By Ciara Linnane
The World Health Organization said Friday it has not seen any reports of deaths caused by the new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 dubbed omicron, and again urged people not to panic as for now the delta strain remains dominant around the world.
Delta currently accounts for 99% of all COVID infections, Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, told Reuters, adding that it’s impossible to predict whether omicron will overtake it. The new strain, which was classified a “variant of concern” by the WHO last Friday, has so far spread fast in South Africa, where doctors first reported on it, and has been detected in at least two dozen countries.
But further testing is required to determine whether it is more transmissible than other variants, including delta, more lethal or more resistant to vaccines and treatments.
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva that vaccine makers should get ready to tweak their products, and Ugur Sahin, head of Germany’s BioNTech (NAS:BNTX) said that company should be able to adapt the vaccine it co-developed with Pfizer (NYS:PFE) relatively quickly.
Sahin has said this week that the current vaccine should still offer protection against severe disease, even with the many mutations carried by omicron.
Multiple cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in New York, health officials said Thursday, including a man who attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November and tested positive for the variant when he returned home to Minnesota, as the Associated Press reported.
“No cause for alarm. We just want to make sure that the public is aware of information when we receive it,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul.
The U.S. has already implemented restrictions on travel from South Africa and neighboring countries and President Joe Biden on Thursday called for unity as his administration rolled out a plan for fighting COVID-19 during the winter, while also pushing back on Republican opposition to his vaccine mandate for large employers.
“While my existing federal vaccination requirements are being reviewed by the courts, this plan does not expand or add to those mandates,” Biden said, during a brief speech at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
It’s “a plan that all Americans hopefully can rally around, and it should get bipartisan support, in my humble opinion. It should unite us, not continue to separate us,” he added.
The administration’s winter COVID plan , which comes as the omicron variant of the coronavirus sparks concerns, includes an expansion for at-home testing in the U.S. and tighter COVID testing timelines for travelers entering the country.
The U.S. is averaging more than 1,000 COVID deaths a day, and cases and hospitalizations are rising again, according to a New York Times tracker. New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota are leading the country in new cases measured on a per capita basis, the tracker shows.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker, meanwhile, is showing that almost 198 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 59.6% of the overall population, one of the lower rates for a wealthy country.
The government is planning to again push unvaccinated people to get their shots and encourage all adults to get boosters, Biden said Thursday. Most of the recent cases, hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, as they have been for months.
Germany, which is struggling to persuade its population to get vaccinated, has renewed its effort to get those people to get their shots, with Health Minister Jens Spahn warning Friday that 1% of Germany’s population is currently infected, ABC News reported.
The country recorded 74,352 new cases on Friday and 390 fatalities, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.
Spahn said that the number of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population: “If all German adults were vaccinated, we wouldn’t be in this difficult situation,” he told reporters in Berlin.
In Norway, at least 17 cases of suspected omicron cases of COVID have been detected after a Christmas party in Oslo, AFP reported. Up to 120 people, all vaccinated, including one who had recently traveled to southern Africa, gathered for the party.
“So far 60 people have tested positive (for Covid) with PCR tests, and four with antigen tests,” the city of Oslo said in a statement.
Chinese media reported that China may ban spectators from one of the bigger venues at the Winter Olympics, if the coronavirus outbreak worsens, AFP reported.
In medical news, a study published in British journal The Lancet found that seven COVID-19 vaccines can produce an immune response when given as a booster. This is the first research to directly compare COVID-19 booster shots. The study involved 2,878 volunteers who had received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca (NAS:AZN) (LON:UK:AZN) vaccines as their primary shots.
The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 264.4 million on Friday, while the death toll edged above 5.23 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University .
The U.S. continues to lead the world with a total of 48.8 million cases and 785,932 deaths.
India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.6 million and has suffered 470,115 deaths. Brazil has second highest death toll at 615,179 and 22.1 million cases.
In Europe, Russia has the most fatalities at 273,463 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 145,731.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 111,515 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.