Covid-19 digest: BioNTech-Pfizer start trial of Omicron-specific vaccine

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US drugs giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech on Tuesday announced a study comparing its original shot with a version tweaked to recognize the highly contagious Omicron strain.

Although Omicron has shown itself to be the most likely variant so far to cause infection in people who have been vaccinated, it is not clear if a change to the vaccine is really needed.

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Original vaccines still show good protection against severe illness and death. Studies also show that normal booster does significantly lower the chances of avoiding even a milder infection.

“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,” Pfizer vaccine research chief Kathrin Jansen said in a statement.

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ALSO READ | Why some people avoid Covid-19 when those around them have it? Study explains

“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.

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Ugur Sahin, CEO of the biotech company BioNTech said protection of the original vaccine did appear to wane more rapidly against Omicron.

“The study is part of our scientific approach to develop a variant-based vaccine that provides protection from Omicron similar to what we have observed with previous variants, but at the same time lasts longer,” Sahin said.

The trial will involve 1,420 people aged 18-55 across the United States and South Africa, with the first participant dosed in North Carolina.

Here’s the latest on coronavirus from across the globe:

Asia

More than 200 cases of the virus were discovered at a public housing estate in Hong Kong, prompting authorities to place the area under a partial lockdown and implement further restrictions. The block where the cluster was discovered was already under lockdown, which has been extended for five to seven days.

Leader Carrie Lam said a second residential block at the Kwai Chung housing complex would be locked down for five days. A “zero tolerance” approach similar to mainland China has been adopted by authorities.

A government panel in Japan approved expansion of Covid restrictions in 18 additional regions, such as the western prefectures of Osaka and Kyoto. The decision was taken due to a rise in cases and hospitalizations, driven by the Omicron variant. Under the new rules, which will last till February 20, regional governors will have the power to ask restaurants to shorten working hours and stop serving alcohol.

ALSO READ | Why are doctors still scrambling for Covid-19 drugs?

South Korea’s daily Covid count crossed 8,000 for the first time on Tuesday, since the beginning of the pandemic. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 8,571 new cases, in a surge driven by the Omicron variant.

Seoul had placed tougher restrictions in December, after which case numbers dropped to 4,000 a day. Numbers have spiked up again, with authorities concerned about a further rise during the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays.

Oceania

Two years since the detection of its first case of Covid-19, Australia recorded another surge in virus deaths. Authorities have refrained from going into yet another lockdown, in spite of a rise in cases. However, hospitalizations have steadied across the country. Most of the deaths were in New South Wales and neighbouring Victoria, home to the cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

There has been a Covid outbreak on board an Australian navy ship en route to Tonga laden with aid, with 23 crew members testing positive. The ship was due to arrive in Tonga on Wednesday with emergency supplies, following the volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Americas

A New York Judge struck down the mask mandate for the state, a week before it was set to expire. The judge found that the state legislature had curbed any governor’s ability to issue such decrees amid a declared state of emergency.

Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses.

Europe

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke lockdown rules by having a birthday party with 30 people in attendance, broadcaster ITV reported. The gathering is said to have been held in June 2020, during the first Covid lockdown in Britain. London police later confirmed they had launched investigations into alleged parties at Johnson’s Downing Street offices and residence.

Germany reported an additional 126,955 coronavirus cases, and 214 deaths on Tuesday, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.

ALSO READ | Health officials offer hope that Omicron wave will increase global immunity

The state of Bavaria has agreed to lift a ban on spectators at major sporting events. The decision means Bayern Munich and other professional football clubs there will once again be able to open their doors to crowds.

Up to a maximum of 10,000 fans will be allowed from Thursday, with 25% of seats to be made available. Some other German states have already allowed up to 15,000 spectators.

Bavaria stopped fans attending matches in early December as a fourth wave of the pandemic gathered pace.

Middle East

In Israel, an expert panel has advised the government to begin offering a fourth vaccine dose to everyone over the age of 18.

The panel cited research showing a fourth shot helps prevent Covid-19 infection and severe illness.

The country is already offering a second booster to everyone over the age of 60, as well as those at high risk amid a wave of infections fuelled by Omicron.

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