COVID-19 Update: Does Omicron Fading Mark the Pandemic's Final Stages?
With the Omicron surge waning, at least in the U.S., there is speculation that the COVID-19 pandemic may be in its end stages, although some experts warn that this could be premature. For that and more COVID-19 news, continue reading.
Moderna’s Bancel: Reasonable to Think Pandemic is Winding Down
Moderna’s chief executive officer Stephane Bancel recently said he thought it was “reasonable” to believe we are close to the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think there’s an 80% chance that as Omicron evolves or SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves, we are going to see less and less virulent viruses,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia,” adding, there’s another “20% scenario where we see a next mutation, which is more virulent than Omicron.”
However, World Health Organization Secretary-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last month that it’s risky to assume the pandemic is coming to an end, particularly with so many parts of the world still unvaccinated.
Omicron Hospitalization Rates for Children Under 4 Increased 5X During Peak Surge
Anecdotally, during the Omicron surge, children seemed to be more affected by the Delta variant and other variants of COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that the youngest children under the age of 4 years were harder hit than usual. For that age group, hospitalization rates per 100,000 children were 14.5, about five times higher than 2.9 per 100,000 during the Delta peak. For children under 8, hospitalizations were 7.1 per 100,000 compared to 1.8 per 100,000 during the height of Delta. Unvaccinated adolescents were about six times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their vaccinated peers. Although Omicron can affect children, their hospitalization rates are still significantly below those of adults.
AstraZeneca-Oxford’s Vaccine’s Short Shelf-Life Complicates International Rollout
AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine has been focused on poorer countries, but there’s been a problem. The vaccine is touted as more advantageous over the mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech because it didn’t require extreme cold-chain storage and transportation. However, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine has a relatively short shelf life. And it’s taking so long to arrive in their target countries there are sometimes only a couple of months, sometimes weeks, of use before the expired doses have to be destroyed. Nigeria, for example, trashed as much as one million doses of the vaccine in November. As many as 19 African nations that received the vaccine via COVAX, a vaccine-sharing program co-led by the Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization, have had expired AstraZeneca-Oxford doses. Other vaccines have expired as well but in much lower numbers. For example, 280,000 Johnson & Johnson doses, 15,000 Moderna, and 13,000 Russia’s Sputnik.
Why Covid Doesn’t Spread Well on Surfaces
Early in the pandemic, there were concerns that COVID-19 would spread on surfaces, but luckily, that didn’t occur. Jessica Kramer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah, is pretty sure she knows why. Kramer said, “We’ve been researching mucus in my lab and in my training labs for almost 10 years. So, it’s the perfect place to start helping in the pandemic. We found that mucus and saliva contain proteins that inhibit the infection of coronavirus, and the effect was stronger when the mucus and the virus dried together on a surface.”
The virus spreads much more easily via drops in the air or direct contact, such as touching or kissing. It’s still a good idea to practice good hygiene and wash your hands regularly.
When Pregnant Women Get Vaccinated, Babies Are Protected Too
Research published by the CDC suggests that when pregnant women are vaccinated against COVID-19, the vaccine helps protect their babies after they’re born. The study found that babies whose mothers were given two doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines while pregnant had a 61% lower risk of being hospitalized with the disease in the first six months of life.
“The bottom line is that maternal vaccination is a really important way to help protect these young infants,” Dana Meaney-Delman, M.D., chief of the CDC’s Infant Outcome Monitoring, Research and Prevention branch, said.
CDC Expected to Relax Indoor Masking Guidelines Soon
States and cities are already starting to drop their indoor masking guidelines, but the CDC is still hanging on, although they are expected to relax their policies as early as next week. People familiar with deliberations in the agency told NBC that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, is expected to talk about it at a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing next week. They are evaluating a new benchmark for when masks are recommended, basing it on the level of severe illness and hospitalizations in specific communities. They are also sensitive to concerns that the decision is political, coming from the White House rather than based on sound science.
1 Million Excess Deaths Associated with the pandemic
The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reported that the number of “excess deaths” associated with the COVID-19 pandemic surpassed 1 million last week, hitting 1,023,916. In 2019, before the pandemic, the agency reported 2.8 million deaths. However, in 2020 and 2021, as the pandemic grew, the U.S. recorded approximately 500,000 deaths each year on top of that figure. The CDC says 91% of the deaths from COVID-19 tracked by the Center for Health Statistics were directly caused by COVID-19. The other 9% had COVID-19 listed as a contributing factor but not the primary cause of death.
The CDC also found that during the pandemic, 13 other types of non-COVID-19 causes of death increased compared to historical trends that began in 2013. For example, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an additional 30,000 deaths associated with ischemic heart disease and almost 62,000 from hypertensive disease. The CDC calculates 208,431 excess deaths from non-COVID-19 issues since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The bulk of the excess deaths were a direct result of COVID-19 infections, but pandemics have major cascading impacts on all aspects of society,” Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said.
Higher Estrogen Levels in Older Women May Decrease Risk of COVID-19 Death
A study published in BMJ Open found that higher levels of the hormone estrogen in older women are associated with lower death from COVID-19. The research was in 14,685 postmenopausal Swedish women aged 50 to 80 years who had COVID-19. They split the women into three groups: women with previously diagnosed breast cancer on endocrine therapy with decreased estrogen levels, women receiving estrogen replacement therapy, and a control group without either. A more significant factor of death was age, with each extra year associated with a 15% greater risk and coexisting medical conditions increasing the odds of death by 13%.
The researchers wrote, “This study shows an association between estrogen levels and COVID-19 death. Consequently, drugs increasing estrogen levels may have a role in therapeutic efforts to alleviate COVID-19 severity in postmenopausal women and could be studied in randomized control trials.”