‘Omicron BA.2 sub-variant more infectious but no more severe’

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

JOHANNESBURG / BRAZZAVILLE / VALLETTA / BERLIN / SANTIAGO – The Omicron BA.2 sub-variant of COVID-19 appears to be more infectious than the original BA.1 sub-variant, but does not cause more severe disease, the head of Africa's top public health body said on Thursday citing data from South Africa.

"South Africa is reporting that it is more transmissible than the BA.1 variant, but interestingly and very encouragingly the severity seems to be the same," said Dr John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa was one of the first countries to detect the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has since swept around the globe and become dominant in most places.

Although South Africa is well over the peak of its Omicron wave, its daily number of new infections has stabilized around 3,000 per day, a higher level than that seen at the tail end of previous waves of COVID-19 infections.

Nkengasong said the trend may be linked to the BA.2 sub-variant, but did not elaborate.

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

Canada

Medicago's vaccine on Thursday became the world's first plant-based shot approved against COVID-19 after Health Canada cleared it for use in adults.

The two-dose vaccine, which uses an adjuvant from GlaxoSmithKline to boost immune response, is the sixth COVID-19 shot to receive regulatory clearance in the country.

The Quebec-based privately held company has an agreement to supply up to 76 million doses of the vaccine to the Canadian government. Medicago said on Thursday it was committed to fulfilling the order as soon as possible.

The home-grown vaccine, branded Covifenz, is based on a technology that uses plants in its development process to produce non-infectious particles that mimic the virus.

Medicago plans to test the shot as a booster dose and among children, D’Aoust said.

Its approval for people aged 18 to 64 years follows a late-stage study that showed the vaccine was 75.3 percent effective against the Delta variant of the virus.

The shot also showed an overall efficacy of 71 percent against all variants of the coronavirus except Omicron, which was not prevalent when the study was underway.

Medicago is preparing to study an Omicron-tailored version of its vaccine, D’Aoust said.

Canada has approved several vaccines including those based on mRNA technology from Moderna and Pfizer. Last week, the country cleared Novavax's protein-based shot for use in adults.

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 registered 30,675 COVID-19 infections and 224 deaths from the disease in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 2,953,895 confirmed cases and 41,795 deaths, the Ministry of Health said Thursday.

It also reported 106,133 active cases in the South American country.

Health Minister Enrique Paris noted that there has been a general decline in the number of infections, after a peak of more than 38,000 daily cases on Feb. 11 as a result of the Omicron variant of the virus.

New infections decreased by 14 percent in one week, with 13 of the country's 16 regions seeing a reduction in new cases, according to official data.

This file photo dated April 20, 2021 shows an exterior view of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (PETER DEJONG / FILE / AP)

European Medicines Agency (EMA)

The European Union's health regulator on Thursday backed giving a booster shot of Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine to adolescents aged 12 and over, as well as the expanded use of Moderna's shot in children ages six to 11.

The recommendations by the European Medicine Agency's (EMA) Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use will be followed by final decisions by the European Commission.

The moves come after several EU countries already started to offer booster doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to teens.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a report this month that 10 countries in the European Economic Area, which comprises the 27 EU member states plus Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway, had already recommended a booster dose for those under 18 years of age.

Member States' decision on whether and when to offer boosters in this age group will need to take into account factors such as the spread and likely severity of the disease in younger persons and the known risk of side effects like the rare heart complication myocarditis, the EMA said.

The agency on Thursday also recommended approval of Moderna's COVID vaccine for use in children aged 6 to 11.

The dose of Spikevax in 6- to 11-year-olds will be 50 micrograms instead of the 100 micrograms used for people aged 12 and over, the EMA said.

A medical worker takes a swab sample of a car driver at a drive-in COVID-19 testing center in Stuttgart, southwestern Germany on Jan 31, 2022 amid the ongoing pandemic. (THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP)

Germany

The number of COVID-19 cases logged in Germany since the start of the pandemic has reached 14.19 million, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases said on Thursday.

After the Omicron peak has passed, the daily number of new COVID-19 infections declined to 216,322 on Thursday, around 19,300 less than a week ago. Germany's seven-day COVID-19 incidence rate also continued to fall and has reached 1,265 infections per 100,000 inhabitants.

The number of patients treated in intensive care units decreased by more than 100 to around 2,280, far below the peak of around 5,700 during the height of the second wave in early 2021, according to the German Intensive Care Availability Register (DIVI).

Malta

The Maltese authorities have decided to lift some of the country's COVID-19 restrictions in March, Health Minister Chris Fearne said here on Thursday.

Among others, catering establishments will be allowed to remain open after 1 am The government may also remove the face mask mandate for schoolchildren after the Easter holidays.

Fearne told journalists that after March 14 the face mask mandate in public spaces will also be removed, with the exception of mass events. From Apr. 11, outdoor standing events will be allowed to resume, but only for vaccinated people if the event is held indoors.

The mandatory quarantine for primary contacts of positive COVID-19 cases will be lifted from March 7 as long as the infection rate remains low.

The quarantine period for primary contacts who do not reside in the same household has been reduced from seven to five days, and for primary contacts in the same household from ten to seven days.

Vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for seven days and present a negative test result on the seventh day.

The logo of Valneva SE Group is pictured at the company's headquarters in Saint-Herblain, near Nantes, western France, on July 30, 2020. (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP)

Valneva 

Valneva expects to start delivering its vaccine in Europe soon after it is recommended for conditional approval by the end of March, the French vaccine maker said on Friday as it received an initial regulatory assessment.

Valneva has received a list of questions on its VLA2001 vaccine from the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) and should respond in the coming days, it said in a statement.

The group now expects a recommendation for conditional approval for adults aged 18 to 55 by the end of March, and if this is granted, to start shipments to Europe early in the second quarter of the year.

The group has begun manufacturing and has inventory ready for labelling and deployment once the vaccine is approved, it said.