Data shows GSK-Vir drug works against all Omicron mutations

A picture taken on Feb 6, 2020 shows the logo of the GSK Vaccines pharmaceutical company at its headquarters in Wavre, Belgium. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

PARIS / PRAGUE / LONDON / WASHINGTON / ZAGREB / BERLIN / HAVANA / MEXICO CITY – British drugmaker GSK said on Tuesday its antibody-based COVID-19 therapy with US partner Vir Biotechnology is effective against all mutations of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, citing new data from early-stage studies.

The data, yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, shows that the companies' treatment, sotrovimab, is effective against all 37 identified mutations to date in the spike protein, GSK said in a statement.

Last week, another pre-clinical data showed that the drug had worked against key mutations of the Omicron variant. Sotrovimab is designed to latch on to the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, but Omicron has been found to have an unusually high number of mutations on that protein.

"These pre-clinical data demonstrate the potential for our monoclonal antibody to be effective against the latest variant, Omicron, plus all other variants of concern defined to date by the WHO," GSK Chief Scientific Officer Hal Barron said.

GSK and Vir have been engineering so-called pseudoviruses that feature major coronavirus mutations across all suspicious variants that have emerged so far, and have run lab tests on their vulnerability to sotrovimab treatment.

Britain's Health Minister Sajid Javid speaks during a media briefing in Downing Street, London on Oct 20, 2021.  (TOBY MELVILLE / POOL PHOTO VIA AP)

Britain

Britain's health minister said on Monday there is now community transmission of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus across regions of England but it is too early to say if this will "knock us off our road to recovery".

Defending the introduction of stricter rules to slow the spread of the virus, Sajid Javid told parliament the government was "leaving nothing to chance" while scientists assessed the variant, which was first reported in South Africa last month.

Javid said there are now 261 Omicron cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales – a total of 336.

"This includes cases with no links to international travel, so we can conclude there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England," Javid said.

The number of hotel rooms available for international quarantine will be doubled this week and the government is "ramping up this capacity as quickly as possible", Javid said.

Javid said that at this stage the government cannot "say for certain" whether or not Omicron will escape COVID-19 vaccines, or if it causes a more severe illness.

In this file photo taken on Oct 22, 2021,
medical staff vaccinate citizens against COVID-19 at the vaccination point at the Zagreb Fair in Zagreb, Croatia. (DENIS LOVROVIC / AFP)

Croatia

Croatia confirmed two cases of Omicron infection on Monday, but the source of the new COVID-19 strain remained to be identified.

Both patients were interviewed in order to identify the source of the infection. However, the source was still unknown as the two patients did not travel outside of Croatia. They most likely got infected at one business meeting, said epidemiologist Bernard Kaic at a press conference.

There were foreigners among the participants and so it is possible that one of them was the source, Kaic said, adding that 13 participants of the meeting had already been tested.

In this file photo taken on Aug 24, 2021,
a nurse prepares Roxana Montano, 3, to receive her dose of Soberana Plus, a Cuban vaccine against COVID-19, at Juan Manuel Marquez hospital in Havana, as part of the vaccine study in children and adolescents. (ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP)

Cuba

Cuban health authorities on Monday began the massive application of booster vaccine doses against COVID-19 for Havana residents with the home-grown Abdala vaccine.

During the first phase of the campaign, people living in four out of the city's 15 municipalities will be offered booster shots.

According to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, those who have been infected with the virus or vaccinated against COVID-19 within the past six months are not eligible for the booster shots at the moment.

So far, nearly 90 percent of people from Havana, home to 2.2 million residents, have been fully jabbed with Soberana-02, Abdala, and Soberana Plus COVID-19 vaccines.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis (left) and newly appointed Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtech attend a press conference during the inauguration of Adam Vojtech on May 26, 2021 in Prague. (MICHAL CIZEK / AFP)

Czech Republic

The Czech government will order COVID-19 vaccinations for people working in hospitals and nursing homes as well as police officers, soldiers and some other professions and all citizens aged 60 and older, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said on Monday.

"Other countries are taking this path," Vojtech said. "It is a trend that will prevail across Europe."

Speaking to reporters through a video link, as he is in isolation after testing positive for the virus, Vojtech said his ministry would issue a decree adding the COVID-19 shot to other compulsory vaccinations this week, confirming earlier media reports.

