Covid Live Updates: As Israel Considers 4th Vaccine Dose, Some Ask If It’s Premature
Greece and other European nations add restrictions as cases surge. The Chinese authorities lock down Xi’an, a city of 13 million.
Israel is considering a fourth Covid-19 shot as it faces rising rates of cases due to the omicron variant.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press
Israel’s Health Ministry was weighing on Thursday whether to approve giving people a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to try to contain the fast-spreading Omicron variant, after the experts who recommended it said they believed they had to act even before much scientific data was available to support another booster.
Despite the uncertainty, the pandemic response panel advising Israel’s government concluded that the potential benefits outweighed the risks, pointing to signs of waning immunity a few months after the third shot. They said that any delay in additional vaccines might prove too late to protect those most at risk.
If the Health Ministry approves the panel’s recommendation — which could happen as early as Thursday — Israel would be well ahead of other nations in administering a fourth dose. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has suggested that a new round of boosters could get underway by Sunday.
“The price will be higher if we don’t vaccinate,” Dr. Boaz Lev, the head of the advisory panel, said at a news conference late Wednesday. Describing the spread of Omicron as “a kind of tsunami or tornado,” he added, “We don’t have a lot of time to make decisions.”
Still, the experts’ recommendation for a fourth dose to those most at risk drew criticism from other scientists and medical professionals within Israel as premature and perhaps even counterproductive. Some scientists have warned that too getting many shots may eventually lead to a sort of immune system fatigue, compromising the body’s ability to respond to the virus.
Along with the generally sparse knowledge about Omicron, the effect of a fourth dose against the new variant is also untested and unknown.
Israel was among the first countries to offer its residents a third shot, starting last summer. Now, the country’s medical experts are pointing to waning of immunity in those 60 or older, who were the first to receive the third shot starting in August.
Israel has confirmed only a few hundred cases of Omicron, but officials say they believe that the new variant is much more widespread, and that it could overtake Delta as the dominant strain in the country within two or three weeks.
Israeli researchers from the Health Ministry and several academic institutions presented data to the advisory team that made the recommendation for the fourth shot on Tuesday. The presentation, obtained by The New York Times, showed a doubling of the rate of infection from Delta among the 60-plus age group within four or five months of the third shot.
There is no clear indication of reduced efficacy against severe illness. But given the fear of a major Omicron outbreak during the winter months, when the hospitals are already overflowing with patients with complications of flu and other respiratory ailments, the advisory panel members voted overwhelmingly to recommend a fourth dose for people aged 60 and over and the immuno-compromised, as well as health workers, to be administered at least four months after their third shot.
The panel did not recommend a fourth shot for the wider population at this stage. It did favor bringing forward the third shot to three months after the second dose, as opposed to the previous recommendation of five months.
While there are some initial indications from South Africa and other countries that Omicron infections more often result in mild illness than earlier variants, the Israeli officials said that by the time they had clearer information, it might be too late to protect at-risk people.
Officials in Spain said they would announce an outdoor mask mandate on Thursday, shortly after the country reported almost 50,000 new coronavirus cases, its highest daily total since the pandemic began.
Italy is considering making the country’s Covid health pass, a document that is required to work and to participate in many social activities, valid for just six months rather than nine; making masks mandatory outdoors; and banning parties or events outdoors until the end of January.
And Greece said on Thursday that masks would be required in all outdoor and indoor areas where they are not currently mandatory, such as gyms. Greece’s health minister also banned all public events until Jan. 3.
European officials hope that new restrictions and greater access to vaccines will blunt the latest rising wave of coronavirus cases reported in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s. The mix of cold temperatures and holiday traditions are expected to bring people from different households together indoors, leading some health experts to brace for a wave of infections.
Vaccinations for children have been part of the focus in efforts to curb the spread, and inoculations for those under 12 started last week in most of Europe. The French authorities said on Wednesday that Covid vaccinations would be offered to children aged 5 to 11, the same day that a vaccine advisory committee in Britain recommended inoculating children in certain risk groups.
In France, recent data suggests that the spread has been partly driven by unvaccinated children. The incidence among children aged 6 to 10 is twice that of the total population, according to a study published last week by the French health authorities.
“Vaccination of children is a necessity,” Prime Minister Jean Castex of France said last month. “It was my 11-year-old daughter who gave me the virus a few weeks ago.”
An average of 54,256 cases per day were reported in the last week in France, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The country’s vaccination rate is about 73 percent of those who are eligible, according to Our World in Data.
European nations like Germany, Greece and Spain already offer vaccination for younger children, as does the United States. In Britain, government scientists have advised giving children a dose that is about one-third what an adult receives.
In Italy, most recent cases have been detected among people aged 20 to 30 and in schoolchildren, experts there said.
