November 30 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Adrienne Vogt, Ben Westcott, Adam Renton, Sheena McKenzie and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, December 1, 2021
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5:22 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

FDA advisers vote to recommend emergency use authorization of Merck's pill to treat Covid-19

From CNN's Maggie Fox and Jen Christensen

This photo from Merck & Co, Inc., provided in May, shows Molnupiravir capsules.
This photo from Merck & Co, Inc., provided in May, shows Molnupiravir capsules. (Merck & Co, Inc./AFP via Getty Images)

Advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration voted 13-10 Tuesday to recommend emergency use authorization of a pill made by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to help treat Covid-19.

Members of the FDA’s Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee were split in their vote to recommend molnupiravir, which can reduce the risk someone will progress to severe disease or death by about 30%.

The pills must be taken within five days of symptoms starting to do much good, and people must take pills twice a day for five days. Members of the committee were worried about risks to pregnant women.

Molnupiravir is not the only antiviral scientists are developing against Covid-19. Pfizer applied for authorization of its antiviral pill this month. The FDA has not yet set a date for its advisory panel to review that drug.

Next, the FDA will consider the committee’s recommendation. It doesn’t have to follow the committee’s advice, but often does.

Remdesivir, sold under the brand name Veklury, is an antiviral approved to treat Covid-19 but it’s infused, not given as a pill.

4:45 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Canada is now reporting 6 cases of the Omicron variant

From CNN’s Paula Newton

Alberta’s top doctor confirmed Canada’s sixth case of the new coronavirus variant Omicron. 

In addition, federal health officials say they will expand the travel ban on foreign travelers from countries in Africa to include Nigeria, where most of Canada’s cases have been linked.

Some background: Earlier today, Canada confirmed five cases of the Omicron variant and health officials in several provinces say they continue to investigate dozens of other suspected cases across the country.

Four of the cases have been confirmed in Ottawa and a fifth case was been identified in the province of Quebec.

Quebec’s health minister, Christian Dubé, speaking at a news conference Monday said more than a hundred travelers from southern African countries were asked to take a new Covid-19 test and isolate. 

4:19 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

US stocks sink on Omicron and Fed fears

From CNN's Paul R. La Monica 

US stocks tumbled Tuesday as renewed concerns about the Omicron variant of Covid-19 weighed on sentiment.

Comments from Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell didn't help. Powell told Congress that the Fed no longer thought inflation was "transitory," and he hinted that the Fed could accelerate its plans to cut back on, or taper, bond purchases. 

Here's how stocks closed the trading day:

  • The Dow dropped more than 650 points, or 1.9%
  • The S&P 500 also fell 1.9%
  • The Nasdaq Composite ended the day down 1.6%.

Note: As stocks settle after the trading day, levels might still change slightly.

4:16 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Latin America's first Omicron variant cases reported in Brazil 

From CNN's Shasta Darlington and Anusha Rathi

The Brazilian health agency, Anvisa, said on Tuesday that two Brazilians had tested positive for the new Omicron coronavirus variant. 

This marks the first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Latin America and makes Brazil the 20th country to report the new variant.

A passenger, who had flown in from South Africa on the 23rd with a negative Covid-19 test result, did a new test along with his wife to prepare for a return flight back to South Africa when the results came back positive. 

“The Agency emphasizes that the passenger's entry into Brazil took place on 11/23, that is, before the worldwide notification on the identification of the new variant,” Anvisa added.

Brazil has since suspended flights from South Africa.

The samples are being sent to another laboratory for confirmatory analysis, Anvisa said. 

3:56 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

It's too soon to know if Omicron causes less severe illness, Fauci says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

It’s too soon to know if the Omicron variant of coronavirus causes less severe disease than the Delta variant – in spite of reports that many cases so far have been mild, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday.

Most cases of Covid-19 overall are mild, and especially among younger patients. But nonetheless the virus can and does cause severe disease as it spreads among populations and has killed 5.2 million people globally and more than 779,000 in the US alone, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that some South African physicians have reported the patients they treated had mild disease. But they were treating young people, Fauci said.

“We believe that it is too soon to tell of what the level of severity is,” Fauci told a White House Covid-19 briefing.

“Dr. Walensky and I specifically asked our South African colleagues that on the most recent Zoom call that we had, and they agreed with us that it's too early to tell. They're hoping that it is going to, across the board, give a lower level of severity, but they don't know that right now,” he added.

In the meantime, vaccination and boosters should protect people, Fauci said. Boosters, especially, can bring antibody levels up to where there is a cushion of extra protection that can cover even variants of the virus.

“And that's usually most manifested in protection against severe disease that leads to hospitalization,” Fauci said.

“So when we say that although these mutations suggest a diminution of protection and a degree of immune evasion, still from the experience that we have with Delta (you) can make a reasonable conclusion that you would not eliminate all protection against this particular variant," he said.

"And that's the reason why we don't know what that degree of diminution of protection is going to be. But we know that when you boost somebody, you elevate your level of protection very high. And we are hoping, and I think with good reason, to feel good that there will be some degree of protection. Therefore, as we said, if you're unvaccinated get vaccinated, and if you're vaccinated, get boosted," he added.