Those who refuse would be barred from working in the selected professions, he said.

The order should take effect from March but may have a short lifespan, at least in its current form, because a new centre-right government which may take power as soon as next week has protested against compulsory vaccinations based on age.

Only 59.6 percent of Czechs are vaccinated, compared to an EU average of 66.4 percent, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

ALSO READ: COVID-19 cases found on Norwegian Cruise ship

Flags of the European Union flutter in front of the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on March 10, 2021. (ARMANDO BABANI / AFP)

European Union

European Union health ministers will discuss the coronavirus pandemic and the spread of the Omicron variant on Tuesday, but are not expected to make any decision on easing travel restrictions, three sources told Reuters.

Bloomberg News, citing one diplomat familiar with the matter, reported on Monday that EU health ministers at a meeting on Tuesday may agree on the need for a PCR test for vaccinated third-country nationals from that region, which could allow some travel bans to be eased or lifted within a week.

The travel ban "was meant always as a time-limited measure", one senior EU official told Reuters, adding however that there was no plan at the moment to lift it. "We are not yet working in that direction."

Another two EU sources familiar with the work of health ministers said no decision on travel bans was expected at Tuesday's meeting.

Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are the southern African countries that have been targeted.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin arrives on the second day of a European Union summit at The European Council Building in Brussels on Oct 22, 2021. (JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP)

Finland

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has come under heavy media criticism after enjoying a night on the town knowing she had been exposed to the coronavirus.

Marin, 36, is being called out for a lapse of judgment after she failed to return home from the bar on Saturday night upon learning Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto had tested positive for COVID-19. The two had been in close proximity just a day earlier. 

Marin, who is fully vaccinated, said she had not received instructions to isolate, prompting critics to counter that such instructions shouldn’t have to be given to a person in charge of efforts to combat the virus and that he behavior sets an example to the population on how to behave. Marin has since tested negative twice.

The prime minister broke no official rules on isolation, as Finnish authorities do not routinely quarantine fully vaccinated individuals, even though they can still transmit COVID-19. 

French Prime Minister Jean Castex gives a press conference on the current situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the Hotel de Matignon in Paris, on Dec 6, 2021. (THOMAS SAMSON / POOL / AFP)

France

France will close nightclubs ahead of Christmas and tighten social distancing measures in response to the emergent Omicron variant of the coronavirus but there is no need for new lockdowns or curfews, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Monday.

Castex said a fifth wave of the pandemic was now surging through the country. But he said that with 52 million people now vaccinated – nearly 90 percent of those eligible – the situation is better than in previous outbreaks and there is no need for drastic measures to save Christmas.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said the combination of vaccination booster shots and more rigorous social distancing would allow France to avoid renewed lockdowns currently being imposed in several European countries.

"We want to get through this wave of the pandemic without new constraints on the whole of the French population, whether they are vaccinated or not," he said.

From Friday, nightclubs will be shut for four weeks and the government also called on citizens to voluntarily limit private and professional gatherings, while tightening requirements for mask-wearing in schools.

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)

From Dec 15 children aged five to 11 who are overweight or who have a serious health condition will be offered access to vaccination. Children over the age of 12 can already be inoculated.

Veran said France would get its first deliveries of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children from Dec 13 and that he hoped vaccinations would be available to all children from Dec 20.

There are about six million children aged five to 11 in France, and 350,000 in that age bracket who are overweight or who have serious health conditions.

Veran also said France had identified 25 positive cases of the Omicron variant – 21 imported by people returning from southern Africa and the rest the result of local infection.

He said the infection rate had started to slow down, while remaining high. On Monday, the seven-day moving average of new cases was up by 44 percent compared to a week earlier, down from week-on-week increases over 80 percent seen two weeks ago.

An SOS message can be read on the facade of the Ostallgoeu-Kaufbeuren hospitals in Kaufberen, Germany on Dec 5, 2021 to draw attention to the critical situation in the hospitals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (KARL-JOSEF HILDENBRAND / DPA VIA AP)

Germany

After a slow start to Germany's COVID-19 booster jab campaign, vaccination rates are creeping up again, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases and the Ministry of Health (BMG) said on Monday.

