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Pfizer vaccine loses power against omicron, small study shows; variant's early traits: more infectious, less dangerous: Live updates

More conclusive information about critical elements of the new omicron variant won’t be available for about two weeks, but scientific consensus seems to be building about its early signs: more transmissible yet less harmful than the delta variant.

In a briefing by the White House COVID-19 response team Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned several times that any such conclusions are premature, while reiterating previous comments that raised hope omicron won’t be the scourge some fear.

“It appears that with the cases that are seen, we’re not seeing a very severe profile of disease,’’ said Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser. “In fact, it might be – and I underscore might – be less severe, as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases.’’

At the same time, Fauci noted that evidence from South Africa – where scientists first identified omicron – suggests the variant is more contagious than its predecessors, as it becomes the country’s dominant strain.

Omicron is spreading quickly through parts of southern Africa, and a new lab study suggests it might elude some of the protection against infection from the Pfizer vaccine.

Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, succinctly summarized omicron’s most relevant apparent features in a talk with reporters.

This virus comes with both barrels loaded – high infectivity and potentially the ability for immune evasion,’’ Greene said. “But maybe what it's lacking is pathogenicity.’’

Among the many unanswered questions about omicron, one looms perhaps largest of all: How does it fare against vaccine-induced protection? Fauci said more will be known in that regard when the results of currents tests come out toward the end of next week. But he pointed out a new study in South Africa showed omicron yielded a higher rate of reinfection than other variants, an indication it has at least some ability to evade immunity.

Fellow response team members said the U.S. is in good position to fight off omicron thanks in large part to its abundant COVID-19 vaccines, which are expected to provide a certain level of protection from the new variant.

Coordinator Jeff Zients highlighted that 12.5 million vaccine doses were administered last week, the highest total since May, and that nearly 7 million Americans received booster shots, the biggest weekly number to date.

However, the U.S. has been recording about 100,000 new infections a day, and more than 36% of the population – including 28% of adults – has yet to get fully vaccinated.

“We have more tools than ever before to confront COVID and omicron,’’ Zients said, “and to continue to make progress in our fight against the virus.’’

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise

Global vaccine equity:Omicron isn't a surprise to advocates who have fought for global vaccine equity

More on vaccine equity:Equity lens for COVID-19 shots critical amid holidays and omicron concern, experts say

Also in the news:

►"Omicron" made this year's list of most mispronounced words published Tuesday by the U.S. Captioning Company. The COVID-19 variant joins "cheugy," "dalgona," "dogecoin" and "yassify" on the annual list.

►A Spanish hospital said 68 staff members, including intensive care nurses and doctors, tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a holiday dinner with 170 staff members at a restaurant last weekend.

►The CDC updated its COVID-19 testing guidance Monday to encourage people – even if they have no symptoms or exposures –  to self-test for the virus before going to indoor gatherings with others outside their household, especially if unvaccinated children, older people or those who are immunocompromised will be present.

►The University of Notre Dame is requiring students to get a COVID-19 booster to keep their fully vaccinated status.

►Reported cases of COVID-19 among Indiana's K-12 students jumped back up, after taking a dip around the Thanksgiving holiday. There were 4,321 new cases reported among students this week, the highest number of newly-reported cases since mid-September.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 49 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 791,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 267 million cases and 5.2 million deaths. More than 199 million Americans – 60% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

📘 What we're reading: For a year since COVID-19 vaccines first became available, a small but vocal group has warned about the need to protect the most vulnerable around the world. But the response from wealthier nations has been slow.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Pfizer vaccine less effective against omicron in small, new study

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was less effective against the omicron variant in a small study conducted in South Africa, which also suggested booster shots and previous infection combined with vaccination enhance protection.

The research, led by virologist Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute, showed "a very large drop in neutralization of Omicron'' by the Pfizer vaccine compared to how it fared against the original strain of the coronavirus, he said Tuesday on Twitter. However, Sigal added, the variant didn't completely elude antibody response, which was down as much as 41-fold.

Antibodies provide the first line of defense against pathogens but they're not the immune system's only protective mechanism. The diminished effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine in this lab experiment of samples from 12 participants likely indicates breakthrough infections are more likely with omicron, but not necessarily more severe illness. No samples of people who received a booster shot were analyzed.

"This was better than I expected of Omicron,'' Sigal said, adding that the virus can be fought "with the tools we got.''

Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, described the lab results on Twitter as, "Not great. Not terrible. ... Gives me hope boosters will protect people against infections.''

New US program to invest more than $315 million to vaccinate other countries

The U.S. is expanding its aid for international COVID-19 vaccine access. The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, announced its new Global VAX program will invest $315 million to support vaccine readiness programs, in addition to $10 million for in-country vaccine manufacturing and $75 million for delivering life-saving resources such as oxygen.

The initiative will prioritize scaling up support to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where vaccination rates remain strikingly low compared to other parts of the world. 

This disparity has played out across the world, and it’s one health experts have warned about since the onset of the pandemic: While richer countries rapidly vaccinate their populations and buy up doses, other nations are projected to not have wider access to the vaccine until late 2022 or 2023, according to the World Health Organization.

And some with access struggle to administer them. Up to one million doses of COVID-19 vaccines expired without being used in Nigeria last month, according to a Reuters report that illustrates the difficulty of getting shots into arms in some African countries.

Before the Global VAX announcement, the U.S. had already pledged 1.2 billion doses to lower and middle-income nations. The U.S. has "shipped for free more vaccine than all other countries in the world combined," President Joe Biden said.

Yet, fewer than one-quarter of those 1.2 billion doses have been delivered. And the path of omicron, which the CDC has now confirmed in 19 states, shows that Americans are vulnerable no matter where a new variant first appears.

One of first Americans infected with omicron touts vaccines' role in limiting symptoms

A 30-year-old Minneapolis man who had one of the first omicron cases confirmed in the U.S. has gone public to encourage others to get vaccinated, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported

Pete McGinn, who tested positive after a trip to New York City for an anime convention, said he was asymptomatic, fully vaccinated and had recently gotten his booster shot. "I do believe that the booster and getting the vaccine helps reduce the symptoms that I had," he told the newspaper.

Omicron variant found in Houston wastewater

The omicron variant has been detected in Houston's wastewater, the city announced. Houston's health department said this is the first indication the new variant has made its way to the country's fourth-largest city, though that hasn't been confirmed.

Wastewater samples collected Nov. 29 to 30 found omicron at eight of Houston's 39 wastewater treatment plants. The health department regularly tests wastewater for the coronavirus because people infected with COVID-19 "shed the virus in their feces," the city said. The department recently started testing for the omicron variant, saying wastewater data helps to "more quickly identify emerging outbreaks and hotspots."

Court orders hospital to allow ivermectin treatment in COVID-19 case

A court order issued late Friday allowed a Pennsylvania man on a ventilator in a medically induced coma from COVID-19 to be treated with the controversial drug ivermectin.

Keith Smith's wife, Darla, filed a lawsuit in York County Court last week asking a judge to compel the hospital to treat her husband with ivermectin, seeking an emergency injunction to force UPMC Memorial to administer the drug.

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic that is not part of the medical center’s COVID-19 protocols and is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of the virus. 

In a somewhat confusing ruling, York County Judge Clyde Vedder denied Darla Smith’s request for an emergency injunction to force UPMC to administer ivermectin. But a paragraph of the order directed UPMC to allow the doctor who had prescribed the drug or another physician or registered nurse to administer it under the doctor’s “guidance and supervision.” 

The court order touched off a weekend of back and forth between the lawyers involved, Darla Smith and the hospital’s administration, ending Sunday night when Keith Smith, 52, received his first dose of ivermectin. 

– Mike Argento, York Daily Record

Omicron may be more contagious, less dangerous

Early reports from South Africa seem to indicate the omicron variant of the coronavirus is much more contagious than previous variants while causing milder disease, though experts there warn definitive data won't be available for weeks.

"This virus comes with both barrels loaded – high infectivity and potentially the ability for immune evasion. But maybe what it's lacking is pathogenicity," said Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

COVID-19 cases in South Africa's Gauteng province are doubling every day and 75% of infections are from omicron. There is also a week-over-week increase in hospital admissions.

But so far there have not been an increase in deaths or even hospitalized people who require oxygen, said Greene, who spoke on a call with reporters Monday.

Currently, the global epicenter of omicron cases is the Tshwane district in the Gauteng province to the northeast of Johannesburg. Cases there have increased exponentially in the past several weeks, according to the South African Medical Research Council.

-- Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY