US regulators clear Pfizer Covid-19 pill; South Africa registers 21,099 new cases

US regulators clear Pfizer Covid-19 pill; South Africa registers 21,099 new cases
People in Manhattan queue to get tested for Covid-19 on 22 December 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

South Africa registered 21,099 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,353,106. A further 99 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 90,587. A total of 27,733,331 vaccines have been administered.

Regulators in the U.S. gave emergency authorisation to Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 pill for people at high risk of severe complications, bringing a more convenient treatment option to patients at a critical point in the pandemic.

The U.K., which reported a record number of new cases, said it will buy millions more antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck & Co. The country’s vaccine panel also cleared Pfizer’s shot for use in vulnerable young children to widen coverage against the variant.

South Africans contracting the disease in the current fourth wave of infections are 80% less likely to be hospitalised if they catch the Omicron variant, compared with other strains, according to a study released by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. An early study from Scotland showed similar results.

With the new strain spreading across much of the world, Chile led Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking in December, reflecting the broader recovery of the South America region.

Key developments: 

 California to keep schools open, provide tests

Rather than close classrooms as Omicron infections surge, California will provide one or two rapid coronavirus tests for every public school student returning from winter break, Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

California also will extend hours at state-run testing facilities and require booster shots for health-care workers to stem rising infections. 

Although California recorded the nation’s first Omicron case, Newsom has resisted a new round of business or school closures. Instead, he has pushed for vaccinations, boosters and ramped-up testing to limit the variant’s spread. More than 87% of the state’s population over the age of 5 has received at least one vaccine dose, and 8.7 million of its 40 million people have received a booster shot. 

Cirque du Soleil cancels some New York City shows

Cirque du Soleil is cancelling some of its New York City shows due to breakthrough cases among people in its production. 

Cirque du Soleil and MSG Entertainment said they would cancel the shows for “Twas the Night Before…” at Madison Square Garden due to staff Covid cases and plan to resume the show on Dec. 28. Tickets for affected shows will be fully refunded, the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

In general, MSG has said its concerts, shows and events will go on as planned despite a spike in Covid cases in New York that has jumped sixfold in the last month.

Duke joins number of U.S. colleges going online

Add Duke University to the list of colleges – including Harvard and Stanford – that will begin the January semester online due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Classes will be held remotely beginning Jan. 5, and in-person instruction for undergraduates and most graduate and professional school programs is expected to resume on Jan. 10, Duke said Wednesday.

Upon return to campus, Duke students should expect to submit proof of Covid boosters shots before the end of January. A growing number of schools, including the University of Michigan and Michigan State, are requiring boosters. The American College Health Association is recommending booster shots for all students, faculty and staff on college campuses.

Pfizer pill cleared by U.S. regulators

U.S. regulators gave emergency authorisation to Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 pill for people at high risk of severe complications, bringing a more convenient treatment option to patients at a critical point in the pandemic.

The drug Paxlovid becomes the first at-home medication authorised for Covid-19. It is expected to become a potent weapon in battling the virus once production gears up, giving high-risk patients an easy-to-use treatment they can take from home.

D.C. to require vaccine proof at restaurants

Washington, D.C., will require restaurants and bars to verify that patrons ages 12 and older have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, Mayor Muriel Bowser said. The rule takes effect Jan. 15.

Omicron hospital risk below that of Delta

Infection with the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is far less likely to land patients in the hospital than cases involving the delta strain, according to early study data out of Scotland.  

The study suggests Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospitalisation when compared with the earlier variant, though it’s also more contagious. 

While booster doses offer greater protection against delta, a third shot also offers substantial additional protection against the risk of symptomatic infection for Omicron, researchers found.

Spain reintroduces use of outdoor masks

Spain will reintroduce compulsory use of masks outdoors. The decision was announced in a meeting by Prime Minsiter Pedro Sanchez in a meeting with the leaders of the country’s leaders Wednesday, and will first need approval by the government’s Cabinet, a formality. The government has also said it will assign members of the armed forces to vaccination tasks, as it seeks to massively roll out third jabs.

U.K. reports more than 100,000 new cases

The U.K. reported a record 106,122 new coronavirus cases on Dec. 22, according to government data. 

Amazon requires masks for warehouse workers

Amazon warehouse employees in the U.S. will be required to wear face masks at work beginning Wednesday, CNBC reported, citing a notice sent to employees on Tuesday and confirmation from a company spokesperson.

Booster programmes set to exacerbate vaccine inequity, says WHO

The focus of immunisations must remain on decreasing deaths and severe disease, and blanket booster programmes are set to exacerbate vaccine inequity as about 20% of all daily doses currently administered are booster shots or an additional dose, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Blanket booster programmes are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than end it by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

New York City public hospitals to ban most visitors

New York City’s public hospitals said on Wednesday that the system would begin banning most visitors amid the Covid spike, spurred by a recent outbreak in one of the hospitals. The visitation rules won’t be as restrictive as they were during the height of the pandemic in 2020 as women in labor, children and hospice patients will still be able to receive visitors.

Privately run Mount Sinai Health System also said it would limit visitors.

Czech Cabinet tightens rules

The Czech government limited the size of audiences at public events and announced stricter rules around the New Year to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Health Minister Vlastimil Valek said. Cultural and other public events can have a maximum of 1,000 people seated or 100 standing attendees.

Mayor-Elect to keep New York City health chief

Eric Adams will keep Dave Chokshi as New York City’s chief health official, a sign the mayor-elect seeks to maintain continuity with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pandemic response against a backdrop of surging Covid cases, according to a person familiar with the decision who was unauthorised to speak publicly. 

