Britain approves Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill

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

PARIS / ROME / CAPE TOWN / DUBLIN / LONDON / ATHENS / LISBON / SANTIAGO / HARARE – Britain has approved Pfizer's COVID-19 pill for patients over the age of 18 years who have mild to moderate infection and are at high risk of their illness worsening.

The approval comes as the country scrambles to build its defenses amid a record hit a daily record of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, government data showed surge in COVID-19 cases.

Based on data, the pill, Paxlovid, is most effective when taken during the early stages of COVID-19, Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said on Friday, recommending that the drug be used within five days of the onset of symptoms.

Pfizer this month said Paxlovid showed near 90 percent efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk patients, and recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

"We now have a further antiviral medicine for the treatment of COVID-19 that can be taken by mouth rather than administered intravenously. This means it can be administered outside a hospital setting," MHRA chief June Raine said in a statement.

Britain recorded 189,213 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, a daily record, and 332 deaths, government data showed.

Case numbers were up from the previous record of 183,037 on Wednesday, with infections being driven by the new Omicron variant.

While the government has said Omicron may be more mild it is also more transmissible and surging infections have caused widespread disruption, with train companies canceling services due to a lack of staff and Premier League soccer matches being called off.

A worker takes information from a driver during a COVID-19 vaccine drive through clinic at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario, Canada on Dec 18, 2021. (LARS HAGBERG / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canada's Ontario and Quebec announced fresh measures to combat COVID-19 on Thursday as the country faces a rise in cases that has forced tens of thousands into isolation, made tests difficult to access and burdened its healthcare sector.

Quebec, Canada's second-most populous province, will ban private gatherings and dining out, as well as impose a night curfew from New Year's Eve in an escalation of curbs to rein in rapidly rising coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant.

"Our experts tell us that there's a risk that we won't be able to treat all those who need it in the coming weeks," Quebec Premier Francois Legault told reporters at a briefing. "This is why I'm announcing new restrictions starting tomorrow."

Legault said indoor sports would be halted, and places of worship will be shut, except for funerals which up to 25 people will be allowed to attend.

Ontario, home to Toronto, Canada's biggest city, announced new measures to take effect on Friday, shortening the isolation period for vaccinated individuals with COVID-19 to five days from the onset of symptoms, the province's chief medical officer, Kieran Moore, told reporters at a briefing.

Ontario residents, with proper masking and physical distancing, would be allowed to stop isolating after five days if their symptoms resolve or if they are improving for at least 24 hours, Moore said.

The province, Canada's largest, will also limit free PCR tests to the most vulnerable cases. Schools, which were expected to reopen on Monday after a winter break, will stay shut for two additional days for authorities to implement preventive measures against coronavirus.

A woman receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination centre in Santiago, on Dec 23, 2021. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

Chile

Chile reduced the number of COVID-19 infections in the last two weeks by 18 percent, however experts are not ruling out an increase in infections due to the Omicron variant.

Chilean experts warned of a stagnation in the decrease of infections in the last weeks, as well as the new variant's transmission capacity, as 251 cases have been reported nationwide so far and there is community transmission in the Santiago Metropolitan Region, according to official data.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported 1,813 new COVID-19 infections and 33 more deaths from the disease in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 1,804,682 cases and 39,096 deaths.

People wait during an observation period after having received Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, in a vaccination center, in Nantes, western France on Dec 30, 2021. (JEREMIAS GONZELES / AP)

France

France reported 206,243 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period on Thursday, rising above 200,000 for the second day running as the Omicron variant takes hold.

A record of 208,099 was set on Wednesday, as Health Minister Oliver Veran warned of a "tsunami" of infections. 

The seven-day moving average of daily new infections, which evens out reporting irregularities, reached a record 121,566, a figure multiplied by almost four in just a month.

Wearing masks in the streets of Paris and Lyon will be mandatory again as authorities seek to avoid a New Year's Eve infection spike.

The total number of people hospitalised for COVID-19 has increased by 465 over 24 hours, standing at a more than seven-month peak of 18,321.

But that figure is still almost half the record 33,497 reached in November 2020.

The COVID-19 death toll increased by 180 over 24 hours to 123,552. The seven-day moving average of daily deaths also stood at 180.

Only a few visitors stroll across the "Gro├če Freiheit" on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, in Germany on Dec 23, 2021. (AXEL HEIMKEN / DPA VIA AP)

Germany

COVID-19 infections with the Omicron variant in Germany surged by 3,619, or 28 percent within one day to a total of 16,748, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases said on Thursday.

More than 7,630 of the laboratory-confirmed Omicron cases in Germany were recorded in the 15-34 age group, and around 5,590 cases were identified in the 35-59 age group, according to the RKI.

"The Omicron variant is increasing significantly, particularly in the north of the country," Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach told broadcaster ARD, adding that high Omicron incidences in the two neighboring countries Denmark and the Netherlands were likely driving this development.

"We have a dynamic situation – that is quite a bit different from what we had a week ago," stressed Lauterbach. He expects the number of Omicron cases in the country to double within four to five days.

Total COVID-19 infections within one day fell slightly compared to last week to 42,770 cases, according to the RKI. After declining from the fourth-wave peak in early December, the seven-day incidence rose slightly compared to the previous day to 207.4 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Germany will on Jan 4 drop its demand for travellers from Britain to quarantine and provide a negative COVID-19 test, requirements that were imposed earlier in December during a surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The German embassy in London said on Twitter that the requirements would be dropped from midnight CET on Jan 4, meaning that people who are fully vaccinated or have an important reason to travel will be allowed to enter Germany.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus walks in front of a mural, at a metro station in Athens, Greece on Nov 15, 2021. (THANASSIS STAVRAKIS / FILE / AP)

Greece

Greece reported a single-day record high of 35,580 COVID-19 infections on Thursday as the highly contagious Omicron becomes the dominant variant in the country.

