Omicron survives longer on plastic, skin than prior variants

In this file photo taken in Nov 10, 2020, a researcher at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics  of the University of Valladolid works on searching a vaccine against COVID-19, at a laboratory in Valladolid. (CESAR MANSO / AFP)

NEW YORK / GENEVA / BERLIN / MOSCOW / SANTIAGO / LONDON / PRAGUE – The Omicron variant can survive longer than earlier versions of the coronavirus on plastic surfaces and human skin, researchers found in laboratory tests.

On plastic surfaces, average survival times of the original strain and the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants were 56 hours, 191.3 hours, 156.6 hours, 59.3 hours, and 114.0 hours, respectively. That compared to 193.5 hours for Omicron

Its high "environmental stability" – its ability to remain infectious – might have helped Omicron replace Delta as the dominant variant and spread rapidly, they said. 

On plastic surfaces, average survival times of the original strain and the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants were 56 hours, 191.3 hours, 156.6 hours, 59.3 hours, and 114.0 hours, respectively. That compared to 193.5 hours for Omicron, the researchers reported on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. 

On skin samples from cadavers, average virus survival times were 8.6 hours for the original version, 19.6 hours for Alpha, 19.1 hours for Beta, 11.0 hours Gamma, 16.8 hours for Delta and 21.1 hours for Omicron.

On skin, all of the variants were completely inactivated by 15 seconds of exposure to alcohol-based hand sanitizers. "Therefore," the researchers conclude, "it is highly recommended that current infection control (hand hygiene) practices use disinfectants… as proposed by the World Health Organization."

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A child, age 8, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children in Montreal, Quebec on Nov 24, 2021. (ANDREJ IVANOV / AFP)

Canada

COVID-19 contributed to the biggest annual reduction in life expectancy on record in Canada in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, Statistics Canada said in preliminary findings released on Monday.

While COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of deaths in 2020, Statscan said the impact from the pandemic also likely contributed indirectly with a rise in deaths due to factors such as delayed medical procedures and increased drug-use.

The findings were largely in line with an Oxford University study last year that said life expectancy in 2020 fell by more than six months annually in 22 out of the 29 countries the university looked at.

Life expectancy in Canada declined by about 0.6 years to 81.7 years in 2020, when authorities depended on lockdowns and other restrictive measures to combat virus infections.

The largest declines were observed in provinces including Ontario and Quebec, which together account for more than 60 percent of Canada's population of about 38 million.

COVID-19 accounted for 5.3 percent of all deaths in Canada in 2020, behind cancer (26.4 percent) and heart disease (17.5 percent).

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic recorded 30,350 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, the highest daily tally since pandemic started in the country of 10.7 million as the Omicron variant of coronavirus spreads, health ministry data showed on Tuesday.

The country is bracing for a surge in cases from the new variant which could peak this month, the health minister has said.

People wait to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Santiago on Jan 20, 2022. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

Chile

Chile registered 14,780 COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours, a new daily record fueled by the Omicron variant of the virus, for a total of 1,984,190 cases, the Ministry of Health said Monday.

In the same period, according to the ministry's daily report, 23 deaths associated with COVID-19 were recorded, bringing the death toll to 39,535.

Currently, there are 66,738 active cases in the South American country, an unprecedented number, the ministry added.

EU

The European Union's drug regulator is set to decide whether to approve Pfizer's COVID-19 pill at the end of this month, before doing a final review of Merck's similar but less effective drug in February, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

Late last year, the European Medicines Agency gave guidance to member states on how to use both antiviral pills as emergency treatments, while it carried out rolling reviews to help member states decide on quick adoption ahead of any formal EU-wide approval. 

The EU watchdog said the panel of experts reviewing new drugs was meeting from Monday until Thursday this week "with the objective to conclude the evaluation, if possible" of Pfizer's Paxlovid treatment.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a joint press conference with the German Economy and Climate Minister and the German Finance Minister after a closed meeting of the German government on the G7 presidency at the Chancellery in Berlin on Jan 21, 2022. (MICHAEL SOHN / POOL / AFP)

Germany

Germany on Monday extended its current pandemic measures as the experts panel appointed by the government has warned the fast spreading Omicron coronavirus variant could bring critical infrastructure in Europe's biggest economy to a breaking point.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he had agreed with the heads of the federal states to extend restrictions such as limiting private gatherings to ten people and requiring proof of booster vaccination or a negative test at restaurants.

"Now it's time to stay on course," said Scholz after a meeting on Monday.

The government will reconsider relaxing or tightening the measures in case of a very steep rise or decline in infection numbers, Scholz added.

Germany on Monday reported 63,393 new COVID-19 cases, an 86 percent jump from a week ago, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said earlier this month he expected the infection wave to peak in mid-February.

Scholz and the heads of states also agreed to prioritize the use of COVID-19 PCR testing and to increase testing capacity to cope with rising infections. However, subsidized PCR tests will be only applied for vulnerable groups and staff in clinics and nursing homes.

Russia

Russia reported a record number of COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours on Tuesday as the Omicron variant of the virus spread across the country, the government coronavirus task force said.

New daily cases jumped to 67,809, from 65,109 a day earlier. The task force also reported 681 deaths.

