan of Nference, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that analyzes biomedical information, said that one of Omicron’s dozens of mutations likely arose when the variant picked up a bit of genetic material from another virus, possibly one that causes the common cold, potentially making the new strain more transmissible yet milder in impact.

The researchers put forward the hypothesis that the insertion mutation may have developed in a person simultaneously infected with SARS-CoV-2, also known as the CCP virus, and the HCoV-229E coronavirus, which can cause the common cold.

But with competing hypotheses that Omicron may have spent some time evolving in an animal host, the researchers said more study is needed to confirm the origins of Omicron’s mutations and their impacts on function and transmissibility.

Another theory is that the strain developed in an individual with advanced HIV in whom the Covid-19 infection persisted for more than 200 days, however, Moyo said that there is no evidence to support this as of yet.

The doctor said that when he first sequenced the sample of the new variant, it most closely resembled B.1.1.263, which is known as the UAE lineage and was first detected in early April 2020. But after looking more closely at that variant, Moyo said he saw that the strain had fewer mutations and so ruled out that they were similar.

Men wearing protective suits make their way at a bus stop at Narita international airport on the first day of closed borders to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant amid the pandemic in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan, Nov. 30, 2021. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
travelers-queue
Travelers queue at a check-in counter at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 27, 2021, after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant Omicron. (Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)

Moyo and his team shared their findings in an international database on Nov. 23, he said, and just hours later, a separate group in South Africa reported similar findings. Another group of researchers in Hong Kong also reported similar findings shortly after.

Moyo said he initially believed the new Omicron variant would be a weak virus with minimal side effects but owing to its ability to replicate quickly and evade parts of the immune system, the risk of reinfection is much higher.

To date, more than 20 cases of Omicron have been reported in the United States, while worldwide, no deaths have been reported to be associated with the new variant.

“We hope that as data is coming in, people are going back to their freezers and they are pulling out old samples,” Moyo said. “Some scientists have done just that and have found that the Omicron lineage was already circulating as early as October.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist said Dec. 3 that the new Omicron variant could displace the Delta variant but that it is not yet clear whether it is milder than other CCP virus variants.

“It is possible that it could become [the] dominant variant,” Swaminathan said during a Reuters event, adding that it’s impossible for scientists to make that prediction. The Delta variant, she said, accounts for 99 percent of COVID-19 cases around the world.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Swaminathan said, according to Reuters.

But Swaminathan told Reuters that there’s no conclusive evidence showing Omicron is a milder variant than the Delta or Alpha strains.

“It does seem to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infection,” the U.N. health agency official said. “The fact that they’re not getting sick … that means the vaccines are still providing protection, and we would hope that they would continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.

Katabella Roberts

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Katabella Roberts is a reporter currently based in Turkey. She covers news and business for The Epoch Times, focusing primarily on the United States.



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