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Covid-19 news summary: 13 January 2022

Update:
YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA - JANUARY 13: A health worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 booster vaccine during the booster vaccination program on January 13, 2022 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. While Southeast Asia's vaccination programs have gath

Omicron covid-19 variant headlines:

- US President Biden announces deployment of medical teams to support overwhelmed hospitals in six states

- At-home testing kits to be sent out to US households "soon" - VP Harris

- US government to purchase additional 500m at-home testing kits, taking total to 1bn - Biden

- Omicron "will find just about everybody", Dr Fauci says

- US hospitalizations for covid-19 at record levels

- Omicron variant accounts for over 60% of global covid-19 cases

- UK PM Johnson facing calls to resign after admitting attending Downing Street garden party during lockdown

- Quebec plans to impose 'health tax' on residents who refuse vaccine

General news and information

- Are the doses of the Moderna and Pfizer booster shots different?

- What side effects does the vaccine have on children?

What is 'flurona' and what are the symptoms?

- Will swabbing your throat produce a more accurate result for a covid-19 rapid test?

- Is it normal to experience armpit pain after receiving the vaccine?

Key websites:

-  World Health Organisation

- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

- The Lancet

Further reading:

Scientists identify gene which could cause severe Covid-19 infection

Researchers have isolated an effector gene which is associated with a twofold increase in the risk of respiratory failure from Covid-19. Casual gene LZTFL1 only occurs in a small percentage of certain popluations and studies indicate that it could play a key role in determining why some people suffer severe Covid-19 infection while others don't.

Frances Flinter, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Genetics, Guy’s & St Thomas, said:"This is a very interesting publication.  The discrepancy between the risk of serious disease and death in different ethnic groups has previously been attributed in part to socio-economic differences, but it was clear that this was not a complete explanation. Sixty percent of people with South Asian ancestry carried a higher-risk version of the gene compared with 15% of those with European ancestry – explaining in part the higher rate of hospitalisation and death in the former group. The study also found that 2% of people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry carried the higher risk genotype, so this genetic factor does not completely explain the increased death rates reported in black and minority ethnic communities".

Mexico's confirmed Covid-19 death toll rises to 300,912 M

Mexico's Health Ministry on Thursday reported 148 more confirmed fatalities from Covid-19, bringing the country's official death toll since the pandemic began to 300,912. The ministry has previously said the real number is likely significantly higher.

GlaxoSmithKline

WHO recommends Eli Lilly, GSK-Vir's Covid-19 drugs

A World Health Organization (WHO) panel recommended use of two drugs by Eli Lilly, and GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology for Covid-19 patients, adding treatment options as the fast-spreading Omicron variant renders many ineffective. WHO data shows Omicron, which is evading protection provided by many vaccines and therapies, has been identified in 149 countries. It is quickly replacing Delta as the dominant variant in several nations, forcing governments and scientists to bolster defences with testing, shots and therapies.

The panel on Thursday strongly recommended Lilly's baricitinib, sold under brand name Olumiant, for patients with severe Covid-19 in combination with corticosteroids, while conditionally endorsed GSK-Vir's antibody therapy for non-severe patients at the highest risk of hospitalization. So far, GSK-Vir's monoclonal antibody therapy is the only one that has shown effectiveness against Omicron in lab tests, while similar treatments from Eli Lilly and Co and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals offered lower protection in such tests.

WHO experts noted that the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatments (lab-generated compounds that mimic the body's natural defences) against new variants such as Omicron was still uncertain, and said the guidelines for this class of medicine will be updated when additional data become available.

The WHO guidelines, published in the British Medical Journal, also noted that evidence shows baricitinib improves survival rate and reduces the need for ventilation, with no observed increase in adverse effects.

French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) welcomed the United Nations agency's guidelines, and said baricitinib can be a potential alternative to current WHO-recommended monoclonal antibody treatments that remain in short supply for governments and patients in many low- and middle-income countries. MSF also said that governments must take steps to ensure that patent monopolies do not stand in the way of access to the treatment.

Court suspends order to wear masks outdoor in Paris

A French administrative tribunal on Thursday suspended an order that masks be worn on the streets of Paris, news agency AFP reported. The mask mandate, imposed by Paris prefecture, the local arm of the interior ministry, had been in place in the capital since 31 December in a bid to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The ruling by the Paris Administrative Tribunal comes a day after another court in Versailles, near the capital, suspended a similar order to wear masks outdoors in the Yvelines region, deeming the mandate "an excessive, disproportionate and inappropriate infringement ... of personal freedom".

There was no immediate reaction from the Paris Prefecture. The greater Paris region is France's Omicron hotspot, although the variant is running rampant nationwide. Data showed an incidence rate of 3,899 infections per 100,000 residents over the past seven days.

