National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins offered caution about the new omicron variant of the coronavirus in a Sunday interview, saying it will take weeks to understand whether it can evade COVID-19 vaccines.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Collins explained that omicron has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, which raises the question of how effective the antibodies created by vaccines are against the variant.
“If you’ve raised antibodies against [COVID-19] from previously being infected or from being vaccinated, the question is, will those antibodies still stick to this version of the spike protein, or will they evade that protection? We need to find that out, to be honest, though that’s gonna take two, three weeks in both laboratory and field studies to figure out the answer. And that’s what all of us as scientists want to know,” said Collins.
Collins stressed that the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. have been shown to be effective against previous variants, such as delta, saying that was a good indication they also will work against omicron.
“Given that history, we expect that most likely the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection. And especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection because there’s something about the booster that causes your immune system to really expand its capacity against all kinds of different spike proteins, even ones it hasn’t seen before,” he said.
“Please, Americans, if you’re one of those folks who are sort of waiting to see, this would be a great time to sign up get your booster. Or if you haven’t been vaccinated already, get started. Omicron is one more reason to do this,” he added.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins said the emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus presents a “great reason” for people in the United States to seek a booster shot.
“There’s no reason to panic, but it’s a great reason to get boosted,” Collins said Sunday during an appearance on CNN.
The World Health Organization over the weekend held an emergency meeting regarding the new coronavirus strain first identified in South Africa, and classified it as being “of concern,” due to the variant’s large number of mutations and an increased risk of re-infection.
Several nations around the world, including the United States, have limited travel to several south African countries in recent days in an attempt to keep the variant from spreading more rapidly.
During an earlier appearance on Fox News Sunday, Collins said it may take weeks before world health officials can determine how effective vaccines being used in the United States are against the new variant, which has been dubbed “omicron.”
“Given that history, we expect that most likely the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection,” he said. “And especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection because there’s something about the booster that causes your immune system to really expand its capacity against all kinds of different spike proteins, even ones it hasn’t seen before.”
Collins said on CNN that the emergence of the new variant is “another reason” for people who have not received a coronavirus booster shot to do so once they are eligible.
“The booster basically enlarges the capacity of your immune system to recognize all kinds of spike proteins its never seen,” Collins explained. “This is a great day to go and get boosted or find out how to do so.”
President Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, on Sunday called the newly discovered omicron variant of COVID-19 “troublesome” and raised concerns that it “might evade immune protection.”
“Right now, what we have is we have the window into the mutations that are in this new variant. And they are troublesome in the fact that there are about 32 or more variants in that very important spike protein of the virus, which is the business end of the virus,” Fauci said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“And there are about 10 or more of these mutations that are on that part of the virus — we call it the receptor binding domain — that actually binds to the cells in your nasopharynx and in your lung,” Fauci continued. “In other words, the profile of the mutations strongly suggest that it’s going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from a monoclonal antibody or from the convalescent serum after a person’s been infected and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies.”
Though Fauci confirmed that the omicron strain has not yet been detected in the U.S., he said on ABC’s “This Week” that it was “inevitable” that it would hit the country.
Fauci’s comments come as scientists are racing to learn more about the variant, which was first found in South Africa.
The director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that it would take several weeks for scientists to better understand whether omicron could evade the protection of the COVID-19 vaccines.
However, Collins said that because the COVID-19 vaccines have been effective against other variants such as delta, there was reason to believe that it also be effective against omicron.
“Given that history, we expect that most likely the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection. And especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection because there’s something about the booster that causes your immune system to really expand its capacity against all kinds of different spike proteins, even ones it hasn’t seen before,” Collins said.
Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Sunday said vaccine developers have “a pretty good degree of confidence” that fully vaccinated individuals who have received a COVID-19 booster are protected against the omicron variant.
Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Gottlieb said that there is no indication that the omicron variant first detected in South Africa makes individuals more ill than other previously detected variants, and that there have been anecdotal accounts of people experiencing mild cases of COVID-19, though he pointed out that initial cases appear to have been clustered among young people.
