Astra booster shot works against Omicron, Oxford study finds

A picture taken on Nov 26, 2021 shows a health official administering to a man a dose of Astrazeneca's Vaxzevria COVID-19 vaccine at Secretariat Community Central Mosque, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

WASHINGTON / LONDON / PARIS / MILAN / BRUSSELS / MADRID / LISBON / OTTAWA / CARACAS / JOHANNESBURG / COPENHAGEN / VALLETTA / HELSINKI / ABUJA / LJUBLJANA / UNITED NATIONS / MEXICO CITY / ROME / MOSCOW / ADDIS ABABA / LUANDA – A three-dose course of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the rapidly-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, the pharmaceutical company said on Thursday, citing data from an Oxford University lab study.

Findings from the study, yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, match those from rivals Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna which have also found a third dose of their shots works against Omicron.

The study on AstraZeneca's vaccine, Vaxzevria, showed that after a three-dose course of the vaccine, neutralizing levels against Omicron were broadly similar to those against the virus's Delta variant after two doses.

The London-listed company said researchers at Oxford University who carried out the study were independent from those who worked on the vaccine with AstraZeneca.

"As we better understand Omicron, we believe we will find that T-cell response provides durable protection against severe disease and hospitalizations," Mene Pangalos, the head of AstraZeneca's biopharmaceuticals R&D said, referring to a critical component of the immune system that respond to fight infection.

Antibody levels against Omicron after the booster shot were higher than antibodies in people who had been infected with and recovered naturally from COVID-19, the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker added.

Although the early data is positive for the company, AstraZeneca said on Tuesday it was working with its partner Oxford University to produce a vaccine tailored for Omicron, joining similar efforts from other vaccine-makers.

The Oxford study analysed blood samples from those infected with COVID-19, those vaccinated with two doses and a booster, and those previously infected with other variants of concern. It included samples from 41 people given three doses of Vaxzevria.

A woman looks at ornaments at a stand in a small Christmas market in the center of Brussels, on Dec 16, 2021. (OLIVIER MATTHYS / AP)

Belgium

Belgium will close cinemas and theatres and play sporting fixtures behind closed doors immediately after Christmas in a tightening of coronavirus restrictions to curb a surge in cases of the Omicron variant.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Wednesday that restrictions in the past three weeks had helped reduce COVID-19 infections, principally of the Delta variant, since a late November peak.

"But despite the slightly positive figures, it is clear there is cause for concern. There is a pirate ship off the coast and that is the Omicron variant," he told a news conference.

Omicron now makes up 30 percent of new cases compared with only 10 percent last Friday, he said, and new measures were required to ensure pupils could return from holiday to schools from on Jan 10.

From Sunday, no indoor activities will be allowed except for museum visits, exercise, weddings or funerals, a two-person limit will be set for shopping. Soccer matches and other sports events must be played without spectators.

Belgium will still allow bars and restaurants to remain open until 11 pm.

A woman receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in a vaccination clinic set up at St Columba's Church in Sheffield on Dec 15, 2021 as the UK steps up the country's booster drive to fight a "tidal wave" of Omicron. (OLI SCARFF / AFP)

Britain

Britain reported more than 100,000 new daily COVID-19 cases for the first time since widespread testing was introduced, with 106,122 on Wednesday compared with 90,629 on Tuesday.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has driven a surge in cases in the last seven days, with the total rising by 643,219, or 59 percent, according to government data.

There were 195 patients hospitalized with Omicron up to Tuesday and 18 deaths of people with the variant, according to separate data.

The total number of COVID-19 patients in hospital was 8,008, slightly up in the last seven days but still far below the levels of more than 38,000 in January.

There were 140 deaths within 28 days of a positive case, down from 172 the previous day.

Meanwhile, Britain on Wednesday said it would start vaccinating vulnerable children aged five to 11 against COVID-19 after the country's medicines regulator approved the use of a lower dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot in that age group.

The children will receive two 10-microgram doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – a third of the adult dose – with an interval of eight weeks between the first and second doses, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) said.

A decision on whether to offer vaccination in general to younger children would be taken after additional data on the rapidly spreading Omicron variant and the effect of immunizing young children could be considered, the JCVI said.

