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Two weeks into the Omicron outbreak: Where to from here?

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A little more than two weeks since omicron’s discovery a lot has been learned about the latest coronavirus variant. A lot remains to be discovered.

Early data from South Africa, the epicenter so far, shows that the virus appears to spread far faster than earlier strains but also doesn’t appear to be causing severe disease.

Nothing is definitive yet, so the world is still somewhat in the dark. With omicron cases doubling every few days in the UK, policymakers and investors are grasping at any clues; the spread in Britain could be a harbinger of things to come across Europe and the US.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

Health officials had been moving toward the end of year with a little hope that the Covid era was shifting into a newer, more manageable phase.

But now it’s not clear yet if 2022 will succeed where 2021 has been defeated: suppress the spread of the virus enough to stop the rolling infection waves and finally end social restrictions.

Initial lab studies indicate omicron is much more transmissible than even delta, the strain that spread rapidly across the globe, filling hospitals and boosting death rates. They also show that it can infect the vaccinated or those who have already been ill with Covid-19.

What’s not known yet is how it developed, and whether it will cause more severe disease in countries with older populations than South Africa. Also unclear is whether it can out-compete delta in places where that version is dominant now, such as Europe and the US. New cases in South Africa, following a severe delta-led third wave, were negligible for weeks before omicron’s unwelcome emergence.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said this week that information so far points to a less severe mutation.

“The big challenge we’re going to have is confirming that over the next two weeks, he said on his Osterhom Update podcast. “From there, then we can figure out what does it mean in terms of the next leg of the pandemic for the world.

This is what we know so far:

How fast is omicron spreading?

In Gauteng, where South Africa’s outbreak is currently centered, the reproduction rate — how fast the virus spreads — is over 3. That’s the highest it’s been and means that every infected person on average infects three more.

Cases in South Africa are rising at a near-record pace, and the rate of increase has outstripped South Africa’s three earlier waves.

Omicron is 4.2 times more transmissible than delta, according to a study in Japan.

The UK says the new strain is growing much faster than delta, and it expects omicron to become the dominant variant by the middle of December, accounting for more than half of new cases. On Friday, the UK reported almost 58,200 Covid cases overall.

How severe are infections?

With the outbreak just a few weeks old it’s too early to tell definitively, but doctors have reported patients with fatigue and headaches and little more. That’s a big contrast to delta’s racing pulse rates and respiratory problems.

South Africa’s three biggest private hospital operators say cases are much milder than in earlier waves. There are few people on oxygen or ventilators and only a slight uptick in deaths.

Currently there are about 5,000 people with Covid in South African hospitals, a quarter of the peaks seen in the previous two waves.

Does it affect children differently from earlier variants?

Initial hospital admissions in South Africa saw a higher number of children under the age of 5 than previously.

Still, most only stay in hospital for a short time, and Health Minister Joe Phaahla says there are no reports of respiratory complications.

Do vaccines work?

Yes and no.

The Africa Health Resource Institute was the first to isolate the virus and test it against Pfizer Inc.’s shot. Omicron is able to largely, but not completely, evade the antibodies generated in response to the inoculation, the research showed. Pfizer’s own study backed that up.

The U.K. said Friday that two shots from AstraZeneca Plc or the Pfizer-BioNTech SE partnership provided much less protection against symptomatic infection with omicron, compared with the delta strain. But a booster lifted that to 70 percent to 75 percent in the early days after the shot, according to preliminary data from a small study.

Data from South African hospitals in the municipal area of Tshwane presented on Dec. 3 showed that 68 percent of coronavirus hospital admissions were in people under 40. That compares with individuals over 50 accounting for 66.1 percent of hospitalizations during the first weeks of the third wave. South Africans over 60 are about twice as likely to have been vaccinated than those under 34.

Where did it come from?

There are three theories.

The first is the virus mutated in someone who was immunosuppressed and harbored the pathogen for a long time, allowing it to change and then infect others. South Africa has 8.2 million people carrying HIV, which causes the immune system disease AIDS.

The second is that the coronavirus crossed back into an animal, mutated, and then re-infected a human.

The third is that it developed by circulating somewhere with little genetic sequencing and not much access to healthcare. It was then picked up in South Africa, where sequencing of samples is comparatively common. Some of the world’s weakest health systems are in Africa.

So where to from here?