This handout photo obtained May 26, 2021 courtesy of Merck & Co Inc shows capsules of the investigational antiviral pill Molnupiravir. (HANDOUT / MERCK & CO / AFP)

UK

Britain said on Tuesday it needed to recruit 6,000 more people onto a trial of Merck's COVID-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir to inform how the drug can be rolled out more widely.

Britain's MHRA medicine regulator approved the pill, made by Merck and Ridgeback Therapeutics, in November, and the government launched a national study to establish the best way to use the drug.

The health ministry said that while 4,500 trial participants had signed up, thousands more were needed to gather the data needed.

The study, called Panoramic, was launched to assess how the antiviral should be used in a largely vaccinated population, given it was assessed in clinical trials on unvaccinated people.

"Antivirals are a hugely important addition to our response to COVID-19," said Eddie Gray, chair of the UK's Antivirals Taskforce.

"Getting people enrolled onto this study is vital, not just in protecting the most vulnerable now, but in ensuring we can deploy these medicines more widely as soon as possible."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week said he would ditch mask mandates, work from home guidance and compulsory COVID-19 passes in England, citing Britain's purchase of antivirals as well as the booster rollout and the lower severity of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The health ministry said it had bought 2.23 million courses of the Merck drug, as well as 2.75 million courses of an antiviral pill developed by Pfizer Inc which it has not yet started to deploy.

Merck's pill was shown to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by around 30 percent in a clinical trial of high-risk individuals early in the course of the illness.

The government said that over-50s and those with an underlying medical condition who had tested positive for COVID-19 on a PCR test or who were unwell with COVID-19 symptoms in the last five days could sign up for the Panoramic study.

Meanwhile, all testing measures for eligible fully vaccinated travelers arriving in Britain will be scrapped from next month, as the government goes one step further to reopen the travel sector.

From 4 am on Feb 11, all testing requirements will be removed for eligible fully vaccinated arrivals, with only a Passenger Locator Form now required, according to a statement released Monday by the British government.

Arrivals not recognized as fully vaccinated will need to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on or before day 2 after they arrive in the country.

The country is also set to recognize vaccine certificates from 16 more countries, including China and Mexico, bringing the recognition total to more than 180 countries and territories worldwide, according to the statement.

A nurse administers a pediatric dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to a girl at a LA Care Health Plan vaccination clinic at Los Angeles Mission College in the Sylmar neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, Jan 19, 2022. (ROBYN BECK / AFP)

US

Even as COVID-19 cases drop and hospitalizations show signs of plateauing in hard-hit pockets of the United States, the still-rising death toll from the Omicron variant highlights the trail of loss that follows every virus surge.

Coronavirus deaths hit an 11-month high on Sunday, climbing 11 percent in the past week when compared to the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis.

COVID-19 fatalities are a lagging indicator, meaning their numbers usually rise a few weeks after new cases and hospitalizations.

The Omicron death toll has now surpassed the height of deaths caused by the more severe Delta variant when the seven-day average peaked at 2,078 on Sept 23 last year. An average of 2,200 people a day, mostly unvaccinated, are now dying due to Omicron.

That is still below the peak of 3,300 lives lost a day during the surge in January 2021 as vaccines were just being rolled out.

As Omicron surged in December and earlier this month, hospital systems from New Jersey to New Mexico buckled under the sheer number of patients brought in by the apparently less severe but highly infectious variant, prompting the federal government to send military medical aid to six states.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are still setting records in some states including Arkansas and North Carolina. Nationally they are now under 147,000, compared with a peak of 152,746 on Jan 20, the Reuters tally shows.

Cases nationally are down by 12 percent in the last seven days compared with the prior seven, the analysis found, prompting some health officials to strike a cautiously optimist tone on the trajectory of the pandemic.

US COVID-19 data often lag a few days behind the actual state of affairs and paints an imperfect picture.

Positive findings from the now ubiquitous at-home tests are not included in the official case count, while hospitalization counts often do not differentiate between patients who are receiving treatment for COVID-19 and others who test positive while in the hospital with other issues.

The Omicron wave scrambled the hopes of Americans for a gradual transition into a post-pandemic reality and re-ignited tensions around masking and vaccines in schools and workplaces, exposing once again the deep political fault lines cracked open by the health crisis.

On Sunday, large crowds rallied in Washington DC, in opposition of COVID-19 mandates, some holding signs that read "people call the shot, not the government."

In this file photograph taken on Dec 20, 2021, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gives a press conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva. (FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

WHO

The head of the World Health Organization warned on Monday that it was dangerous to assume the Omicron variant would herald the end of COVID-19's acutest phase, exhorting nations to stay focused to beat the pandemic.

"It’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant and that we are in the end game," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a WHO executive board meeting of the two-year pandemic that has killed nearly 6 million people.

"On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge."

Though Omicron has sent total cases soaring to nearly 350 million, its less lethal impact and the increasing prevalence of vaccines has led to optimism in some parts that the worst of the pandemic may have passed.

Tedros, the WHO's first African head who is running unopposed for a second term, urged discipline and unity in combatting the coronavirus.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is now entering its third year and we are at a critical juncture," he told a news conference earlier. "We must work together to bring the acute phase of this pandemic to an end. We cannot let it continue to drag on, lurching between panic and neglect."