People enter a COVID-19 rapid testing business in Montreal on Dec 4, 2021. (GRAHAM HUGHES / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canada reported 14,934 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, setting a record daily count since the coronavirus outbreak in February 2020, reported local media.

The record tally came after the country recorded 11,690 new cases on Tuesday and 10,665 new cases on Monday.

Provinces across Canada have re-imposed new restrictions and speeded up booster shots to stem the spread of the Omicron variant, which is now the dominant variant in several populous provinces.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a virtual press conference on Wednesday that he's taking all precautions and following all public health guidelines after three staff members and three security staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Trudeau urged Canadians to "hunker down in the coming weeks" to slow the spread of the virus.

Canada has detected more than 2,360 confirmed Omicron cases to date.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia has registered 2,992 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 382,371 as of Wednesday evening, the country's health ministry said.

The ministry reported three new COVID-19-related deaths and 136 recoveries, bringing the national death and recovery counts to 6,880 and 351,304 respectively.

A passenger wearing a face mask checks in at the Helsinki Airport, Finland, on June 21, 2021. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Finland

COVID-19 vaccinations will become available for children aged between five and 11 in Finland from Thursday.

The new rules come after the government amended its decree on COVID-19 vaccination on Wednesday, said the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

In the past, the vaccine was only offered to children aged five to 11 who were at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

According to THL, a total of 29 children aged 5-11 in Finland had been hospitalized with COVID-19 by Dec 12.  

On Wednesday, THL recommended a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine for those aged over 12  who have a severely impaired immune system. The booster dose can be given 3 to 4 months after the third dose.

A woman waits to receive Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site, in Fontainebleau, south of Paris on Dec 6, 2021. (THIBAULT CAMUS / AP)

France

France has cancelled its order for Merck & Co's COVID-19 antiviral drug following disappointing trial data and hopes instead to receive Pfizer's competing drug before the end of January, the health minister said on Wednesday.

France is the first country to publicly say it has cancelled an order for the Merck treatment after the company released data in late November suggesting its drug was markedly less effective than previously thought, reducing hospitalizations and deaths in its clinical trial of high-risk individuals by about 30 percent.

"The latest studies weren't good," Olivier Veran told BFM TV.

The company said it continued to work with the European Medicines Association on its regulatory review of the drug. It has deals to supply or sell the pill to over 30 countries and has shipped product to 12.

France had placed an early order for 50,000 doses of the drug molnupiravir developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The cancellation would not incur a cost, Veran said.

Meanwhile, France on Wednesday reported 84,272 new COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours, coming close to its all-time high of almost 87,000 cases in November 2020.

Coming within reach of the 84,999 new cases recorded at the height of France's spring wave in April, the value was also the country's second-highest this year.

People wear face masks as they walk, in Regent Street, in London on Nov 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Imperial College

The risk of needing to stay in hospital for patients with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is 40 percent to 45 percent lower than for patients with the Delta variant, according to research by London's Imperial College published on Wednesday.

"Overall, we find evidence of a reduction in the risk of hospitalization for Omicron relative to Delta infections, averaging over all cases in the study period," the researchers said of the study, which analysed data from PCR-test confirmed cases in England between Dec 1 and Dec 14.

Scientists are racing to answer questions about the virulence and severity of Omicron to help governments respond to the variant, which is spreading at breakneck speed.

The British research follows a South African study on Wednesday which found that people diagnosed with Omicron in South Africa between Oct 1 and Nov 30 were 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital than those diagnosed with another variant in the same period.

Imperial College researchers said the risk of any visit to hospital with Omicron was between 20 percent and 25 percent lower than with Delta.

However, they added that the reductions in hospitalization must be balanced against the larger risk of infection with Omicron, due to the reduction in protection provided by both vaccination and natural infection.

People wait at an Italian Red Cross anti COVID-19 vaccination hub, in Rome on Nov 29, 2021. (GREGORIO BORGIA / AP)

Italy

Italy's coronavirus infection rate on Wednesday surged to its highest level in more than a year despite its already strong vaccination program, while the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus spread in the country.

On Wednesday, the country reported more than 36,000 new infections over a 24-hour period, the second consecutive day with more than 30,000 infections and the highest daily infection number since November 2020.

