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December 2 Omicron coronavirus variant news

What we're covering here

  • President Biden urged all Americans to get boosted as the US joins a growing number of countries that have confirmed cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
  • South Africa's Covid-19 cases appear to be spiking at the fastest rate since the start of the pandemic, with Omicron now the dominant strain in some provinces.
  • The UN Secretary-General said travel bans imposed on southern African countries over Omicron fears are "unacceptable," likening the restrictions to apartheid.
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11:57 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Just about any Covid-19 vaccine works as a booster, study finds

Dr. Manjul Shukla transfers Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at a mobile vaccination clinic in Worcester, Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP)

Any one of six different Covid-19 vaccines produce a strong immune system response and should work safely and well as boosters for people who have received initial vaccinations with either the Pfizer/BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccines, British researchers reported Thursday.

They said their findings are especially important as studies show protection from two doses of these vaccines is waning. The new Omicron variant may evade some of the effects of vaccines, researchers reported in the Lancet medical journal..

And the longer the interval between the initial vaccine and the booster dose, the stronger the immune response, according to the research.

“It’s really encouraging that a wide range of vaccines, using different technologies, show benefits as a third dose to either AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech. That gives confidence and flexibility in developing booster programs here in the UK and globally, with other factors like supply chain and logistics also in play,” said Saul Faust of the University Hospital Southampton, who led the study team. 
Study methods: The researchers randomly gave one of seven different boosters to more than 2,800 people, including vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Moderna, Germany’s Curevac and France’s Valneva.

After four weeks, almost everyone had similar immune responses. AstraZeneca’s vaccine did not provide a strong boost if given to people initially vaccinated with the same vaccine, the researchers found. Otherwise, any of the vaccines boosted either vaccine well. The team will follow volunteers for at least a year.

What about Omicron? Faust said he hoped the boosters would work well against the Omicron variant, but noted that had not been tested. The researchers did not test people against real-life infection, but rather tested their blood for antibody responses — which studies have shown are good indicators of protection against infection.
Faust said the findings come at an important time. “With a new variant, we do need to try and get boosters into people,” he told reporters. “We’re right at the beginning of a very, very busy winter period.
“This is about just making sure we’ve got people as protected as possible.”
11:05 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

China reports 80 local symptomatic Covid-19 cases

China recorded 80 local symptomatic Covid-19 cases on Thursday, its National Health Commission (NHC) said in a statement. It also identified 10 local asymptomatic cases, which it records separately, the NHC said.

Among the symptomatic cases, 56 were found in the city of Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia, which is currently experiencing an outbreak that began Nov. 27. The city, which borders Russia, has recorded 207 symptomatic cases since the start of the outbreak, according to a CNN tally.

Another 10 symptomatic cases were reported in Harbin city in northeastern Heilongjiang province, the NHC said. It added that 10 more symptomatic cases were detected in Longchuan city in southwestern Yunnan province.

The 10 asymptomatic cases were also reported in Yunnan province.

Mass testing and restrictions: Manzhouli has launched six citywide mass testing drives for its 300,000 residents. Meanwhile, all residents in Harbin were prohibited from leaving the city except for essential travel. Entertainment facilities shut down Thursday, and the city launched mass testing drives for its 10 million residents, the municipal government announced. 

All schools in Longchuan were closed and residents are only allowed to leave the city for essential travel, the local government said at a news conference Friday.

China's capital, Beijing, recorded one case and Shanghai found two cases on Thursday.

7:34 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

New York officials announce the identification of 5 Omicron cases

New York officials said Thursday they had identified five Omicron variant cases in New York state, not all of them among travelers, indicating community spread, but said all were mild.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, joined by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, said the five confirmed cases “aren’t life-threatening” and “seem to be minor cases.” She added that she expects more cases to emerge in the coming days.

“We’re not changing our protocols, we are continuing where we are, but making sure that we work in concert together and encourage people to get tested, get tested often, get the vaccination — and that, again, is our best defense,” Hochul said.

