WHO: COVID-19 shots may be less effective against Omicron

This photograph taken on March 5, 2021 shows the flag of the World Health Organization at their headquarters in Geneva amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

NEW YORK / SANTIAGO / YAOUNDE / VIENNA / PARIS / AMSTERDAM / KIGALI / BRUSSELS / GENEVA / WARSAW / BERLIN – Preliminary evidence indicates that COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against infection and transmission linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant, which also carries a higher risk of reinfection, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

The WHO, in its weekly epidemiological update, said that more data was needed to better understand the extent to which Omicron may evade immunity derived from either vaccines or previous infection.

"As a result of this, the overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high," it said.

A child looks at her band aid after receiving the vaccination against the COVID-19 virus in Tulln, a city close from Vienna, Austria on Dec 1, 2021. (LISA LEUTNER / AP)

Austria

Austria is likely to soon recommend COVID-19 booster shots for children aged 12 and over once four months have passed since their second vaccine dose, Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said on Tuesday.

The move would again put Austria ahead of most European countries in terms of vaccinating children. Some of its nine provinces including Vienna started vaccinating children as of the age of five last month shortly before it was approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Austria has accelerated its vaccination efforts since a surge in coronavirus infections last month that prompted a three-week national lockdown, which began lifting last Sunday.

"The National Vaccination Board will likely recommend tomorrow that we recommend the booster shot, i.e. the third vaccine dose, from the age of 12," Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told a news conference.

"That means that four months after their second shot all those as of the age of 12 should also get their booster shot," Mueckstein said. That would lower the age at which that recommendation applies from 18 currently.

Roughly 69 percent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. The conservative-led government plans to make vaccinations compulsory, with hefty fines for holdouts.

ALSO READ: UK PM Johnson faces rebellion in parliament over virus curbs

China's Sinopharm vaccines are seen at an airport in Yaounde, Cameroon, April 11, 2021. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Cameroon

One million doses of COVID-19 vaccine of Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm, a donation from the Chinese government for Cameroon, arrived at the Nsimalen airport on Tuesday in Yaounde, capital of the central African country.

Guo Jianjun, Economic and Commercial Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy to Cameroon and Shalom Tchokfe Ndoula, Secretary-General of the Expanded Program on Immunization of Cameroon, attended the handover ceremony of the vaccine.

Guo said vaccine quantity and vaccination rates are low in Africa, including Cameroon, and this free aid from China is important at a time when the world is ravaged by COVID-19 variants such as Omicron. 

Chile

Chile reported less than 1,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, after registering 970 infections in the last 24 hours, for a total of 1,785,124 cases, the Health Ministry said.

In its daily report, the ministry said that in the same period, there were seven deaths related to the disease, for a cumulative total of 38,723, while there were 8,674 cases currently in the active stage.

The ministry indicated in a press release that the number of new daily cases was the lowest since Oct 19.

This photograph taken on Feb 24, 2021 shows a COVAX tag on a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccination program, at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. (NIPAH DENNIS / AFP)

COVAX program

Pfizer and BioNtech are set to displace AstraZeneca as the main suppliers of COVID-19 vaccines to the global COVAX program at the start of 2022, a shift that shows the increasing importance of their shot for poorer states.

The expected change comes with headaches for receiving countries that lack sufficient cold storage capacity to handle the Pfizer vaccine, and amid risks of a shortage of syringes needed to administer that shot.

AstraZeneca is currently the most distributed vaccine by COVAX, according to data from Gavi, the vaccine alliance that co-manages the program with the World Health Organization.

The program has so far delivered more than 600 million shots to nearly 150 countries, of which more than 220 million are AstraZeneca's and about 160 million Pfizer's.

But in the first quarter of next year Pfizer is set to take over, according to Gavi and WHO figures on doses assigned by the COVAX program for future supplies.

By the end of March, another 150 million Pfizer doses are to be distributed by COVAX, a WHO document shows.

A spokesperson for Gavi confirmed that Pfizer is far ahead in terms of "allocated" jabs, with about 470 million doses delivered or readied for delivery, against 350 million from AstraZeneca.

Pfizer has bilateral agreements for more than 6 billion doses, making it by far the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines, according to data from UNICEF, a UN agency.

A medical staff member prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) COVID-19 vaccine, in the Lyon Gerland vaccination center, on Nov 27, 2021. (JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

But AstraZeneca has been seen as a crucial supplier to less developed countries, because its shot is cheaper and easier to deliver.

COVAX bet heavily on AstraZeneca at the beginning of the pandemic, but supply problems and export restrictions from top producer India gradually reduced its reliance on the Anglo-Swedish shot.

As the program faced problems in securing doses directly from vaccine makers amid a global scramble for shots, donations from rich nations became more important, turning Pfizer into the main supplier to COVAX. The United States is donating mostly Pfizer shots to the program.

