WHO sounds warning over fast-spreading Omicron

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) -The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan added it would be “unwise” to conclude from early evidence that Omicron was a milder variant that previous ones.

“… with the numbers going up, all health systems are going to be under strain,” Soumya Swaminathan told Geneva-based journalists.

The variant is successfully evading some immune responses, she said, meaning that the booster programs being rolled out in many countries ought to be targeted towards people with weaker immune systems.

“There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the briefing.

“And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected,” Tedros said.

Their comments echoed the finding of study by Imperial College London, which said last week the risk of reinfection was more than five times higher and it has shown no sign of being milder than Delta.

WHO officials said however that other forms of immunity vaccinations may prevent infection and disease.

While the antibody defenses from some actions have been undermined, there has been hope that T-cells, the second pillar of an immune response, can prevent severe disease by attacking infected human cells.

WHO expert Abdi Mahamud added: “Although we are seeing a reduction in the neutralization antibodies, almost all preliminary analysis shows T-cell mediated immunity remains intact, that is what we really require.”

However, highlighting how little is known about how to handle the new variant that was only detected last month, Swaminathan also said: “Of course there is a challenge, many of the monoclonals will not work with Omicron.”

She gave no details as she referred to the treatments that mimic natural antibodies in fighting off infections. Some drug makers have suggested the same.

ENDING THE PANDEMIC

In the short term, Tedros said that holiday festivities would in many places lead to “increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths” and urged people to postpone gatherings.

“An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled,” he said.

But the WHO team also offered some hope to a weary world facing the new wave that 2022 would be the year that the pandemic, which already killed more than 5.6 million people worldwide, would end.

It pointed towards the development of second and third generation vaccines, and the further development of antimicrobial treatments and other innovations.

“(We) hope to consign this disease to a relatively mild disease that is easily prevented, that is easily treated,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, told the briefing.

“If we can keep virus transmission to minimum, then we can bring the pandemic to an end.”

However Tedros also said China, where the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was first detected at the end of 2019, must be forthcoming with data and information related to its origin to help the response going forward.

“We need to continue until we know the origins, we need to push harder because we should learn from what happened this time in order to (do) better in the future,” Tedros said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Alison Williams)

Judge blocks U.S. COVID-19 vaccine rule for health workers in 10 states

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday blocked in 10 states a Biden administration vaccine requirement, finding the agency that issued the rule mandating healthcare workers get vaccinated against the coronavirus likely exceeded its authority.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp in St. Louis prevents the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from enforcing its vaccine mandate for healthcare workers until the court can hear legal challenges brought by the 10 states.

The ruling is the second legal setback for the Biden Administration’s requirements aimed at increasing the use of vaccines to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal appeals court in New Orleans earlier this month blocked a sweeping workplace mandate that requires businesses with at least 100 employees to get their staff vaccinated or tested weekly.

Republican state attorneys general sued the administration in early November over the CMS rule, seeking to block the requirement because they alleged it would worsen healthcare staffing shortages.

Schelp said CMS had significantly understated the burden of its mandate on the ability of healthcare facilities to provide proper care.

Schelp’s ruling applied in the 10 states that brought the case: Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire.

On Nov. 4, CMS issued the interim final rule it said covers over 10 million people and applies to around 76,000 healthcare providers including hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers.

Providers that fail to comply with the mandate could lose access to Medicare and Medicaid funds. Medicare serves people 65 and older and the disabled. Medicaid serves the poor.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Washington; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

WHO flags Omicron risk, countries tighten curbs, Biden urges vaccination

By Stephanie Nebehay, Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf

GENEVA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) -The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday the Omicron coronavirus variant carried a very high risk of infection surges as more countries closed their borders, reviving fears over economic recovery from the two-year pandemic.

Airlines were scrambling to limit the impact of the variant on their networks, while delays in bookings threatened an already fragile recovery for global tourism.

But shares in airlines bounced back with the rest of the market on Monday after a sharp sell-off on Friday as hopes grew that the variant might prove to be milder than initially feared.

The WHO advised its 194 member nations that any surge in infections could have severe consequences, but said no deaths had yet been linked to the new variant.