Mauritius vaccination validity now six months 

Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island nation with 72% of population having completed inoculation, amended the conditions to be considered as fully vaccinated, according to Health and Wellness minister Kailesh Jagutpal.

The status will now be valid for six months. To be considered once again as fully vaccinated, the person should get a booster dose within four to six months after the second jab or single shot of Johnson & Johnson. These new measures will be effective as from Jan. 15., Jagutpal told reporters in Port Louis, the capital, on Wednesday.

So far, there are 174,854 people who have been administered with a booster dose, representing about 14% of the population.

Austria’s curbs seek to save ski season

Austria will restrict quarantine-free travel from the U.K., Netherlands, Norway and Denmark and only allow in select travellers as it balances between containing the pandemic and salvaging its ski season.

Only people who’ve had a booster shot and can show a negative coronavirus test will be allowed to enter the Alpine nation from those countries without self-isolation, Austria’s coronavirus task force said on Wednesday. The measure stops short of a de facto entry ban that has applied to other high-risk countries, and leaves a window for travel to support winter tourism.

Amazon limits sales of at-home tests

Amazon is placing a 10-unit limit on the amount of at-home Amazon brand PCR tests a customer can order amid a surge in demand for tests due to the Omicron variant, CNBC reported, citing a spokesperson. 

U.K. backs shot for at-risk children

The U.K. vaccines panel cleared the Pfizer shot for use in vulnerable young children to widen vaccination coverage against the Omicron variant.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation changed its advice to allow at-risk children aged 5 to 11 years old to become eligible for two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Each inoculation will be one-third of the adult dose.

Denmark demands negative tests from travellers

Denmark’s government is planning to require all travellers to present a negative test to enter the country, joining Finland, Italy and Greece in unilaterally limiting free movement within the European Union.

While provisional data from the Nordic country suggests that those catching the Omicron strain have a smaller risk of being hospitalised, the picture changes when adjusted for age and vaccination status, according to Henrik Ullum, head of Statens Serum Institut, the body under the health ministry in charge of Denmark’s response to infectious diseases.

Germany could experience a spike in Omicron

The head of Germany’s public health institute warned that the Omicron variant could become dominant in the country in the next one to two weeks with potentially serious consequences for hospitals and other critical infrastructure.

Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, said case numbers are likely to start rising again soon in a wave of infections “with a dynamic unlike anything we’ve yet seen”. He urged citizens to limit social contact over the festive period, noting that Germany is still suffering around 2,000 Covid-related deaths per week.

Japan’s Kono Taro urges faster booster roll-out

Former Japanese vaccine czar Kono Taro said the government should speed up its roll-out of coronavirus booster shots as the Omicron variant spreads.

“Speed matters more than fairness and now Omicron is coming in, so we should be doing it as fast as possible,” he told Bloomberg News in an interview. He dismissed a government plan that requires an interval of eight months between second and third doses for most people. “Why wait for eight months? No reason,” he said.

Omicron has lower risk of hospitalisation

South Africans contracting Covid in the current fourth wave of infections are 80% less likely to be hospitalised if they catch the Omicron variant, compared with other strains, according to a study released by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Once admitted to the hospital, the risk of severe disease doesn’t differ from other variants, the authors said.

Omicron found in Europe’s wastewater

Omicron was detected in wastewater from a dozen European municipalities and industrial sites in December, providing an additional early warning system for coronavirus variants, according to Veolia Environnement SA.

Detection methods for new strains can be rolled out within two weeks of their identification, the French company and its partners said in a statement Wednesday. Their surveillance system called Vigie Covid-19 is being used alongside clinical data and can serve as a new pandemic indicator, they said.

UAE cases up tenfold since first Omicron case 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recorded 665 Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, a tenfold increase since the start of the month, when the gulf nation reported its first case of the Omicron variant. The government has acknowledged the increase, but said hospitalisations remain low.

Poland deaths at highest since April

Poland registered 775 deaths in the past 24 hours, the highest daily toll since April. The Health Ministry said infections are starting to fall, a sign the peak of the current wave has passed, and rejected calls for harsher restrictions. The country’s hospitals remain crammed with over 23,000 Covid patients before an expected Omicron wave.

Biden to ramp up purchase of treatments

The Joe Biden administration expects to take delivery of 4 million courses of treatments by the end of January, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The treatments include a monoclonal antibody product, pre-exposure preventive drugs for immunocompromised people, and new antiviral pills awaiting Food and Drug Administration authorisation, the officials said. That authorisation is expected as soon as Wednesday.

Chile tops resilience ranking

Chile is number one in Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking in December, reflecting the broader recovery of the South America region helped by warmer weather and rapid booster shot roll-outs. In the last month of the year, places in the Asia Pacific like Singapore, Australia and New Zealand also advanced as they reopened, though Omicron is now chipping at their gains. 

The new variant is halting the march toward normalisation that’s characterised 2021, but a reluctance to revert to pre-vaccine lockdowns and other curbs is differentiating the best and worst places to be during the pandemic in December. 

Among northern hemisphere countries facing surges of infection, many like the U.S. and U.K. are refraining from returning to the economically crippling measures used to contain the virus in 2020, relying instead on accelerated booster drives to fight the new variant.

Southeast Asia continues to populate the bottom of the Ranking as they lag in vaccination and reopening. In December, Vietnam – where the export-reliant economy has been hard-hit by factory closures – took over the last place of number 53 from the Philippines, where restrictions and infections have eased. DM

– With assistance from Cecilia Yap, Christopher Palmeri, Lily Nonomiya, Kamlesh Bhuckory, Shelly Banjo, Luke McGrath, Corinne Gretler, Rodrigo Orihuela and Janet Lorin.


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