“The question here is going to be whether or not a fully boosted individual someone who’s had three doses of vaccine has good protection against this variant right now,” said Gottlieb, who now sits on Pfizer’s board of directors.
“If you talk to people in vaccine circles, people who are working on a vaccine, they have a pretty good degree of confidence that a boosted vaccine, so three full doses of vaccine, is going to be fairly protective against this new variant,” said Gottlieb.
However, Gottlieb stressed that data on the omicron data is sparse, with no clinical studies or test tube studies having been completed. He estimated that studies testing the blood of vaccinated people against the omicron variant could be out by the end of this week or some time next week.
“Now, I would expect that those studies are going to show that the neutralization against this virus declined substantially. But that doesn’t mean that the vaccines won’t be effective,” he said.
“Please pass the green beans.” “What kind of pie is that?”“What about spike proteins!?”These are some of the phrases that may be uttered during your Thanksgiving and holiday dinners this season. But! We have prepared a glossary for you. Swipe through a quick guide to some of the most misused terms around vaccines that PolitiFact has noticed in our fact-checking. And because we know that shouts of “that’s wrong!” don’t go over smooth like gravy, we’re including an expert’s advice on how to talk about vaccine falsehoods with family and friends.The big thing to know: It’s better to respond with facts than to offer corrections.”If they said something like ‘the vaccine is dangerous,’ include a statistic about how 75% of the people in their state have gotten vaccinated and none have died, or how severe and dangerous COVID-19 is,” said Rupali Limaye, an associate scientist at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “And, ultimately, make sure you’re saying it all with empathy.”
Two-in-three Americans will celebrate this Thanksgiving with friends or family outside their immediate households, and about half of those say their gatherings could include unvaccinated people, according to the latest installment of the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index.
Why it matters: Vaccinations and booster shots are giving more people confidence to resume traditions like sitting around a packed table with masks off. But many are doing so with heightened awareness of what they don’t know when it comes to their holiday companions.
This year, 31% see a large or moderate risk in seeing friends or family for Thanksgiving — way down from 64% a year ago.
People’s assessment of overall risk of returning to their normal pre-COVID lives is also down, with 44% seeing it as a large to moderate risk this year compared with 72% last year.
But when Americans are asked how concerned they still feel about the virus, the numbers haven’t diminished all that much: 69% compared with 85% a year ago.
What they’re saying: “We’re just in a holding pattern,” said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs.
“They’re going to Thanksgiving because they have to, they have to see their family and friends, it’s human nature,” Young said. “But Americans are still deploying mitigating strategies.”
Ipsos pollster and senior vice president Chris Jackson said the vaccines “have attenuated some of that risk. But there’s a larger sense of anxiety or concern that hasn’t been dealt with.”
By the numbers: 67% of U.S. adults surveyed said they’ll see friends or family outside their households. That’s 73% of Republicans, 70% of independents and 63% of Democrats.
30% of them said the guests will include unvaccinated people, and another 17% said they don’t know whether other guests will be vaccinated or not.
38% said they’ll be with people who don’t regularly wear masks outside the home, while another 21% said they didn’t know if their guests regularly wear masks.
4% said they’ll be seeing people who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 in the last two weeks; another 28% aren’t sure if people at their gatherings have been exposed.
Between the lines: There’s a modest partisan gap around openness to returning to the communal Thanksgiving table — but a gulf around who you’re willing to sit with.
41% of Republicans expect to spend the holiday with someone who’s unvaccinated, compared with 17% of Democrats.
When we asked unvaccinated respondents, 56% of those who will celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family outside the home expect the guests to include other unvaccinated people.
The big picture: This week’s findings show overwhelming support (86%) for every vaccinated American who wants a booster being able to get one. But only about one in four respondents said they knew much about an anti-viral COVID-19 pill awaiting FDA approval.
23% hadn’t heard about the pill at all, and half had heard of it but said they didn’t know much about it.