“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said.

“The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high.”

Further research was needed to understand Omicron’s potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it said, adding that more data was expected in coming weeks.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the new variant was a cause for concern but not panic and that it would sooner or later arrive in the United States, urging people to get vaccinated. He said it would be weeks before the world knew how effective current vaccines would be against it.

“Obviously, we’re on high alert,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official and Biden’s chief medical adviser, told ABC News. “It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, it’s going to spread widely.”

An infectious disease expert from South Africa, where scientists first identified Omicron, said it was too early to say whether symptoms were more severe than previous variants, but it did appear to be more transmissible.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim also said existing vaccines were probably effective at stopping Omicron from causing severe illness. Scientists have said it could take weeks to understand the severity of Omicron.

South African cases were likely to exceed 10,000 a day this week, rocketing up from barely 300 a day two weeks ago, Karim added.

But South African President Cyril Ramaphosa denounced “unjustified and unscientific” travel bans that damage tourism-reliant economies. His country has said it is being punished for its scientific ability to detect new variants.

After a virtual meeting on Monday, health ministers from the Group of Seven bloc of wealthy nations praised South Africa for its “exemplary work” in detecting the variant and alerting others.

JITTERY MARKETS

Fears the new variant might be resistant to vaccines helped wipe roughly $2 trillion off global stock markets on Friday but markets settled down again on Monday, even after Japan said it would close its borders.

Other countries also imposed travel and other restrictions, worried that Omicron could spread fast even among people with immunity.

Travelers stranded at Johannesburg international airport said they felt helpless as flights from South Africa were cancelled.

“We don’t know what to do, we are just waiting here,” said Ntabiseng Kabeli, a stranded passenger from Lesotho.

Portugal found 13 cases of the variant at a Lisbon football club. Spain, Sweden, Scotland and Austria also reported their first cases.

Japan described its ban on arrivals by foreigners as precautionary.

Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto said tests would determine if a traveler from Namibia was Japan’s first Omicron case.

In Israel, a ban on arrivals by foreigners took effect overnight.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern that restrictions would leave southern African countries isolated.

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” he said.

Guterres has long warned about the dangers of vaccine inequality around the world and that low immunization rates are “a breeding ground for variants.”

More than 261 million people in over 210 countries have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019 and 5,456,515​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

The new variant was discovered just as many parts of Europe were suffering a fourth wave of coronavirus infections as winter grips the continent in the runup to Christmas, with more people gathering indoors and increasing the risk of infection.

European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde tried to reassure investors that the euro zone could cope with a resurgence of infections.

“We now know our enemy and what measures to take,” she told Italian broadcaster RAI late on Sunday. “We are all better equipped to respond to a risk of a fifth wave or the Omicron variant.”

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Himani Sarkar, Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Peter Graff)

U.S. plans to invest billions in manufacturing COVID-19 vaccine

By Jeff Mason and Alexandra Alper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States plans to invest billions of dollars in expanding COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing capacity and make available an additional one billion doses per year, White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said on Wednesday.

Activists have pressured President Joe Biden’s administration to increase vaccine supply to poorer countries.

Zients said the government was preparing to offer makers of the mRNA vaccines substantial help to expand infrastructure and capacity, including facilities, equipment, staff or training.

Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are the only makers of mRNA vaccines, though Zients said subcontractors of those companies would also be included.

Production will start in the second half of 2022, he said.

The investment in vaccine production is part of a private-public partnership to address vaccine needs at home and around the world and to prepare for future pandemics, he said. It will be paid for with funds from the American Rescue Plan Biden signed into law in March.

In the short term, the program would make a significant amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses available at cost for global use. In the long term, it would help establish sustained domestic manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce vaccines for future threats, Zients said.

Zients said 80% of Americans 12 and older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, highlighting a milestone in efforts to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

He also said 2.6 million kids aged 5-11 will have received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of Wednesday.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Alexandra Alper, Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Lawsuit consolidation set to give Biden administration a chance to revive COVID vaccine mandate

Lawsuits filed around the United States challenging the Biden administration’s workplace COVID-19 vaccine rule are expected to be consolidated in a single federal appeals court on Tuesday, giving the government a chance to revive a rule that was blocked last week.