By Sunday, 13.9 million people in Germany, or 16.7 percent of the population, had already received a booster shot, according to official figures.

This past weekend alone, 940,000 people were vaccinated, "more over a weekend than ever before," acting Minister of Health Jens Spahn said on Twitter.

This means that more than one in four of the 55 million adults already vaccinated had received the recommended booster for increased protection.

At least 57.4 million people in Germany, or 69 percent of the population, have already been administered the second COVID-19 shot, the  authorities said.

ALSO READ: S. Africa readies hospitals as Omicron drives new virus wave

Mexico

Mexico City officials will begin offering a third COVID-19 vaccine dose to residents over the age of 60 on Tuesday, officials said, part of a government plan to roll out booster shots.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week the third doses would be made available as soon as possible, beginning with elderly people who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The first booster shots in the massive capital of nearly 10 million people will be AstraZeneca doses given to residents of the southern Tlalpan neighborhood, officials told a news conference on Monday.

To be eligible, people must have had an initial two doses six months ago.

The health ministry on Monday reported 110 more deaths from COVID-19 and 752 new cases, bringing the death toll since the pandemic began to 295,312 and total infections to 3,902,015.

Russia

Two people recently returned from South Africa were diagnosed with Russia’s first cases of the omicron variant, the country’s health watchdog said in a statement Monday.

All citizens arriving from southern Africa will be quarantined in a special observatory, where they’ll face daily PCR testing, the agency said.

This file photo on Apr 23, 2020 shows a general view of the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, US. (TAMI CHAPPELL / AFP)

United States

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday advised Americans against travel to France, Jordan, Portugal, and Tanzania, citing COVID-19 concerns.

The CDC now lists 83 destinations at "Level 4: Very High" classification and also on Monday added Andorra, Cyprus and Liechtenstein to the highest travel advisory level.

The United States imposed new rules, effective Monday, requiring international air travelers arriving in the United States to obtain a negative COVID-19 test within one day of travel.

Meanwhile, New York City declared on Monday that all private-sector employers must implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates for their workers, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant has spread to at least one-third of US states.

The biggest US city set a Dec 27 deadline for all 184,000 businesses within its limits to make their employees show proof that they have been vaccinated.

In addition, children 5 to 11 years old must get at least one vaccine dose by Dec 14 to enter restaurants and to participate in extracurricular school activities, such as sports, band, orchestra and dance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The requirements come at a time when new coronavirus infections are accelerating nationwide, especially in northern states, as colder weather has encouraged more mingling and socializing indoors.

Empty vials of the COVID-19 vaccines against the novel coronavirus of several producers (from left to right) Comirnaty by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen by Johnson & Johnson are seen on a table in a vaccination center in Sonthofen, southern Germany, on Nov 30, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP)

University of Oxford

A major British study into mixing COVID-19 vaccines has found that people had a better immune response when they received a first dose of AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech shots followed by Moderna nine weeks later, according to the results on Monday.

"We found a really good immune response across the board…, in fact, higher than the threshold set by Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine two doses," Matthew Snape, the Oxford professor behind the trial dubbed Com-COV2, told Reuters.

The findings supporting flexible dosing will offer some hope to poor and middle income countries which may need to combine different brands between first and second shots if supplies run low or become unstable.

"I think the data from this study will be especially interesting and valuable to low- and middle-income countries where they're still rolling out the first two doses of vaccines," Snape said.

If the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is followed by a Moderna or Novavax shot, higher antibodies and T-cell responses were induced versus two doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.

Needles preloaded with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines sit in baskets awaiting patients at a vaccine clinic at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, US, on Aug 24, 2021. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP)

The study of 1,070 volunteers also found that a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine followed by a Moderna shot was better than two doses of the standard Pfizer-BioNTech course.

Pfizer-BioNTech followed by Novavax induced higher antibodies than the two-dose Oxford-AstraZeneca schedule, although this schedule induced lower antibody and T-cell responses than the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech schedule.

No safety concerns were raised, according to the Oxford University study published in the Lancet medical journal.

Blood samples from participants were tested against the Wild-Type, Beta and Delta variants, researchers of the Com-COV2 study said, adding that vaccines' efficacy against the variants had waned, but this was consistent across mixed courses.

The results may inform new approaches to immunization against other diseases, he said.