Vaccines Effective Against New Omicron Subvariants, WHO Chief Says


Vaccines are effective against new omicron sub-variants driving a surge in Covid-19 cases in South Africa, the head of the World Health Organization said.

“It’s too soon to know whether these new sub-variants can cause more severe disease than other omicron sub-variants, but early data suggest vaccination remains protective against severe disease and death,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a media briefing in Geneva Wednesday.

Scientists in South Africa and Botswana discovered omicron late last year and South Africa was the first country to experience a major surge of infections as a result of the variant. Now BA.4 and BA.5, two omicron sub-variants, are driving a new spike in cases in South Africa.

Global deaths due to Covid-19 have fallen to the lowest levels since March 2020, with about 15,000 fatalities last week, according to the WHO.

Booster restores vaccine protection lost against omicron, U.K. study finds


Two doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna Covid-19 vaccines provide minimal protection against symptomatic illness caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, but a booster shot was able to restore protection, new research finds.

The study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness against symptomatic disease plummeted to about 8 percent from about 65 percent six months after the second dose of a primary vaccination series.

The effectiveness of the first two doses of the Moderna vaccine was similarly reduced, falling to about 15 percent from about 71 percent over the same period.

A booster shot of either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines increased the protection back to levels seen after two doses, before it starts to wane again after about two months, according to the researchers.

The study, funded by the U.K. Health Security Agency, adds to growing evidence that two doses of the existing Covid vaccines appear to offer little protection against mild illness from the omicron variant, although experts note that the shots still provide strong protection against severe disease and death.

The findings underscore the importance of the booster shot, the authors wrote, adding that third doses provide a “rapid and substantial” increase in protection against both mild and severe illness.

Got a Covid Booster? You Probably Won’t Need Another for a Long Time


As people across the world grapple with the prospect of living with the coronavirus for the foreseeable future, one question looms large: How soon before they need yet another shot?

Not for many months, and perhaps not for years, according to a flurry of new studies.

Three doses of a Covid vaccine — or even just two — are enough to protect most people from serious illness and death for a long time, the studies suggest.

“We’re starting to see now diminishing returns on the number of additional doses,” said John Wherry, director of the Institute for immunology at the University of Pennsylvania. Although people over 65 or at high risk of illness may benefit from a fourth vaccine dose, it may be unnecessary for most people, he added.

Federal health officials have said they are not planning to recommend fourth doses anytime soon.

The Omicron variant can dodge antibodies — immune molecules that prevent the virus from infecting cells — produced after two doses of a Covid vaccine. But a third shot of the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or by Moderna prompts the body to make a much wider variety of antibodies, which would be difficult for any variant of the virus to evade, according to the most recent study, posted online on Tuesday.

The diverse repertoire of antibodies produced should be able to protect people from new variants, even those that differ significantly from the original version of the virus, the study suggests.

“If people are exposed to another variant like Omicron, they now got some extra ammunition to fight it,” said Dr. Julie McElrath, an infectious disease physician and immunologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

What’s more, other parts of the immune system can remember and destroy the virus over many months if not years, according to at least four studies published in top-tier journals over the past month.

How Covid changed medicine for the future and potentially for the good of all


When Tom Pooley, 21, became the first person to receive an experimental vaccine against plague as part of a medical trial last summer after tests on mice, he was inspired by the thought that his involvement could help to rid the world of one of the most brutal killers in human history.

“They made it quite clear I was the first human to receive it,” says Pooley, a radiotherapy engineering student. “They didn’t dress it up, but they made it clear it was as safe as possible. There are risks, but they are talented people: it’s a big honour to be the first.” The single-shot, based on the Chadox technology developed by the Oxford Vaccine Group and AstraZeneca, took less than five seconds to painlessly administer, he says. That night, he felt a little unwell, but he was fine within three hours; and the small trial continued apace to combat the centuries-old bacteria threat, which killed 171 in Madagascar as recently as 2017. It uses a weakened, genetically altered version of a common-cold virus from chimpanzees.

It is just one example of how scientists are increasingly looking at how Covid treatments can help to treat other diseases. Trials are expected to be developed for other similar jabs against dengue, Zika and a whole host of pathogens. Another vaccine study against Ebola is already going to human trials. As Professor Sarah Gilbert, architect of the Oxford Vaccine, has said: “We’ve got the cake and we can put a cherry on top, or we can put some pistachios on top if we want a different vaccine, we just add the last bit and then we’re ready to go.”

