By Ciara Linnane
One day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it’s halting the use of antibody drugs as COVID-19 treatments because they don’t work on the highly contagious omicron variant, Pfizer and German partner BioNTech announced they are launching a trial to evaluate an omicron-oriented vaccine in healthy adults aged 18 to 55.
“While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with Omicron, 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,” said Kathrin U. Jansen, Ph.D., senior vice president and head of vaccine R&D at Pfizer (NYS:PFE) .
The study will enroll up to 1,420 participants for three cohorts; one will comprise people who received two doses of the current Pfizer and BioNTech (NAS:BNTX) COVID vaccine 90 to 180 days prior to enrollment, with that group to receive one or two doses of the omicron vaccine; a second composed of people who received three doses of the existing vaccine and will get one dose of the current one or the omicron one; and a third group of “vaccine-naive” people, who will get three doses of the omicron vaccine.
On Monday, the FDA said the COVID antibody drugs from Regeneron (NAS:REGN) and Eli Lilly (NYS:LLY) should no longer be used as treatments and revoked its emergency-use authorization for both drugs. In a statement, the agency acknowledged that omicron now accounts for 99% of new cases, making it “highly unlikely” they would help people seeking treatment, as the Associated Press reported.
The companies themselves had said in December that the infusion drugs are less able to target omicron due to its mutations. Still, the federal action could trigger pushback from a number of Republican governors who have continued promoting the drugs against the advice of health experts.
Alternate therapies, including antivirals developed by Pfizer and Merck (NYS:MRK) , are in short supply, as is an antibody drug from GlaxoSmithKline (NYS:GSK) (LON:UK:GSK) that remains effective in treating omicron.
The news comes as new cases in the U.S. are finally coming down from their recent peaks, even though they remain undesirably high at more than 668,000 a day, according to a New York Times tracker.
Hospitalizations remain above 156,000 a day but seem to be reaching a peak in many places. But deaths are still above 2,000 a day, meaning the U.S. is suffering casualties on the same scale as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, every two days.
Most deaths — roughly three out of four — are occurring in people above the age of 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are also mostly happening to unvaccinated people, who remain at high risk of developing severe disease or dying of omicron, which studies continue to show causes mostly milder symptoms in people who have been fully vaccinated and had a booster shot.
Geographically, states in the Northeast that were first to be hit by omicron surges are now seeing a steep decline in cases, the Times tracker shows. New York and New Jersey, for example, have seen cases fall by about two-thirds from their early January levels.
But cases remain at or near record levels in states including Alabama and North Dakota; in Kansas, they have climbed 65% from two weeks ago.
A New York state judge ruled Monday that the state’s face-mask mandate in public places is unconstitutional and now void, the New York Times reported, citing court documents.
Gov. Kathy Hochul enacted the mandate for all indoor public places including schools in December and later extended it to Feb. 1. But State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademacher ruled that Hochul and state health officials lacked the authority to enact the mask mandate without the approval of state lawmakers, despite their “well aimed” intentions. Hochul said she would appeal.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• The European Union will relax travel rules for vaccinated residents and those who have recovered from COVID effective Feb. 1, according to a statement. Those people will no longer be required to quarantine or face additional testing as the 27-member trading bloc seeks to restore more normal conditions. The news comes a day after the World Health Organization’s regional head, Hans Kluge, said omicron offers plausible hope” for some semblance of a return to normalcy in the coming months. While cautioning that it’s too soon to drop mitigation measures, Kluge said in a statement that between vaccination and natural immunity due to infection, the variant could lead to stabilization over time.
• London police are investigating Downing Street parties during lockdown, putting further pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, the AP reported. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick revealed that an investigation was under way in a statement before the London Assembly. Dick said that Scotland Yard is now investigating “a number of events” at Downing Street. Johnson’s government has been under fire for allegedly holding events during months in which the country was under lockdown because of COVID-19. The “partygate” allegations have infuriated many in Britain, who were barred from meeting with friends and family for months in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of COVID-19.
• Pandemic-related disruptions to the education of children around the world have created a “nearly unsurmountable scale of loss,” Unicef has warned. More than 616 million students are still being affected by full or partial school closures, according to the U.N. agency’s head of education, Robert Jenkins. “Students need intensive support to recover lost education,” Jenkins said in a statement. “Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development and nutrition.”
• A Hungarian gymnast who won a gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics but opposed COVID vaccines died Monday at the age of 51, Reuters reported. Rings champion Szilveszter Csollány was hospitalized in December, according to Hungarian media, and had spent weeks on a ventilator.
• Less than a week after the Biden administration announced that it plans to issue 400 million free N95 masks at pharmacies and health centers across the country, some drugstores have already received their shipments and started doling them out. The coveted non-surgical N95 masks, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say “offer the highest level of protection” against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile, which is the country’s cache of medical-equipment supplies.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 357.2 million, and the death toll is now more than 5.61 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 71.9 million cases and 870,239 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that 210.5 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 63.4% of the total population.
Some 84.3 million have received a booster, equal to 40.1% of the fully vaccinated.