On December 20, Grace Quirk picked up seven vials of saline-diluted saliva from her lab manager at the University of Arizona. Then she was alone — alone except for some “tube(s) of people’s spit,” a pipette, a computer and an Oxford Nanopore genetic sequencing machine.
Several hours later, still in the empty lab at 3:30 in the morning, she had the answer she was looking for: one of the coronavirus samples she had just sequenced was the new variant, omicron. It was the first omicron case on her campus, and she had been the one to run the test.
“You’re just in this room that you’ve been in all day, and then something happens and you’re the only person in the world that knows something,” said Quirk, a third-year PhD student studying viral genetics at the University of Arizona.
She emailed her advisor, professor and head of ecology and evolutionary biology Michael Worobey, to send him the data. Then she was back in the lab by 7 a.m., checking to see whether the computer had confirmed what they expected for the rest of the samples. It had. The data she had left to run overnight showed that all six of the other samples were the omicron variant, too.
Quirk said it felt urgent to finish the samples that night because public health experts, including university administrators, rely on sequencing data to shape guidance for their communities. “It’s cool to be doing something where somebody is going to care if I stayed five extra hours or if I went home,” she said.
Researchers say that sequencing efforts matter because they provide a picture of which variants are spreading, and the resulting impact on the severity of disease. That information affects protocols on testing, quarantine or isolation and personal protective equipment (PPE); on whether schools can stay open; and on how soon employees are asked to come back to work after getting sick.
In Arizona, one thing is clear: omicron cases are trending upward, and fast. Compared with reports from other parts of the country, though, there has been a delay in the predominance of omicron in the mountain West, said David Engelthaler, director of the pathogen & microbiome division at TGen. But while there might be a lag between Arizona and other parts of the country, Engelthaler believes that more omicron cases are coming.
“(Omicron) is definitely a viral tsunami that is rolling (out) everywhere,” he said.
Efrem Lim, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute whose lab sequences SARS-CoV-2 genomes, said that it is still too early to tell whether omicron will overtake delta completely in Arizona, and how exactly the two strains will affect communities. Preliminary data suggest that the risk of severe disease and hospitalization from omicron is lower than that of other variants, though researchers are still trying to determine exactly how that risk is influenced by immunity through vaccination or prior infection. What’s more, a “milder” illness can still be dangerous for vulnerable populations, cause debilitating long-term effects for some patients, and strain hospital systems with high case counts.
As the world waits for more data, Lim stressed the importance of genomic researchers staying vigilant so that leaders have a better sense of what lies ahead.
“(That’s) the reason why I got into infectious disease … to be able to help (public health officials) take this information and act on that quickly,” Lim said.
Data provided by researchers like Lim shows a significant uptick in omicron cases.
The increase has happened so quickly that TGen is re-coding their website, which currently shows variant data by month, to display data weekly instead. In the three weeks between December 5 and December 25, TGen reported that omicron jumped from about 1% to 52% of all compiled positive cases from labs across the state. At Lim’s lab at ASU, omicron now represents as many as 70% of all positive cases sequenced.
“We’re seeing the rate of omicron’s increase in the span of days, (which) took Delta weeks to achieve in terms of the dominance here. So it is really taking off very quickly,” Lim said.
In Arizona, the variant’s takeoff has not quite reached the levels of states like New York and California. Engelthaler thinks that might be because some western states like Arizona have seen so much SARS-CoV-2 activity in the past few months that the population has built up enough natural immunity to slow the new variant’s progression, and because so much of the delta variant was already circulating here. Meanwhile, low case levels in places like New York and New Jersey allowed omicron to quickly become the dominant strain.
But already within Arizona, he said, omicron has dramatically increased in certain areas, including Maricopa and Coconino counties. With less data in rural areas, the picture of omicron’s foothold is more uncertain. Putting aside sampling questions, it’s possible that omicron is taking longer to move into rural areas, but Engelthaler expects to see omicron counts rise across the board.
“One of the things we know is that Omicron is that it is explosive when it comes into a region,” he said.
Data in other parts of the country have shown that even as omicron cases surge, hospitalizations are not rising at the same rate as with other variants, a promising sign for the nation’s stretched healthcare system. Lim said it’s still too early to tell whether that data will be borne out in Arizona, but that the vast majority of people hospitalized here are unvaccinated regardless of which variant they have.
