28 November 2021 ⚡️ Omicron variant detected in more than a dozen countries, global risk "high"
Biden expected to update U.S. response on Monday; StatNews has important context about Omicron mutations; married couple arrested after trying to skip Dutch quarantine.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.
The overall global risk related to the new variant...is assessed as very high… Increasing cases, regardless of a change in severity, may pose overwhelming demands on health care systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality. The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage.
An announcement from South Africa on Thursday, followed by a WHO meeting Friday, alerted the world to the presence of a new COVID-19 variant of concern.
Genomic testing has led to the Omicron variant’s being identified in Australia, Belgium, Botswana (first sample, 11 November 2021), Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic (CNN), the Netherlands, Scotland (Guardian) and South Africa (14 November 2021).
According to Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton (UK), the variant “probably emerged in another country… where there's not a huge amount of genomic surveillance going on and vaccination rate is low.” South Africa “has very, very good genomic sequencing capacity and capability.”
President Biden is expected to give an update on the U.S. response on Monday. Public health officials are urging vaccination, boosters and masks. “This would be a great time to sign up, get your booster,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Fox.
From Monday’s WHO Technical Brief & Overview for Member States on #Omicron:
WHO is coordinating research around the world, including “assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments.”
🦠 Context: Omicron v Delta
StatNews provided important context about Omicron mutations on Sunday:
The variant is also notable for its sheer number of mutations: 32 alone in its spike protein, which is what the vaccines teach our immune systems to target. Other variants just had a handful of mutations in spike…
Levels of Covid-19 in South Africa were subdued when the variant was first detected; since that time numbers have jumped. It’s possible that means Omicron has a growth advantage over Delta, but it’s also possible that it’s riding the new surge of cases, not driving it…
If Omicron establishes toeholds in other countries and pulls ahead of Delta there as well, it will help solidify the idea that it’s more transmissible…
The WHO said Saturday that early evidence indicated the variant was causing reinfections at higher rates than other variants in South Africa, suggesting some ability to get around the immune response…
Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s health minister, said Friday that breakthrough infections were occurring in the country, but the majority of hospital admissions remained among people who were not vaccinated, suggesting that vaccines were still maintaining some level of protection against Omicron. But, he acknowledged, “it’s still early days in terms of this particular variant.”
🛑 Border closures
Almost two years into this pandemic, we still do not have global coordination for testing, quarantine/isolation or vaccinations. For example, rather than travel bans, “[i]t would be much better to invest in efficient testing systems in airports that can be immediately activated,” according to Isabella Eckerle, professor, Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases.
On Sunday, WHO again reminded world leaders that travel restrictions “should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”
Like Israel and Morocco, Japan is closing its borders to all new foreigners for at least two weeks beginning on Tuesday. Israel closed borders Sunday night.
With nearly 80 percent of the population fully vaccinated and positive case numbers plummeting, Japan partially reopened on Nov. 8 to allow new arrivals of students and technical interns. Monday’s announcement effectively reverses that decision.
China already has very strict border restrictions; most foreign visitors are banned from entering mainland China.
Indonesia, India and Pakistan are prohibiting travel from Hong Kong as well from African nations, unlike the U.S.
🤓 Recommended reading
Medical ethics. COVID-19 patients now account for about 1-in-10 lung transplants in the United States. “When somebody contracts such severe COVID that they need a lung transplant, and they got it [by] refusing to get a vaccine, it’s a really ethical dilemma,” David Mulligan, chair of the Yale-New Haven Health Transplantation Center, told NPR.
Deliberate infection. An Austrian man has died of COVID-19 after attending an Italian “‘coronavirus party’ in an apparent bid to build immunity.”
Skipping town. In Holland, Dutch police arrested a married couple who had been in quarantine and isolation after arriving in Amsterdam on Friday from Johannesburg, South Africa. They “fled” the hotel and were arrested “(on board) a plane that was about to take off en route to Spain at 6 p.m. local time (12 p.m. ET).”
Danger, Will Robinson! In Helen, Georgia, a hotel evicted a grandmother and her 6-year-old granddaughter after their writing a three-star review on Hotel.com. It’s legal, not just in Georgia, but in other states as well.
Inspired life. In the spring of 1939, at age 9, two best friends said goodbye as their families fled the Nazis. They finally hugged again, 82 years later. 🎁 link.
Possible at-home COVID treatment. The Food and Drug Administration will hear from its advisory board on Tuesday before approving a proposed pill from Merck that treats COVID-19 infections. It would be the first that U.S. patients could take at home and is already authorized for emergency use in the United Kingdom. The drug will not be available for children. This is the first time regulators have publicly reviewed a new drug for COVID-19.
📷 Image of the day
A vaccinated person has received at least one dose of a two-dose vaccine; a fully vaccinated person has received either a single-dose vaccine or both doses of a two-dose vaccine. Source: NY Times vaccination tracker; data, Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.