Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today
Pfizer and BioNTech say booster shots offer strong protection against Omicron.,
This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.
South African doctors say an increase in pediatric cases points to increased community transmission.
The number of people quitting jobs remained near a record in October as openings increased, a sign of economic momentum.
The U.K. government has been accused of flouting pandemic rules last Christmas, just as it imposes major new restrictions.
Pfizer: Boosters block Omicron
Pfizer and BioNTech said three doses of their vaccine appear to offer significant protection against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Laboratory blood samples taken from people one month after they had received a booster shot showed neutralizing antibodies against Omicron. Those antibody levels were comparable to those against previous variants after two doses, the companies said.
Samples from people who received only two doses found much lower antibody levels against Omicron, compared with an earlier version of the virus. These results come one day after a preliminary report on laboratory experiments in South Africa also found Omicron seemed to dull the power of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The companies said the finding indicates that two doses alone “may not be sufficient to protect against infection” by the new variant.
An important caveat: These experiments offer an incomplete picture of how well the vaccine will protect against severe outcomes from Omicron.
Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee, said he also wanted “to sound a note of reassurance.”
“The virus has mutated to the point that it has become less neutralizable by antibodies,” he said. But he said there is no evidence that the vaccines have become less effective at preventing severe disease.
“In all likelihood, two doses of an mRNA vaccine will protect you against serious illness,” he said.
Still, the results seemed to underscore the importance of booster shots.
Dr. Albert Bourla, the chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, said the company began developing a version of its vaccine specifically targeting Omicron right after Thanksgiving and could produce it in mass quantities within 95 days. Moderna is on a similar path.
But Dr. Bourla noted that Pfizer had developed two other prototypes in response to new variants and that neither had proved necessary because the original vaccine worked against the virus’s mutations.
The coronavirus infects fat cells
New research has found that the coronavirus infects both fat cells and some immune cells within fat, prompting a damaging defensive response.
The study could help answer one of the questions that have puzzled doctors during the pandemic: Why overweight or obese people, particularly younger adults, have been more likely to develop severe Covid-19 and more likely to die.
These patients often have health conditions like diabetes that heighten their risk, but scientists have become increasingly convinced that the heightened vulnerability has something to do with obesity.
If the findings hold up — the study has not yet been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal — they may shed light not just on why patients with excess pounds are vulnerable to the virus, but also on why certain younger adults with no other risks become so ill.
It may be that body fat, which has limited immune defenses, is a place where the virus can replicate and continue to propel harmful inflammation.
“If you really are very obese, fat is the biggest single organ in your body,” said Dr. David Kass, a professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins, adding that the fat “becomes kind of a reservoir” for the virus.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
The Omicron variant. The latest Covid-19 variant, which has been detected in dozens of countries, seems to dull the power of the Pfizer vaccine, but the company said its boosters offer significant protection. Omicron appears to spread rapidly, though it may be less severe than other forms of the virus.
The study found that the virus causes a type of immune cell that is specific to fat to develop a robust inflammatory response, which results in a cascading inflammation reaction.
The study’s authors suggested the new evidence could point to new treatments that target body fat. They also speculated that body fat might even contribute to long Covid.
“Whatever happens in fat doesn’t stay in fat,” said Dr. Philipp Scherer, a scientist who studies fat cells at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who was not involved in the research. “It affects the neighboring tissues as well.”
What else we’re following
All three of President Biden’s broad vaccine mandates affecting the private sector have been put on hold by courts. Here’s the latest.
New York City’s workers face a strict vaccine mandate, but questions remain about how the city plans to enforce it.
Some schools are going remote on Fridays, and parents are furious.
South Korea plans to bar unvaccinated students from cram schools, libraries and study rooms as cases hit record levels.
Fears about Omicron have led cities around the world to cancel New Year’s Eve parties.
Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, tapped a Twitter-famous, Harvard-trained public health expert and medical doctor to run the health ministry.
And the rest …
Celebrity red carpet fashion has grown bigger and wilder since the pandemic.
Event: The Times is hosting a virtual event on how the pandemic is reshaping New York City’s cultural landscape tomorrow. RSVP to attend.
Opinion: An emergency room doctor in Michigan wrote about his frustration and sadness as unvaccinated people filled beds in his hospital.
What you’re doing
I am a 70-year-old semiretired farmer, so I have adequate money and space. When vaccines became available, I got vaccinated immediately. I displayed a hay bale-man wearing a mask and a large syringe in his arm to encourage others. Now that I am triple-vaccinated, I am substitute-teaching in local schools to help with the Covid vacancies. I try to make learning fun at all grade levels. Everyone I know that did not get vaccinated has now been sick. One neighbor and good friend has been hospitalized for eight weeks and still can’t eat, talk or breathe on his own. I get so frustrated to see so many unvaccinated adults, when the evidence for effectiveness and safety is so strong. — Paul Wernette, Remus, Mich.
Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.