UK: Omicron subtype has apparent transmission advantage

Workers walk over London Bridge towards the City of London financial district during the morning commute, in London, Jan 24, 2022. (MATT DUNHAM/AP)

BERLIN / LONDON / BRASILIA / KYIV – The BA.2 subtype of the Omicron coronavirus variant appears to have a substantial growth advantage over the currently predominant BA.1 type, Britain's UK Health Security Agency said on Friday.

UKHSA said that there was an increased growth rate of BA.2 compared with BA.1 in all regions of England where there were enough cases to compare them, and that "the apparent growth advantage is currently substantial".

We now know that BA.2 has an increased growth rate which can be seen in all regions in England

  Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Advisor for UK Health Security Agency

"We now know that BA.2 has an increased growth rate which can be seen in all regions in England," said Dr Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Advisor for the UKHSA.

The agency said there was no data on the severity of BA.2 compared to BA.1, but reiterated that a preliminary assessment did not find a difference in vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease between the two Omicron subtypes.

The rapid spread of BA.1 fuelled an Omicron wave which pushed cases to record highs in Britain in December, displacing the previously dominant Delta variant.

However, hospitalizations did not rise to the same extent, owing to population immunity through vaccination and previous infection, as well as Omicron's lower severity.

ALSO READ: US studies highlight need for boosters to fight Omicron

The UKHSA said that a separate analysis showed that between Nov 24 and Jan 19, the majority of intensive care admissions from COVID-19 had Delta infections, even as Omicron was growing to dominate the number of cases.

It also found that a rise of cases of Omicron in care homes had not been associated with an increase in hospital admissions.

"Our findings suggest the current wave of Omicron infections is unlikely to lead to a major surge in severe disease in care home populations with high levels of vaccine coverage and/or natural immunity," UKHSA said, noting that the findings were based on BA.1 due to limited numbers of BA.2 cases in the study.

Britain

Britain will start rolling out Pfizer's COVID-19 pill to vulnerable people next month, the health ministry said on Friday, targeting the treatment at people with compromised immune systems for whom the vaccine can be less effective.

The health ministry said that Pfizer's antiviral treatment Paxlovid, a combination of Pfizer's pill with an older antiviral ritonavir, will be made available to thousands of people from Feb. 10.

"It is fantastic news that this new treatment, the latest cutting-edge drug that the NHS is rolling out through new COVID-19 medicine delivery units, will now be available to help those at highest risk of COVID-19," National Health Service medical director Stephen Powis said.

"Trials have shown it can reduce hospitalization and risk of death by 88 percent, meaning we'll be in the best position to save thousands of lives."

Britain has ordered 2.75 million courses of Paxlovid, and the government said that it would set out further details on access to the treatment soon but that people who are immunocompromised, cancer patients or those with Down’s Syndrome could be able to access it directly.

It is the second antiviral being rolled out in Britain after molnupiravir, a pill made by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics which is being deployed to patients through the Panoramic trial.

Brazil

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa on Friday approved the sale of COVID-19 self-tests in drugstores across the country as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing a record surge in new infections.

Anvisa directors said their decision aims to increase testing to help reduce the contagion rate in Brazil.

At home COVID test kits are already widely used in Europe and the United States. Until now, Brazil did not allow them to be used to detect viral diseases that require compulsory notification to health authorities.

Protesters and supporters against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers cheer as a parade of trucks and vehicles pass through Kakabeka Falls outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, on Jan 26, 2022. (DAVID JACKSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canada has moved past the worst of the Omicron variant of coronavirus on some parameters, but Canadians still need to be prudent as hospitalizations were continuing to rise, the country's top health official said Friday.

Omicron infections started spreading rapidly last month, taking over the dominant variant designation from Delta and forcing authorities to impose restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.

Canada has detected over 100 cases of BA.2, which does not have the specific mutation seen with Omicron that can help to easily distinguish it from Delta, but the main Omicron variant was still behind the vast majority of COVID-19 infections

Multiple indicators, including daily case counts and test positivity rates, now suggest that Omicron infections have peaked nationally in Canada, chief public health officer Theresa Tam told reporters at a briefing.

"Getting to perhaps the peak is one thing but coming down the other side of the wave includes a lot of people could get infected, and some of them could potentially be infected with BA.2," Tam said, referring to a subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant that has been recorded in some European countries.

Canada has detected over 100 cases of BA.2, which does not have the specific mutation seen with Omicron that can help to easily distinguish it from Delta, but the main Omicron variant was still behind the vast majority of COVID-19 infections.

While the seven-day average case count dropped 28 percent as of Wednesday, compared with the week earlier, hospitalizations due to COVID continued to increase during the same period and over 1,200 patients were getting treated in intensive care units on average daily.

"Presently lagging indicators are still rising … this is why it continues to be important to limit spread as much as possible," Tam said.

Germany

Germany has the wave of infections from the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant "well under control" and may consider lifting some restrictions after a peak in late February, its health minister said on Friday. 

Germany's Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases reported 190,148 positive tests within 24 hours on Friday, 49,988 more than a week earlier, and 170 deaths in connection with the virus, bringing the death toll to 117,484.

"I often read and hear that politicians lost control over the pandemic. However, this is not the case. We were prepared for the infection numbers we have at the moment — in fact, these are even lower than expected," Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told a news conference.

ALSO READ: WHO sees more evidence that Omicron causes milder symptoms

The number of daily new infections could rise to 400,000 but would then drop again, he said, adding that the protection of older people who have not been vaccinated is the country's most important task at the moment.

"Germany has a comparatively high number of unvaccinated older people — four times as many as England and three times as many as Italy," Lauterbach said.

It would be wrong to lift restrictions on aspects of public life now, but it may be possible after the peak in the second half of February or in early March if the Omicron wave remains under control, with few severe cases, he said.

Merck

Merck & Co Inc and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said on Friday six lab studies showed their experimental oral COVID-19 drug molnupiravir was active against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

The data evaluated the antiviral activity of molnupiravir and other COVID-19 antiviral agents against COVID-19 variants of concern. Molnupiravir is yet to be studied against Omicron in human studies, the companies said.

Molnupiravir and a rival oral pill from Pfizer Inc were authorized in the United States in December and are considered as important tools against Omicron.

Pfizer said in December lab data suggested its drug Paxlovid retained its effectiveness against Omicron.

Molnupiravir has been authorized for use in more than 10 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom and Japan.

Ukraine

Ukraine registered a record daily high of 37,351 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, the health ministry said on Saturday.

The previous high of 34,408 cases was a day earlier.

Ministry data showed 149 new related deaths, putting the total above 100,000.

Ukraine's tally of infections in the pandemic stands at 4.02 million, with 100,031 deaths.

People leave a free PCR and RAPID COVID-19 testing site in Chicago, Dec 30, 2021. (NAM Y. HUH/AP)

US

The United States government has procured more than 100 million additional COVID-19 tests from testmaker iHealth Lab Inc as part of the White House's plan to distribute 500 million free at-home tests across the country, the Department of Defense said Friday.

Starting in January, the US government has been allowing households to order four free at-home COVID-19 tests from the website COVIDTests.gov with shipping expected within seven to 12 days of ordering.

The batch of free tests are aimed at easing a shortage of tests across the country amid increased demand during the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.