In addition, Lim said, he and his team are seeing increasing numbers of reinfections with omicron, as well as breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals who have not yet gotten a booster shot. He added that the timing of holiday travel and gatherings may accelerate omicron’s trajectory.
“The main message is that if you have not been vaccinated, get your vaccinations right now,” Lim said.
Even as researchers and public health officials in Arizona encourage continuing pandemic precautions, national guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are changing.
The CDC announced on Monday that people who test positive for COVID-19 can leave isolation after five days if their symptoms are getting better. That policy has “some gaps in it that worry many of us in public health and infectious disease,” said Saskia Popescu, an adjunct professor of public health in the epidemiology and biostatistics department at the University of Arizona, in an email. She added that those gaps include “differences between breakthrough infections and unvaccinated cases, unknowns with omicron” and the idea that the policy doesn’t use follow-up testing to help determine who should remain in isolation.
Engelthaler envisions a world where individualized testing could provide more specific and personalized data on variants. That might not have had any impact on the CDC guidance change, which Engelthaler said was mostly driven by the information we already had from the delta variant. But in a tweet, Popescu called for more data on omicron to inform isolation measures. And the clinical need to distinguish between variants is growing because some monoclonal antibody treatments don’t respond well to the omicron variant.
But genomic sequencing is still done only on anonymous samples, not for diagnosing individual patients, because the FDA has been slow to bring on the technology. So public health officials have to rely on population-level numbers to make decisions about treatments by using regional data.
Those decisions rely on faster sequencing. Lim described how his lab has stepped up their sequencing efforts to process samples within two to three days of testing so their results are as close to real-time data as possible, a feat he says is well ahead of many other states’ sequencing capabilities. TGen takes a bit longer — about a week, because they process samples from labs across the state.
For both facilities, it’s an evolving situation. Unlike this fall, when Engelthaler said the delta variant represented nearly every sequence researchers tested, the numbers are changing almost daily, and vary by geography.
But even if omicron does become as dominant as delta did during the summer, Popescu said that it’s too early to issue a broader pandemic outlook. “Ultimately it’s not a good thing when one variant overtakes another as that means we’re not halting transmission,” she wrote.
That’s a fact Lim knows well. He said that his lab at ASU recently hit a bittersweet milestone: 30,000 cases sequenced.
“It’s kind of a marathon for us as well,” Lim said. “This is not going to be over come January … we are in (it) for the long game.”
Quirk said it was an evolution class she took in college that inspired her to study viral genetics. “Every single day (of the course) was another cool story. And the way that they were able to piece together all of those stories was through genetics and genetic sequencing,” she said.
Now, that story is playing out in fast-motion across the globe as researchers watch to see which strains of the virus become dominant. Engelthaler said that while the virus is commonly described as evolving to become milder or to evade immunity, the virus isn’t “thinking” about any of that. Instead, it’s just changing randomly, whenever it replicates in a new infected person, and the changes that are most advantageous to the virus’ spread tend to stick around.
That’s what the experts call natural selection — and that process holds no guarantee that the dominant coronavirus variant will be better, or worse, for human health outcomes.
With this variant, natural selection seems to have favored omicron’s speedy replication in the upper respiratory tract and its markedly different spike proteins, which help it evade our antibodies. Fortunately for us, Engelthaler said, that means there might be fewer severe impacts for humans if the virus is replicating better in the upper airways than deeper in the lung cells.
And while there are no guarantees in natural selection, Engelthaler thinks we might have gotten lucky this time around, because based on preliminary data, omicron seems to be behaving a bit more like the other coronaviruses that have been giving humans cold- and flu-like symptoms for centuries.
“We don’t want to become complacent because we have a ‘milder’ strain. But we also need to not be catastrophizing because of the super high case numbers,” he said. “That could be the silver lining with omicron, that it is really following that evolutionary trajectory (of other coronaviruses).”
Still, both Engelthaler and Lim stressed the importance of vigilance in watching for new variants, because omicron demonstrated just how powerful a few random mutations can become. “It wasn’t expected that we would see something just radically different so quickly, and have it take over so quickly,” Engelthaler said. “But now that we’ve seen it, we’ve got to expect that it could happen again.”