When the unvaccinated were asked whether they’d rather get a shot to prevent the virus, or wait to catch the virus and then take an approved pill to treat it, the pill drew a slight edge (17% versus 12%) and 15% had no preference, while a majority — 53% — said they’d prefer to take neither.
That suggests the pill won’t be a silver bullet — and offers more evidence that there is a segment of American society that doesn’t trust science or government to tell them what to do.
Federal officials waited months before making all American adults eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot — meaning millions of Americans may not have the strongest possible protection as they head into holiday travel.
Why it matters: Critics say the confusing process undermined what has now become a critical effort to stave off another wave of the pandemic.
Most vaccinated people, even without a booster, still have very strong protection against serious illness or death. But a third shot drastically increases people’s defenses against even mild infections, which could in turn help reduce the virus’ spread.
And some vulnerable vaccinated adults are at risk of serious breakthrough cases.
What they’re saying: “We have a consensus. Boosters are very important in maintaining people’s defenses against COVID. We need to get as many people vaccinated and boosted [as possible] as the winter sets in,” David Kessler, the chief science officer of Biden’s COVID response, said in an interview.
Context: Preliminary data released months ago suggested a significant decline in the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing infection, although they held up well against severe disease.
Based on that data, the Biden administration had hoped to begin allowing booster shots in September for any American adult who was at least eight months removed from their second dose.
The CDC and the FDA opted instead to only authorize boosters for seniors, people with high-risk medical conditions and people at high risk of infection, before opening them last week to everyone at least six months out from their initial shots.
In the meantime, red and blue states alike decided to ignore the CDC and open up booster eligibility on their own, and breakthrough infections have become increasingly common.
Millions of people who weren’t technically eligible for boosters got them anyway, and a large portion of the most vulnerable patients still haven’t gotten one.
Where it stands: Only 41% of vaccinated Americans 65 and older have received a booster shot, as have 20% of all vaccinated adults, per the CDC.
“Some of us were there several months ago. Some wanted more data. In the end, there’s a convergence of opinions. It’s the way an open scientific public health process should work,” Kessler said.
Between the lines: The U.S. drug approval process — with its insistence on high-quality data and careful expert reviews — is the world’s gold standard precisely because it moves deliberately. Regulators have been trying this whole time to figure out how to adapt that system to a fast-moving pandemic.
Some federal officials, as well as many outside experts, said there wasn’t enough data to make a broad booster recommendation earlier this fall.
Early on, many public health experts also argued that it was unethical to give Americans a third shot while much of the rest of the world awaited their first shots.
Israel embraced boosters before the U.S. beginning over the summer, and its emerging data has been key to making the case that boosters are needed and can help bring surges under control. However, experts still don’t know how long the enhanced protection they give will last.
What they’re saying: “Some argued early on that the primary series was good enough and we should conserve doses for the world. What’s emerging is that all people in the world are going to need to be boosted,” a senior administration official said.
“Everyone has a different threshold for how much data they need in making a decision,” the official added. “What made this different is that there’s a pandemic underway, and many saw we were heading into a winter surge.”
Some 30% of U.S. healthcare workers employed at hospitals remained unvaccinated as of Sept. 15, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data published Thursday by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
The findings include data from 3.3 million healthcare workers at more than 2,000 hospitals, collected between Jan. 20 and Sept. 15.
Healthcare personnel working in children’s hospitals had the highest vaccination rates, along with those working in metropolitan counties.
The vaccination rate for healthcare workers is roughly in line with that of the general population, though the risk of exposure and transmission can be higher in settings where infected COVID-19 patients are treated, Hannah Reses, CDC epidemiologist and lead author of the analysis, said.
When the shots were initially rolled out, vaccination rates climbed among healthcare workers, rising from 36% to 60% between January and April of 2021, the analysis found. But a major slowdown occurred shortly after.
From April to August, vaccination rates rose just 5%. They then rose 5% again in just one month — from August to September — likely due to the delta variant and more systems implementing their own mandates, the report said.
Researchers also found discrepancies in vaccination rates based on the type of hospitals and their geographic locations.
