US regulators clear Merck Covid-19 pill; South Africa registers 21,156 new cases

US regulators clear Merck Covid-19 pill; South Africa registers 21,156 new cases
Local residents wait in line to receive free Covid test kits outside Petworth Library on 23 December 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

South Africa registered 21,156 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total to 3,374,262. A further 75 Covid-19-related deaths were reported, taking total official deaths to 90,662. A total of 27,778,860 vaccines have been administered.

Merck & Co.’s Covid-19 pill was cleared by U.S. regulators, the second new treatment option approved in as many days in an expanding arsenal to fight the pandemic just as a new wave of infections is taking hold in the nation. 

An individual with Omicron is 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to the hospital, compared with the Delta strain, the U.K. government said. A third dose of AstraZeneca plc’s vaccine significantly boosted neutralising antibodies against Omicron.

Yale joined several other U.S. colleges that plan to start the next semester online due to the worsening virus situation. Morgan Stanley told workers to wear masks and limit big meetings

Key developments: 

New York City to limit crowds at Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration

New York City is limiting crowds and adding more health and safety measures for revellers at the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square amid a record surge in Covid-19 cases. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the celebration will still be held but only allow 15,000 people in viewing areas. The city will require proof of full vaccination and mask-wearing.

Still, the mayor declined to cancel the event altogether, citing vaccination requirements to attend, the outdoor nature of the event and the precautions taken as adequate safety measures.

Intel, Waymo to pull out of CES on Covid concern

Intel Corp., the world’s largest chipmaker, and Alphabet Inc. autonomous driving unit Waymo have joined a growing list of companies pulling out of the CES technology conference scheduled for next month.

In a blog post on Thursday, Waymo cited “quickly rising Covid-19 infection rates” but said its executives would participate in virtual events. Similarly, Intel said it will send only a small number of staff to the Las Vegas event and switch its participation to the internet.

An executive board member of Porsche AG, Barbara Frenkel, also canceled her plans to attend the conference scheduled to begin Jan. 5.

New Jersey more than doubles previous case record

New Jersey reported 15,482 cases, more than double its previous record of set in January, while tests have surged amid holiday travel plans. The most densely populated U.S. state also counted 22 Covid-related deaths in hospitals and 33 earlier fatalities with a newly confirmed link to the virus. Just a day earlier, New Jersey had 9,711 positive tests.

Hospitalisations rose 28% from a week ago, to 2,241 patients. In April 2020, prior to vaccine availability, more than 8,000 Covid patients were in New Jersey hospitals.

France reports record new cases

France identified around 88,000 coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, “the worst figures registered since the start of the pandemic”, BFM TV cited Health Minister Olivier Veran as saying.

Daily cases are likely to hit 100,000 closer to Dec. 25, Veran said during a visit to a vaccination center in Paris, according to BFM. France had expected cases to reach that level by the end of the month.

Morgan Stanley tells workers to mask up

Morgan Stanley told employees who have to be in the office through the first two weeks of January to wear face coverings when not at their desks and limit large in-person meetings.

“This guidance applies to all locations (even those where everyone is fully vaccinated),” the New York-based bank said in a memo to staffers this week. “Masking is always encouraged for anyone who is at increased risk or who has a household member who is unvaccinated or at increased risk.”

A Morgan Stanley representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Omicron hospital risk as much as 70% lower

Omicron appears to be less severe but more contagious than any other Covid-19 strain to date, the U.K. government said, as daily infections soared to another new record close to 120,000. 

An individual with Omicron is 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital, compared with the Delta strain, the U.K. Health Security Agency said Thursday. They are also between 31% and 45% less likely to attend emergency departments with Omicron than with Delta.

However, data from the HSA also showed that while a booster improves protection, it starts to wane more rapidly than with Delta, and is 15% to 25% lower from 10 weeks after the third dose. 

Italy infections at record high

Italy recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic. The first country in Europe to move into lockdown last year reported 44,595 cases on Thursday, up from 36,293 a day earlier. Patients in intensive care units rose by 13 to 1,023, still well below the peak of more than 4,000 last year.

Spike in U.K. cases puts pressure on Boris Johnson

U.K. cases surged to a record for a second day, piling pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he considers whether to tighten pandemic regulations after Christmas.

A total of 119,789 new cases were logged on Thursday, according to data published on the government’s coronavirus dashboard. That’s more than double the rate seen at the start of the month, and an increase of more than 10,000 on Wednesday’s caseload — which had been a daily record.

New wave taking hold in U.S.

Another wave of Covid infections is taking hold in the U.S., powered by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. On Wednesday, daily cases topped 250,000 for the second time this week, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg show.

Even so, the hospitalisation rate in the nation has been relatively stable in recent days. Preliminary studies from overseas show Omicron may be less likely to land patients in the hospital than the Delta strain.

