Official says past infection may blunt omicron
South Africa’s health minister said Friday that vaccines and past infections could be a key reason that the current wave of coronavirus infections, fueled by the omicron variant, appear to be milder.
“We believe that it might not necessarily just be that omicron is less virulent, but we believe that this coverage of vaccination, also in addition to natural immunity of people who have already had contact with the virus, is also adding to the protection,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a news briefing. “That’s why we are seeing mild illness.”
Michelle Groome, an official at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa, told the virtual conference Friday that the country has seen a small uptick in hospital admissions and deaths. But “this level is very much lower even than the baseline period we were seeing between the second and third waves,” she said.
Groome added in a tweet that the disease “is likely to be milder because of our underlying immunity, rather than intrinsic virulence of the virus.” She warned that the uninfected and unvaccinated are still at risk of severe illness from the new variant.
Researchers have tried to understand the clinical severity of the omicron variant and vaccine efficacy against the latest variant, which has spread rapidly worldwide since last month. A private study in South Africa said this week that omicron appears to cause less severe illness than earlier variants of the coronavirus but is more resistant to the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine widely used there.
The study by insurer Discovery Health also reported that the risk of hospital admissions among adults who developed covid-19 was 29% lower than in the initial coronavirus pandemic wave that emerged in March 2020.
The World Health Organization in Africa said earlier this week that the initial stage of the current wave has led to fewer deaths than previous surges, but cautioned that the pattern may still change in the coming weeks.
U.S. officials intensified calls Friday for unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated in the face of the new omicron variant that contributed to a record number of infections in New York and threatened to wipe out a second holiday season in Europe.
OMICRON IN FULL FORCE
Much remains unknown about omicron, but officials warn that it appears more transmissible than the delta variant, which has already put pressure on hospitals worldwide. The uncertainty alone was enough for many people to change their plans.
In the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration resisted tightening any restrictions, but also sketched out dire scenarios for the unvaccinated in a plea for hesitant Americans to get the shot.
“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death, for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday, echoing the president’s own comments earlier this week.
The new variant is already in “full force” in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, with new cases hitting a one-day record of more than 8,300 on Thursday. But new hospitalizations and deaths — so far — are well below their spring 2020 peak and even where they were this time last year, city data shows.
Dr. Stanley Weiss, a Rutgers University epidemiology professor, said officials need to react faster, citing a willingness to redefine fully vaccinated to include booster shots, for example.
“Everyone wants us to be through with this pandemic, but in order to get us through it, we can’t ignore the realities of what’s going on and what is needed,” Weiss said.
Though the calendar is about to change, Friday had a distinctly 2020 feel: NFL games were postponed because of covid-19 infections. The Rockettes Christmas show was canceled for the season.
European governments imposed a spate of restrictions that ground travel to a halt and saw travelers lying low.
Denmark decided to close theaters, concert halls, amusement parks and museums in response to virus cases. In Spain, friends and classmates canceled traditional year-end dinners.
Scotland and Wales on Friday pledged millions of dollars for businesses hurt in Britain’s latest infection surge, a move that heaped pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to do the same in England.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak held talks with business representatives who have demanded more support, decrying a “lockdown by stealth” in which government officials recommend people cut back on socializing as much as possible without officially imposing the strict rules of past shutdowns.
Britain reported record numbers of infections three days in a row this week, the latest on Friday with more than 93,000 cases tallied.
PARTIES AT RISK
Businesses ranging from vacation providers to pubs and theaters saw a wave of cancellations as customers decided to skip merrymaking for now rather than risk being infected and missing family celebrations later.
Even Britain’s Christmas pantos — beloved and raucous holiday performances — are under threat. The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in western England had to refund $240,000 in ticket sales after customers decided not to go to shows. It was also forced to cancel 12 performances of “Beauty and the Beast” because half the cast tested positive.
“There’s been a real dent of confidence,” Executive Director Joanna Reid told the BBC.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Friday that financial assistance for business must come from the central government because it has the borrowing power to finance the scale of aid that is needed.
“Business is already bleeding, every 24 hours counts,” Sturgeon said during a briefing in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. “There is no time to waste.”
The already beleaguered travel and tourism industry is being particularly hammered.
Eurostar, which operates trains across the English Channel, sold out of tickets to France on Friday before new rules restricting travel to and from Britain took effect. Long lines snaked around the parking lot at the Eurotunnel, which runs the tunnel that drivers use to cross the water.
Ryanair originally expected to carry about 11 million passengers in December, but that figure dropped to 10 million, chief executive Michael O’Leary told the Guardian. Europe’s biggest airline will also cut about 10% of its capacity in January.
The Advantage Travel Group, which represents about 350 U.K. travel agents, said business fell by 40% in mid-December from a month earlier. Those numbers, including flights, cruise bookings and package holidays, add to the travel industry’s existing slump, which had already seen business fall by two-thirds since the pandemic began, said CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said.
“Our members are dealing with customers who are really nervous about traveling now,” she said “They’re really nervous about bookings for the New Year because they fear that there’s a risk that the government will make more knee-jerk reactions.”
Many in the travel and hospitality trades hoped they had put the worst behind them, nearly two years into a pandemic that has devastated those industries. They saw this holiday season as a chance to claw back some of what was lost — until omicron cast a pall reminiscent of the early days of the crisis.
Richard Stevens estimates he has lost out on $5,300 worth of bookings at his rental ski chalet in the French Alps after the new, stricter travel rules for people coming from Britain were announced.
He lost his first reservation when a guest called to say that the restrictions won’t allow anybody to come to France without a compelling reason, Stevens said. “And the compelling reason doesn’t include going on holiday.”
Celebrity chef Michel Roux and other restaurateurs have invested heavily to remake their venues to address safety concerns — and hoped to reap some of the benefits.
To return to a state of huge uncertainty for a second consecutive Christmas is “like a kick in the stomach,” said Roux, who has a destination restaurant in London.
Information for this article was contributed by Ellen Francis of The Washington Post and by Jennifer Peltz, Bobby Caina Calvan, Kelvin Chan, Danica Kirka, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Mae Anderson, Aritz Parra, Barry Hatton and Sylvia Hui of The Associated Press.