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Boris Johnson: UK faces ‘tidal wave’ of omicron cases, two doses not enough

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Sunday that Britain faces a “tidal wave” of infections from the omicron coronavirus variant, and announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defenses against it.

In a televised statement, Johnson said everyone age 18 and older will be offered a third shot of vaccine by the end of this month in response to the omicron “emergency.” The previous target was the end of January.

He said cases of the highly transmissible variant are doubling every two to three days in Britain, and “there is a tidal wave of omicron coming.”

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

”And I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” Johnson said. “But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose – a booster dose – we can all bring our level of protection back up.”

He announced a “national mission” to deliver booster vaccines, with pop-up vaccination centers and seven-day-a-week getting extra support from teams of military planners and thousands of volunteer vaccinators.

Johnson’s Dec. 31 target applies to England. The other parts of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.

The UK Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to omicron, though preliminary data show that effectiveness appears to rise to between 70 percent and 75 percent after a third vaccine dose.

More than 80 percent of people age 12 and up in Britain have received two doses of vaccine, and 40 percent of adults have had three doses. Giving the rest a booster in the next three weeks will be a huge challenge, requiring almost 1 million doses delivered a day. Johnson acknowledged that many routine medical procedures would have to be postponed to meet the goal.

Johnson's announcement came hours after the government raised the country’s official coronavirus threat level, warning the rapid spread of the omicron variant had pushed the UK into risky territory.

The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the 1of the highly transmissible new strain “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services” at a time when COVID-19 is already widespread. They recommended raising the alert level from 3 to 4 on a 5-point scale. The top level, 5, indicates authorities think the health care system is about to be overwhelmed.

The doctors said early evidence shows omicron is spreading much faster than the currently dominant delta variant, and that vaccines offer less protection against it. British officials say omicron is likely to replace delta as the dominant strain in the UK within days.

“Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalizations from omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly,” they said.

Concerns about the new variant led Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, COVID-19 certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and people are being urged to work from home if possible.

Many scientists say that’s unlikely to be enough, however, and are calling for tougher measures, which the government so far has resisted.

Scientists in South Africa, where omicron was first identified, say they see signs it may cause less severe disease than delta, but caution that it is too soon to be certain.

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

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Pfizer and BioNTech have begun enrollment for a clinical trial to test the safety and immune response of their omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine in adults aged up to 55, the companies said in a statement Tuesday.
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla previously said at a conference that the pharmaceutical giant could be ready to file for regulatory approval of the shot by March.
The company’s head of vaccine research Kathrin Jansen said in a statement that while current data showed that boosters against the original COVID-19 strain continued to protect against severe outcomes with omicron, the company was acting out of caution.
“We recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address omicron and new variants in the future,” she said.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of the German biotech company BioNTech added that the protection of the original vaccine against mild and moderate COVID-19 appeared to wane more rapidly against omicron.
“This study is part of our science-based approach to develop a variant-based vaccine that achieves a similar level of protection against omicron as it did with earlier variants but longer duration of protection.”
The trial will involve 1,420 people aged 18-55.
A spokesperson for Pfizer told AFP that it did not include people older than 55 because the goal of the study was to examine the immune response of participants dosed, rather than estimate vaccine efficacy.
The volunteers are split into three groups.
The first involves people who previously received two doses of the current Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 90-180 days prior to enrollment, and will receive one or two doses of the omicron vaccine.
The second will be people who got three doses of the current vaccine 90-180 days prior to the study and will receive either another dose of the original shot or an omicron-specific vaccine.
The third and final group are people who have never previously received a COVID-19 vaccine, and will receive three doses of the omicron-specific vaccine.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first COVID-19 shot to be authorized in the West, in December 2020.
Because it is based on messenger RNA technology, it is relatively easy to update to reflect the genetic code of new variants.
Several countries have begun to emerge from their latest waves driven by omicron, the most transmissible strain to date, even though global new cases are still rising.
The coronavirus has killed some 5.6 million people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019.
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Denmark to announce removal of all COVID-19 curbs: Report

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Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is expected to announce on Wednesday the removal of all COVID-19 restrictions by the end of this month, daily Jyllands-Posten reported on Tuesday citing several sources.
Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.
Denmark loosened restrictions two weeks ago after a month-long lockdown, allowing cinemas and music venues to reopen, but some rules remain, including limited opening hours for restaurants and mandatory face masks.
JP reported that the shift is based on recommendations from an expert panel that also recommends removing the classification of COVID-19 as a disease that is a critical threat to society, which has allowed the current restrictions.
The newspaper said Frederiksen was due to give a media briefing on Wednesday evening to make the announcement. Her office declined to comment on the report.
The Nordic country registered 40,348 new cases on Monday, down from a peak of 47,831 on Friday. The number of coronavirus-related hospitalisations rose to 894, the highest in a year.
But health authorities said it estimated between 30 percent-40 percent of those currently in hospital with a positive coronavirus test are there for other reasons than COVID-19.
Since a peak of 82 on Jan. 6, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has fallen steadily to 43 on Monday.
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UK to remove COVID restrictions including face masks, remote working: Boris Johnson
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South Korea’s daily infections top 8,000 in a first driven by omicron

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South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 infections topped 8,000 for the first time on Tuesday, as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly, despite the extension of tough social distancing rules.
Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.
The figure of 8,571 on Monday exceeded the previous peak of 7,848 in December, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said, as omicron became dominant in the country last week, though it is less deadly than previous variants.
Small business owners with shaven heads held a protest urging the government to lift the curbs, which include a 9 p.m. curfew for diners, as they sought compensation for losses.
“I haven’t been able to pay monthly rent, so I’m facing an eviction suit and have had to fire employees,” said Yang Hee-kyoung, one of the group of 300 protesters.
“I have no life,” added Yang, who runs a bar in the southern city of Busan.
Other demonstrators were tearful as they stood before a banner that sought “realistic compensation” for COVID-19 losses.
South Korea’s tough regimen of vaccine passes limits unvaccinated people to dining out alone, or making use of takeout or delivery services.
It reinstated tougher distancing curbs last month as record daily infections and critically ill patients threatened to swamp the medical system before omicron drove a rebound last week off daily tallies that almost halved to about 4,000.
The surge has fuelled worries about chances of a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday that begins on Saturday, when tens of millions travel nationwide to meet families.
“It is no different from adding fuel to raging flames if many people move around the country and meet each other,” said Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who has urged against travel and gatherings during the break.
Health officials said omicron would probably account for more than 90 percent of new infections within two to three weeks, while daily numbers could reach 20,000 to 30,000 or more.

From Wednesday, mandatory isolation for the vaccinated will be cut to seven days instead of 10, in a bid to free up resources for those who are critically ill.
The extended curbs triggered a backlash from small business owners, while a court ordered temporary exemption for teenagers and large stores from vaccine mandates in the capital, Seoul as a legal battle heats up between the government and citizens.
South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has a tally of 749,979 infections and a death toll of 6,588, in what has largely been a COVID-19 mitigation success story.
More than 95 percent of adults are fully vaccinated with nearly 58 percent having received a booster dose, KDCA data showed.
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Israeli expert panel advises 4th vaccine dose for adults
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