The Covid pandemic sparked an unprecedented drive to control a lethal disease whose outbreak led to a near global shutdown to contain its spread. Billions in public and private money were pumped into research like never before in such a short space of time. It’s not something the medical world would have chosen, but the developments of the past two years could not have happened without Covid-19 – the pathogen has served as a giant catalyst ushering in different technologies, data and research that offer insights into other diseases.

The lessons that have been learned – and the new norms that have solidified – will change medical science forever. The world now sits on the verge of a number of potentially significant breakthroughs, mostly thanks to the growing research into hi-tech vaccines, which could benefit patients with cancer and a whole raft of infectious diseases.

“Covid has stimulated the rapid translation of previous knowledge into practice,” says Independent Sage member and UCL professor of virology, Deenan Pillay. “Developing science takes many years and needs an opportunity to be implemented. Covid has provided an easier regulatory environment, with fast-tracked trials, so vaccine developments, for example, have been really quick.” Until Covid it could take a decade or more for a new vaccine or drug to go through all the development and regulatory stages, he adds, but now they have been rolled out within 12 months of first description of the disease.

Already they have their sights set on another killer disease, malaria, which is estimated to have killed almost half of all people since the Stone Age. It remained a leading cause of global infectious disease death last year: more than 600,000 people, usually young children, died from it.

Bucala’s team, in partnership with pharmaceutical company Novartis, succeeded in developing a “self-amplifying” RNA (also known as saRNA) jab for it. The technology stems from a successful RNA malaria vaccine for mice developed at Yale and is in advanced preclinical testing. It could be tested for the first time in humans within two years.

“You can potentially protect against a range of tropical diseases using self-amplifying RNA, which targets a parasite-encoded MIF protein that kills memory cells,” he says. “The self-amplification advancement will create the next generation in RNA vaccines, permitting much lower dosing and the generation of critically needed memory T-cell responses. All of this will unfold in the next five to 10 years.”

Or even earlier: at the start of February, Moderna began their trial for an HIV vaccine that relies on the same mRNA technology as the Covid jab. If they’re successful, a one-off jab will offer lifetime protection. Now this technology is being studied to see if it could help control largely treatment-resistant conditions, such as rabies, Zika, and cancer of the colon, skin, breast and other parts of the body.

If there’s one area of optimism, it is this move towards scientific collaboration and the impressive advances that have emerged in such a relatively short space of time. “It’s been such a horrific time for so many people”, agrees David Braun, an oncologist and scientist focusing on cancer immunotherapies at the Yale Cancer Centre in New Haven, whose team is working to transfer the RNA technology to a cancer jab. “I hope that some of the scientific advances made during this period might help us to treat other diseases, so that at least there can be one glimmer of hope that comes out of this tremendously difficult situation.”

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Moderna CEO says it’s ‘reasonable’ to think the pandemic may be in its final stages


Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel said it’s “reasonable” to assume that we may be approaching the final stages of the pandemic.

“I think that is a reasonable scenario,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” when asked about views that the Covid-19 pandemic may now be in its final stages.

“There’s an 80% chance that as omicron evolves or SarsCov-2 virus evolves, we are going to see less and less virulent viruses,” he said Wednesday.

“I think we got lucky as a world that omicron was not very virulent, but still we are seeing thousands of people dying every day around the planet because of omicron,” he said.

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Vaccine scientists have been chasing variants. Now, they’re seeking a universal coronavirus vaccine


Volunteers are rolling up their sleeves to receive shots of experimental vaccines tailored to beat the omicron variant — just as the winter coronavirus surge begins to relent.

By the time scientists know whether those rebooted vaccines are effective and safe, omicron is expected to be in the rearview mirror. Already, mask mandates are easing. People are beginning to talk about normalcy.

By now, rebooting vaccines to match a new variant is becoming part of scientific muscle memory. Drug companies made vaccines to fight beta, delta and now omicron. None of those shots have been needed yet, but to many scientists, it is a short-term, shortsighted and unsustainable strategy.

“You don’t want to play this whack-a-mole approach,” said David R. Martinez, a viral immunologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This could go on forever.”

They are inventing vaccines designed to foster broad protection — an immunity wall that will repel not only the variants of SARS-CoV-2 that we know about, but those yet to emerge.

At minimum, the world needs a truly variant-proof vaccine. Even better would be a shot that would also stop a future pandemic, protecting against a yet-unknown coronavirus that will jump from animals into people in the years to come.

