November 29 Omicron Covid-19 variant news

By Aditi Sangal, Helen Regan, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Brad Lendon, Rob Picheta and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:03 a.m. ET, November 30, 2021
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6:23 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

Pfizer expected to seek FDA authorization for boosters for those ages 16 and 17

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

A healthcare worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital on October 5, in Miami.  
A healthcare worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital on October 5, in Miami.   (Lynne Sladky/AP/File)

Pfizer is expected to seek authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its vaccine booster shot for those who are ages 16 and 17, a source familiar with the plan tells CNN.

Currently only those age 18 and up are eligible for booster shots six months after their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The development comes as scientists in the US and around the world are racing to learn more about a new variant named Omicron.

On Monday, President Biden urged Americans to pay attention, but not to panic. He also encouraged those who have not yet gotten a booster but are eligible to do so.

Biden had hoped to have boosters made widely available months ago, but the move ultimately didn't happen until late November. Asked Monday if making vaccines available to everyone sooner could have helped with the current dynamic, White House press secretary Jen Psaki referred the question to medical experts.

Pfizer didn't immediately respond to CNN's request for comment.

5:59 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

Omicron poses 3 major threats to the US economy, Federal Reserve chairman says

From CNN’s David Goldman

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, DC, on November 22.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, DC, on November 22. (Susan Walsh/AP/File)

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is set to testify Tuesday that the Omicron variant threatens America's economic recovery.

Much remains unknown about Omicron. Yet if it prolongs the pandemic, it could keep prices rising, hurt job growth and make the supply chain crisis worse, Powell is expected to tell Congress.

"The recent rise in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation," Powell wrote in prepared testimony he's set to deliver Tuesday to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. 

Wall Street sold off stocks and oil Friday after learning about the potentially highly infectious and more immunity-resistant variant. But the market regained much of its lost ground Monday after investors took a breath and sensed a buying opportunity.

Stocks similarly sold off when Wall Street first heard about the Delta variant, but it soon rebounded and surged to new records as vaccine availability spread and health officials learned how to better manage the pandemic.

In his prepared testimony, Powell noted the economy took a body blow in the summer as the Delta variant spread across the globe. Many Americans were afraid to travel, shop, eat at restaurants and return to the office. That kept caregivers at home, exacerbating the labor shortage and supply chain crisis that have held back the US economy.

But infections fell throughout the fall, and the economy picked up steam. Powell predicted the US economy would grow a robust 5% this year. As infections fell, starting in September, the job market rebounded, and the unemployment rate fell to 4.6%, the lowest rate since May 2020.

The economy has ebbed and flowed with rising and falling infections, and Omicron threatens to undo much of the economic goodwill America has generated throughout the autumn months.

"Greater concerns about the virus could reduce people's willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the labor market and intensify supply-chain disruptions," Powell wrote in his testimony.

Powell, who President Biden recently renominated for a second term as Fed Chair, said the imbalance of supply and demand have artificially sent prices surging well above the Fed's 2% annual inflation target. Americans have spent about 5% more on goods and services this year, Powell noted.

Inflation could be here to stay for a bit longer, Powell said. It's a bit of a Catch-22: The labor shortage had been sending wages (and prices) higher, but with job growth accelerating in recent months, employers are finding fewer applicants for their available jobs — and they have to raise pay to attract new workers.

6:06 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

Fauci: We have "every reason to believe" current vaccines and boosters will help protect against variant

Oakland County Health Department emergency preparedness specialist Jeanette Henson fills syringes with doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on August 24, in Southfield, Michigan.
Oakland County Health Department emergency preparedness specialist Jeanette Henson fills syringes with doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on August 24, in Southfield, Michigan. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Biden, reiterated the importance of Americans to get vaccinated and boosters as the government continues to learn more details about the new Omicron variant.

"The unvaccinated need to get vaccinated and those eligible to get boosted should get boosted because we know from experience, Jake, that even with variants that are not specifically directed at by the vaccine, such as the Delta variant. If you get the level of antibody high enough, the protection spills over to those other variants," Fauci told CNN's Jake Tapper.

He continued: "So we have every reason to believe, even though this is an extraordinary unusual variant because of the number of mutations, there's no reason to believe that it will not happen, that if you get the level of antibody high with the regular booster to the regular vaccine, that you're going to have at least some effect and hopefully a good effect on ability to protect against this variant."