The change forced Gavi to rush to invest more in cold chain capacity in receiving countries that do not have enough refrigerators and cold transport equipment to handle the Pfizer shot, which requires lower storage temperatures than the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The organization warned about insufficient cold chain capacity in some countries, according to an internal report submitted to Gavi's board at the beginning of December and seen by Reuters.

The problem is compounded by a risk of shortages of special syringes needed to administer the Pfizer vaccine, Gavi warned in the document.

The Pfizer jab is "the hardest to deliver given ultra-cold chain and special syringe requirements", Gavi says in its internal document.

It is also "the hardest to plan for as these (donated vaccines) often come with earmarking and little notice or in a staggered manner and in small volumes and with short shelf lives", the document says.

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 on Tuesday reported 63,405 coronavirus infections, the second-highest number of new infections this year since April.

The new cases pushed the seven-day moving average of new cases to 49,506, its highest level in 2021, data from the health ministry showed.

The new cases pushed the cumulative total to 8.33 million, but the week-on-week rate of increase in the seven-day moving average fell further to just 11 percent, compared to a high of 83 percent on Nov 19. Since then, new case tallies have been going up, but the rate of increase has slowed every day.

Health Minister Olivier Veran told parliament on Tuesday that it seemed that France has reached a peak in new COVID-19 infections in the latest wave of the epidemic, with around 50,000 new cases per day.

France on Tuesday also reported 158 COVID-19 deaths, pushing the toll to 120,832. The number of people in intensive care with the disease rose by another 40 to 2,792.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks at a press conference after the federal government's consultations with the state premiers in Berlin, Germany on Dec 9, 2021. (MICHAEL KAPPELER / POOL VIA AP)

Germany

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed on Wednesday to win the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, imploring Germans in his first major address to parliament to get vaccinated as the only way out of the crisis.

“I tell citizens of our country, ‘yes it will get better, yes we will win the fight against this pandemic with the biggest determination, and yes we will win this fight, we will overcome the crisis,” Scholz said on Wednesday.

He said there were “no red lines” for his government in tackling the fourth wave of the pandemic, which experts say is largely driven by a relatively high percentage of unvaccinated citizens. 

In this photo Nov 30, 2020 file photo, the logo of French drug maker Sanofi is picture at the company's headquarters in Paris. (THIBAULT CAMUS / AP)

GSK and Sanofi

Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline said on Wednesday they expect data from late-stage clinical trials of its booster dose of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate in the first quarter, instead of this year, another delay for the potential shot.

The news came as the French and British partners said preliminary data from trials showed the single-dose booster provided strong immune responses.

The companies said they need more time to test the booster on more people who have not been infected by the virus before they can submit data to regulators.

The Phase III trial for the recombinant adjuvanted COVID-19 vaccine recruited most participants in the third quarter, coinciding with a significant increase in the number of people infected globally due to the Delta variant, it said.

"To provide the necessary data to regulatory authorities for the booster vaccine submission, the trial will continue to accrue the number of events needed for analysis, with results expected in Q1, 2022."

No safety concerns were identified.

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)

This is the latest delay for the vaccine's development, putting the companies further behind rivals in the race for COVID-19 shots.

They were forced to start a new clinical trial of the vaccine candidate after trials last year showed an insufficient immune response in older people.

In May, the companies had said the vaccine could be approved by the year-end after initially targeting the first half of the year.

The protein-based vaccine uses the same technology as one of Sanofi's seasonal influenza vaccines coupled with an adjuvant, a substance that acts as a booster to the shot, made by GSK.

At the end of September, Sanofi dropped its plans for its own mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine because of the dominance achieved by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna in using the technology to fight the pandemic.

A view of the capital's shopping streets are near-empty after 5 pm in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Nov. 29, 2021, after a tougher COVID-19 related lockdown came into effect. (PETER DEJONG / FILE / AP)

Netherlands

The Netherlands will extend COVID-19 restrictions through the Christmas holidays, including the early closure of schools, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Tuesday.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is making up roughly 1 percent of new infections in the country, "is a reason to be concerned and to be cautious," Rutte said in a televised comments.

Elementary schools will close a week early to try to prevent children from infecting older family members during Christmas as hospitals struggle with a wave of COVID-19 patients.

Rutte said a second Christmas "during which grandparents couldn't hug their grandkids under the tree" was a painful necessity.

Booster vaccine shots to improve immunity against the Omicron variant will be offered to all Dutch adults before the end of January, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said.

Other restrictions in place since Nov 28, including the closing of restaurants, bars, non-essential stores and other public places from 5 pm to 5 am, the barring of all spectators from sporting events, and advice to work from home as much as possible were extended through Jan 14.

Infections in the country of 17.5 million have dropped from record levels following the introduction of the nighttime lockdown, but remain relatively high at around 85 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has remained among the highest levels of the year and hospitals throughout the country have been ordered to postpone all non-emergency operations for weeks to free up beds in intensive care units.

As infections remain highest among young children, experts had advised the government to close schools a week earlier.

READ MORE: WHO: Omicron poses 'very high' risk but data on severity limited

A woman receives a vaccination certificate after receiving a booster shot against COVID-19, in Warsaw, Poland on Dec 7, 2021.  (CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI / AP)

Poland

Poland's daily death toll from COVID-19 during the fourth wave of the pandemic has climbed to a record 660, a government spokesman said on Wednesday, as the country tries to battle high infection rates with tighter restrictions.

"This is the effect of these last weeks, when the number of cases has accumulated. They are mainly unvaccinated people," the spokesman, Piotr Muller, told private broadcaster Radio Zet.

The health ministry is set to announce the new death toll officially at 0930 GMT on Wednesday. Muller said it would also announce more than 24,000 new coronavirus infections.

Poland's highest daily death toll during the pandemic overall stands at 954, hit in April this year.

Poland imposed new regulations on Wednesday to curb the spread of the virus, further limiting numbers in some public spaces such as restaurants and closing nightclubs.

Countries around the world are tightening restrictions ahead of the festive season following the emergence of the new fast-spreading Omicron variant last month, which has now been detected in 77 countries.

Rwanda

Rwanda has confirmed six cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the health ministry said, as it pushed for authorities in the East African country to urge people to get vaccinated.

"All arriving passengers must quarantine for three days at a designated hotel at their own cost," the cabinet of ministers said in a resolution on Tuesday, adding that it had suspended night club operations and live band entertainment.

Some 40 percent of the Rwandan population have received two vaccine doses and it has started issuing booster shots. It registered 50 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with a positivity rate of 0.5 percent.

Authorities last month suspended direct flights to and from southern Africa due to the new Omicron COVID-19 variant.

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

South Africa

Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine has been less effective in South Africa at keeping people infected with the virus out of hospital since the Omicron variant emerged last month, a real-world study published on Tuesday showed.

Between Nov. 15 and Dec 7, people who had received two doses of the shot had a 70 percent chance of avoiding hospitalization, down from 93 percent during the previous wave of Delta infections, the study showed.

When it came to avoiding infection altogether, the study by South Africa's largest private health insurance administrator, Discovery Health, showed that protection against catching COVID-19 had slumped to 33 percent from 80 percent previously.

The study results were based on an analysis by Discovery's clinical research and actuarial teams in collaboration with the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

The South African study was based on more than 211,000 COVID-19 test results of which 78,000 were attributed to the Omicron.

The 78,000 cases were attributed to the Omicron based on the relative prevalence of the variant within the country over the study period, but because they have not been confirmed as being the new variant the study cannot offer conclusive findings.

Discovery cautioned that the study's findings should be considered preliminary. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, also said there was a large degree of uncertainty for now about Omicron.

South Africa is using the Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in its immunization campaign, with more than 20 million Pfizer doses administered so far.

The study concluded there was a higher risk of reinfection during the fourth wave than during previous waves and the risk of hospitalization among adults diagnosed with COVID-19 was still 29 percent lower than during the country's first wave last year.

Medical staff move a COVID-19 patient who died onto a gurney to hand off to a funeral home van, at the Willis-Knighton Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, Aug 18, 2021. (GERALD HERBER / FILE / AP)

United States

The United States reached the grim milestone of 800,000 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

With the national case count topping 50.2 million, the death toll across the United States rose to 800,266 as of 6:22 p.m. local time (2322 GMT), according to the tally.

California led the country in COVID-19 deaths, with 75,411 fatalities. Texas reported the second-highest fatalities of 74,707, followed by Florida with 62,073 deaths and New York with 58,287 deaths, the data showed.

States with more than 25,000 fatalities also include Pennsylvania, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan.

The United States remains the country worst hit by the pandemic with the world's highest caseload and death toll, accounting for more than 18 percent of the global cases and more than 15 percent of global deaths.

The US COVID-19 deaths hit half a million on Feb 22, topped 600,000 on June 15, and reached 700,000 on Oct 1. It took 113 days for the national death toll to climb from 500,000 to 600,000, 108 days to jump from 600,000 to 700,000 and 74 days to soar from 700,000 to 800,000.

Meanwhile, the Omicron variant was estimated to be 2.9 percent of the COVID-19 variants circulating in the United States as of Dec 11, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the week ended Dec 4, Omicron constituted 0.4 percent of all variants in the country, based on the specimens sequenced.

The agency also estimated that the fast-spreading variant was 13.1 percent of circulating COVID-19 variants in New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands for the week ended Dec 11.

The seven-day moving average of daily new cases increased 37.3 percent from the previous average, with the Delta variant predominant in the United States. The Delta variant accounts for over 96.7 percent of all US cases, according to CDC data.