3:27 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Testing Omicron to see how dangerous it is compared to other variants will take two weeks or so, Fauci says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

(from the White House)
(from the White House)

Tests to look for whether the Omicron variant of coronavirus is more dangerous than Delta will take two weeks or so, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday.

Fauci said researchers will test the virus in the laboratory and also look at what it does in real life to see whether the highly mutated strain is more transmissible, more likely to evade the effects of vaccine or treatments, and whether it can cause more severe disease. 

Lab tests take time, Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a White House Covd-19 briefing.

“Well, one of the things you do is you get the virus and you grow it or you put it into a modified form called a pseudovirus. And when you do that, you can then get convalescent plasma, monoclonal antibodies, as well as sera and antibodies that are induced by the vaccine to see if they neutralize the virus,” he said.

Labs are already taking blood from people who have been vaccinated, as well as from people who have recovered from infection – that’s the convalescent sera – to see what happens when it’s exposed to the new variant.

“That will give you a pretty good idea as to what the level of immune evasion is," he said.

The blood serum contains the antibodies as well as cells called B cells and T cells that fight infections.

“That process will take likely two weeks or more, perhaps even sooner, depending upon how well the virus grows in the isolates that we get. That's the first thing,” Fauci said.

“And in those countries in which there are a lot of cases, like South Africa, the computational biologists and the evolutionary biologists are going to be getting a good feel as to what the competition of this virus would be with Delta. Those are just a few of the things that will take a couple of weeks to a few weeks to learn," he added.

2:28 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

US public health labs sequencing 4 times as many coronavirus specimens now compared to a year ago

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

Coronavirus sequencing efforts in the United States grew in the past year – well before the emergence of the Omicron variant – with public health labs sequencing four times as many specimens now than a year ago, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

Sequencing samples of coronavirus helps scientists to identify emerging variants.

Currently, there are about 68 state and local public health laboratories sequencing for coronavirus variants as part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national strain surveillance network, Scott Becker, APHL's chief executive officer, told reporters during a virtual news briefing Tuesday. 

These labs "are sequencing between 15,000 and 20,000 specimens per week. That number is four times greater than just a year ago. In November of 2021 alone, 190,000 specimens were sequenced by the entire public health system, which includes public health labs, CDC, and CDC-contracted labs," Becker said in the briefing.  

"Nationally between 5% and 10% of all diagnostic specimens are sequenced and come from public health laboratories, commercial laboratories, CDC-contract labs, academic labs, and other partners," Becker added.

He said they have not found the Omicron variant in the US yet, "but we fully expect that we will," Becker said.

"Our system can detect variants down to 0.1% of circulating viruses, so we're confident that it can be found," he added.

2:21 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

CDC expanding surveillance at 4 big US airports to look for Omicron, agency's director says

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Travellers walk through Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, November 24, 2021. 
Travellers walk through Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, November 24, 2021.  (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expanding surveillance at four major international airports to keep an eye out for the Omicron variant of coronavirus in travelers, the agency’s director said Tuesday.

The airports include two in the New York City area, plus ones in Atlanta and San Francisco.

“CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including critical partner testing closer to the time of flights and considerations around additional post arrival testing and self-quarantine,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a White House Covid-19 briefing.

“Currently CDC is expanding a surveillance program with XpresCheck to JFK, San Francisco, Newark and Atlanta airports – four of the busiest international airports in the country. This program allows for increased Covid testing for specific international arrivals, increasing our capacity to identify those with Covid-19 on arrival to the United States and enhancing our surveillance for the Omicron variant,” Walensky added. 

“Thanks to our updated travel policies earlier this month, we are also actively working with the airlines to collect passenger information that can be used by CDC and local public health jurisdictions to enhance contact tracing and post-arrival follow-up should a case be identified in a traveler.” 

CDC is also keeping in close touch with state and local health officials, she said.

“As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are holding regular, even daily calls, with local county and state health officials and our public health partners. These calls include state, county and city health officials, state epidemiologists, laboratory directors and partners from public health organizations. And we are conveying the knowledge we have to these partners and we are relying on their local expertise to provide information,” Walensky said.

“We have worked to address that spread of infection for travel during travel through nesting vaccination and pre departure testing for international passengers. And we are continuously working closely with our public health partners, both here in America and around the world," she continued.

2:00 p.m. ET, November 30, 2021

Oil tumbles below $65 for the first time in 3 months on Omicron fears

From CNN’s Matt Egan

Oil prices fell sharply on Tuesday to levels unseen since late August on worries that Omicron will dent previously robust demand for energy. 

US crude dropped nearly 7% to $65.30 a barrel in afternoon trading. At session lows, oil fell below $65 a barrel for the first time in three months. 

The selloff leaves oil down by a staggering 23% in just the past three weeks. As recently as November 10, crude was flirting with $85 a barrel.

The reversal was at first driven by an expectation that the United States and other countries would tap strategic oil reserves to cool off red-hot prices. 

But more recently, oil is losing steam on fears the new coronavirus variant will hurt oil demand by causing fewer people to drive, fly and commute. Crude plunged by 13% on Friday, its worst day since April 2020, and only posted a modest rebound on Monday. 

You can follow live updates on how the markets are reacting to the Omicron variant here.