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US study suggests COVID vaccines may be ineffective against omicron without boosters

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All three US-authorized COVID-19 vaccines appear to be significantly less protective against the newly-detected omicron variant of the coronavirus in laboratory testing, but a booster dose likely restores most of the protection, according to a study released on Tuesday.

The study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Harvard and MIT that has not yet been peer reviewed tested blood from people who received the Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines against a pseudovirus engineered to resemble the omicron variant.

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The researchers found “low to absent” antibody neutralization of the variant from the regular regimens of all three vaccines – two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines or one of J&J's single-dose vaccine.

But the blood from recent recipients of an additional booster dose exhibited potent neutralization of the variant, the study found.

The scientists also suggested that omicron is more infectious than previous variants of concern, including about twice as transmissible as the currently dominant Delta variant, which may soon be overtaken by omicron.

The results are in line with other studies recently published. Researchers at the University of Oxford said on Monday that they found the two-dose Pfizer and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine regimens do not induce enough neutralizing antibodies against the new variant.

BioNTech and Pfizer said last week that a three-shot course of their COVID-19 vaccine was able to neutralize the new omicron variant in a laboratory test, but two doses resulted in significantly lower neutralizing antibodies.

Moderna and J&J have yet to release any of their own data about how the vaccines perform against the new variant. J&J declined to comment on the new study and Moderna did not respond to request for comment.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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