Four of the five confirmed cases were identified in residents of New York City. Another case was identified in a resident of Suffolk County, New York.

The five confirmed cases in New York state are, according to Hochul:

  • A 67-year-old female from Suffolk County with mild symptoms. She recently traveled from South Africa and had at least one vaccine. She tested negative for Covid-19 on 11/25, and then tested positive on 11/30.
  • A person who lives Queens, New York City. Their vaccination status is currently unknown and officials did not have other details.
  • A person who lives Queens, New York City. Their vaccination status is currently unknown and officials did not have other details.
  • A person who lives Brooklyn, New York City. Their vaccination status is currently unknown and officials did not have other details.
  • A person who lives New York City, though their borough of residents is currently unknown. Their vaccination status is currently unknown and officials did not have other details, other that that this person is also another “suspected traveler” case.

“The Omicron variant is here in New York City and New York State. We are in a situation where there is community spread. This is not just due to people who are traveling,” Chokshi said.

Chokshi added that while the Suffolk County woman tested positive on Nov. 30, the sequencing results from her Covid-19 did not reveal the presence of the Omicron variant until Thursday. He added that approximately 15% of PCR tests in New York City undergo sequencing. 

When asked whether Hochul plans to institute stronger mandates to combat Covid-19 as a result of these cases, the governor said the state is encouraging indoor mask use and vaccination, but said they “not going to overreact.”

She added that if more is learned about Omicron and its consequences, she will react quickly if needed.

She also said that contact tracing for all five cases has begun and that it’s too early to tell whether any of the cases are related.

CNN’s Liam Reilly contributed to this report
6:47 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Omicron is a concern but the US is in a "different place" in the pandemic, US surgeon general says

The Omicron variant has people worried, but there are tools now to protect people and the US needs to double down on using them, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Thursday.

“We are in such a different place now than we were one year ago because we’ve learned a lot more. We have vaccines available. We have far more tests available, and what we’ve got to do to get through this winter is to make sure that we are doubling down on our vaccination strategy,” Murthy told CNN.

Scientists are still trying to determine if the new variant is more transmissible, if it causes more severe illness, and if the vaccines work well against it.

“One thing that we do know is that we are doing everything that is necessary to get those answers,” Murthy said. “It will take several weeks.”

Murthy said scientists have hints about how well tests work to detect infections with Omicron and how well vaccines work to protect people against infections with Omicron. Scientists are “more and more confident,” he said, that existing tests will detect this version of the virus, but they will keep researching to be 100% sure.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, but there’s a lot we do know,” Murthy said. “We do know that this variant, like other variants, we can protect ourselves against it with masks, with hand hygiene, with distancing, the same tools that worked last year and throughout this year will continue to work.”

Murthy added that people need to get boosted.

“We do feel very confident, Wolf, that there will be some protection that you get from the vaccine but its especially important that you get boosted,” Murthy said. 

6:24 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Biden’s new testing regulation goes into effect at midnight Monday

All flights departing after 12:01 a.m. ET Dec. 6 will abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new testing order, according to an administration official. 

Currently, vaccinated travelers are required to test three days – or 72 hours – before their departures. The new order shortens that timeline to one day.

3:17 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

Biden continues push for booster shots as he unveils Covid-19 response for winter months

A Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster shot being administered in person's arm in Freeport, New York on November 30, 2021. (Steve Pfost/Newsday/Getty Images)
President Biden continued to urge all eligible Americans to get booster shots during his remarks from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, where he outlined his administration’s Covid-19 response plan.
"We're expanding our national booster campaign to provide booster shots to all eligible adults. Our docs and the scientists believe that people who get a booster shot are protected more than ever from Covid-19," Biden said.

Biden said that he will provide "paid off time for federal employees" who go to get a booster shot.

"They don't get docked their pay. I'm asking other employers in the private sector to do the same thing. Now, I don't want you to have to choose between a paycheck and getting an additional protection for a booster shot," Biden said.

