Officials offer vaccine insurance; WHO advises against travel bans

  • Modern CEO warns of a ‘significant drop’ in vaccine efficacy
  • Markets are falling due to fears of prolonged COVID-19 pandemic
  • It takes time to know if vaccines work against Omicron
  • Japan and Brazil report the first cases of new variant

FRANKFURT / BERLIN, November 30 (Reuters) – The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned countries not to impose general travel bans on the new Omicron coronavirus variant as governments and scientists try to determine how much protection current vaccines will offer against the strain.

Financial markets fell sharply after the head of drug maker Moderna said existing COVID-19 vaccines would be less effective against the Omicron variant. MSCI’s benchmark for equities across the globe (.MIWD00000PUS) fell 1.39% a day after major declines in Europe and Asia. Read more

BioNTech’s CEO made a cautiously positive remark, saying that the vaccine it manufactures in partnership with Pfizer (PFE.N) was likely to offer strong protection against serious illness from Omicron, which was first reported in southern Africa a week ago .

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Questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine came as cases of the new variant spread, with the first reported case in Latin America appearing in Brazil. The country’s health regulator, Anvisa, said a traveler who arrived in Sao Paulo from South Africa and his wife were both apparently infected. Read more

Canada will extend its ban on travelers from southern Africa to also cover those from Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt, health officials said Tuesday, for a total of 10 countries. Canada will require people arriving by plane from all nations except the United States to take a COVID-19 test, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said. Read more

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday advised against Americans traveling to Niger, Papua New Guinea, Poland and Trinidad and Tobago. The CDC now lists about 80 destinations on its “Level 4: Very High” rating, after the White House announced new travel restrictions in response to Omicron.

The World Health Organization (WHO) asked countries to apply “an evidence-informed and risk-based approach” to all travel measures, including any screening or quarantine of international passengers. General travel bans would not stop the spread of Omicron, it said.

The WHO issued a statement advising to postpone the trip for those who are ill or at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19, including those 60 years or older who have not been vaccinated.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he understood the concerns surrounding Omicron.

But he added: “I am equally concerned that several Member States are introducing blunt, general measures that are not evidence-based or effective alone and that will only exacerbate inequality.”

VACCINE QUESTIONS

The Executive Director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Emer Cooke, told the European Parliament that existing vaccines will continue to provide protection. Read more

Andrea Ammon, President of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said that the cases of Omicron so far confirmed in 10 EU countries were mild or asymptomatic, though in younger age groups. Read more

News of Omicron’s emergence wiped out about $ 2 trillion in global equities on Friday after it was first identified in southern Africa and announced on November 25.

U.S. markets on Tuesday responded mainly to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s comments, signaling a possible acceleration in the downsizing of the Fed’s asset buyback program, but concerns about Omicron’s impact increased tremors, market analysts said. read more The Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) closed 652.22 points, or 1.86%, at 34,483.72, and the S&P 500 (.SPX) lost 88.27 points, or 1.90%, at 4,567.

“There is no world, I think, where (efficiency) is the same level … as we had with Delta,” Modern’s CEO Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times.

“I think it’s going to be a significant drop. I just do not know how much because we have to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like, ‘it’s not going to be good’.” Read more

Reuters could not reach Moderna for a comment.

The University of Oxford said there was no evidence that current vaccines would not prevent serious illness from Omicron, but that it was ready to quickly update its shot, developed with AstraZeneca (AZN.L), if necessary. Read more

The World Health Organization classified Omicron as a “variant of concern” because of the number of mutations that can help it disperse or avoid antibodies from previous infection or vaccination.

People wearing face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ride in a bus in Hong Kong, China November 29, 2021. REUTERS / Lam Yik

The administration of US President Joe Biden suffered two more legal setbacks on vaccine policy on Tuesday. A federal judge blocked a vaccination rule for health professionals and applied the sentence across the country, where the mandate was still in effect. Read more

Another federal judge blocked the U.S. government from enforcing a vaccination mandate on government contractors in three states.

LABETEST

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN.O) said their COVID-19 antibody cocktail and other similar antiviral therapies could be less effective against the latest variant.

EMA’s Cooke said that “cross-neutralization”, a laboratory test to see if the approved vaccines are effective against Omicron, would take about two weeks. If there was a need to change COVID-19 vaccines, new ones could be approved within three or four months, she said.

“Vaccination will probably still keep you out of the hospital,” said John Wherry, director of the Penn Institute for Immunology in Philadelphia.

Modern and other drug manufacturers BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) are already working on vaccines specifically targeted at Omicron. Moderna has also tested a higher dose of its existing booster. Read more

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told Reuters that BioNTech and Pfizer’s (PFE.N) vaccine are likely to offer strong protection against serious illness from the new variant.

Sahin said he expects laboratory tests to show some loss of protection against mild to moderate disease due to Omicron, but the extent of that loss was difficult to predict.

RETURN CONTROL

Border closures have already cast a shadow over the economic recovery, with parts of Europe now seeing a fourth wave of infections as winter sets in.

Japan confirmed its first case of the new variant on Tuesday, with a traveler from Namibia. Australia found out that someone with Omicron had visited a busy shopping mall in Sydney while he was probably infected.

Australia on Monday delayed the reopening of its international borders by two weeks, less than 36 hours before foreign students and skilled migrants were allowed to return.

An increase in new coronavirus variants and poor access to vaccines in developing countries threaten a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UK and US have both pushed their booster programs in response to the new variant. London said international arrivals would have to isolate themselves until they get a negative result in a PCR test.

Greece said vaccination would be mandatory for those over 60, the group seen as most vulnerable to COVID-19.

The picture of COVID cases was mixed.

In Germany, a current hotspot of the previously significant variant, Delta, the average seven-day infection rate fell slightly for the first time in three weeks after new restrictions on slow transmission.

France recorded its highest daily infection rate since April. And the Dutch health authority said Omicron was already spreading in the Netherlands, where intensive care beds are running out and measures, including restrictions on hospitality, are not yet in force. Read more

The curbs of travelers from southern Africa have highlighted the inequality in vaccine distribution, which may have given the virus more opportunities to mutate.

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Reporting from Reuters agencies worldwide; Written by Himani Sarkar, Kevin Liffey and Grant McCool; Editing Angus MacSwan, Mark Heinrich and Leslie Adler

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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