The court's decision was welcomed in some quarters. 'Live free, live happy!' far-right politician Florian Philippot wrote on Twitter. Philippot has spearheaded waves of street protests against President Emmanuel Macron's Covid-19 restrictions, including France's health pass.

Biden doubles US free test pledge to one billion amid short supply

President Joe Biden said on Thursday he is directing the US government to procure an additional 500 million Covid-19 tests to help meet demand across the country amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

The order comes on top of another 500 million tests that the White House pledged before the Christmas holiday would be available to Americans this month.

"Today I'm directing my team to procure ... an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free," Biden said ahead of a briefing from advisers.

The president has come under criticism for not focusing more on testing earlier as part of his strategy for fighting the pandemic. A nationwide shortage of tests has plagued the response in recent weeks during the rampant spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

A White House official said earlier on Thursday the tests would be free for American consumers and that the White House would share more details about their distribution at a later date. Details about the website that will have information on the first tranche of 500 million tests will be available on Friday, the official said.

When the original 500 million tests were announced, experts said the White House's actions were too slow and not bold enough to deal with Omicron's spread. Since then, the Department of Defense has signed contracts with two procurement companies, Revival Health and Goldbelt Security, to provide them.

"This month it's estimated that we will hit approximately 15 million tests a day and we'll have over 375 million at-home rapid tests in January alone. That's a huge leap," Biden said, adding that the administration is on track to roll out a website next week from which people will be able to order free tests to be shipped to their homes. He also said the administration would announce next week how it would make masks available to Americans for free.

Oslo

Norway eases Covid-19 rules

The Norwegian government will partly reverse a ban on serving alcohol in bars and restaurants, one of several policy changes as it seeks to relax Covid-19 restrictions, the prime minister said on Thursday. "We can ease some restrictions, but not all," Jonas Gahr Støre told a news conference.

Bars and restaurants will be able to serve alcoholic drinks until 11 p.m. local time, a partial reversal the total ban introduced in December which has hit the Nordic country's hospitality industry hard.

An outbreak of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in late November was traced back to a super spreader event at a restaurant in central Oslo, which led the Norwegian government to reintroduce some nationwide restrictions to curb the spread.

But while the number of hospitalisations rose in the Nordic country last month following a surge of Covid-19 infections, it has now fallen for several weeks even as more people tested positive for the virus.

Children will face fewer restrictions, making it easier to avoid home schooling. Youth sports activities will also be allowed to resume, although adult sports will still be restricted, the government said.

Quarantines will in many cases be replaced by a mandatory test regime, it added.

France reports 305,322 new Covid-19 cases

France reported 305,322 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, down from a high of nearly 370,000 on Tuesday but the seven-day moving average of new cases continued rising to nearly 294,000, health ministry data showed.

The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care fell by 46 to 3,939, marking the first fall in a month. France also reported a total of 99,318 coronavirus deaths in hospitals, up by 225.

US government to send additional medical teams to six states

US President Joe Biden has announced that the federal government is to deploy six additional medical teams to support overwhelmed hospitals in six states.

The medical teams, comprising around 120 military personnel, will be sent to hospitals in Michigan, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island, Biden said in an update on the administration’s covid-19 response on Thursday.

They join the “over 800 military and other federal emergency personnel” who have been deployed to 24 states, tribes and territories since Thanksgiving, Biden said.

“It’s been a long road, but what’s clear is that we’ll get through this when everybody does their part […],” Biden said. “Unfortunately, while the military is stepping up, as they always do, there are others sitting on the sidelines and, worse, standing in the way. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated: do it.”

White House to purchase extra 500m at-home covid-19 tests

President Biden has announced that the federal government is to purchase a further 500 million at-home covid-19 testing kits, on top of the 500m his administration has already pledged to send out to US households.

Moderna image

An overview of booster shot doses

Both the Moderna and Pfizer booster shots offer the same benefits, but Moderna's is administered as a half dose where as Pfizer's is a full dose.

AS USA's Maite Knorr-Evans has the lowdown

(Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Scottish Tory leader branded "lightweight" after urging UK PM to resign

In the UK, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Douglas Ross, has been branded a "lightweight" by British government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, after Ross called for Boris Johnson to resign in the wake of the Prime Minister’s admission that he attended a garden party at Downing Street during lockdown in May 2020.

Rees-Mogg's dismissal of his fellow Tory has been described by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as characteristic of Westminster Conservatives’ “utter contempt for Scotland”, while Labour leader Keir Starmer has just responded to the row by sending out the following tweet:

Government to send out home testing kits "soon" - Harris

Vice-President Kamala Harris says the United States federal government is to start sending home covid-19 testing kits to all Americans who request one “soon”.

The Biden administration has pledged to make 500 million home testing kits available to households in the US.

“They’ve been ordered. They’ve been ordered,” Harris told NBC’s Today show on Thursday. “I have to look at the current information. I think it’s going to be by next week. But soon. Absolutely soon. And it is a matter of urgency for us.”