Serbia reports first Omicron case

Serbia detected its first Omicron case on Thursday after health authorities said the strain will inevitably spread to the Balkan country. Serbia’s rate of new infections has been declining this month but the government has warned that another wave of Covid cases is possible.

Yale delays start of semester term 

Yale University is delaying the start of the spring semester and moving the first few weeks of classes online as the Covid-19 Omicron strain spreads. The school’s spring break will also be shortened by one week.

After a relatively quiet start to the fall semester, several colleges including Harvard, Stanford and Duke have announced plans to begin the term starting in January online.

Merck pill gets U.S. clearance

Merck & Co.’s Covid-19 pill was cleared by U.S. regulators, giving high-risk patients another at-home treatment option at a time when the Omicron variant is causing cases to surge.

The drug, molnupiravir, received emergency authorisation on the heels of Pfizer Inc.’s competing pill that was cleared Wednesday, Paxlovid. Together, the treatments promise to provide a new way to keep a sharp rise in infections from overwhelming U.S. hospitals.

Molnupiravir, developed by Merck with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is intended to treat Covid in non-hospitalised people 18 and older at risk of developing severe illness. A study showed it reduced the risk of hospitalisation or death among adults with mild to moderate disease by 30%. 

Slovenia tightens restrictions

Slovenia decided to tighten virus measures before the holiday season, limiting the number of shoppers to one per 10 square metres, while banning public events and parties for New Year’s Eve. However, bars and restaurants will be allowed to operate without limit on Dec. 31 for guests with a fresh negative test. Private gatherings on Christmas and New Year’s will be limited to family members of up to three different households.

German ICU occupancy expected to spike

Germany may see 8,000 Covid-19 patients in intensive care units (ICUs) simultaneously next spring, Spiegel magazine reported, citing calculations by the Max-Planck-Institut. Currently, the country has about 4,400 ICU patients with Covid, and 85% of all intensive care beds occupied.

Due to the Omicron variant, daily new infections could reach between 160,000 and 240,000 in March, Spiegel said.

France warns on worker shortages

France’s Covid-19 advisory board warned on Thursday that the latest wave of infections spurred by the Omicron variant could lead to worker shortages in key industries such as supermarkets, transportation and health, according to Agence France-Presse.

Boris Johnson holds off new curbs for now

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will wait until after Christmas to announce any new curbs. 

Any announcement will not come until the week after Christmas, people familiar with the matter said Thursday, when the government will give a Covid-19 update regardless of whether Johnson decides to introduce new restrictions.

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, departs number 10 Downing Street on his way to attend a weekly questions and answers session in Parliament in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

Scotland to shut nightclubs

The Scottish government said nightclubs will close for at least three weeks on Dec. 27 to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant, which has been the dominant cause of infections in the nation since last week. The closures, which affect about 150 establishments, will be reviewed on Jan. 11.

The U.K. has been divided over how to address the latest wave of Covid-19, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland moving more quickly to reintroduce social distancing and other measures for businesses. 

Greece implements new curbs

Greece mandated the wearing of masks in all outdoor areas, as well as indoor areas where they aren’t currently worn, such as gyms. The government also requested all international travellers to take rapid tests on the second and fourth day after their arrival in the country. All outdoor festive events for the holiday season are cancelled. 

Three Sinovac doses fail to protect

Two doses and a booster of the vaccine made by China’s Sinovac didn’t produce sufficient levels of neutralising antibodies to protect against the Omicron variant, a laboratory study found.  

A booster shot from Germany’s BioNTech SE significantly improved protective levels of antibodies against Omicron for those who are fully immunised with the vaccine known as CoronaVac, according to the study from the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

AstraZeneca booster works against Omicron

The vaccine, created by Astra and Oxford, saw neutralising antibodies increase to similar levels as those after two doses against the Delta variant with a booster shot, the company said. A third dose produced higher levels of neutralising antibodies than those found in individuals who had recovered naturally from the Alpha, Beta and Delta strains. 

Mask mandates return to Sydney and Melbourne

Australia’s two most populous states are bringing back mask mandates as a surge in Covid-19 cases, led by the highly contagious Omicron variant, threatens to ruin Christmas plans for a second year.

In New South Wales, where Sydney is the capital, limits will also return on the number of patrons in hospitality venues from Dec. 27., in an attempt to limit the potential impact on the state’s healthcare system. Numbers are climbing at a slower rate in Victoria, home to Melbourne, which hadn’t eased public restrictions as fast as its neighboring state in recent weeks.  

A passenger walks with luggage outside the departures terminal of the international terminal of Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia, on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. The Australian Competition & Consumer Competition will not oppose Sydney Aviation Alliances proposed acquisition of Sydney Airport. DM

– With assistance from Mark Gurman, Vincent Del Giudice, Chanyaporn Chanjaroen, Andras Gergely, Katharina Rosskopf, Jenny Che, Jan Bratanic, Misha Savic, Marco Bertacche, Alex Morales, Melissa Karsh, Naomi Kresge, Suzi Ring, James Regan and Elise Young.


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