More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule, which requires employers with at least 100 workers to mandate COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing combined with wearing a face covering at work.

Pfizer to allow generic versions of its COVID-19 pill in 95 countries

Pfizer Inc said on Tuesday it will allow generic manufacturers to supply its experimental antiviral COVID-19 pill to 95 low- and middle-income countries through a licensing agreement with international public health group Medicines Patent Pool (MPP).

The voluntary licensing agreement between Pfizer and the MPPwill allow the United Nations-backed group to grant sub-licenses to qualified generic drug manufacturers to make their own versions of PF-07321332.

Pfizer will sell the pills it manufactures under the brand name Paxlovid.

Delta dominates, scientists watch for worrisome offspring

The Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus now accounts for nearly all coronavirus infections globally and virus experts are closely watching its evolution, looking for signs of mutation.

According to the WHO, Delta makes up 99.5% of all genomic sequences reported to public databases and has “outcompeted” other variants in most countries.

A key exception is South America, where Delta has spread more gradually, and other variants previously seen as possible global threats – notably Gamma, Lambda and Mu – still contribute to a significant proportion of reported cases.

Japan plans to ease quarantine rules – report

Japan intends to ease quarantine rules by the end of November for people inoculated with Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, the Nikkei daily reported on Tuesday.

Last week the country took a first step in its planned phased re-opening of borders, which centers on business travelers.

Germany could make COVID test or vaccine mandatory for public transport

Want to take the bus or train in Germany? You may soon have to provide a negative COVID-19 test, or proof of vaccination or recent recovery, as the country becomes the latest in Europe to consider drastic steps to tackle a new surge in cases in the region.

The center-left Social Democrats, Greens and pro-business FDP said on Monday they would add harsher measures to their draft law under parliamentary consideration to deal with the outbreak.

India’s Dr. Reddy’s open to making Pfizer pill

Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, one of a handful of Indian drug companies licensed to make a new COVID-19 pill developed by Merck, said on Monday it was open to making a similar pill from Pfizer thought to be even more effective.

The new drugs, which unlike vaccines can be used to treat patients once they contract coronavirus infections, are expected to have a huge market.

Merck has licensed manufacturers in developing countries to ensure swift global supply, and companies are hopeful that Pfizer will do the same.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh and Ed Osmond; Editing by Jan Harvey)

Vaccines not linked to menstrual changes; COVID, flu shots can go together

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – 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.

No link seen between vaccines and menstrual changes

Many women have reported noticing changes in their menstrual cycle after being vaccinated against COVID-19 but a new study of 1,273 women in the UK found no correlation, according to a report posted on Monday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. The women in the study kept careful records of their cycles and their vaccination dates. “We were unable to detect strong signals to support the idea” that COVID-19 vaccines are linked to changes in timing or flow of women’s periods, said Victoria Male from Imperial College London. It is possible that larger studies, or studies in other countries, might find links, she said. “It is important to note that most people who report such a change following vaccination find that their period returns to normal the following cycle.” Other studies have found no evidence that the vaccines affect female fertility, Male added.

Safe to get COVID-19 vaccine, flu shot together

It is safe to administer COVID-19 vaccines and flu vaccines to patients at the same time, and doing so might increase vaccination rates, according to a report published on Thursday in The Lancet. Researchers randomly assigned 697 adult volunteers to receive their second dose of either the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech or the viral-vector vaccine from AstraZeneca/Oxford, along with one of three influenza vaccines for the 2020-2021 season (FluAd or Flucelvax from Seqirus UK or Flublok from Sanofi) or a placebo. Most reactions to the shots were mild or moderate, and antibody responses to the vaccines were not adversely affected by getting two shots at once, the study found. Giving both vaccines at a single appointment “should reduce the burden on health-care services for vaccine delivery, allowing for timely vaccine administration and protection from COVID-19 and influenza for those in need,” the research team concluded.