Quirk added that omicron has put on display the importance of genetic sequencing infrastructure, as evidenced by South Africa’s quick identification and reporting of the variant. “It’s shown how fundamental (sequencing) is for having an effective response and effective surveillance,” she said. She noted that this variant has also highlighted the patchwork sequencing efforts in the United States, which make it difficult to gain enough data to see a fuller picture of which variants are winning out across the country.
“If we want to know what’s going on, (we) have to be willing to sequence it,” she added.
In the meantime, that’s exactly what Quirk will be doing. Omicron wasn’t her first late night in the sequencing lab — she has been helping the Worobey lab look out for new variants for months, and last spring, she and the rest of that team put a similar effort into detecting a cluster of Alpha variant cases on the University of Arizona campus.
As they look to the future, Quirk, Lim and Engelthaler all stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, wearing masks and minimizing the impact of the virus on vulnerable communities right now, especially as cases continue to rise.
“I hope we can care about each other this winter,” Quirk said. “I’ve been trying to make choices that are respectful to the people that I’m going to be around.”
Independent coverage of bioscience in Arizona is supported by a grant from the Flinn Foundation.
Melina Walling is a bioscience reporter who covers COVID-19, health, technology, agriculture and the environment. You can contact her via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @MelinaWalling.
After weeks of uncertainty over how he would deal with it, Eric Adams announced Thursday that he will as mayor keep the city’s private sector coronavirus vaccine mandate in place and potentially roll out additional immunization requirements for schools and other high-risk settings.
The private sector mandate — implemented by outgoing Mayor de Blasio on Monday — is an “imperative” weapon in fighting a recent explosion of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant, Adams said during a briefing at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
“We’re going to keep that in place. We spoke with our business leaders today to let them know,” said Adams, who is set to be sworn in as the city’s next mayor shortly after midnight Friday.
But on the flipside, Adams — who for weeks played coy on whether he would keep the mandate — took a swipe at de Blasio for doing a poor job at explaining the rule to the roughly 184,000 private businesses whose employees are covered by it.
“I am going to really expand on the communication and education. I don’t believe we need to be heavy-handed with our businesses. COVID has been heavy-handed enough,” Adams said.
“And I believe, if there was one critique, as I stated, I think that the mayor in a state of urgency with which he was faced — we could’ve all done a better job at communicating with our various stakeholders.”
The private sector mandate, the most sweeping of its kind when announced by de Blasio in early December, has ruffled feathers among business leaders who argue it may drive down the city’s economy again.
To assuage such concerns, de Blasio said earlier this week that his administration would not slap fines on business owners as soon as a violation is detected. Rather, he said inspectors would seek to “educate and correct” noncompliant businesses and only levy fines against those that “flatly refuse” to abide.
Despite knocking de Blasio’s communication skills, Adams said in Thursday’s briefing that he actually has a very similar idea in mind.
“We will fine those businesses that are recklessly not complying and just refusing to do so,” he said. “We’re going to use a light-handed approach.”
Asked about Adams’ critique later in the day, de Blasio said that if he fell short as an interlocutor, it was because he had to act with “breathtaking speed” as omicron bore down on the city.
“What we needed to do was move quickly to get ahead of it, so I called a preemptive strike. When you’re doing a preemptive strike, you don’t get to lay all the ground work you might ideally like to,” he said.
In addition to keeping the private sector policy, Adams announced he is exploring the possibility of making coronavirus booster shots part of all existing vaccine mandates, including those covering municipal workers and activities like indoor dining and fitness.
“That is our best tool in the arsenal,” Adams said, noting that research has shown boosters significantly decrease the risk of getting seriously ill or hospitalized due to COVID-19.
Since being detected in Africa in November, omicron has ravaged New York, with 22% of tests conducted in the state in the 24-hour period ending Thursday morning coming back positive, according to Health Department data. Alarmingly, hospitalization and death rates are ticking up as well, with 97 New Yorkers perishing from the virus in the previous 24-hour period, the highest toll since February.
Despite the COVID resurgence, the city is forging ahead with reopening public schools at full capacity next week.