Asked by interviewer Craig Melvin whether the tests should have been sent sooner, Harris replied: “We are doing it.”

Coronavirus US

What side effects does the covid-19 vaccine have on children?

Only the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine is authorized for use in those under age 18. For parents concerned about any side effects, here’s what you need to know.

Minimum covid isolation time cut to five days in England

The minimum covid-19 self-isolation period in England will be cut to five days from seven if someone tests negative twice, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Thursday, a move that could reduce staffing disruption in businesses and infrastructure.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has fuelled a spike in covid-19 cases to record highs in Britain, and the surge has cause major disruption to the staffing of hospitals, schools and transport as staff have to self-isolate.

"We've made the decision to reduce the minimum self-isolation period to five full days in England," Javid told parliament. "From Monday, people can test twice before they go, leaving isolation at the start of day six."

The government had previously reduced isolation period to seven days from 10 days to people in England who get a negative result on a rapid lateral flow test two days in a row.

(Reuters)

President Joe Biden

President Biden to announce support teams for overwhelmed US hospitals

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Paul LeBlanc report that President Joe Biden is to announce on Thursday the deployment of medical teams that will help to alleviate the burden on overwhelmed hospitals in six US states.

Diamond and LeBlanc, say they have been told by a White House official that the medical teams will be sent to hospitals in Michigan, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.

"These teams will be providing relief, triaging patients, helping to decompress overwhelmed emergency departments, and freeing up health care providers to continue other lifesaving care,” the official told CNN. “They will be working alongside health care workers on the front lines to give them the support they need.”

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo)

US STIMULUS CHECKS

Fourth stimulus check: is the new payment possible after the Omicron increase?

There is little talk of more payments, despite record covid-19 case numbers, rising deaths, rising inflation, and pressure in the workplace.

AS USA's Oli Povey has the full story

France relaxes entry restrictions for travellers from UK

France has announced it is slightly easing covid-19 protocols for vaccinated travellers from Britain, dropping a requirement for proof of an essential reason for the trip and for obligatory self-isolation upon arrival.

The demand for a negative covid-19 test, conducted 24 hours before a trip, remains in place, the French government added on Thursday. The measures will take effect as from Friday morning.

France had tightened entry conditions for people coming from Britain in December, when the coronavirus Omicron variant was raging in the UK but had not yet hit France.

The number of daily new infections has since reached record levels in both countries but seems to be past its peak in Britain, while that is not yet the case in France.

(Reuters)

Coronavirus

Is armpit pain after the covid vaccine or booster shot a normal symptom?

Swollen lymph nodes causing a sore armpit after an mRNA covid-19 vaccine is a normal reaction and a sign the body’s immune system is working correctly.

Full details

US hospitalizations for covid-19 at record levels

A pandemic-record number of people are currently hospitalized with covid-19 in the US, with staffing shortages putting hospitals under strain due to the volume of medical workers who are unavailable after contracting or being exposed to the coronavirus.

According to a tally by the US' Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 151,261 people were in hospital with covid-19 as of Wednesday.

"The problem is that right now we have hospitals where there's not enough nurses to take care of the patients who are coming in, the covid patients and the non-covid patients," Dr Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, told CNN.

"That's exactly why we need to do everything we can to try to limit the number of people that are infected, not just those that are older or unvaccinated or not boosted, but everyone. Because each infection represents a potential to infect more people. We need to do what we can to slow that spread right now and ease the pressure on our hospitals."

AS USA's Greg Heilman takes a look at the situation

CORONAVIRUS US

Is the Deltacron variant more contagious than Omicron?

Researchers in Cyprus claimed over the weekend to have found a new covid-19 strain they dubbed Deltacron, a combination of the two most contagious strains.

Full story

Dr Fauci Senate hearing

Omicron "will find just about everybody" - Fauci

President Biden’s chief medial adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, says he expects the Omicron variant of covid-19 to “find just about everybody”, adding that the unvaccinated will “get the brunt” of the serious cases caused by the highly contagious strain.

“I think, in many respects, Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will, ultimately, find just about everybody,” Dr Fauci told a Q&A with the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week.

“Those who have been vaccinated and vaccinated and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death.

Unfortunately, those who are still unvaccinated are going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this, and although it is less severe on a case by case basis, when you quantitatively have so many people who are infected, a fraction of them, even if it’s a small fraction, are going to get seriously ill and are going to die, and that’s the reason why it will challenge our health system.”

(Photo: Greg Nash/Pool via REUTERS)

Omicron variant live updates: welcome

Good morning and welcome to our live blog for Thursday 13 January 2022, covering the latest news on the spread of the Omicron variant of covid-19, with a particular focus on the situation in the United States.

A further 894,971 cases were reported in the US yesterday, per a tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University, while there were 2,421 new deaths. According to the most recent figures provided by the US' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highly contagious Omicron strain now accounts for 98.3% of all new covid-19 cases.

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