Lung cancer patients respond well to COVID-19 vaccines

Lung cancer patients may get good protection from mRNA COVID-19 vaccines even while undergoing treatments that suppress the immune system, a small study suggests. From January through July this year, researchers in France administered the vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech to 306 lung cancer patients, 70% of whom had recently received immunosuppressive therapies that impair the body’s ability to respond to vaccines. Patients with COVID-19 antibodies from a previous infection received only one dose; most patients, however, received both doses, according to a paper released on Monday and scheduled for publication in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. About 10% of the patients failed to develop antibodies in response to the first two doses and received a third dose, which successfully induced antibodies in all but three individuals who also had blood disorders known to impair the effect of the vaccines. The researchers noted that before vaccines, the death rate among lung cancer patients who developed COVID-19 was 30%. In this seven-month study, only eight patients, or 2.6% of the total, developed mild cases of COVID-19. Because the study was small and not randomized, the investigators called for more research to confirm their findings.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Sleep apnea linked to COVID-19 outcomes

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – 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 have yet to be certified by peer review.

Sleep apnea tied to severe COVID-19

The risk of severe illness from COVID-19 is higher in people with obstructive sleep apnea and other breathing problems that cause oxygen levels to drop during sleep, researchers say. They tracked 5,402 adults with these problems and found that roughly a third of them eventually tested posted for the coronavirus. While periodic episodes of not-breathing while asleep – leading to low oxygen levels, or hypoxia – did not increase people’s chances of being infected, sleep-related hypoxia did increase infected patients’ odds of needing to be hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, Drs. Cinthya Pena Orbea and Reena Mehra of the Cleveland Clinic and colleagues reported on Wednesday in JAMA Network Open. It is not clear if treatments that improve sleep apnea, such as CPAP machines that push air into patients’ airways during sleep, would also reduce the risk of severe COVID-19, said Pena Orbea and Mehra.

Body’s coronavirus memory may abort new infections

Healthcare workers who did not test positive for COVID-19, despite heavy exposure to infected patients, had T cells that attacked a part of the virus that lets it make copies of itself, according to a report published Wednesday in Nature. Researchers who studied the 58 healthcare workers found their T cells responded more strongly to a part of the virus, called the RTC, that is very similar on all human and animal coronaviruses, including all variants of SARS-CoV-2. They suspect the T cells recognized the RTC because they had “seen” it on other viruses during other infections. That makes the RTC a potentially good target for vaccines if more research confirms these findings, study leaders Mala Maini and Leo Swadling, both of University College London, said in a joint email to Reuters. These data were collected during the first wave of the pandemic, they added. “We don’t know if this sort of control happens for more infectious variants currently circulating.”

Vaccines induce neutralizing antibodies in breast milk

Infants might benefit from COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk regardless of whether mothers acquired the antibodies from being infected with SARS-CoV-2 or from vaccines, according to new findings reported on Wednesday in JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers studied antibodies in breast milk samples from 47 mothers who had been infected with the virus and 30 healthy mothers who had received the vaccines from Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech. Antibodies from both groups were able to neutralize active SARS-CoV-2 virus, and while antibodies from infection were evident in milk for longer periods, antibody levels from vaccination “were much more uniform,” said study leader Bridget Young of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York. Thus, there is likely benefit to getting vaccinated even after a COVID-19 infection because breast milk would then contain a diverse variety of antibodies, she said. The researchers did not study the effect of the antibodies on the babies who consumed the milk.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Factbox – Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

(Reuters) – The Americas is facing an impending crisis in routine vaccinations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pan American Health Organization said, and vaccinations against the coronavirus are behind where they should be.

DEATHS AND INFECTIONS

EUROPE

* France is at the beginning of a fifth wave of the epidemic, Health Minister Olivier Veran said.

* Russia’s deaths hit a record in the previous 24 hours, two days after most of its regions emerged from a week-long workplace shutdown.

* People aged under 30 in Germany should only receive the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine as it causes fewer heart inflammations in younger people than the Moderna shot, an advisory committee said.

AMERICAS

* Over 900,000 U.S. children aged 5 to 11 are expected to have received their first COVID-19 shot by the end of Wednesday, the White House said, as the government ramped up vaccinations of younger children.

* The United States has brokered a deal between Johnson & Johnson and the COVAX vaccine-sharing program for the delivery of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine to people living in conflict zones.

