• US coronavirus cases exceed 48 million. Source

• WHO announces that it has classified Omicron (B.1.1.529) as a variant of concern, due to its large and concerning number of mutations and preliminary evidence suggesting  “…an increased risk of reinfection with this variant.”

WHO noted that “Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation,” and asked countries to:

– enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.

– submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.

– report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.

– where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics. Source

• Merck announces that a final analysis found that molnupiravir’s effectiveness for preventing hospitalization and death among unvaccinated patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent in the final analysis of its phase III trial. Merck’s initial estimate came from a look at results from 775 of over 1,400 study participants; in the final analysis, molnupiravir, which needs to be taken within five days of symptom onset, reduced the risk of hospitalization from 9.7 percent to 6.8 percent. There was one death in the molnupiravir group, and nine deaths in the placebo group. A US FDA advisory panel is set to review the drug in less than a week. Source

• Within hours of the announcement that scientists in South Africa discovered a new, highly mutated coronavirus variant, now called Omicron, countries move to ban or restrict travel from South Africa (and in some cases, other affected or adjoining countries), including Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Canada,Croatia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Singapore and the US. Source

• After Britain suspended flights from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that the newly-discovered and highly mutated coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa could be “a substantial risk to public health,” nothing that “Early indications show that this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it.” Source

• Hong Kong has reported two cases of the new coronavirus variant recently identified by South African scientists. Two travelers, both vaccinated – one returning from South Africa – who were quarantined in the same hotel in rooms across the hall from one another, were found to be infected with the new variant, and the virus’s genetic sequence was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission. The government blamed the one of the men for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as the “unsatisfactory air flow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon, there were infections reported among people in nearby rooms. Source

Reuters reports that Hungary’s National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition will begin discussions with its Russian counterparts to gain permission to use the Sputnik Light COVID-19 vaccine. Hungary has already been using the Sputnik V vaccine, although the EMA has not approved it. Source

• In some areas of Germany, overwhelmed hospitals are airlifting COVID-19 patients to other intensive care units. Source

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