There were 146 deaths recorded over the last day, down slightly from the previous day but the second consecutive day that saw more than 100 coronavirus deaths.

The number of hospitalized patients and those in intensive-care units also hit multi-month highs this week and the total number of active cases in the country was approaching 400,000, a level last seen in April. During the summer, the total number of active cases had dropped to a tenth that level.

La Stampa, a leading newspaper, said that pediatric wards are also filling with children infected by COVID-19. The paper said that more than half of those hospitalized children came from homes where parents were unvaccinated.

According to TG24, a television news channel, the infection rate in Italy is now 4.7, which shows the virus is now spreading aggressively in Italy.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Wednesday called for the country's vaccine-hesitant residents to get vaccinated.

"Three-quarters of the (coronavirus deaths in Italy) come from the unvaccinated," Draghi said.

Malta

Malta's health authorities on Wednesday reported a record 582 new COVID-19 cases and two fatalities (males aged 52 and 53), bringing the cumulative death toll to 473 since the start of the pandemic.

The previous record of new daily cases – 401 – was reported in March last year. The new Omicron coronavirus variant has still not been found in Malta.

The number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 symptoms has increased by seven to 47 in the past 24 hours, with four of them being treated in intensive care.

Handout picture released by the Mexican Presidency showing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during a press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on Aug 11, 2021. (MEXICAN PRESIDENCY / AFP)

Mexico

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday that the booster vaccine against COVID-19 will soon be applied to health and education personnel, as it continues to be administered to those over 60 years old.

"We have to continue advancing as we are doing with booster vaccines for senior citizens, health personnel and teachers," the president said during his usual daily press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City.

A Nigeria civil servant is administered the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, in Abuja, Nigeria on Dec 1, 2021. (GBEMIGA OLAMIKAN / AP)

Nigeria

Nigerian government on Wednesday destroyed over 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine withdrawn from across the country after being identified for having a short shelf life.

The National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), which coordinates vaccination in the country, and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control monitored the exercise at a dumpsite in a suburb of Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

Faisal Shuaib, head of the NPHCDA, told reporters at the dumpsite that the most populous African country took the decision to join other African nations which earlier destroyed doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the same reason, to boost the confidence of Nigerian citizens in the ongoing vaccination program nationwide.

"We withdrew about 1,066,214, doses of expired AstraZeneca vaccine from across the country," he said, noting that the doses of vaccine might still be potent before the Nigerian health authorities took the decision to withdraw them.

According to the Nigerian health authorities, the manufacturers of those doses of vaccine offered to extend the shelf life but is declined by the Nigerian government.

"The work that we do is the work that requires trust. It is a sacred trust that has been bestowed on us by the generality of Nigerians," Shuaib said. "A few months ago, when these vaccines were offered to us, we knew that they had a short shelf life. But we were living in an environment where the supply of COVID-19 vaccines was very scarce."

According to media reports in early December, over 1 million COVID-19 vaccines are estimated to have expired in Nigeria in November without being used. And the expired doses were made by AstraZeneca and delivered from Europe.

This file photo taken on Nov 17, 2020 shows vials with COVID-19 Vaccine stickers attached and syringes with the logo of US biotech company Novavax. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Novavax Inc

Novavax Inc's COVID-19 vaccine is effective in generating an immune response against the Omicron variant, according to early data published on Wednesday, suggesting that the US drugmaker's existing COVID-19 vaccine can help combat the new Omicron variant.

Novavax's two-dose, protein-based vaccine was authorized for use this week by European Union regulators and the World Health Organization It has previously been approved by countries including Indonesia and the Philippines but not the United States.

Novavax said that receiving an additional booster dose of Novavax's vaccine further increased people's immune response to Omicron. The data was taken from Novavax's ongoing studies of its vaccine's effectiveness in adolescents and as a booster.

"We are encouraged that boosted responses against all variants were comparable to those associated with high vaccine efficacy in our Phase 3 clinical trials,” said Gregory M. Glenn, Novavax's president of research and development.