* U.S. National Institutes of Health scientists played “a major role” in developing Moderna’s vaccine and the agency intends to defend its claim as co-owner of patents on the shot, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told Reuters.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* South Korea encouraged citizens to take booster shots as more of the elderly fell ill and reported vaccine breakthrough infections, driving serious and critical cases to a record.

* Thailand said it will set aside up to 500,000 doses of vaccines for foreign workers.

* Vietnam will by the end of this month have sufficient vaccines to cover its population, a deputy prime minister said, as the country approved India’s Covaxin vaccine for emergency use.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* Israel’s pandemic advisory board backed administering Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s vaccine to children age 5-11, as a fourth wave of infections subsides nationwide.

* Bahrain will cancel working with its coronavirus travel red list from Nov. 14.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* French vaccines company Valneva won European Commission approval for a deal to supply up to 60 million doses of its vaccine candidate over two years.

* Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said Japan will pay about $1.2 billion for 1.6 million courses of their COVID-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* Wall Street lost ground on Wednesday as surging consumer prices fueled fears of a longer-than-expected wave of heightened inflation dampened investor risk appetite.

* San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly said she expects high inflation to moderate once COVID-19 recedes, and repeated that it would be “quite premature” to raise rates now or even to speed up the Fed’s bond-buying taper.

(Compiled by Devika Syamnath and Sarah Morland; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sriraj Kalluvila)

German coronavirus infection rate hits highest since pandemic began

FRANKFURT (Reuters) -Germany’s coronavirus infection rate has risen to its highest level since the start of the pandemic, public health figures showed on Monday, and doctors warned they will need to postpone scheduled operations in coming weeks to cope.

The seven-day incidence rate – the number of people per 100,000 to be infected over the last week – rose to 201.1, higher than a previous record of 197.6 in December last year, the figures from the Robert Koch Institute showed on Monday.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose to 4,782,546 from 4,767,033 a day earlier. The number of deaths increased by 33 to a total of 96,558.

Christian Karagiannidis, scientific director at the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said an expected rise in coronavirus cases in coming weeks meant some scheduled operations would have to be postponed.

“We will only be able to cope with the burden of all emergencies if savings are made somewhere else, though definitely not with surgical cancer treatments,” he told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

Germany has already had to relocate some patients from regions with overburdened hospitals.

The three German parties in talks to form a coalition government by early December have agreed not to extend a nationwide state of emergency.

Instead, they presented a draft law late on Monday that would amend existing legislation to allow for measures such as compulsory face masks and social distancing in public spaces to continue to be enforced until March next year.

The draft law is due to be presented to the Bundestag lower house of parliament on Thursday and voted on in a special session a week later.

Bavaria state premier Markus Soeder earlier called for more decisive action in view of the new peak in the incidence rate. More needs to be done “than a little compulsory testing in old people’s homes,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio.

He called for tests to be offered free of charge again, vaccination centers to be reactivated and for states and the federal government to coordinate their strategies. Germany has abolished free testing to incentivize people to get vaccinated.

(Writing by Vera Eckert, Paul Carrel and Sarah Marsh, Additional Reporting by Alexander Ratz; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Mark Heinrich and Alex Richardson)

Israel to rule on child COVID vaccines out of public eye amid anti-vax threats

ERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli health officials will decide behind closed doors on whether to allow child COVID-19 vaccinations, citing concerns that decision makers would otherwise not speak freely due to aggressive anti-vax rhetoric by members of the public.

Israel has been a world leader in vaccinations and more than 40% of the population has received a third shot.

Following the green light given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for using the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on children aged 5 to 11, Israel’s Health Ministry is set on Wednesday to hold a decisive discussion among experts on whether to follow suit.

A discussion last week was broadcast live, but the ministry on Monday said the next meeting would be closed to the public.

“All the considerations for and against this decision were discussed, including the ability to hold a free and open discourse on such a sensitive and crucial issue against the backdrop of a prevailing violent discourse, which may affect the course of the discussion,” the ministry said.

There have been an increasing number of threats against officials at the Health Ministry, police say, and at least one senior health official has been assigned a personal security detail.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)