Adams, who joined de Blasio earlier this week in announcing the full-blown return to school, pledged to follow through on the outgoing mayor’s plan to beef up testing for students and teachers in order to keep them in class as much as possible.
The incoming mayor also said he is instructing his health team to look into mandating coronavirus vaccinations for students — a step de Blasio shied away from — though he acknowledged Gov. Hochul would have to sign off on such a policy, which likely could not take effect until the fall semester.
Adams also said a student mandate is not necessary at the moment. “We don’t believe the rates in schools call for that,” he said.
Ostensibly, the only concrete private sector policy shift Adams unveiled Thursday entailed assigning outreach on the issue to “a dedicated unit” who will “work with small businesses, stakeholders and the mayor’s corporate engagement committee to help implement the mandate,” according to a fact-sheet from his transition team.
Under de Blasio, by contrast, outreach on the mandate has largely been conducted by the city Health Department.
The mandate requires in-person employees at all private businesses in the city — from corner bodegas to multinational banks — to get vaccinated against COVID-19, though exceptions can be granted for documented religious and health reasons.
Looking at other aspects of the city’s pandemic response, Adams said his administration will distribute hundreds of thousands of free masks to New Yorkers next month and continue to beef up access to testing by opening more sites, all with the goal of preventing a return to large-scale shutdowns.
“That’s the goal,” Adams said. “We can’t shut down our city again.”
The Omicron variant’s advance was expected due to its contagious nature as it becomes dominant in France, Portugal and the UK.
Omicron has become the dominant coronavirus variant in France, which joins other European countries like the United Kingdom and Portugal with surging case numbers over the past few days.
In the United States, health experts have urged Americans to prepare for severe disruptions in the first weeks of 2022, as the rising wave of COVID-19 cases led by Omicron threatened hospitals, schools and other sectors affecting their daily lives.
Here is what happened on Friday, December 31:
Tens of thousands of visitors from around Eastern Europe and further afield are expected to attend a large music event and fireworks show in downtown Belgrade.
“We love large public celebrations. We came here from Vienna specifically because here [it feels as if] there is no COVID-19,” one woman said.
Many Belgrade residents appeared to share her sentiment and voiced happiness that their city was the only Balkan capital holding a big celebration to ring in the New Year.
“Why would I be afraid?” one person asked. “We must live our lives.”
The Philippines will impose tighter curbs in the capital region for the next two weeks, the acting presidential spokesperson has said, to try to limit infections by the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The health ministry recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections, a two-month high, and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 percent.
“In the coming days, we might see an increase in active cases,” acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a televised announcement.
The UK has approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill for adults who have mild to moderate infection and are at high risk of their illness worsening, its second easily administered antiviral.
Based on data, the pill, Paxlovid, is most effective when taken during the early stages of COVID-19, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said, recommending it be used within five days of the first symptoms.
Sinovac’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine followed by a booster Pfizer-BioNTech shot showed a lower immune response against the Omicron variant compared with other strains, according to a study by researchers.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, was conducted by researchers from Yale University, the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Health and other institutions.
The Sinovac two-dose regimen along with the Pfizer shot produced an antibody response similar to a two-dose mRNA vaccine, according to the study. Antibody levels against Omicron were 6.3-fold lower when compared with the ancestral variant and 2.7-fold lower when compared with Delta.
Akiko Iwasaki, one of the authors of the study, said that CoronaVac recipients may need two additional booster doses to achieve protective levels needed against Omicron.
In terms of public health, CoronaVac 2x is insufficient to neutralize Omicron. Even with CoronaVac 2x plus Pfizer booster, NAb is only 1.4x higher than 2x mRNA alone. Thus, CoronaVac recipients may need 2 additional booster doses to reach levels needed against Omicron. (10/) pic.twitter.com/fkTy9aL6eh
— Prof. Akiko Iwasaki (@VirusesImmunity) December 30, 2021
Businesses working in Morocco’s key tourism sector say the country’s tough COVID-19 restrictions, including a full flight ban, are undermining its competitiveness compared with rival destinations.
“These restrictions are unjustified and they have made Morocco lose tourists to Mediterranean competitors such as Egypt and Turkey,” said Lahcen Zelmat, head of Morocco’s hotel federation.
