COVID News — January 2022
How to protect against omicron
How can you protect yourself from the new omicron variant?
The same way you guard against COVID-19 caused by any other variant: Get vaccinated if you haven’t yet, get a booster if you’re eligible, and step up other precautions you may have relaxed, like wearing a mask and avoiding crowds.
It will take a few more weeks to learn key aspects about this latest variant.
In the meantime, “what we need to do is add more layers of protection,” said Dr. Julie Vaishampayan of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
A booster shot is one of those layers. The added dose triggers a big jump in virus-fighting antibodies.
Even if the antibodies don’t prove quite as effective against omicron as they are against other variants, simply having more of them might compensate — in addition to bolstering protection against delta.
In addition to masking, avoiding crowds and improving ventilation, testing is another protective step. That’s recommended for anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms or was potentially exposed to the virus.
—Lauran Neergaard, AP
How will we know the pandemic is over?
There’s no clear-cut definition for when a pandemic starts and ends. How much of a threat a global outbreak is posing can vary by country.
“It’s somewhat a subjective judgment because it’s not just about the number of cases. It’s about severity and it’s about impact,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief.
In January 2020, WHO designated the virus that causes COVID-19 a global health crisis “of international concern.” In March, the United Nations health agency described the outbreak as a “pandemic,” reflecting the fact that the virus had spread to nearly every continent, and numerous other health officials were saying it could be described as such.
The pandemic may be widely considered over when WHO decides the virus is no longer an emergency of international concern — a designation its expert committee has been reassessing every three months. But when the most acute phases of the crisis ease within countries could vary.
“There is not going to be one day when someone says, ‘OK, the pandemic is over,’” said Dr. Chris Woods, an infectious disease expert at Duke University. Although there’s no universally agreed-upon criteria, he said countries will likely look for sustained reduction in cases over time.
Scientists expect COVID-19 will eventually settle into becoming a more predictable virus like the flu, meaning it will cause seasonal outbreaks but not the huge surges we’re seeing right now. But even then, Woods says some habits, such as wearing masks in public places, might continue.
“Even after the pandemic ends, COVID will still be with us,” he said.
—Maria Cheng, AP
Drug makers are updating vaccines
Vaccine makers are racing to update their COVID-19 shots against the newest coronavirus threat even before it’s clear a change is needed, just in case.
Experts doubt today’s shots will become useless, but say it’s critical to see how fast companies could produce a reformulated dose and prove it works — because whatever happens with omicron, this newest mutant won’t be the last.
Omicron “is pulling the fire alarm. Whether it turns out to be a false alarm, it would be really good to know if we can actually do this — get a new vaccine rolled out and be ready,” said immunologist E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s too soon to know how vaccines will hold up against omicron. The first hints were mixed: Preliminary lab tests suggest two Pfizer doses may not prevent an omicron infection, but they could protect against severe illness. And a booster shot may rev up immunity enough to do both.
Better answers are expected in the coming weeks, and regulators in the U.S. and other countries are keeping a close watch.
The World Health Organization has appointed an independent scientific panel to advise on whether the shots need reformulating because of omicron or any other mutant.
If vaccines do need tweaking, remember that companies aren’t starting from scratch. COVID-19 vaccines work by triggering production of antibodies that recognize and attack the spike protein that coats the coronavirus, and many are made with new technology flexible enough for easy updating.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are fastest to tweak, made with genetic instructions that tell the body to make harmless copies of the spike protein — and that messenger RNA can be swapped to match new mutations.
Pfizer expects to have an omicron-specific candidate ready for the Food and Drug Administration to consider in March, with some initial batches ready to ship around the same time, chief scientific officer Dr. Mikael Dolsten told the Associated Press.
Moderna is predicting 60 to 90 days to have an omicron-specific candidate ready for testing. Other manufacturers that make COVID-19 vaccines using different technology, including Johnson & Johnson, also are pursuing possible updates.
Pfizer and Moderna already have successfully brewed experimental doses to match delta and another variant named beta. Those shots haven’t been needed, but the effort offered valuable practice.
Even if the current vaccines’ immunity against omicron isn’t as good, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, hopes the big antibody jump triggered by booster doses will compensate.
Antibodies aren’t the only layer of defense. Vaccines also spur T cells that can prevent serious illness if someone does get infected. Also, memory cells that can create new and somewhat different antibodies form with each dose.
“You’re really training your immune system not just to deal better with existing variants, but to deal with new variants,” Dolsten said.
When will we know if the vaccine updates work? U. Penn’s Wherry doesn’t expect data from volunteers testing experimental omicron-targeted shots until at least February.
— Lauran Neergaard, AP