By September, workers at children’s hospitals had the highest vaccination rates (77%), followed by those at short-term acute care hospitals (70%), long-term care facilities (68.8%), and critical access hospitals (64%).
Among healthcare workers at facilities in metropolitan areas, about 71% were vaccinated by September, compared to 65% of workers at rural facilities.
The findings come as health systems work to comply with new vaccination mandates from the Biden administration.
Healthcare facilities must follow the CMS rule, which stipulates employees must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or risk losing Medicare and Medicaid funding. Unlike the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s rule that applies to businesses with 100 employees or more but excludes healthcare providers, the CMS rule does not allow for a testing exception.
Both agencies’ rules were met with pushback. The attorneys general of 10 mostly rural states — Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire — filed a lawsuit on Oct. 10 against CMS for its rule and said the mandates would exacerbate existing staffing shortages.
“Requiring healthcare workers to get a vaccination or face termination is unconstitutional and unlawful, and could exacerbate healthcare staffing shortages to the point of collapse, especially in Missouri’s rural areas,” the state’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, said in a statement.
But some regional systems that implemented their own mandates have seen positive results.
After UNC Health and Novant Health in North Carolina required the shots, staff vaccination rates rose to 97% and 99%, respectively, according to a White House report.
Among Novant Health’s 35,000 employees, about 375 were suspended for not complying, and about 200 of those suspended employees did end up getting vaccinated so they could return to work, according to the report.
And some major hospital chains across the country are joining suit with the looming deadline, including HCA with its 183 hospitals and more than 275,000 employees.
The chain is requiring employees be fully vaccinated by the CMS deadline on Jan. 4, a spokesperson said in an email statement.
At the same time, this year’s flu season is difficult to predict, though, “the number of influenza virus detection reported by public health labs has increased in recent weeks,” Reses said.
“The CDC is preparing for flu and COVID to circulate along with other respiratory viruses, and so flu vaccination therefore will be really important to reduce the risk of flu and potentially serious complications, particularly in combination with COVID-19 circulating,” Reses said.
The Austrian government has ordered a nationwide lockdown for unvaccinated people starting at midnight Sunday to combat rising coronavirus infections and deaths.
The move prohibits unvaccinated people 12 and older from leaving their homes except for basic activities such as working, grocery shopping, going for a walk — or getting vaccinated.
Authorities are concerned about rising infections and deaths and that soon hospital staff will no longer be able to handle the growing influx of COVID-19 patients.
“It’s our job as the government of Austria to protect the people,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told reporters in Vienna on Sunday. “Therefore we decided that starting Monday … there will be a lockdown for the unvaccinated.”
The lockdown affects about 2 million people in the Alpine country of 8.9 million, the APA news agency reported. It doesn’t apply to children under 12 because they cannot yet officially get vaccinated.
The lockdown will initially last for 10 days and police will go on patrol to check people outside to make sure they are vaccinated, Schallenberg said, adding that additional forces will be assigned to the patrols.
Unvaccinated people can be fined up to 1,450 euros ($1,660) if they violate the lockdown.
Austria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe: only around 65% of the total population is fully vaccinated. In recent weeks, Austria has faced a worrying rise in infections. Authorities reported 11,552 new cases on Sunday; a week ago there were 8,554 new daily infections.
Deaths have also been increasing in recent weeks. On Sunday, 17 new deaths were reported. Overall, Austria’s pandemic death toll stands at 11,706, APA reported.
The seven-day infection rate stands at 775.5 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants. In comparison, the rate is at 289 in neighboring Germany, which has already also sounded the alarm over the rising numbers.
Schallenberg pointed out that while the seven-day infection rate for vaccinated people has been falling in recent days, the rate is rising quickly for the unvaccinated.
“The rate for the unvaccinated is at over 1,700, while for the vaccinated it is at 383,” the chancellor said.
Schallenberg also called on people who have been vaccinated to get their booster shot, saying that otherwise “we will never get out of this vicious circle.”
As booster shots become available in the United States, many Americans are scrambling to get them. But are these shots the best use of our resources? Who really benefits from them and what is the most prudent way to use our vaccine supplies?