Tourism generated $8bn, or seven percent of Morocco’s economy, in 2019, but the central bank expects it to have made only $3.6bn this year.
Despite a vaccination rate of around 80 per cent, Spain will end 2021 with one of the highest incidences of coronavirus in Europe.
The number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants within 24 hours climbed to 1,086, the health ministry announced, the first time the 1,000 mark was exceeded.
Meanwhile, authorities claim that the situation in the hospitals is still largely under control, also thanks to the high vaccination rate, as the vaccine in most cases ensures infection without symptoms or a milder course of the disease.
Philippine officials have warned against a rise in COVID-19 cases over the new year period as infections in the Southeast Asian country hit a two-month high.
The health ministry recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections on Friday and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 percent, double the five percent recommended by the World Health Organization.
The Philippines has so far detected four Omicron cases, all of which were in quarantine, although the country’s genome sequencing capacity is limited.
“It is prudent to assume that Omicron is already in circulation, or is already in the community,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque told a separate news conference.
Israel has begun delivering a fourth vaccine dose for people most vulnerable to coronavirus, becoming one of the first countries to do so as it prepares for a wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant.
The rollout of the fourth dose began at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center on Friday morning and was administered to heart and lung transplant patients.
Hong Kong’s health officials said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has made its way past some of the world’s toughest COVID 19 restrictions, with the city reporting its first cases outside its strict quarantine system.
Hong Kong’s last COVID-19 case tracked outside its quarantine facilities and hotels was discovered in October. Previous infections with the Omicron variant were discovered during quarantines of people returning to Hong Kong.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan told reporters one of four aircrew members who tested positive after their return to Hong Kong had breached home quarantine rules by going to a restaurant, where he passed the virus to his father and a client sitting at another table.
“Omicron is raging around the world … and it has now found its way into the community,” Chan said.
Omicron has become the main coronavirus strain in France where the number of infections has seen a big increase in the last few days, the country’s public health agency has said.
“62.4 percent of tests showed a profile compatible with the Omicron variant” at the start of this week, compared to 15 percent the previous week, the agency said.
The strain has contributed to the current flare-up in cases, which topped 200,000 in the 24 hours from Wednesday to Thursday.
The Serum Institute Of India has applied to the country’s drug regulator and the health ministry for full approval of its COVID-19 vaccine Covishield, the company’s chief executive said on Friday.
The institute, which produces AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine under the brand name Covishield, has supplied more than 1.25 billion doses of the shot in India.
Supplies of the COVISHIELD vaccine in India, have exceeded 1.25 billion doses. The government of India now has enough data for full market authorisation, and therefore @SerumInstIndia has applied to the @CDSCO_INDIA_INF (DCGI) and @MoHFW_INDIA for this permission.
— Adar Poonawalla (@adarpoonawalla) December 31, 2021
South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4am curfew on people’s movement with immediate effect, believing the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant, a government statement said.
The country made the changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, minister in the presidency. South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels.
Asia will reopen to travel as more is learned about the Omicron variant, with the recent tightening of borders only a “temporary speed bump” on the road to recovery, according to a top airline industry representative.
In an exclusive interview, Philip Goh, regional head of the International Air Transport Association, told Al Jazeera he was optimistic about the resumption of travel in Asia in 2022 despite the region’s doubling down on travel restrictions in response to the variant.
“People miss travel and they want to travel. You cannot substitute a hug, a handshake with a virtual zoom call,” Goh said. “Nor can videos capture and invigorate the senses stimulated by the sights, sounds and scents of the places we travel to.”
Read more here.
China is on high alert against COVID-19 as the New Year holiday looms, with the city of Xi’an under lockdown while several New Year’s Eve events in other cities have been cancelled and some provinces urged restraint in travel during the festive season.
China reported 166 locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms for Thursday, according to the National Health Commission, with 161 from Xi’an, which is fighting the worst outbreak for a Chinese city this year.
The number of domestically transmitted infections in Xi’an have exceeded 1,200 during the December 9-30 period.
Sydney, the Australian city worst affected by the Omicron wave, will press ahead with New Year’s Eve celebrations on Friday, with authorities encouraging revellers to come out and enjoy the festivities despite a record number of COVID-19 cases.
