Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
New data on Covid-19 has found that three doses of the Pfizer vaccine "neutralises" the Omicron variant of the disease, BioNTech and Pfizer said on Wednesday.
The companies said that their initial findings showed that people who had two doses of their vaccine had lower protection from the variant, which some experts fear could be more transmissible than the globally dominant delta variant.
But a third dose of their vaccine increased the neutralising antibodies by a factor of 25, the companies said.
The news came as South African researchers warned that Omicron’s ability to evade vaccine and infection-induced immunity is “robust but not complete." They also said that booster shots are expected to reduce the chances of infection and severe disease.
The data comes from the first reported experiments gauging the effectiveness of Covid-19 inoculations against the new coronavirus strain.
In Queensland, Australia, researchers said they found two different versions of the Omicron strain in travellers who returned to the country.
The new lineage, which has about half the gene variations of the original and cannot be detected with typical screening, was found in a traveller who returned from South Africa and tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday, the state’s deputy health co-ordinator for Covid-19 operations, Peter Aitkin, told reporters.
The new lineage has enough markers “to be able to classify it as Omicron but we do not know enough about it as to what that means then as far as clinical severity, vaccine effectiveness,” Mr Aitkin said. “We now have Omicron and Omicron-like.”
Meanwhile, New South Wales state said genome sequencing confirmed an additional Omicron case contracted from an outbreak in Sydney’s western suburbs, bringing the locally acquired infections to 21.
Including international arrivals, the state has found 34 cases of the variant, none of which had resulted in hospital admissions, health officials said on Wednesday.
Pfizer’s vaccine provides less immunity to the Omicron variant than it does with other major coronavirus strains, according to laboratory experiments that still indicated a third dose may help stop the highly mutated strain.
Researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, found that Omicron resulted in about a 40-fold reduction in levels of neutralising antibodies produced by people who had received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, compared with the strain detected in China about two years ago.
China reported 49 domestic infections on Wednesday, including five asymptomatic cases, which were mostly in an Inner Mongolia town on the border with Russia where nine rounds of mass testing have identified about 400 infections.
Meanwhile, Omicron cases continue to spread through Asia. A cluster has emerged in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang while Shanghai has reported one infection.
South Korea reported more than 7,000 daily cases for the first time. In Japan, a shortage of hospital beds during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to patients convalescing in hotels, while a surge in cases over the summer resulted in the nation’s economy shrinking faster than first estimated in the third quarter.
Norway is joining the list of countries tightening restrictions again to try to regain control of the spread of the Omicron variant and prevent overloading of a hospital system already struggling with other types of illness as winter sets in.
Covid-19 deaths and hospital admissions will continue to rise in Europe in the coming weeks as vaccination rates remain insufficient to counter the trends, a key European health agency said on Tuesday.
European countries have taken a varying set of measures to combat the spread of the virus, including lockdowns for the unvaccinated and early closing for restaurants and bars. However, Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said the toll is still growing.
“In the coming weeks, there will be increasing parameters of cases, deaths, hospitalisation and ICU admissions,” she told a meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels. “The Omicron variant ... makes the whole situation even more worrying.”
Denmark has the found Omicron in sewage water for the first time and has given up its initial strategy to contain the coronavirus variant, health authorities said.
The country had registered 398 Omicron cases as of Tuesday, up by 137 cases from a day earlier, said SSI, its institute for infectious disease.
Scotland is expected to face a continued and “potentially rapid” rise in coronavirus cases in the coming days amid a surge in the Omicron infections in large parts of the country, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
The UK found 101 new confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, up from 90 the day before, according to a tweet from the Health Security Agency. The number of Omicron cases in the UK now stands at 437.