As the fate of the administration’s vaccine requirements languish in the courts, Biden indicated that today’s announcements will “not expand or add to those mandates,” calling it “a plan that all Americans can, hopefully can rally around, and it should be — and should get bipartisan support, in my humble opinion. It should unite us, not continue to separate us.”  

Biden acknowledged the looming threat of the Omicron variant, about which little remains known, telling Americans, “I want to reiterate, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins believe if you're worried about the Omicron variant, the best thing to do is get fully vaccinated and then get your booster shot when you're when you're eligible.”

Biden also said that the administration is preparing contingency plans for vaccines.

“We don't yet believe that additional measures will be needed, but so that we're prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for other vaccines or boosters, and I'll also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available without cutting corners for safety to get such vaccines renewed — reviewed and renewed, reviewed and approved if they're needed.” 

Biden outlined the steps his administration announced earlier today to expand testing, increase vaccine outreach, restrict travel and increased response capabilities, highlighting travel restrictions from South and Southern Africa while praising South Africa for moving quickly to identify the Omicron variant.
2:20 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

CNN analysis: Risk of dying from Covid-19 is higher in red states

Since vaccines have become widely available, the average risk of dying from Covid-19 is more than 50% higher in states that voted for President Trump in 2020 than it is in states that voted for President Biden, according to a CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

In the first 11 months of the pandemic – from the initial surge through the winter 2020 surge, before vaccines became widely available – the average Covid-19 death rate was about the same along party lines. Through the end of January 2021, states that voted for Trump in the 2020 election had an average of 128 Covid-19 deaths for every 100,000 people, while states that voted for Biden had an average of 127 Covid-19 deaths for every 100,000 people.

New Jersey and New York, two states hit hard early on, had the highest death rates during this time. Mississippi and Louisiana also ranked among the 10 worst-hit states.

In early February 2021, the number of people who received their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine surpassed the total number of Covid-19 cases in the US.

In the 10 months since then, nearly 60% of the US population has become fully vaccinated and the average Covid-19 death rate in the US overall is 25% lower than it was in the 11 months before. 

The average death rate dropped even more in blue states. But in red states, where vaccination rates generally lag the national average, the average death rate hasn’t changed nearly as much. 

More context: Since Feb. 1, red states have had an average of 116 Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people – 52% higher than the average of 77 deaths per 100,000 people in blue states. The five states with the worst per capita death rates in that time all voted for Trump in 2020: Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Four in 10 Republicans remain unvaccinated, compared to about one in 10 Democrats, according to data from a Kaiser Family Foundation survey published Wednesday. Fully vaccinated Republicans were also less likely than Democrats to have received a booster dose.

2:07 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

NYC mayor urges attendees of anime convention to get tested for Covid-19

The Anime NYC convention took place at the Javits Center in New York City from November 18-22. The second case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the United States has been identified in Minnesota and the person recently traveled to New York City and attended the Anime NYC 2021 convention from Nov. 19-21. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the identification of the Omicron coronavirus variant in a Minnesota man who recently traveled to New York City and went to an anime convention, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged attendees to get tested for Covid-19 as quickly as possible.

"We should assume there is community spread of the variant in our city," de Blasio said in a statement.

The Anime NYC convention took place at the Javits Center from Nov. 18-22. De Blasio said the conference required masks and vaccination.

The city is working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Javits Center event organizers, he added.

1:52 p.m. ET, December 2, 2021

NOW: President Biden details his winter Covid-19 strategy as Omicron is found in the US

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Biden is speaking now and giving an update on the coronavirus pandemic in the US. He is expected to detail new actions Thursday aimed at protecting Americans from the Delta and newly discovered Omicron variants.

Biden is expected to present the administration's nine-pronged plan in remarks at the National Institutes of Health, a day after officials confirmed the first recorded case of the Omicron variant in the United States, in California.

"While this new variant is a cause for concern, it is not a cause for panic," a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday ahead of the President's remarks. "We have the tools we need to confront this variant, to keep making progress in our fight against the virus, and we are using these tools to keep people safe, keep our schools open and protect our economy."