Thousands are expected to flock to prime harbourside spots to watch Sydney’s famous fireworks, the traditional 12-minute pyrotechnic display to ring in the new year, with queues forming at many vantage points since early morning.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wished people to “enjoy the evening”, while New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet urged everyone to “head out and enjoy New Year’s” as daily infections in the state nearly doubled to a record 21,151 on Friday.
New paediatric COVID-19 hospitalisations have hit a record high in the US, as children are increasingly swept up in Omicron’s lightning spread.
While experts are concerned, and stress the need to step up vaccination among kids, early indications suggest that the new variant’s rate of severe disease could be lower, and its extreme contagiousness is behind the rapid rise.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 199,000 children were reported infected with COVID-19 in the week ending December 23, the last week for which data is currently available, and a 50 percent rise on figures earlier in the month.
📍1 YEAR HIGH—Pediatric #COVID19 hospitalizations in New York are now at 1 year high. NY #Omicron ⬆️ was earliest— expecting many states will follow the same trajectory—behind by ~3 weeks. Parents need to send kids to school 🏫 with premium KN95/KF94 masks & vax!
HT @DrWilliamKu pic.twitter.com/SWBfEr4Zek
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) December 30, 2021
Canada’s second-most populous province has announced a nighttime curfew will be implemented as coronavirus infections continue to surge.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the 10pm-5am EST curfew would begin on New Year’s Eve on Friday.
In addition, restaurants will no longer be allowed to offer in-person dining, most private gatherings will be banned and all indoor sports activities will be suspended, among other measures.
“Our experts tell us that there’s a risk that we won’t be able to treat all those who need it in the coming weeks. I know we’re all tired, but it’s my responsibility to protect [us] from this,” Legault told reporters during a news conference.
New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square as planned despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the city, the state and around the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday.
“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is on Friday, said on NBC’s Today show.
After banning revellers from Times Square a year ago due to the pandemic, city officials previously announced plans for a scaled-back New Year’s bash with smaller crowds and vaccinations required.
The Premier League has postponed an upcoming match between Leicester City and Norwich City – the 17th game of the season to be called off because of COVID-19.
The league said on Thursday that it accepted a request from the visiting team, Norwich, to postpone the match because the club did not have enough available players due to COVID-19 cases and injuries.
The game was set for January 1; the Premier League did not announce a new date for the fixture.
“The League is aware that the recent decisions to postpone matches will disappoint supporters, and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games,” the league said in a statement.
Following a request from Norwich, the Premier League Board met today and regrettably agreed to postpone the club’s away fixture against Leicester, due to be played at 3pm on 1 January
Full statement: https://t.co/CYwd42fCIl#LEINOR pic.twitter.com/BkTh9fyKoT
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 30, 2021
The city has largely isolated itself in the hope of containing the highly transmissible coronavirus variant.
Even if it’s milder than Delta, high transmissibility means three times more cases, and more hospitalisation and deaths.
Surging COVID cases could put ‘immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems’, Tedros says.
Follow Al Jazeera English:
By Nik DeCosta-Klipa
The first Massachusetts case of the new omicron variant of COVID-19 may have been reported last weekend, but OMICRON has been in the state for years.
The company, that is.
“This just caught us by surprise, just like everybody else,” says Wayne Bishop Jr., one of roughly 20 employees in the Waltham offices of OMICRON electronics.
The international electric testing company released a statement last weekend calling the name of the new variant — suspected to be more contagious than previous strains — an “unfortunate coincidence.”
Launched in Austria in 1984, OMICRON was named by its late founder Rainer Aberer after the Greek letter, which stands for O. According to Bishop, the thinking behind the name was that it would convey a strong technical connotation, since Greek letters are used in mathematics around the world.
“That’s what we’re really in the business of doing — providing technical diagnostic test instruments,” he said in an interview earlier this week.
And while the World Health Organization began naming COVID-19 variants after letters in the Greek alphabet this past spring, Bishop said that the possibility they would soon share their name with a concerning new strain of COVID-19 wasn’t on their horizon until it was discovered in South Africa last month.
“There’s nothing we can do about this, and it’s hopefully short lived,” he said. “But we just stay focused on our mission and continue to serve our customers.”
OMICRON is hardly the first company forced to share its brand with an unwanted partner during the pandemic.
