Update (1600ET): Just hours after officials in Minnesota confirmed the second case of omicron in the US, a local ABC affiliate reports that a third case of the omicron variant has been identified in Colorado.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced Thursday that a case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been documented in his state.
"Just moments ago, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed the first Colorado case of the omicron variant," Polis said in a press conference. "It is somebody who just traveled to southern Africa and returned."
More details about the patient will likely be widely disseminated in the press.
Despite all the hype around the third confirmed case, Omicron is still a novelty, and few would deny that it's a long way from taking over (although, as we have previously explained, speculation that omicron is more mild than delta might mean that an omicron takeover would ultimately benefit the economy and markets). But whether it's being driven by omicron or not, it appears the winter surge that scientists have been bracing for since...last year's seasonal surge appears to have officially arrived.
To wit: New York state on Thursday reported the largest number of daily new cases since January. The Empire State counted 11,300 new COVID cases, the most since January, as dozens of hospitals report nearing capacity once again.
Total patients hospitalized for the virus in New York has increased by more than 1K in the span of a month, reaching 3.093K on Wednesday. As of Thursday, 56 hospitals in the state had a bed capacity of 10% or less, including Albany Medical Center Hospital, Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, Long Island Jewish Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, according to the state health department. Gov. Kathy Hochul famously issued an executive order last week allowing state officials to limit non-essential hospital procedures in an effort to increase bed capacity and address staffing shortages. The order takes effect tomorrow.
There were also 49 deaths reported, bringing the state's total to 46,623.
Elsewhere, the US has confirmed a second case of the omicron variant in a traveler who recently visited New York City's Javits Center for an anime convention. He was confirmed to have the variant in Minnesota.
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After teasing various aspects of his plan to protect Americans from the omciron variant (which is arriving at the start of the latest 'winter wave') while the CDC quietly collects names of travelers who recently visited southern Africa, President Joe Biden is preparing to share his plan, which will impose tighter restrictions on foreign travelers while extending a mask mandate and (potentially) double down on vaccine restrictions for American workers (even as multiple federal judges have rejected the mandate).
Biden's comments are expected later on Thursday, but during the early hours of the US session, Germany's outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz, agreed on a plan to effectively mandate vaccinations by imposing stringent restrictions on Germans who haven't voluntarily gotten the jab.
As governments scramble to use omicron as an excuse to crack down on the unvaccinated, makers of vaccines and COVID remedies have continued to share data about their products' efficacy at combating the omicron variant. And unsurprisingly, many of the big-name firms are saying they expect their jabs to "hold up" against the variant.
Despite Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel's market-rattling warnings that the first generation of mRNA vaccines - including Moderna's - might need to be retooled in order for them to protect against omicron, a senior Pfizer executive told Bloomberg that the company expects its jabs to offer significant protection against omicron, with more data expected in the coming weeks.
"We don’t expect that there will be a significant drop in effectiveness," Ralf Rene Reinert, vice president of vaccines for international developed markets, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. "But again, this is speculation. We will check this. We will have the data in the next couple of weeks."
Pfizer has already started working on new versions of its vaccine twice, with the emergence of the beta and delta variants, and concluded both times that the original shot provided good protection, Reinert said. Now its scientists will evaluate whether that’s the case for omicron, Bloomberg reports.
"It’s not that we start from scratch," Reinert said. "We know what we have to do."
These reassurances have arrived at a critical time: on Wednesday afternoon, the US became the 29th country to identify a case of the omicron variant. A US traveler in the San Francisco area was identified as the first patient known to be infected with the new variant (though it's likely that many others have already been infected, since the variant has been detected in Europe more than two weeks ago).
The US has seen a slight uptick in new cases in recent weeks as the 'winter wave' appears to be starting.
The global trend is moving in the same direction as Europe and other continents see rising numbers of cases.
And on the medical front, Pfizer isn't alone: GlaxoSmithKline said Thursday that its COVID antibody treatment looks to be effective against the new omicron variant in early tests.
Lab tests of the mutations found in the variant showed the drug is still active against the virus, Glaxo said in a statement on Thursday. GSK is now conducting in vitro experiments to confirm the response against a combination of all the omicron mutations.
As a result, Sotrovimab, the GSK antibody treatment, has been approved by the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency following a "rigorous" review of its safety.
Meanwhile, back in South Africa, scientists are tweaking their initial warnings about the variant. One day after reporting a massive surge in new cases (which some dismissed as a quirk resulting from a change in how public health officials count positive cases), scientists for the Diseases Institute are saying that while they expect a surge in cases due to omicron, the intensity of infections should be markedly more mild. Above all, the scientists expect fewer active cases and hospitalizations during this wave.
Here are some additional omicron-related headlines from Thursday:
- Indian officials have seen mild cases in Omicron patients. India reported two cases of the variant.
- UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced the UK secured 54mln additional doses of the Pfizer (PFE) / BioNTech (BNTX) jabs and 60mln additional doses of the Moderna (MRNA) vaccine for the next two years which he said will help the UK to "buy time" with the new variant.
- South Korea's government is considering coronavirus measures including banning social gatherings and reducing business hours, while it was also reported that South Korea is considering halting its gradual return to normal life as COVID-19 infections rise and it also reported a fresh record daily increase in cases, as well as confirmed its first case of the Omicron variant.
- The Japanese government will temporarily invalidate special visas issued to foreign nationals who meet certain conditions in an effort to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
Finally, President Biden is planning to include additional measures like forcing insurers to pay for at-home COVID tests as part of his plan for mitigating the 'winter wave' of COVID cases. Private insurers already cover COVID tests administered in doctor’s offices and other medical facilities, but there are now at least eight at-home tests on the US market that can be used by individuals at home. Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks on his 'winter plan' beginning just before 1400ET on Thursday. He will be speaking from Bethesda, Maryland.