It was the third successive daily record of cases, with infections more than tripling since the beginning of the week.

"It seems that the raid of Omicron is very intense," Deputy Health Minister Mina Gaga said during a press briefing, adding that more than 60% of new cases relate to the new variant.

The government announced earlier on Thursday subsidies for employees and musicians kept from working in January due to the new restrictions.

The country, with 11 million people, has reported 1,170,293 infections since the first case was detected in February 2020 and 20,708 COVID-related deaths.

People wearing face masks against COVID-19 crowd a shopping street ahead of Christmas in Dublin, Ireland on Dec 23, 2021. (NIALL CARSON / PA VIA AP)

Ireland

Ireland on Thursday became the latest country to cut the isolation period for some people who contract COVID-19 and relax requirements for tests as a record number of cases for the fourth time in a week overwhelmed testing facilities.

With the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus accounting for 92 percent of all infections, the health department reported 20,554 new cases, more than double the record in any previous wave to bring the 14-day infection rate to 2,300 per 100,000 people.

With long isolation times and close contact rules causing staff disruptions to public transport, retail and hospitality, the government cut the isolation period to seven days from 10 for people who have tested positive but have received a booster vaccine or been infected within the previous three months.

Ministers also asked health chiefs to keep under review the current guidance that close contacts of confirmed cases must restrict their movements, even if they are not symptomatic, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said in a statement.

A medical staffer takes a nasal swab for a COVID-19 rapid test at a testing site in Rome on Dec 30, 2021. (ANDREW MEDICHINI / AP)

Italy

Italy reported 126,888 new cases of coronavirus Thursday, the first time the country has recorded more than 100,000 cases in one day.

A previous record had been set on Wednesday, with 98,030 cases. However, Thursday's increase was the largest in one day during the two years of the pandemic.

Thursday's total represents more than 2 percent of a total of nearly 6 million cases recorded since the start of the pandemic.

The high total in Italy is part of a wider trend across Europe, fueled mostly by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant of the virus.

Italy ranks third in the total number of COVID-19 infections in the European Union, behind only France and Germany.

A woman and child enter a vaccination center in Lisbon on Dec 18, 2021. (ARMANDO FRANCA / AP)

Portugal

Portugal reported a record 28,659 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday against the previous record of 26,867 cases registered a day earlier.

The cumulative number of confirmed infections in the country since the start of the pandemic now stands at 1,358,817.

According to a bulletin released by the country's Directorate General of Health (DGS), 16 people died from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of COVID-19-related fatalities to 18,937.

Currently, 1,034 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, 144 of them in intensive care units.

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

South Africa

South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4 am curfew on people's movement with immediate effect, believing the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant, a government statement said on Thursday.

The country made the changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency.

South Africa is currently at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels.

"All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level," a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier on Thursday said.

Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7 percent decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending Dec 25 compared to the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the governmentsaid.

South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts.

Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government said gatherings will be restricted to no more than 1,000 people indoors, and no more than 2,000 people outdoors.

It also ruled that alcohol shops with licenses to operate beyond 11 pm (2100 GMT) may revert back to full license conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during the festive season.

A 6-year-old child is comforted by her mother as she receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by a medical assistant at the Child Health Associates office in Novi, Michigan on Nov 3, 2021. (JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP)

US

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE's COVID-19 vaccine caused mostly mild side effects in children aged 5 to 11 years, according to data published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

The data showed that after the second dose of the vaccine some children reported injection-site pain and other systemic reactions such as fatigue and headache.

The CDC said it also received reports of 11 cases of myocarditis, a type of heart inflammation, in children aged 5-11 years who had received the vaccine. Of them, seven had recovered, and four were recovering at the time of the report.

Myocarditis is a rare side effect after mRNA vaccines.

The agency said about 8.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered to children in the age group.

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration plans on Monday to authorize booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, the New York Times reported on Thursday, citing people familiar with FDA deliberations.

US regulators also plan to cut the time gap for both adolescents and adults to get a booster shot of Pfizer's vaccine to five months after a second dose, from the current six months, the newspaper reported.

Worshippers have their temperature checked before entering church on Christmas day on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe on Dec 25, 2021. (TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI / AP)

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe recorded 27 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the highest ever since the omicron variant began, as the country's deaths due to the virus continue to rise.

On Tuesday, deaths stood at 24. While confirmed cases have leveled around 2,000 per day from a peak of 6,181 on Dec. 10, deaths are on an upward trend, rising from a single-digit number early this month to double-digit figures now.

As of Wednesday, the country had recorded 209,655 cases, 173,916 recoveries and 4,967 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Child Care.

A 6 year-old child is comforted by her mother as she receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by a medical assistant at the Child Health Associates office in Novi, Michigan on Nov 3, 2021. (JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP)

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE's COVID-19 vaccine caused mostly mild side effects in children aged 5 to 11 years, according to data published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

The data showed that after the second dose of the vaccine some children reported injection-site pain and other systemic reactions such as fatigue and headache.

The CDC said it also received reports of 11 cases of myocarditis, a type of heart inflammation, in children aged 5-11 years who had received the vaccine. Of them, seven had recovered, and four were recovering at the time of the report.

Myocarditis is a rare side effect after mRNA vaccines.

The agency said about 8.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered to children in the age group.

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration plans on Monday to authorize booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, the New York Times reported on Thursday, citing people familiar with FDA deliberations.

US regulators also plan to cut the time gap for both adolescents and adults to get a booster shot of Pfizer's vaccine to five months after a second dose, from the current six months, the newspaper reported.