Other countries are also expanding access to vaccines. In Turkey, government officials on Wednesday granted emergency-use approval for a domestically developed Covid vaccine, called Turkovac, making it the third inoculation option for residents there.
Reporting was contributed by L?ontine Gallois, John Yoon, Yan Zhuang, Isabel Kershner, Raphael Minder and Patrick Kingsley.
ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Spectators at the Winter Olympics next February should clap but not shout in support of athletes. Waiters, cleaners and other support staff will not be allowed to leave Olympic venues to visit their families. And any Olympic participants leaving the vicinity for the rest of China will be required to spend at least one week in quarantine, followed by at least two weeks of isolation at home.
As the Omicron variant spreads rapidly around the globe, China is taking elaborate precautions to prevent the coronavirus from reaching its own population or participants in the Winter Games. Chinese officials are also bracing the public for the inevitability that some infections will emerge at the Olympics, where everyone will face daily P.C.R. tests.
“A certain number of positive cases will become a high probability event,” Han Zirong, the secretary general of Beijing’s Winter Games organizing committee, told reporters on Thursday.
China has barred overseas spectators from entering the country. It is allowing vaccinated foreign athletes, trainers, coaches, referees, journalists and a few others to enter without enduring the usual two or more weeks of quarantine followed by a week of home confinement.
The exemption, however, comes with a stringent requirement that foreigners not leave a “closed loop” of hotels and sports venues, linked by special buses and trains.
“We must never go outside the closed loop, let alone reach the city level — this is our bottom line,” said Huang Chun, deputy director of the Olympic organizing committee’s Office of Epidemic Prevention and Control.
China has reported dozens of coronavirus cases daily this week. On Thursday, the local authorities locked down Xi’an, a city of 13 million people. At least 242 cases have occurred there in an outbreak this month. Beijing has not divulged how many involve the Omicron variant.
The country has been mostly successful in controlling the virus by quarantining hundreds of close contacts of infected people, and in some cases contacts of contacts. But similarly broad measures at the Olympics could make it hard to hold the Games.
Some precautions are already visible at a ski resort in the mountains near Zhangjiakou, about 100 miles northwest of Beijing, where nearly half of the Olympic events will be held. Thick, clear plastic sheeting from floor to ceiling separates bus drivers from their passengers.
At the resort’s high-speed-rail station, visitors must provide proof of a negative P.C.R. test in the preceding 48 hours. Also required is proof on a smartphone app that the traveler has not visited any Chinese city in the previous two weeks that has had a recent infection.
For construction workers putting the finishing touches on the venues, the authorities already do nucleic acid tests once every three days, Jia Maoting, the general manager of the Olympic Sports Construction and Development Company, told reporters during a visit to the Olympic ski jump venue.
Mr. Han, the secretary general of the Olympic organizing committee, cautioned that further measures may be added in the weeks to come. “Everything depends on the changes in the global and Chinese epidemic situation,” he said, “especially the infectiousness of the new mutant strain, Omicron.”
Liu Yi and Li You contributed research.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Thursday that he had no plans to impose fines or criminally prosecute people hesitant to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, even though Russia has one of the lowest vaccination levels in Europe.
About 56 percent of the country’s population is inoculated against the virus, and the government has not introduced vaccine mandates. Mr. Putin said at his year-end news conference that such mandates would be counterproductive.
Mr. Putin said Russians “are inventive people” and therefore “whenever you start to push, they find ways to circumvent that.”
“We need to relate to people with respect, despite their positions,” he said, “and to patiently explain” the need to inoculate.
Mr. Putin said the pandemic has taken a heavy toll. The average life expectancy in the country has diminished for the first time in years dropping from 71.5 to 70.1 years, he said.
Mr. Putin’s marathon year-end news conferences are a longtime tradition, meant to demonstrate his stamina and authority as he answers questions for hours on end. They have also been a stage for policy pronouncements.
He focused on domestic issues like the economy and the coronavirus in the early minutes of the news conference, which was being closely watched because of rising military tensions in Eastern Europe.
He also spoke in stark terms of those military tensions, saying that there was talk of “war, war, war,” but that Moscow was not to blame because it was defending historically Russian territories.
President Biden has promised to make 500 million coronavirus tests available free of charge, but help is at least weeks away — if not longer — as new cases surge in the United States.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden excoriated the Trump administration for what he called “a failure of planning, leadership and execution” where tests were concerned. But the Omicron variant caught the White House off guard, as this president has acknowledged, and cases have far outstripped available tests.
The president’s pledge, which he made on Tuesday, was the centerpiece of a new aggressive effort, announced as Americans scramble to locate the hard-to-find tests for use over the holidays. Purchase contracts for tests could be completed as soon as next week, officials said.
“That’s not a plan — it’s a hope,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which tracks testing trends. She said that if tests arrived in January and February, they might be useful. But if they trickle in over months, she said, “I’m not sure what kind of impact it is going to have.”
