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Omicron may pose higher reinfection risk but could be milder than Delta: WHO

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Early data indicates the Omicron Covid variant may more easily reinfect people who have already had the virus or been vaccinated than previous variants, but could also cause milder disease, the WHO said Wednesday.

“Emerging data from South Africa suggests increased risk of reinfection with Omicron,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters, adding that “there is also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta”.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

But he stressed that more data was needed before drawing firm conclusions, and urged countries everywhere to boost their surveillance to help provide a clearer picture of how Omicron is behaving.

The hopeful assessments came as global concern grew over the heavily mutated variant, which has forced dozens of nations to re-impose border restrictions and raised the possibility of a return to economically punishing lockdowns.

Even if it does turn out that Omicron causes less severe disease, Tedros warned against slacking off vigilance against the virus.

“Any complacency now will cost lives,” he warned.

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan agreed, pointing out that so far the data indicates the variant is “efficiently transmitting, and probably more efficiently transmitting even than the Delta variant.”

“That does not mean that the virus is unstoppable,” he said.

“But it means the virus is more efficient at transmitting between human beings. And therefore we have to redouble our efforts to break those chains of transmission to protect ourselves to protect others.”

Even if the new variant turns out to be less dangerous than previous variants, if it transmits more rapidly, it could still sicken more people, overburden health systems, “and more people die,” he said.

The WHO experts stressed the importance of vaccination, highlighting that even if vaccines prove less effective against Omicron, as some data indicates, they are still expected to provide significant protection against severe disease.

Chief WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan cautioned against knee-jerk reactions to early studies hinting that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may have reduced efficacy against the new variant.

She pointed out that the studies done so far were small and that the reduction in the “neutralizing activity” varied dramatically between different studies, from four to five fold in some experiments to up to 40-fold in others.

They also only looked at the neutralization of antibodies, when “we know the immune system is much more complex than that,” she said.

“So I think it's premature to conclude that this reduction neutralizing activity would result in a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness,” she said. “We do not know that.”

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Saudi Arabia reports 5,591 new COVID-19 infections, two deaths in 24 hours

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reported 5,591 COVID-19 cases and two new deaths in 24 hours, according to the Ministry of Health.

This brings the total number of cases in the Kingdom to 638,327.

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Thailand to resume quarantine-free travel from Feb. 1 after pause due to omicron

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Thailand will resume its quarantine-free travel scheme from February 1, officials said Thursday, after the program was suspended due to the fast-spreading omicron COVID-19 variant.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Pandemic travel curbs have hammered the kingdom’s tourism-dominated economy, sending visitor numbers dwindling to a trickle.

Fully vaccinated travelers will now be able to enter under the “test and go” scheme as long as they take COVID-19 tests on the first and fifth days after arriving, spokesman for the country’s COVID-19 taskforce Taweesin Visanuyothin told reporters.

Visitors will have to isolate at a hotel while waiting for their test results and will be required to download a tracking app to ensure they comply with the rules.

Seeking to bounce back from its worst economic performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand launched the “test and go” scheme in November as an alternative to two weeks’ hotel quarantine.

The program was suspended late last month over fears about omicron, but with deaths and hospitalizations not spiking, Taweesin said it could resume, though the authorities will keep it under review.

“In case there are more infections or the situation changes, there will be a re-assessment for inbound travelers and adjust toward the sandbox scheme,” Taweesin said.

Under the sandbox program launched last year as a first step towards resuming tourism, fully jabbed visitors spend seven nights in certain designated locations, such as the resort island of Phuket, before being allowed to travel on to the rest of Thailand.

In a further relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol until 11:00 p.m. – easing the current 9:00 p.m. cut-off.

The tourism ministry estimates that some five million foreign visitors will come to Thailand in 2022 — down from nearly 40 million in the year before the pandemic.

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Prior COVID-19 infection more protective than vaccine during delta surge: US study

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People who had previously been infected with COVID-19 were better protected against the delta variant than those who were vaccinated alone, suggesting that natural immunity was a more potent shield than vaccines against that variant, California and New York health officials reported on Wednesday.

Protection against delta was highest, however, among people who were both vaccinated and had survived a previous COVID infection, and lowest among those who had never been infected or vaccinated, the study found.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

Nevertheless, vaccination remains the safest strategy against COVID-19, according to the report published in US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The results do not apply to the omicron variant of the virus, which now accounts for 99.5 percent of COVID-19 cases in the United States.

“The evidence in this report does not change our vaccination recommendations,” Dr. Ben Silk of the CDC and one of the study’s authors told a media briefing.

“We know that vaccination is still the safest way to protect yourself against COVID-19,” he said.

For the study, health officials in California and New York gathered data from May through November, which included the period when the delta variant was dominant.

It showed that people who survived a previous infection had lower rates of COVID-19 than people who were vaccinated alone.

That represented a change from the period when the Alpha variant was dominant, Silk told the briefing.

“Before the delta variant, COVID-19 vaccination resulted in better protection against a subsequent infection than surviving a previous infection,” he said.

In the summer and fall of 2021, however, when delta became the predominant circulating iteration of the virus in the United States, “surviving a previous infection now provided greater protection against the subsequent infection than vaccination,” he said.

But acquiring immunity through natural infection carries significant risks. According to the study, by November 30, 2021, roughly 130,781 residents of California and New York had died from COVID-19.

The analysis did not include information on the severity of initial infection, nor does it account for the full range of illness caused by prior infection.

One important limitation to the study was that it ended before administration of vaccine booster doses was widespread.

Dr. Erica Pan, state epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health, said in an email that the study “clearly shows” that vaccines provide the safest protection against COVID-19 and they offer added protection for those with prior infections.

“Outside of this study, recent data on the highly contagious omicron variant shows that getting a booster provides significant additional protection against infection, hospitalization and death,” Pan said.

Silk said the CDC is studying the impact of vaccination, boosters and prior infection during the omicron surge and expects to issue further reports when that data becomes available.

Read more: COVID-19 pandemic ‘nowhere near over’: WHO chief

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