US studies highlight need for boosters to fight Omicron

A man and child wearing face masks hold hands as they pass a line curving through the park for COVID-19 testing at a site at Farragut Square on Dec 23, 2021, just blocks from the White House in Washington. (JACQUELYN MARTIN / AP)

BRUSSELS / CHICAGO / DUBLIN / BRASILIA / LONDON / COPENHAGEN – Three US studies show that a third dose of an mRNA vaccine is key to fighting the Omicron coronavirus variant, providing 90 percent protection against hospitalization due to COVID-19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

The studies, led by the CDC, are among the first in the United States to look at the impact of booster doses against the fast-spreading Omicron variant, which now accounts for 99 percent of all new COVID cases.

ALSO READ: How Omicron highlights fading hope of herd immunity from COVID

Adults aged 50 and older saw the most benefit from an extra dose of the vaccines made by BioNTech SE with Pfizer Inc or Moderna Inc

Overall, they suggest that boosters helped protect against both infection and symptomatic disease. Adults aged 50 and older saw the most benefit from an extra dose of the vaccines made by BioNTech SE with Pfizer Inc or Moderna Inc.

"Protection against infection and hospitalization with the Omicron variant is highest for those who are up to date with their vaccination, meaning those who are boosted when they are eligible," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing on Friday.

A man rides his bike past a cinema with Christmas trees hanging upside down from the windows in protest against the closure of cultural venues in Antwerp, Belgium, Dec 24, 2019. (VIRGINIA MAYO/AP)

Belgium

Belgium announced a slight easing of its coronavirus restrictions on Friday despite record infections and also determined that people will need booster shots after five months to maintain COVID-19 passes giving access to bars or cinemas.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that from March 1 the initial vaccination series would be valid only for five months, with boosters required to keep COVID passes active

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo extended opening for bars and restaurants to midnight from 11 pm, allowed indoor activities such as play areas and bowling alleys to reopen and said venues with good ventilation could host more people than now. The changes will apply from next Friday.

"The reason we can do this is the fact that we have such a high vaccination rate," De Croo told a news conference.

Some 89 percent of adults in Belgium are fully vaccinated and 67 percent have now also received a booster shot.

De Croo said that from March 1 the initial vaccination series would be valid only for five months, with boosters required to keep COVID passes active, although they would still be valid with a test or recent recovery from infection.

That five-month limit is among the tightest in Europe. For neighboring France, it is seven months, while the EU-wide guide for travel within the bloc is set at nine.

Belgium is in the midst of a fifth wave of COVID infections, with the peak not expected for at least a couple of weeks. Monday brought a record of more than 60,000 reported cases, with similar levels estimated for Tuesday and Wednesday.

However, hospital admissions are rising at a far slower rate and the number of patients in intensive care is falling.

Brazil

Brazil's Health Ministry on Friday approved use of Sinovac Biotech Ltd's COVID-19 vaccine, Coronavac, for children ages 6 to 17.

In a news conference announcing the addition of Coronavac to the national vaccination plan, Deputy Health Minister Rodrigo Cruz said the ministry has 6 million doses of the vaccine available, with states and cities having their own stocks.

The Chinese vaccine was tested in Brazil at Sao Paulo's Butantan Institute, a leading biomedical center tied to the state government.

Coronavac received authorization for emergency use in adults in January last year and was the first vaccine to be used in Brazil.

Brazil has already authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for children between 5 and 11 years old.

Pedestrians walk past the Auld Dubliner pub, closed down due to COVID-19, in the Temple Bar area of Dublin city center on March 15, 2021, as St Patrick's Day celebrations have been canceled for the second year, due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
(PAUL FAITH / AFP)

Ireland

Ireland is to scrap almost all its COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday after coming though the storm of the Omicron variant that led to a massive surge in infections, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said in a national address.

Following advice from public health officials, the Irish government decided that bars and restaurants will no longer need to close at 8 pm, a restriction put in place late last year when the Omicron wave struck, or to ask customers for proof of vaccination

Ireland had the second highest incidence rate of COVID-19 in Europe just last week but also one of the continent's highest uptake of booster vaccines, which has helped keep the number of seriously ill people well below the previous peak. 

"We have weathered the Omicron storm," Martin said in Friday's televised address, in which he said booster vaccines had "utterly transformed" the situation in the country.

The country has been one of the most cautious in the European Union on the risks of COVID-19, putting in place some of the longest-running restrictions on travel and hospitality.

But following advice from public health officials, the government decided that bars and restaurants will no longer need to close at 8 pm, a restriction put in place late last year when the Omicron wave struck, or to ask customers for proof of vaccination.

Indoor and outdoor venues are also set to return to full capacity, paving the way for full crowds at next month's Six Nations rugby championship.

People will still be required to wear masks on public transport and in shops until the end of February, Martin said.

WHO

The World Health Organization on Friday recommended extending the use of a reduced dosage of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to children aged 5 to 11 years old.

The recommendation comes after the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunization held a meeting on Wednesday to evaluate the vaccine. It is currently recommended for use in people aged 12 years and above.

The recommended dosage for the younger population is 10 micrograms instead of 30 micrograms offered to those 12 years and older.

"This age group (5-11) is in the lowest priority use group for vaccination except, for children who have co-morbidities," SAGE chairman Alejandro Cravioto said at a briefing.

Pfizer/BioNTech shots have already been authorized for use in the age group in several countries including the United States, Canada, Israel, and the European Union. 

ALSO READ: EU: People with weak immunity may be given mRNA booster jabs

The WHO's vaccine director, Kate O'Brien, said no safety concerns were raised for the application of Pfizer's vaccine in 5 to 11 years old in clinical trials.

The panel also recommended that booster doses of Pfizer's vaccine should be administered 4 months to 6 months after the completion of the primary series, in high-priority groups like older adults and health workers.

UK

The UK Health Security Agency on Friday designated a sub-lineage of the dominant and highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant as a variant under investigation, saying it could have a growth advantage.

BA.2, which does not have the specific mutation seen with Omicron that can help to easily distinguish it from Delta, is being investigated but has not been designated a variant of concern.

The UK Health Security Agency designated a sub-lineage of the dominant and highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant as a variant under investigation, saying it could have a growth advantage

"It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it's to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge," Dr Meera Chand, incident director at the UKHSA, said.

"Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant."

Britain has sequenced 426 cases of the BA.2 sub-lineage, and the UKHSA said that while there was uncertainty around the significance of the changes to the viral genome, early analysis suggested an increased growth rate compared to the original Omicron lineage, BA.1.

UKHSA said that 40 countries had reported BA.2 sequences, with the most samples reported in Denmark, followed by India, Britain, Sweden and Singapore.

In Denmark, BA.2 has grown rapidly. It accounted for 20 percent of all COVID cases in the last week of 2021, rising to 45 percent in the second week of 2022.

Anders Fomsgaard, researcher at Statens Serum Institut, said he did not yet have a good explanation for the rapid growth of the sub-lineage, adding he was puzzled, but not worried.

Initial analysis made by Denmark's SSI showed no difference in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared to BA.1.