Fauci said that he couldn't predict whether the new variant would become the dominant variant in the US.

"We don't know. And that's the reason why we're looking at what the pattern is in South Africa," he said.

With regards to travel restrictions, Fauci said he didn't anticipate a need for further measures and that he was hopeful they would not be of a "very long duration."

"I think what was done about the restrictions from South Africa and neighboring countries was merely because when the information came out, about the molecular makeup of this virus with all of the mutations that were of concern, we felt we needed to do something right away," he said.

"Hopefully those restrictions are not going to be a very long duration until we get a handle as to what's going on, but we do not anticipate any further restrictions," Fauci added.

5:27 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

Fauci: No evidence right now Omicron is more severe but more information is still needed

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

(CNN)
(CNN)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there is no sign right now that the new Omicron variant of coronavirus is more severe than previous versions, but that more information is needed from officials in South Africa to know for sure.

"Right now it does not look like there's a big signal of a high degree of severity, but it's too early to tell," Fauci said, speaking to CNN's Jake Tapper this afternoon.

Fauci said his counterparts in South Africa were working quickly to determine how contagious and dangerous the variant is, but said "they assured us they'd know probably in a matter of a week, a week and a half as to whether or not we're dealing with something that for the most part is more severe, equally as severe or less severe."

"It could be either of them," Fauci said.

Fauci also praised the work of scientists and officials in South Africa, saying they "had been extremely cooperative and collaborative and transparent with us about what's going on there."

Watch:

4:46 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

CDC holding daily calls with state health officials and public health partners, White House official says

From CNN’s Kaitlan Collins

Officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have held daily and ongoing calls with all state health officials, as well as public health partners, a White House official tells CNN.

Calls were held throughout the weekend with various public health officials at the state and local level.

These calls included state, county and city health officials; state epidemiologists; state laboratory directors; and partners from public health organizations including the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Association of Public Health Laboratories, Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and Big Cities Health Coalition.

Officials briefed President Biden for approximately 45 minutes Sunday on the new variant and again on Monday morning, with a heavy dose of caution about what's still unknown. Health officials say there are likely far more cases worldwide than is currently known.

The President noted Monday that scientists and officials are learning more every day about the new variant. Biden said that on Thursday he would put forward a "detailed strategy outlining how we're going to fight Covid this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

CNN's Kate Sullivan contributed reporting to this post. 

4:26 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

CDC strengthens booster recommendations because of Omicron variant

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination at a clinic on October 1, in San Rafael, California.
Safeway pharmacist Ashley McGee fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination at a clinic on October 1, in San Rafael, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strengthened recommendations for booster doses of coronavirus vaccine in the US on Monday, saying all adults should get boosted six months after the second dose of Pfizer/BioNTech’s or Moderna’s vaccine or two months after the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

It’s a slight but significant tweak to the wording of guidance issued earlier this month when the CDC endorsed an expanded emergency use authorization for boosters from the US Food and Drug Administration.

“Today, CDC is strengthening its recommendation on booster doses for individuals who are 18 years and older,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” she added.

“Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant. I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well because strong immunity will likely prevent serious illness," she said.

Previously, the CDC said people should get a booster if they are 50 and older, or 18 and older and living in long term care. Otherwise, it advised that anyone 18 and older may get a booster. Now the word “should” applies to everyone 18 and older.

It will take a few weeks of testing to know for sure whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible than Delta, and whether it evades the protection offered by natural infection or vaccines. Scientists will also be looking to see if it causes more severe disease or evades the effects of treatments.

Where things stand now: In the meantime, CDC will be watching for Omicron to appear in the US. That requires an extra step of testing as the tests used to diagnose Covid-19 won’t tell people which variant they are infected with. “I also want to encourage people to get a COVID-19 test if they are sick. Increased testing will help us identify Omicron quickly,” Walensky said.

“And finally, to stop the spread of COVID-19 we need to follow the prevention strategies we know work,” she added. These include vaccination, wearing masks, improving ventilation indoors and keeping a distance from others, especially if they are unvaccinated.