Whether manufacturers can ramp up production quickly enough is unclear. John M. Koval, a spokesman for Abbott Laboratories, said he was seeing “unprecedented demand” for its tests, “and we’re sending them out as fast as we can make them.”
As people in wealthy nations snap up booster shots amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization’s leader warned that universal access to extra doses in highly inoculated countries could worsen global vaccine inequality and prolong the pandemic.
That imbalance, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, said on Wednesday, will give “the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate.”
“It’s important to remember,” he said, “that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not unboosted people.” Later, he added: “No country can boost its way out of the pandemic.”
Since Covid vaccines were developed about a year ago, rich countries have had greater access to them despite global efforts to shrink that disparity. About 73 percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to a New York Times tracker. Only 0.9 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.
“It’s frankly difficult to understand how a year since the first vaccines were administered, three in four health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated,” Mr. Ghebreyesus said.
He did not criticize specific countries by name on Wednesday but did say that “there is no doubt that the inequitable sharing of those vaccines has caused many lives” and questioned “why some countries are now rolling out blanket booster programs.”
Governments in Europe and elsewhere are accelerating booster shots as the scientific evidence accumulates that two vaccine doses are insufficient to stop infection from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, though the vaccines appear to reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious illness. Some public health experts who had opposed a boosters-for-all approach have changed their minds since the variant emerged.
This week, Israeli leaders said they would offer a fourth round of vaccines to people over 60 and to medical workers. France has shortened the wait before people can receive a booster shot to four months, from five. Britain will offer all eligible adults booster shots by the end of the year, a month earlier than planned.
And in the United States, where health officials have recommended booster shots for all adults, the Omicron variant is motivating more than half of vaccinated adults to get a booster shot, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Although health officials and epidemiologists are urging Americans to get vaccinated and boosted, however, the going has been slow. Just over half of Americans 65 and older — the population most vulnerable to a severe outcome from the virus — have received a booster.
Public health experts worry that socioeconomic disparities in U.S. vaccination rates will be exacerbated as booster shots roll out. Difficulty in taking time off work and disconnection from health care systems have contributed to a persistent gap in vaccination rates between the most and least socioeconomically vulnerable counties.
Looking ahead to the holiday celebrations, Mr. Ghebreyesus warned that people who have received booster shots should not rely on them as a substitute for other safety measures like wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor gatherings.
“Boosters cannot be seen as a ticket to go ahead with the planned celebrations without the need for other precautions,” he said, adding that the new year “must be the end of the Covid pandemic” as well as “the beginning of something else: a new era of solidarity.”
Colleges across the United States are facing a mental health crisis among students, driven in part by the pandemic.
After almost two years of remote instruction, restricted gatherings and constant testing, many students are anxious, socially isolated, depressed — and overwhelming mental health centers. And the swell of new coronavirus cases, driven by the Omicron variant, threatens to make life on campus worse.
In the last few days, the list of universities that will hold classes remotely at least for a few weeks in January has grown, while other colleges and universities have moved exams online and urged students to go home for winter break as soon as possible. These steps and others raise the question of what campus life will look like in January, and whether there will even be campus life.
Loneliness and isolation, along with loss of motivation or focus, are among the top concerns of college students who have sought counseling during the pandemic, according to national data collected by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.
Some administrators worry that there is a conflict between protecting students’ physical health and their mental health.
“Restricting the ability to interact — there’s a price to pay for all that,” said Eli Capilouto, president of the University of Kentucky. “Somebody said, ‘If we’re not careful, we’re going to trade one epidemic for another,’ and in many ways I think we are.”
A few months ago, confirming full vaccination status against the coronavirus was as simple as showing a card or QR code with proof that the required number of shots had been completed within six months.
But as evidence grows that the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus are causing breakthrough infections in people who were once considered “fully vaccinated,” momentum seems to be growing to change the definition of that term to include booster shots.
Now, in a world of multiple vaccines with varying effectiveness, and a variety of mixing and matching strategies, it will soon be harder to say who is “fully vaccinated.” Here is what some health experts had to say.
What is the official definition of ‘fully vaccinated’?
For now, U.S. health officials say a person is fully vaccinated two weeks after a second shot of a two-dose vaccine like Pfizer’s or Moderna’s or after a single-dose vaccine like Johnson & Johnson’s.
They have not (yet) expanded that definition to include a booster shot.
How effective is being ‘fully vaccinated’ at this point?
“It depends on what it is you’re trying to prevent,” said Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center who has advised the Biden administration.
A booster is more effective than just the first two shots at preventing hospitalization or death, she said.
If the definition changes, how does that work?
Like so much else since the pandemic started, expect a period of confusion as a patchwork of local, national and international governments evolve at different speeds.