By Ciara Linnane
Signs that the omicron-driven surge of coronavirus cases may be peaking in northeastern states where it took hold earliest weighed against continued stress on hospitals on Tuesday, as the national case rate stood at a record of about 800,000 a day.
Cases appear to be peaking in New York City, Cleveland, Chicago and Washington, D.C., according to a New York Times tracker. But hospitalizations are averaging 156,505 a day, up 54% from two weeks ago and the most since the start of the pandemic, and daily deaths are above 1,900, up 54% from two weeks ago.
The Times and other media outlets are reporting about the pressure on hospitals that are suffering staff shortages, also due to omicron. Hospitalization numbers include people who are in the hospital with another ailment but have tested positive for COVID.
New cases have climbed more than 400% in Alaska, Oregon and Utah, the tracker is showing.
Over the holiday weekend, experts cautioned that omicron may not accelerate the pandemic’s transition to an endemic phase, where the virus remains a risk but has become more manageable. The fact that the variant is far more transmissible but appears less lethal had raised hopes it would replace other variants and gradually help end the crisis.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told a virtual World Economic Forum panel that an endemic phase remains some way off.
“I think if you look at the history of infectious diseases, we’ve only eradicated one infectious disease … and that’s smallpox, and that’s not going to happen with this virus,” said Fauci, who said he would consider the pandemic to have reached endemic status when it doesn’t disrupt society.
“I really do think it remains to be seen whether omicron is going to be the live-virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for because you have such a great deal of variability with variants,” he said, referring to the open questions of whether omicron infections will hit so many people that it’s as if all eligible Americans had chosen to be vaccinated and whether immunity gained through infection will endure against a different SARS-CoV-2 strain.
Another panel member, Annelies Wilder-Smith, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said she is hoping for the best-case scenario in the virus’s evolution. However, she said the world should be “prepared for the worst case” of another variant with high transmissibility and high mortality. That’s the key allegation made by Dr. Robert Malone, a controversial doctor and pioneer mRNA researcher, who has warned that too many boosters could hurt the immune system.
Wilder-Smith said there were positives compared with the start of the pandemic, when a global population of 7.7 billion had zero immunity to the virus, while now some 52% of the global population is fully vaccinated , according to the New York Times tracker.
Moderna’s chief executive officer, Stephane Bancel, said the company hopes to have a combined flu and COVID vaccine ready for 2023.
“Our goal is to be able to have a single annual booster so that we don’t have compliance issues where people don’t want to get to get two to three shots a winter, but to get one dose where they get a booster for [the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus] and a booster for flu and RSV to make sure people get their vaccines,” Bancel told the p anel on Monday.
Data from a small study in Israel showed that a second booster of the COVID-19 vaccines from BioNTech BNTX and Pfizer (NYS:PFE) or Moderna (NAS:MRNA) failed to prevent infections by the omicron variant. The vaccines lifted antibodies “even a little bit higher than what we had after the third dose,” said Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the infectious-diseases unit at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, according a Reuters report Tuesday . “Yet this is probably not enough for omicron.”
The unpublished study looked at the effect of a second Pfizer-BioNTech booster on 154 people after two weeks and a second Moderna booster among 120 people following one week. The vaccinated group was then compared with a control group with no fourth booster. The Moderna participants had previously received three Pfizer shots.
Israel began rolling out fourth doses to those over 60 and health workers in early January to combat surging COVID cases caused by omicron.
Other COVID-19 news you should know:
• Hong Kong authorities said Tuesday that they will cull some 2,000 small animals, including hamsters, after several of the rodents tested positive for the virus at a pet store where an infected employee was working, the Associated Press reported. The city will also stop the sale of hamsters and the import of small mammals, according to officials from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The move came after the pet-shop employee tested positive for the delta variant on Monday. Several hamsters imported from the Netherlands at the same store tested positive as well.
• Health authorities in Beijing said they haven’t been able to trace the source of the Chinese capital’s first local omicron infection but indicated it might have arrived by international mail, the Wall Street Journal reported. Beijing announced the case on Saturday after the patient developed a fever and took a voluntary test that came back positive. Authorities sealed off the patient’s residential compound and office building, and launched contact-tracing efforts.
• Authorities in the Pacific island of Tonga are working to provide water and other supplies to those impacted by a volcanic eruption on Saturday in a contactless way to avoid spreading COVID, the Washington Post reported. The remote archipelago kingdom is one of the few places in the world to remain virtually free of cases — it went into lockdown in November when its first case was detected in a person staying at a quarantine hotel.
• Australia suffered a record one-day death toll from COVID on Tuesday, when 74 people died, ABC News reported. The nation’s second largest state, Victoria, declared an emergency for hospitals in the capital city, Melbourne, and several regional hospitals from midday Wednesday because of staff shortages and a surge in patient admissions. About 5,000 staff are absent because they are either infected or close contacts of infected people.
• Merck (NYS:MRK) and its privately held partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said Tuesday that they have won a supply agreement from the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, to provide it with up to 3 million doses of their COVID-19 antiviral molnupiravir in the first half of 2022. The doses will be distributed in more than 100 low- and middle-income countries following regulatory authorizations. The treatment has already been authorized in more than 10 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Japan and Taiwan.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 331.3 million, and the death toll is now more than 5.54 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 66.5 million cases and 851,730 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that about 209 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 62.9% of the total population.
Some 79.6 million have received a booster, equal to 38.1% of the fully vaccinated.