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COVID-19

EU regulator clears Pfizer-BioNTech’s tweaked COVID booster

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(Last Updated On: September 13, 2022)

The European Medicines Agency has recommended the authorization of a tweaked booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine that includes protection against two of the latest versions of omicron, as countries look to bolster their immunization programs ahead of winter.

The EU regulator said Monday that laboratory studies suggest the combination vaccine — which targets both the original COVID-19 virus as well as the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 — should trigger an effective immune response. The vaccine is expected to be as safe as the original version, but the agency will continue to track its rollout globally since the data is limited, AP reported.

The US Food and Drug Administration gave the modified vaccine shot the green light last month.

According to the World Health Organization, the BA.5 version of omicron is responsible for most of the COVID-19 spreading globally; it made up about 87% of all virus sequences shared with the biggest public database.

Earlier this month, the European Medicines Agency also cleared two combination vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc. which aimed at protecting against the earlier omicron subvariant BA.1.

It’s unclear how well the updated boosters will work since experts are still gathering data. But there’s evidence that they are safe, so waiting for more study on their effectiveness would risk another mutation appearing before people are immunized.

Scientists warn that the coronavirus will linger far into the future, partly because it is getting better and better at getting around immunity from vaccination and past infection.

Globally, coronavirus cases and deaths have been dropping for weeks, but experts expect a surge of hospitalizations and deaths with the coming winter in the northern hemisphere. So far the virus has killed over 6.5 million people worldwide.

COVID-19

China celebrates Lunar New Year like COVID no longer exists

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(Last Updated On: January 28, 2023)

China has celebrated the Lunar New Year with abandon this year, as millions of people traveled, packed into tourist spots, and gathered in large numbers – marking an end to the country’s three-year “zero COVID” experiment.

More than 300 million trips were made during the holiday, nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism told Bloomberg.

While the revelry is a relief after recurring lockdowns, it also carries the risk of reigniting the omicron wave that scorched the country in recent weeks, filling hospitals and overwhelming crematoriums.

“Pent-up demand is being released as many people rush to scenic spots, watch firework shows and crowd into restaurants and hotels,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura Holdings Inc., wrote in a note on Thursday. Government-released data “suggest the ‘exit wave’ is quickly coming to an end.”

The speed with which China charged through its reopening is unrivaled. A month ago, the government estimated 37 million people a day were contracting the virus. The streets went quiet. Just as quickly, the population appears to have turned the page, Bloomberg reported.

Nevertheless, it remains unclear how severe and widespread the outbreak is. The government stopped universal testing and changed how it defines COVID-19 mortality, clouding official reports. According to a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, the number of patients hospitalized with severe disease or dying from COVID-19 has declined more than 70% from the peak in early January.

While extreme weather in some regions exacerbated traffic, many people were undaunted by the challenge or the risk of supercharging the world’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak. Total bookings were four times higher than last year, when strict measures limited travel as well as the spread of the virus, according to Trip.com.

The jubilation of reopening was mixed with tourism-related headaches. Carol Gong, who reunited with her family in Shanghai, was overwhelmed by the crowds during a day trip to Disneyland.

“It looked as if we were watching a zombie movie, as people lined up heel-to-heel and shoulder-to-shoulder in a meandering queue,” said Gong, who waited an hour in freezing weather to get into the theme park. Still, it was worth it, she said. “People are so relieved that China has reopened. They’re starting to relax and enjoy life.”

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US proposes once-a-year COVID shots for most Americans

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(Last Updated On: January 24, 2023)

U.S. health officials want to make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the annual flu shot.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday proposed a simplified approach for future vaccination efforts, allowing most adults and children to get a once-a-year shot to protect against the mutating virus, AP reported.

This means Americans would no longer have to keep track of how many shots they’ve received or how many months it’s been since their last booster.

The proposal comes as boosters have become a hard sell. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of those eligible have received the latest boosters authorized in August.

The FDA will ask its panel of outside vaccine experts to weigh in at a meeting Thursday. The agency is expected to take their advice into consideration while deciding future vaccine requirements for manufacturers.

In documents posted online, FDA scientists say many Americans now have “sufficient preexisting immunity” against the coronavirus because of vaccination, infection or a combination of the two. That baseline of protection should be enough to move to an annual booster against the latest strains in circulation and make COVID-19 vaccinations more like the yearly flu shot, according to the agency.

For adults with weakened immune systems and very small children, a two-dose combination may be needed for protection. FDA scientists and vaccine companies would study vaccination, infection rates and other data to decide who should receive a single shot versus a two-dose series.

FDA will also ask its panel to vote on whether all vaccines should target the same strains. That step would be needed to make the shots interchangeable, doing away with the current complicated system of primary vaccinations and boosters.

The original two-dose COVID shots have offered strong protection against severe disease and death no matter the variant, but protection against mild infection wanes. Experts continue to debate whether the latest round of boosters significantly enhanced protection, particularly for younger, healthy Americans.

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Chinese pray for health in Lunar New Year as COVID death toll rises

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(Last Updated On: January 22, 2023)

China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with its people praying for health after three years of stress and financial hardship under the pandemic, as officials reported almost 13,000 new deaths caused by the virus between January 13 and 19.

Queues stretched for about one kilometre outside the iconic Lama temple in Beijing, which had been repeatedly shut before COVID-19 restrictions ended in early December, with thousands of people waiting for their turn to pray for their loved ones.

One Beijing resident said she wished the year of the rabbit will bring “health to everyone”.

“I think this wave of the pandemic is gone,” said the 57-year-old, who only gave her last name, Fang. “I didn’t get the virus, but my husband and everyone in my family did. I still think it’s important to protect ourselves.”

Earlier, officials reported almost 13,000 deaths related to COVID in hospitals between January 13 and 19, adding to the nearly 60,000 in the month or so before that. Chinese health experts say the wave of infections across the country has already peaked, Reuters reported.
The death toll update, from China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, comes amid doubts over Beijing’s data transparency and remains extremely low by global standards.

Hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed after China abandoned the world’s strictest regime of COVID controls and mass testing on Dec. 7 in an abrupt policy U-turn, which followed historic protests against the curbs.

The death count reported by Chinese authorities excludes those who died at home, and some doctors have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.

China on Jan. 14 reported nearly 60,000 COVID-related deaths in hospitals between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12, a huge increase from the 5,000-plus deaths reported previously over the entire pandemic period.

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