Friday, December 17, 2021

Omicron is 'markedly resistant' to COVID vaccines and boosters shots may only give 'slight protection', Columbia University study finds

In a study published Wednesday by Dr. David Ho and 20 other researchers, the scientists discovered that Omicron's 'extensive' mutations can 'greatly compromise' all major COVID-19 vaccines - Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca - even neutralizing them.

The report also found that while booster shots provided an additional layer of protection, the variant 'may still pose a risk' for those who get the third shot.'

'These findings are in line with emerging clinical data on the Omicron variant demonstrating higher rates of reinfection and vaccine breakthroughs,' the scientists wrote.

'Even a third booster shot may not adequately protect against Omicron infection.'

The study looked at the effectiveness of each major vaccine against the Omicron variant, finding several cases where they failed to provide the needed protection against infection.

While the booster shots proved to be overall consistent, some recorded instanced put it right at the threshold of actually being effective.

Ho and the Columbia research team, who worked along side the University of Hong Kong, said the study delivers a grave warning about the future of COVID and its variants.

'It is not too far-fetched to think that this [COVID-19] is now only a mutation or two away from being pan-resistant to current antibodies,' the researchers wrote.

'We must devise strategies that anticipate the evolutional direction of the virus and develop agents that target better conserved viral elements.'

The warning came as confirmed US Omicron cases jumped by a third overnight, from 241 on Wednesday to 319 on Thursday. But experts have warned those are the tip of the iceberg, and that American cases likely already number in the tens of thousands.

White House COVID tsar Dr. Anthony Fauci even remarked on the variant's 'extraordinary' ability to spread, before revealing that cases will double every three days.

The number of people testing positive in New York also has doubled in three days, from 3.9 per cent of all swabs coming back positive on December 9, to 7.8 per cent on December 12. More than four fifths of New York

Bill de Blasio's senior public health adviser Dr. Jay Varman, a Cornell epidemiology professor, tweeted the news, saying: 'Um, we've never seen this before in #NYC. Test positivity doubling in three days.'

A total of 81 per cent of New Yorkers are fully-vaccinated, and 18.5 per cent have received their booster shots - but a worrying new study from Columbia University suggests that neither may be sufficient in protecting from Omicron.

Immunologists have also forecast a potential triple-whammy of Omicron, Delta and regular flu infections this winter. Two doctors interviewed by said those who haven't received a booster shot should consider returning to Spring 2020-style self-isolation, when COVID's Alpha variant raged through the US, and no vaccines were available.

Speaking on Good Morning America on Thursday, Fauci also confirmed Omicron was on track to be the dominant Covid strain in America within weeks.

He said: 'Certainly what [Omicron] is showing us in other countries [is that it spreads faster than other variants] and I believe soon in our own country.

'It has an extraordinary ability to transmit efficiently and spread. It has what we call a doubling time of around three days.

'And if you do the math on that, if you have just a couple of percentage of the isolates being Omicron, very soon it's going to be the dominant variant. We've seen that in South Africa, we're seeing it in the U.K. and I'm absolutely certain that's what we're going to be seeing here relatively soon.'

The doubling time of three days is slightly longer than the 2.5 days reported by British and South African health officials. On Thursday, the UK recorded its second-consecutive day of record infections - 88,376 - 24 hours after Wednesday's total of 78,610. That is a 74 per cent jump in a week, with 15 people who've been infected with Omicron so-far hospitalized in the UK.

The US is much larger, with most of its landmass not as densely populated as the UK or South Africa.

But Omicron is believed to represent up to 13 per cent of new diagnoses in New Jersey and New York - states with extremely well-populated areas - giving a possible early taste of what's to come with the new strain.

Fauci continues to urge Americans to get vaccinated, and boosted, to protect themselves from the virus, especially now with the new threat of Omicron circulating. A total of 16.5 per cent of Americans have so-far had the booster shot.

'We need to do everything that we have been talking about up to now, and even more so,' he said.

He spoke hours after the CDC agency released forecasts on Wednesday night showing that weekly Covid cases will increase by 55 percent to 1.3 million per week - or 185,714 per day - by Christmas.

It also predicted deaths will jump by 73 percent to up to 15,600 per day by early January - or 2,228 deaths per day.

Some of that predicted surge is already appearing in parts of the country, with Florida revealing 6,381 new cases on Thursday - the state's largest single day Covid increase since September.

The Delta variant is still the dominant Covid strain in the U.S., accounting for around 97 percent of sequenced cases. Omicron is quickly making up ground, though, with the newly discovered variant jumping seven-fold in a week from making up 0.4 percent of cases to 2.9 percent of case, according to the most recent CDC data.

Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, has warned of a nightmare scenario where Delta, Omicron and regular seasonal flu could combine to inflict the winter from hell on US hospitals already struggling to cope with an influx of patients.

She told CNN: 'It's the combination. It's kind of the perfect storm of public health impacts here with Delta already impacting many areas of the country and jurisdictions. We don't want to overwhelm systems more.'

Early data also shows that people who are only fully vaccinated, but have not yet received their booster, are still extremely vulnerable to the virus, with Johnson & Johnson's single-dose shot offering effectively no protection.

Booster shots have been deemed effective against the variant, though, with both Moderna and Pfizer revealing data in recent days showing their vaccines will cause massive increases in antibody levels and up to 75 per cent protection from Covid symptoms.

But confusion remains about just how effective boosters are against a strain that was only identified after Americans began receiving them en-masse.

A new study by Columbia University in New York, published on Thursday, said: 'Even serum from persons vaccinated and boosted with mRNA-based vaccines exhibited substantially diminished neutralizing activity against (omicron),'

Only around 16.5 percent of Americans have received the additional vaccine dose so far though - as they were not widely available until late November - meaning that more than 80 percent of Americans are at risk from Omicron.

Dr Chris Thompson is an infectious disease expert at Loyola University of Maryland. He told on Thursday that people who have not received their booster dose yet may want to bring back some early pandemic habits like social distancing, masking, frequent hand washing and more.

'The data that I've seen says that you're about 33 percent protected after a two dose regimen of either of the mRNA vaccines [the Pfizer or Moderna shots] and we don't have good data from Johnson and Johnson's vaccine yet. Then if you get your booster you look like you get back up into the 75 percent protection range and for preventing disease'

Whether Delta or Omicron, U.S. is experiencing yet another surge of Covid cases during the holiday season. The nation is recording 121,188 new cases every day - a 40 percent increase over the past two weeks. Deaths are making a sharp rise as well, up 34 percent to 1,302 per week.

The number of Americans hospitalized with the virus increased over the past 14 days as well, up 21 percent to 68,079. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects that the situation will only worsen as well.


Johnson & Johnson's COVID vaccine produces virtually NO antibody protection against Omicron variant in lab study

A new study has found that Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine produced virtually no antibody response to the Omicron variant.

South African virologist Penny Moore found that a key measure of antibody levels fell fell from 303 against the original strain to undetectable levels against Omicron in those with the J&J shot, according to Bloomberg.

Among those who received the Pfizer shot, the antibody measure, called geometric mean titers, fell from 1,419 against the original coronavirus strain to 80 against Omicron.

'Omicron does indeed exhibit substantial immune escape from antibodies,' she in a presentation on Tuesday. 'The situation, I think, is even more alarming for the J&J vaccine -- there was no detectable neutralization in our assay.'

Confirmed US Omicron case numbers sit at 241 as of Wednesday, up 27 per cent from the 189 recorded the day before, according to data from various state reporting bodies.

But CDC officials have warned the true scale of Omicron infection is far higher, with around three per cent of all US COVID cases now caused by the variant, or up to 13 per cent in New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Cornell University in upstate New York is now suspected of being home to the largest Omicron outbreak in the US so far, with more than 900 infections, which experts anticipate will almost all have been caused by Omicron.

The J&J study was conducted under test-tube conditions with human blood plasma and has not yet been published.

It does not rule out other immune responses to Omicron in those with the J&J vaccine, such as from powerful T cells.


Is Omicron running out of steam in South Africa? Daily Covid cases rise by just 10% in a week and hospital admissions DROP for first time since strain took off

South Africa's daily Covid cases rose by just 10 per cent in a week today while hospitalisations fell for the first time since Omicron mutant strain first took off.

Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed 24,785 cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, up 11 per cent on last Thursday.

It is the second smallest week-on-week rise since South African doctors raised the alarm about the variant on November 24. Cases rose by just 5 per cent in a week this past Saturday.

The NICD data shows there were 347 admissions today, down almost a quarter from 507 a week ago. It marks the first time since November 27 that admissions have declined. Just 36 Covid deaths were registered today compared to 22 last Thursday.

Scientists have cautioned against reading into one day of data but there are increasing signs that South Africa's Omicron crisis may not be growing exponentially anymore, and may have peaked.

In another promising sign, infections fell in ground zero Gauteng province by 42 per cent in a week, with 6,744 positive tests.

Today is a public holiday in South Africa, which may have played a role in the relatively low infection and hospital numbers. But there were still 80,000 tests processed today, down only slightly on yesterday.

South African scientists have been saying for weeks that the super-mutant variant is milder than its rivals, and calling on other nations including Britain not to over-react to the strain.




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