The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner and Melissa Macaya, CNN

Updated 7:55 PM ET, Thu December 16, 2021
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6:37 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

Vaccination remains crucial as Delta circulates and Omicron spreads, CDC official says

From CNN's Jen Christensen

Even with data showing Covid-19 vaccines’ reduced effectiveness against the Omicron variant, it’s important for people to get vaccinated, said Heather Scobie, a member of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Enhanced Surveillance Epidemiology Task Force Covid-19 Emergency Response.

“Given the increased risk related to the Delta and Omicron variant, it is important to increase uptake of primary vaccination and booster doses in all eligible populations,” Scobie told the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Thursday.

The Delta variant has been dominant in the US since August, causing up to 99% of Covid-19 cases, and is now causing 96.7% of cases, Scobie said.

She added that the CDC is closely monitoring real-world vaccine effectiveness and watching breakthrough infections. The CDC is also watching the effects the Omicron variant is having on various populations.

To date, 37 states have reported Omicron cases. Of the 43 cases that the CDC has full details on, 33% had an international travel history. Nearly 80% were fully vaccinated, and 32% had a booster dose, though some of them had gotten the booster within 14 days of symptom onset. Fourteen percent had previous infections.

Scientists are still looking at how effective Covid-19 treatments are against Omicron, but “some treatments are still likely to be excellent,” she said.

To slow the spread of the variant, Scobie said that in addition to vaccination and boosters, there should be an increased use of masking, an effort to improve ventilation, wider and more frequent testing, and more adherence to guidance on quarantine and isolation when exposed to, or sick with, Covid-19.

“This is a changing landscape, and CDC will communicate properly about emerging evidence,” Scobie said.

5:30 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

G7 health ministers call Omicron variant the "biggest current threat to global public health"

From CNN's Lauren Kent

The G7 on Thursday called the Omicron coronavirus variant "the biggest current threat to global public health," according to a statement from G7 health ministers.

"Deeply concerned by the rise in cases, ministers agreed that these developments should be seen as the biggest current threat to global public health," said G7 health ministers in the statement. "In light of these extensive challenges, G7 ministers reiterated the commitment to taking forward the pledges in recent G7 and G20 declarations to tackle the ongoing pandemic and build defences for the future."

"Ministers reiterated their continuous support for COVAX, their commitment to the global effort on vaccine rollout and their support for accelerated development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics in pandemics," the statement said.

A spokesperson for the United Kingdom's Department of Health and Social Care added, "Ministers shared their concerns over the rise in Omicron cases around the world and discussed how to combat the new variant, stressing the importance of co-operating closely to monitor the situation, share data and increase vaccinations to provide as much protection as possible."

The UK currently holds the presidency for the G7 countries and held its final health ministers meeting on Thursday. 

5:28 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

The unvaccinated are "looking at a winter of severe illness and death," Biden says

From CNN's Allie Malloy

President Joe Biden meets with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 16.
President Joe Biden meets with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 16. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Biden said he wanted to send a “direct message” to the American people that while the Covid-19 variant Omicron has “not spread as fast” because of steps the administration has taken, Americans still need to get their boosters and first shots of the Covid-19 vaccine, warning the unvaccinated are “looking at a winter of severe illness and death.”

“I want to send a direct message to the American people: Due to the steps we’ve taken Omicron has not yet spread as fast as it would have otherwise done,” Biden said in remarks following his Covid-19 briefing Thursday. “But it’s here now and it’s spreading and it’s gonna increase. For the unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death, for the unvaccinated — for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm — but there’s good news if you’re vaccinated and you have your booster shot, you’re protected from severe illness and death.”

Biden also called on individuals to get vaccinated to support the economic recovery. 

“We’re gonna protect our economic recovery. If we do this we’re gonna keep schools and businesses open if we do this and I want to see everyone around enjoy that. I want to see them enjoy the fact that they’re able to be in school, that businesses are open and the holidays are coming," the President said.