A woman wearing a face mask crosses a street in Lisbon on Nov 25, 2021. (ARMANDO FRANCA / AP)

Portugal

Portugal's health minister on Wednesday predicted the Omicron variant would trigger a record number of infections in the coming days as authorities reported nearly 9,000 new cases, the highest since early February and up from 5,754 the previous day.

Although the country has one of the world's highest rates of COVID-19 vaccination with around 87 percent of its 10 million population fully inoculated, daily infections have returned to levels last seen when Portugal faced its worst wave of the illness in the first two months of the year.

"We will most likely reach an (all-time) record number of cases in the coming days," Health Minister Marta Temido said in an interview with TVI television.

Portugal reported a record 16,432 cases in late January when the public system was on the verge of collapse.

Deaths and hospitalizations are far below levels then suffered. There are 909 people with COVID-19 in hospital compared to a peak of 6,869 patients on Feb. 1.

The 14-day infection rate has more than doubled in the last month to reach 579 per 100,000 people on Wednesday, official data showed. About half of the new coronavirus cases in Portugal are from the Omicron variant.

Gravediggers walk through a cemetery near Moscow, on Dec 12, 2021. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

Russia

Russia's coronavirus death toll passed the 600,000 mark on Thursday, Reuters calculations based on official data showed, after a surge of infections linked to the Delta variant.

Russia had the third highest toll in the world with 600,434 fatalities, behind the United States which has recorded around 813,000 deaths and Brazil with 618,000.

The Omicron variant which is spreading fast in other countries has so far made little impact on the Russian data. Officials said this week they had detected only 41 cases.

The calculations were based on figures from the Rosstat statistics service up to the end of October, and data from the Russian coronavirus task force for November and December.

The Russian coronavirus task force reported 1,002 deaths and 25,667 new infections in the past 24 hours.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped Russia could vaccinate enough people to reach collective COVID-19 immunity next year, as he urged more Russians to get inoculated.

Slovenia

From Thursday, shoppers across Slovenia will be restricted to one customer per 10 square meters, the government decided on Wednesday in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Under the new rules, all those who were in contact with a person infected with COVID-19 will have to self-isolate for 10 days, with the exception of those who had already received a booster vaccine.

"We need to tighten the restrictions as the Omicron variant of coronavirus is expected to become the prevailing one in the country in light of the low vaccination rate," the government said in a statement, while also warning of  the overloading of hospitals

This photo shows a box of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in a refrigerator at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Toppenish, Washington, March 25, 2021. (TED S. WARREN / AP)

South Africa

South Africa's health regulator on Thursday approved the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine for a second dose or booster, paving the way for the shot widely used in South Africa to shore up protection against the Omicron variant.

The country already announced in December that it was preparing to offer people booster doses of both the Pfizer and J&J shots, but it did not specify when J&J boosters would be available.

The South African Health Products Authority (SAPHRA) said in a statement on Thursday that it had approved J&J shots for use as a second dose or booster at least two months after the completion of the person's primary vaccination, with either J&J's single-shot course or another approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

J&J boosters have so far only been available for health workers, while Pfizer boosters are set to be introduced from January for people who had their second dose six months ago or more.

A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Hillbrow Clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec 6, 2021. (SHIRAAZ MOHAMED / AP)

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases appear to have peaked in South Africa's Gauteng province about a month after the Omicron variant was first detected there and the impact of surging infections has been less severe than previous waves, scientists said on Wednesday.

Scientists from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that while more study was needed, the data from South Africa – whose experience is being closely watched around the world – told a "positive story" about the variant's severity.

Gauteng, South Africa's commercial hub, home to one of the continent's busiest airports and the region where Omicron first emerged, is now seeing a fall in daily cases and the percentage of positive tests, the NICD's Michelle Groome told a news briefing.

"Really we feel that this has persisted for over a week and that we are past the peak in Gauteng," she said.

There had been a "levelling off" in three other provinces – Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga, she added, though cases were still increasing elsewhere.

A young girl watches as a boy receives a vaccine as children are administered the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Hospital de Henares in Coslada, Madrid on Dec 15, 2022. (BERNAT ARMANGUE / AP)

Spain

Spain will make it compulsory to wear a face mask outdoors again as part of a package aimed at containing the fast spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told reporters on Wednesday.