Depends who you listen to.

Richard Friedland, the chief executive officer of South Africa’s biggest private hospital group, Netcare Ltd. is optimistic.

“I actually think there is a silver lining here and this may signal the end of Covid-19, with it attenuating itself to such an extent that it’s highly contagious, but doesn’t cause severe disease, he said. “It’s early days, but I’m less panicked. It feels different to me on the ground.

The World Health Organization is remaining cautious for now given so many unknowns, and the concern that any variant is a risk.

“If they’re allowed to spread unchecked, even though they’re not individually more virulent or more lethal, they generate more cases, put pressure on the health system and more people die, said Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO emergencies program. “We should hope for the best outcome, but in this particular case, hope is not a strategy. We need to be very careful on making any final determinations on severity.

Read more:

South African doctors see signs Omicron is milder than Delta

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

Pfizer vaccine shot provides partial Omicron shield in early study

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Health

Moderna begins testing omicron-matched COVID-19 shots in adults

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Moderna has begun testing an omicron-specific COVID-19 booster in healthy adults.

The company announced Wednesday that the first participant had received a dose. Earlier this week, competitor Pfizer began a similar study of its own reformulated shots.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

It’s not clear whether global health authorities will order a change to the vaccine recipe in the wake of the hugely contagious omicron variant. The original vaccines still offer good protection against death and severe illness. Studies in the US and elsewhere show a booster dose strengthens that protection and improves the chances of avoiding even a milder infection.

Moderna pointed to a small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday that showed antibodies able to target omicron persisted for six months after a booster dose, although the levels were dropping.

Moderna’s new study will enroll about 600 people who already have received either two doses of the company’s original shots or two plus a booster dose. All the volunteers will receive a dose of the experimental omicron-matched version.

For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

Read more:

Moderna CEO says working on omicron-specific vaccine: Interview

Pfizer-BioNTech begin omicron COVID-19 vaccine trial: Statement

Valneva COVID-19 vaccine neutralizes omicron in early lab tests

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Abbas rival Dahlan delivers one mln COVID-19 vaccine doses to Gaza

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One million doses of coronavirus vaccine arrived in Gaza from the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, the latest donation facilitated by an exiled rival of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza native now based in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, was once a top Palestinian Authority official who served as Abbas’s security chief in the territory before its takeover by the Islamist Hamas movement in 2007.

For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

Gaza health ministry spokesman Mahmud Hammad told journalists that the consignment of one million doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine marked the largest single shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to the Israeli-blockaded territory.

The vaccines were delivered through Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt, the only one not controlled by Israel.

The same route was used for previous shipments organized by Dahlan, who has increasingly sought to position himself as a benefactor for the Palestinian people.

Dahlan had been expected to emerge as a key player from Palestinian elections scheduled for last year but the polls were postponed indefinitely by Abbas in a move that also infuriated Hamas.

The ministry’s head of preventive medicine, Magdy Duhair, warned that Gaza’s health system was under increased strain due to the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.

While Gaza’s beleaguered medical system has struggled at times during the pandemic, coronavirus transmission has been limited by the tight controls Israel and Egypt enforce on travel in and out of the coastal enclave.

Gaza, which has a population of roughly 2.3 million, has recorded 196,578 COVID-19 cases and 1,744 deaths. So far, 578,000 residents have received two doses of a vaccine.

Read more:

First omicron variant case detected in Gaza, says Palestinian health ministry

Israel’s president to make first-ever state visit to UAE

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Saudi Arabia records 4,526 COVID-19 cases, three deaths in 24 hours

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Saudi Arabia has recorded another minor dip in COVID-19 transmissions with 4,526 cases and three virus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Kingdom’s Ministry of Health.

For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

In that time, 5,772 recoveries were also recorded.

There have now been 666,259 COVID-19 infections and 8,927 deaths in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the pandemic.

Case numbers have risen sharply in January amid global reports of the omicron variant spreading.

Saudi Arabia detected its first case of the more transmissible variant in early December.

It was thought to have been transmitted by a traveler from an undisclosed north African country.

Daily case numbers reached an all-time high of 5,928 on January 19.

Read more:

Omicron risk remains very high: WHO

Abu Dhabi says vaccinated tourists need no boosters to enter

Saudi Arabia sees slight increase with 4,838 new COVID-19 cases

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