Flush with the success of the first vaccines, many scientists working on next-generation shots had been thinking big in 2021. Maybe they could make a vaccine that would repel not only SARS-CoV-2 and the original SARS, but also two coronaviruses that cause the common cold, Middle East respiratory syndrome, as well as future bat coronaviruses that could jump into humans.

A New England Journal of Medicine study last year demonstrated that, at least in concept, it was possible to generate broad immune protection against many viruses. Researchers in China showed that survivors of the original SARS outbreak two decades ago who were vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 produced antibodies capable of blocking an array of variants and other coronaviruses.

In the short-term, Haynes’s team is focused on stopping variants. They are manufacturing a vaccine — a nanoparticle with a fragment of the spike dotting its surface. In animal studies, that vaccine triggered broad immune protection against variants, the original SARS virus and bat coronaviruses. Haynes hopes to begin testing it in people this year.

“We’re looking for a tetanus-like shot,” Haynes said. “We all have to get a tetanus shot every 10 years. That would be really terrific.”

Over 75% of India’s adult population fully vaccinated against COVID-19


In a remarkable achievement for India, over 75 per cent of the country’s adult population are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya informed on Sunday.

“With the mantra of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Prayas’, India has vaccinated 75 per cent of its adult population with both doses of the vaccine. We are getting stronger in the fight against Corona. We have to follow all the rules and administer the vaccine as soon as possible,” Mandaviya tweeted.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday congratulated fellow citizens for this “momentous feat” and said he is proud of all those who are making the vaccination drive a success. Tagging a tweet by Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya in which he stated that India has achieved its goal of vaccinating 75 per cent adult population against Covid, the prime minister said, “75% of all adults are fully vaccinated. Congratulations to our fellow citizens for this momentous feat.”

“Proud of all those who are making our vaccination drive a success,” he said.

Long-COVID symptoms less likely in vaccinated people, Israeli data say


Data from people infected with SARS-CoV-2 early in the pandemic add to growing evidence suggesting that vaccination can help to reduce the risk of long COVID.

Researchers in Israel report that people who have had both SARS-CoV-2 infection and doses of Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine were much less likely to report any of a range of common long-COVID symptoms than were people who were unvaccinated when infected. In fact, vaccinated people were no more likely to report symptoms than people who’d never caught SARS-CoV-2. The study has not yet been peer reviewed.

“Here is another reason to get vaccinated, if you needed one,” says co-author Michael Edelstein, an epidemiologist at Bar-Ilan University in Safed, Israel.

People with the debilitating condition called long COVID continue to experience symptoms — such as fatigue, shortness of breath and even trouble concentrating — weeks, months or years after SARS-CoV-2 infection. Some estimate that up to 30% of infected people, including many who were never hospitalized, have persistent symptoms.

Vaccination reduces long COVID’s incidence by preventing people from getting infected in the first place. In theory, the shots could also protect against the condition by minimizing the length of time the virus has free rein in the body during breakthrough infections. But so far, the few studies that have looked into whether vaccines protect people from long COVID have had mixed results, says Akiko Iwasaki, a viral immunologist at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

The researchers compared the prevalence of each symptom to self-reported vaccination status and found that fully vaccinated participants who had also had COVID-19 were 54% less likely to report headaches, 64% less likely to report fatigue and 68% less likely to report muscle pain than were their unvaccinated counterparts.

Edelstein says his team’s study is the most “comprehensive and precise” to date on vaccination and long COVID, and that the results echo those of other research, including a UK-based study from last September that found that vaccination halved the risk of long COVID.

Pfizer CEO – This could be the last wave with restrictions


Pfizer boss Albert Bourla said Monday that although the “most likely scenario” is that coronavirus will be circulating for many years to come, he believes the current wave of infections will be the final one that requires restrictions.

Bourla also said that the company’s anti-COVID pill, Paxlovid, “changes everything,” as a new way to fight serious illness. Pfizer said in December that its Paxlovid pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths in vulnerable people by almost 90 percent.

France’s current COVID wave could peak in around 10 days time – national vaccine chief


The current COVID-19 wave engulfing France could reach its peak in around 10 days time, said Professor Alain Fischer, an official responsible for France’s COVID vaccine strategy.

“I think we are coming to the peak of this new wave,” Fischer told LCI TV, adding that this peak could come “primarily towards the beginning of the second fortnight of January, so if we work it out this would be in around 10 days time.”

France reported 261,481 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, less than the record of more than 332,000 set on Wednesday, but the seven-day moving average of new cases rose above 200,000 for the first time since the start of the health crisis.