With nearly 80 percent of its population vaccinated and a booster program gathering pace, Spain was largely spared the rampant wave of infections that led several northern European countries to toughen restrictions in the autumn.

But the recent arrival of Omicron has sent numbers rocketing, with a record of around 60,000 new infections on Wednesday, though hospital admissions and intensive-care cases remain fairly low compared to previous COVID-19 waves.

Indoor mask-wearing was already mandatory in Spain and many Spaniards choose to cover their faces outdoors too, although the legal obligation to do so was dropped in June.

Mandatory outdoor mask-wearing is to be approved on Thursday at an extraordinary cabinet meeting and take force on Christmas Eve. However, Sanchez said there would be numerous exceptions, such as when people are in open spaces with live-in relatives.

United Nations

Abdulla Shahid, president of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, said Wednesday that he has tested positive for COVID-19 and is self-isolating.

"I have tested positive for COVID19 today. I am isolating at home with mild symptoms," Shahid tweeted. "I was privileged to have been fully vaccinated including a booster. My prayers are with the millions suffering from Covid and the billions without access to vaccine! I Stand for #VaccineEquity," read the tweet.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Dec 1, 2021. (SUSAN WALSH / AP)

United States

Americans vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 can be with family over the holidays but attending large gatherings is not safe, even for those who received a booster dose, top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday.

The United States faces a second Christmas of upended holiday plans, with a surge in infections fueled by the now-dominant Omicron variant of the coronavirus forcing many to cancel travel, reconsider visiting loved ones, and question attending holiday parties.

"There are many of these parties that have 30, 40, 50 people in which you do not know the vaccination status of individuals. Those are the kind of functions in the context of Omicron that you do not want to go to," Fauci said at a White House briefing.

Early evidence indicates Omicron is less severe than the Delta variant, said Fauci, citing studies from South Africa and Scotland, but warned Americans must remain cautious.

"This is good news. However, we must wait to see what happens in our own population which has its own demographic considerations," he said.

The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in the United States rose 25 percent from the previous week to about 149,300 cases per day, said US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, with average daily deaths up 3.5 percent at 1,200.

Omicron represents approximately 73 percent of cases across the country, said Walensky, and as high as 90 percent of cases in some areas, such as the eastern Atlantic states, parts of the Midwest, South, and northern Pacific states.

"This increase in Omicron proportion is what we anticipated and what we have been preparing for," she said.

In another development, the US on Wednesday authorized Pfizer Inc's antiviral COVID-19 pill for people ages 12 and older at risk of severe illness, the first oral and at-home treatment as well as a new tool against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Pfizer's antiviral regimen, Paxlovid, was nearly 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to data from the company's clinical trial. Recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against Omicron, Pfizer said.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures while delivering a press conference at a polling station in Simon Rodriguez school in Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas, on Aug 8, 2021 during the Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV) primary elections to choose candidates ahead of the November's mayor and governor election. (FEDERICO PARRA / AFP)

Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday that seven cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been detected in the South American country.

All the cases occurred in people who had traveled from other countries, including Panama, Dominican Republic, Spain and Turkey, and got positive test results at the airport, Maduro said on state television.

Maduro added his government wants to vaccinate 90 percent of the Venezuelan population by the end of the year and to begin giving out booster shots in the first week of January.

This March 30, 2021 photo shows an exterior view of the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (CHEN JUNXIA / XINHUA)

World Health Organization

Omicron will become the dominant coronavirus variant in Europe by the start of 2022 and three to four weeks is needed to determine the severity of the COVID-19 it causes, the World Health Organization's European head said on Wednesday.

Hans Kluge has warned countries to brace for a "significant surge" in cases.

He told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that Omicron, already dominant in Britain, Denmark and Portugal, was likely to be the main coronavirus strain in Europe "in a couple of weeks".

"There is no doubt that Europe is once again the epicentre of the global pandemic," said Kluge, the WHO Regional Director for Europe, adding that infections were up 40 percent from a year ago and Omicron was now taking over.

People needed to adopt a "vaccine-plus" approach, with vaccinations and booster shots complemented by mask-wearing, while ruling out "non-essential" contacts over Christmas and New Year, he said.