 

4:01 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

All three reports of Omicron coronavirus variant in Hong Kong are from imported cases

 From CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton and Mitchell McCluskey

All three cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus in Hong Kong have been imported cases, Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) announced in a statement on Monday.

The first, Case 12388, is a 36-year-old male who arrived in Hong Kong from South Africa on Nov. 11. He is asymptomatic and had received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

The second, Case 12404, is a 62-year-old male who traveled from Canada to Hong Kong on Nov. 10. The onset of his illness began on Nov. 17 and he had received two doses of the vaccine.

The third, Case 12432, is a 37-year-old male who had transited through Ethiopia and arrived in Hong Kong on Nov. 24. He is asymptomatic and had received two doses of the vaccine. 

"The global situation of COVID-19 infection remains severe and there is a continuous increase in the number of cases involving mutant strains that carry higher transmissibility, and there are also reports of breakthrough infections in some vaccinated individuals. The CHP strongly urges members of the public to avoid all non-essential travel outside Hong Kong, in particular to specified places with high risk under the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation,” a spokesperson for the CHP said in a statement. 

Hong Kong has reported a total of 46 new cases of Covid-19, three of which were confirmed to be Omicron, in the last 14 days. All of the new cases were imported, the CHP said.

 

3:55 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

"Critical" that countries don’t feel punished for reporting variant information, WHO official says

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

In tracking the development of new coronavirus variants, it is important that countries that are transparent about the presence of variants aren’t penalized for their reporting, World Health Organization Covid-19 Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove told CNN on Monday.

“The big question is, if you put Omicron next to Delta, what would happen? We don't have that comparison yet. We will get some good data from other countries that are starting to detect this variant,” Van Kerkhove told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“This is why it is so critical that countries continue to report this. And are worried – we are worried about the stigma associated with countries that report this information so forthcoming. You know, it's really critical that that continues, and that countries don't feel that they will be penalized for reporting this information," she said.

Van Kerkhove said travel restrictions might slow the spread of the Omicron variant, but they “won’t stop it.”

“We've seen this over and over and over again. We can't prevent the spread of this virus across borders,” she said.

Van Kerkhove said WHO would like to see a “proportionate response” to the variant involving viral surveillance and targeted specific quarantines.

“What we are saying is put in a proportional response. Make sure that it is targeted and tailored and time bound. And do not punish countries who are reporting information,” she said.

3:59 p.m. ET, November 29, 2021

Global system "failed" Africa and all low-income countries in vaccine deliveries, expert says

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

A health worker prepares to administer an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine dose in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 19.
A health worker prepares to administer an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine dose in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 19. (Kola Sulaimon/AFP/Getty Images)

The global system has "failed" not only Africa but all low-income countries in the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines, Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told CNN Monday. 

In an interview with Becky Anderson, Alakjia lamented the global systems’ failure "in the initial instance to get vaccines into" African countries, such as Malawi and Botswana. 

Despite these middle-income countries "paying way above what most countries paid for their vaccines," they were "thrown to the back of the queue by Moderna and some of the other pharmaceuticals," according to Alakija. 

Alakija criticized the lack of "global coordinated plan" for vaccine supply, saying that a sense of "global solidarity" is needed to remedy the disparity in vaccine supply. 

As well as vaccines themselves, low-income countries need the "advance information" to facilitate the planning of mass vaccination campaigns, Alakija said, adding that their current arrival "in dribs and drab" is "really stressing our already stressed health systems.”

"You can't plan mass campaigns if you don't know when your next supplies coming in. I can't open up the equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall in Abuja, in Lagos or in Kinshasa if I know I have to shut it down next week because we don't have enough supply."

Alakija who works with closely with Gavi and COVAX said that rather than striving to get vaccines into arms, Africa's key challenge is getting vaccines from ports to arms. 

Once vaccines arrive in country, they "don't necessarily just magically arrive at a vaccination site," Alakija emphasized.

The short shelf life of certain vaccines is also posing a problem for African countries, Alakija said, referencing the 1.5 million vaccines that were recently "pretty much dumped" in Nigeria and are set to expire in the next week or so. This has put pressure on the country to try and "rush out" these vaccines, according to Alakija.  

Fundamentally, Alakija called it "very disingenuous of some members of the global community" to pin the continent's low vaccination rates on vaccine hesitancy rather than vaccine supply.