The CEO of Delta somewhat famously refused to call the delta variant that has fueled surges this summer and fall by its WHO-given name. Rather, the company has stubbornly — and knowingly — stuck with its “catchy scientific” name.
“We prefer to call it the B.1.617.2 variant since that is so much more simple to say and remember…,” Dr. Henry Ting, Delta’s chief health officer, tweeted in July.
(For his part, Bishop notes that OMICRON tries to be intentional about holding true to its all-caps spelling, “a little slight difference” from the variant.)
There is also, of course, Corona, the beer, which suddenly found itself associated with corona, the virus, in the winter of 2020. However, despite a fraught tweet or two, the company ultimately did not see a noticeable impact on sales.
Unlike those customer-facing brands, OMICRON has mostly operated behind the scenes over the last several decades, developing and providing equipment to run diagnostic tests on electric utilities, like transformers and substation circuit breakers. Bishop says the company now has 1,000 employees, customers in 160 countries, and 26 international offices, including in Toronto and Houston, where their North American headquarters are based.
OMICRON been in Waltham since 2009, located in a business park off I-95 that ironically neighbors an air conditioning company named Delta-T.
Bishop isn’t worried about the coincidence affecting their company, keeping the focus on those affected by the virus and frontline workers. He noted that Delta and Corona didn’t appear to see any harm done to their brands.
“If anything it’s probably going to make more people aware of the name,” he said.
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At-home COVID-19 test kit at a pharmacy in New York City, December 22nd, 2021
After a series of cases at his school, a sore throat and a feeling of tightness in his chest, Alex Jallot, a Manhattan special education teacher, was sure he’d contracted COVID-19. He took a rapid test at home in his Harlem apartment on Christmas Day, and sure enough, it was positive.
So, he called the city-run Test and Trace hotline, 212-COVID19, hoping to share the news with contact tracers. Of the many options the hotline offered—a directory of testing sites, resources for long COVID, help with isolation—none allowed him to report his positive test.
He called back a few more times and was never able to declare his case.
“I haven’t been able to get in contact with anybody,” he told WNYC/Gothamist. “It just feels like you’re very much on your own, which is super terrifying.”
About 100,000 New Yorkers are being officially screened for COVID each day at testing sites throughout the five boroughs, according to data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That’s more than at any other time during the pandemic.
But long testing lines and turnaround times have prompted many people to opt for at-home antigen tests. The problem is those tests are not being counted in the city’s case and positivity data, obscuring an unknown number of infections. And this health care gap leaves those who test positive to largely fend for themselves at home.
While a positive result at a testing site triggers a cascade of responses from the city — calls from contact tracers, information on best isolation practices and links to medical services — those who test positive at home have to seek those out themselves.
“There are people who need help isolating, and it’s not easy to connect them to resources unless the system knows about them,” said Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at the City University of New York. Nash noted that he didn’t expect the at-home tests to significantly affect the quality of the city’s COVID data, since it is likely already undercounting cases.
Other municipalities have approached the problem of tallying at-home tests differently. In Western New York, the Monroe County Department of Health provides an online form for self-reporting. Inhabitants of California’s Fresno County can simply call a hotline. And Washington, D.C. residents who test positive can choose between an online form and an add-on to the pre-existing mobile phone exposure notification system that allows them to report their results.
New Yorkers, meanwhile, have to try their luck on the hotline.
“I was kicked around like a soccer ball from one end of the field to the other,” said one Queens resident of their experience calling 212-COVID19 after testing positive at home. (They asked that their name not be shared because they are applying for jobs.) Between time spent waiting on hold and countless transfers, they spent about two hours on the phone, they said. The closest they got to concrete advice was the suggestion to report the test result to their doctor, who could then share it with the city.
Adam Shrier, a spokesperson for Test and Trace, said that the impact of at-home testing on COVID surveillance was “minimal” and that the convenience and accessibility of the tests outweigh any downsides.
“While the city will not be notified of every positive at-home test, New Yorkers will have the information they need to break chains of transmission,” he said.
Shrier confirmed that the best thing to do if you test positive at home is to let your doctor know, start isolating and inform anyone you’ve been in close contact with over the past two days. He added that people who test positive at home can still call 212-COVID19 (212-268-4319) to get food assistance or a free hotel room for their isolation period.