4:03 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

CDC vaccine advisers vote to recommend Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines over Johnson & Johnson’s

From CNN's Maggie Fox

A Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is seen on a table at a Covid-19 vaccination mobile unit in Miami on May 13.
A Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is seen on a table at a Covid-19 vaccination mobile unit in Miami on May 13. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Vaccine advisers to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted 15-0 Thursday to change recommendations to make clear that the Covid-19 vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech were preferred over Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

“mRNA vaccines are preferred over the Janssen Covid-19 vaccine for the prevention of Covid-19 for those 18 years of age and over," the recommendation said.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices endorsed the updated recommendation after hearing new data indicating that a rare blood clotting syndrome is more common among people who recently got a Johnson & Johnson vaccine than previously believed. The CDC has logged 54 cases in the US of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS, in the US since the vaccine became available. Nine people have died: seven women and two men.

ACIP members considered the new data and weighed it against numerous studies showing that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is less effective than the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines in preventing infection. They also discussed the risks of completely removing J&J’s vaccine as an option, as well as the potential confusion and mistrust that might be caused by changing recommendations about the vaccine.

“We will absolutely emphasize how important education around the risk of these events is,” the CDC’s Dr. Sara Oliver told the meeting.

Earlier this week: The US Food and Drug Administration strengthened language in the fact sheet that goes along with the Janssen vaccine, saying it should not be given to anyone with a history of TTS.

3:51 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

Fauci: Businesses may not face same closures with Omicron as in 2020 if prevention measures are followed

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

People walk in The Oculus in lower Manhattan on December 13 in New York.
People walk in The Oculus in lower Manhattan on December 13 in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If people take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including vaccination, American businesses may not face the same closures with Omicron as they saw in 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Thursday.

“That is a difficult call to make. I think it's going to really depend on how well we do the interventions that I just mentioned a moment ago,” Fauci said in an interview with the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“If we follow the CDC guidelines about, when you are at indoor public congregate settings, to make sure you wear a mask even if you are vaccinated, and if you are vaccinated, please get boosted when your time comes. And certainly if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If we do that, I don't believe we'll have to be doing any kind of shutdown with regard to businesses in your community,” he said.

“I think we could continue to go and do what we've done now, as long as we're prudent about our care for things like wearing masks in appropriate settings.”

3:26 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

Johnson & Johnson to CDC advisers: "We are confident in the positive benefit/risk profile of our vaccine"

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Johnson & Johnson made a strong plea Thursday to vaccine advisers who are considering limiting recommendations for use of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine in light of news that it’s more likely than previously believed to cause a rare blood clotting condition. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented new data showing that 54 Americans had developed a rare blood clotting condition called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) after getting J&J’s Janssen vaccine. Nine of the individuals died: two men and seven women.

The CDC is asking its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to consider whether changes are needed to recommendations about the use of the vaccine. ACIP’s working group, which weighed the benefits and risks of the vaccine, suggested a preferential recommendation advising certain groups to avoid the vaccine.

Dr. Penny Heaton, global therapeutic head for vaccines at Janssen, told the meeting that the J&J vaccine is unique.

“We are confident in the positive benefit/risk profile of our vaccine. It is saving lives in the US here today and on every continent around the globe. Our vaccine is different. It’s long-lasting. It offers high levels of protection, and it offers breadth of protection,” Heaton told the meeting. “It’s easy to store and transport.”

Heaton said the J&J vaccine, which is formulated differently from Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, provides a different type of immunity that grows more slowly but lasts longer. It’s a one-dose vaccine, but the CDC now recommends that everyone who gets it receive a booster dose of any available vaccine.

“Even in the US, given its durable protection, it may be the preferred choice for people who can’t or won’t return for multiple vaccinations,” Heaton argued. She said the company has several studies under way to understand risk factors for TTS.

“While TTS continues to be a rare event, unfortunately, cases of Covid-19 are not,” she said, noting that Covid-19 carries a much higher risk of blood clots than vaccination does.