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The health ministry recorded more than 13,000 new cases in a day, one of the highest daily totals since October.
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By Karan Deep Singh
Health experts in India expressed alarm on Thursday as the country recorded a coronavirus surge, probably fueled by the Omicron variant, that has seen new reported cases more than double in the last four days.
According to the country’s health ministry, India registered more than 13,000 new cases on Wednesday, one of the highest daily totals since October.
“We believe that this push is part of the global upsurge related to Omicron,” V.K. Paul, the head of the government’s Covid-19 task force, told a news conference on Thursday evening.
But Mr. Paul added: “There’s no need to panic because as a nation we are prepared, we have experience and we have the massive shield of very high coverage of vaccines.”
At least 61 percent of Indians have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and 43 percent have received two, according to the Our World in Data project.
Still, experts worry that a massive surge fueled by a highly transmissible variant in a country of 1.4 billion people could overwhelm the health system. At the height of India’s devastating second wave in May, at least 4,000 Covid-19 patients were dying each day because of crippling shortages of oxygen, hospital beds and medicines.
Dr. Rachna Kucheria, a public health expert and founder of DocGenie, a telemedicine start-up, said in an interview with the broadcaster NDTV that although Omicron showed signs of being less severe than previous variants, there could still be problems if it generated a larger overall number of cases. “When this happens in a pandemic, any country, in most countries, systems will get overwhelmed quickly,” she said.
Even more concerning, experts say, is that the rise in cases again coincides with a state election season. Voting is scheduled to begin next month in five states including Uttar Pradesh, the most populous in the country, and massive crowds attended rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition parties on Thursday. Early this year, huge election rallies including many unmasked people, and the government’s politicization of virus science, were blamed for helping the virus spread during the second wave.
On Thursday, some state governments confronted the possibility of a third wave, reopening Covid-19 “war rooms” and considering tighter restrictions to curb the spread.
The police in Mumbai, the country’s financial nerve center, banned gatherings of four or more people until Jan. 7 after new infections there nearly tripled in recent days.
In New Delhi, people lined up outside metro stations as trains and buses were ordered to begin operating at 50 percent occupancy. Schools, gyms and spas have been closed, shops have been told to open on alternating days and crowds at weddings have been capped at 20 people.
Satyendar Jain, Delhi’s health minister, said on Thursday that genome sequencing suggests that nearly half of the city’s new infections were of Omicron, adding that the variant was spreading fast and infecting people regardless of their travel history.
by: Amanda Hari
SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Many people have been enjoying the holiday weekend with their friends and family.
Even if you’re careful, it could lead to potential exposure to COVID-19 and the more transmissible omicron variant.
An infectious disease expert gives recommendations on what you should do if you’re gathering for the holidays.
The expert says for certain groups, you can gather.
However, it still comes with its own risks, especially now the omicron is spreading so quickly and becoming the dominant variant.
But you still have to be cautious even after being fully vaccinated and boosted.
UC Berkeley Clinical Professor of Infectious Diseases John Swartzberg says it can be smart to take it a step further and test right before gathering.
“I would also, before they come over, at a very minimum have them do a rapid test just before coming in,” Swartzberg said. “So they can sit outside in their car, do the test, and 15 minutes have the results.”
Swartzberg recommends that you always monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, but especially if you were recently in a large group.
He says if you’re vaccinated you don’t have to quarantine, but it may be smart to test.
“I think that somewhere around day 3 to 5, if you’re concerned that you may have had an exposure or your just not sure, do a rapid test on those days,” he said.
He says it’s not 100 percent, but it can give you some assurance. He also if you’re unvaccinated, take every precaution.
“You have a pool of people, maybe about 15 percent who are just refusing to get vaccinated,” Swartzberg said. “Those are the ones that omicron is going to find and get really sick.”
Swartzberg says don’t be fooled by the reports that omicron causes less serious illness.
“It’s not like there’s a free pass because it may be a little less severe than delta,” he said. “Don’t look at it that way. You’d be making a terrible mistake.”
He recommends if someone has a scratchy throat or runny nose, don’t go to a gathering. Even if that person tests negative, it’s not worth possibly spreading covid or any other illness.
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