1:35 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

CDC study: People are more likely to be vaccinated against Covid-19 if their doctor recommends it

From CNN’s Deidre McPhillips

A doctor prepares a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in Freeport, New York, on November 30.
A doctor prepares a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in Freeport, New York, on November 30. (Steve Pfost/Newsday RM/Getty Images)

People are more likely to be vaccinated against Covid-19 if a health care provider recommends it, but most people have not received such a recommendation for vaccination from their doctor, according to a study published Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CDC researchers analyzed responses from more than 340,000 adults who were interviewed over the phone between April and September 2021.

More than three quarters (78%) of people who said they had received a recommendation to be vaccinated from a health care provider had received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, but only about 62% of people who did not receive a recommendation had been vaccinated, the study found.

In earlier interviews between April and May, only about 35% of people said that a health care provider recommended the Covid-19 vaccine to them, which rose to about 42% in later surveys between August and September. But most adults did not receive a recommendation on Covid-19 vaccination from their doctor. 

Seniors were more likely than any other age group to say that a health care provider recommend vaccination to them (44%), as were people with higher education levels and higher household incomes. 

“These patterns mirror known patterns in disparities in health insurance coverage, financial barriers to care, and the use of wellness visits and checkups; as a result, lower access to health care might reduce the opportunity for interactions with trusted providers,” according to the researchers.

But the study also found that provider recommendation for vaccination had the most impact among younger adults under the age of 40, along with adults living in rural areas, and those who do not have a Covid-19 vaccination requirement through work or school.

“As trusted sources of medical information, providers have the opportunity to clearly recommend COVID-19 vaccines as a main strategy for preventing serious health outcomes from COVID-19,” the researchers wrote. “Empowering health care providers to recommend vaccination to their patients could help reinforce confidence in, and increase coverage with, COVID-19 vaccines, particularly among groups known to have lower COVID-19 vaccination coverage, including younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, and rural residents.”

People who received a recommendation to receive the Covid-19 vaccine from their health care provider were also more likely to say that they were confident in the safety of the vaccines and that they were important to protect themselves. 

The survey relied on self-reported vaccination status and other individual interpretation of questions, and may be subject to recall or misclassification bias. Also, the survey did not assess how often respondents visited health care providers, and researchers note low rates of provider recommendation for the Covid-19 vaccine could be due to limited access. Perceptions may have changed since the surveys took place, amid the Delta variant surge and emergence of the Omicron variant. 

About 61% of the US population is fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the CDC. Vaccination coverage increases by age group, ranging from 58% of adults under age 25 to more than 87% of seniors age 65 and up.  

1:06 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

First cases of Omicron reported among Palestinians in the West Bank

The Palestinian Ministry of Health says it has discovered the first three cases of the Omicron variant among Palestinians in the West Bank.

The three cases are spread throughout the territory – one each in Ramallah, Hebron and Tubas – and were found in people who recently returned from abroad, the ministry said.

It did not provide details of the countries from which the three had recently returned.

Health officials are trying to track people who came into contact with the three Omicron cases.

12:48 p.m. ET, December 16, 2021

The CDC vaccine advisers' meeting on Johnson & Johnson vaccine has begun. Here's what they are discussing. 

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips, Elizabeth Cohen and Jamie Gumbrecht

A vial of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is seen at a clinic in Los Angeles, on December 15.
A vial of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is seen at a clinic in Los Angeles, on December 15. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is meeting now to discuss risks and benefits of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.

According to an agenda posted online on Wednesday, the group will hear presentations about thrombosis and thrombocytopenia syndrome – known as TTS – a rare but serious type of blood clot that has been linked to the vaccine, as well as the benefits and risks assessment of the vaccine.

The CDC has said for months that the J&J vaccine’s known and potential benefits outweighed the known and potential risks. However, it says women younger than 50 years old should be aware of the rare but increased risk of TTS, which involves blood clots with low platelets. Safety monitoring has been ongoing since the adverse event was first identified in April.

The advisory committee is scheduled to meet until 4 p.m. ET Thursday. It is scheduled to vote at 2:30 p.m. ET. It’s not clear what the voting question will be.

More on the vaccine: According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 16 million people in the US have been vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.

J&J recipients represent 8% of the 203 million people who are fully vaccinated in the United States, and J&J doses represent about 3.5% of the 488 million doses of Covid-19 that have been administered until this date.