Health ministers from G7 nations met on Thursday and concluded that the Omicron variant was the ‘biggest current threat to global public health’, as President Joe Biden warned of a ‘winter of severe illness and death’ for those who were refusing to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, chaired the meeting of his G7 counterparts – a discussion between the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan as well as the U.K.
The ministers, according to a British statement after the meeting, emphasized the importance of equitable access to diagnostics, genome sequencing, vaccines and therapeutics to monitor and counter the threat from the variant.
Javid said the emergency meeting he chaired had determined the threat the highly-transmissible variant posed to the world, saying countries were now ‘united in ramping up vaccinations at home and abroad’.
The meeting came as Biden issued a stark warning about the risks the Omicron variant poses to the unvaccinated in particular, as the nation braces for a steep escalation in cases amid an expected surge in hospitalizations.
‘It’s here, it’s spreading and it’s going to increase,’ Biden said on Thursday afternoon.
G7 ministers met on Thursday for a meeting chaired by Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid (pictured). He said the meeting had determined the threat the transmissible variant posed to the world and countries were not ‘united in ramping up vaccinations at home and abroad’
‘It’s here, it’s spreading and it’s going to increase,’ President Joe Biden said of the Omicron variant, as he urged Americans to get their booster shots
Biden spoke as he met with Dr. Anthony Fauci and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team
With the highly transmissible new variant spreading at an alarming rate, amid an ongoing surge in the Delta variant, Biden warned of the threat facing Americans who have not received Covid vaccines.
‘For the unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death,’ said Biden.
He also gave yet another hard sell for Americans to get booster shots.
‘Get your booster shot. It’s critically important,’ he said.
‘So the whole point is: Omicron is here, it’s going to start to spread much more rapidly [in the] beginning of the year, and the only real protection is to get your shots.
The president said if you have ‘everything, including your booster, you’re in really good shape. So move now. Move now,’ he concluded.
Biden wore a black face mask throughout his remarks in the Roosevelt Room in the White House.
Earlier, in an East Room ceremony with Medal of Honor recipients, Biden removed his mask for remarks, but put it back on when standing with other recipients or family members.
His remarks on Covid weren’t all pessimistic.
‘Due to the steps we’ve taken Omicron is not yet spread as fast as he would have otherwise done,’ he said.
‘But there’s good news. If you’re vaccinated, you have your booster shot, you’re protected from severe illness and death, period.
‘Number two: booster shots work.’
‘Three boosters are free, safe and convenient. About 16 million people have been boosted. So go get your shot today. Go get boosted. If you’ve had your first two shots. If you haven’t, got get your first shot. It’s time It’s time. It’s past time.’
‘And we’re going to protect our economic recovery. If we do this, we’re going to keep schools and business open if we do this. And I want to see everyone around enjoy that.
Joining Biden was coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and members of his coronavirus team, as well as Dr. Julie Ledgerwood and Dr. John Mascola of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center.
Biden served with Bumpers, the former Arkansas governor, in the Senate.
Biden began his remarks by waiving off questions in advance – after his deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre got peppered with questions at a White House briefing about the state of his Build Back Better plan.
‘I’m not going to take questions today because I have a direct message to the American people,’ Biden said.
The Biden administration is warning Covid test manufacturers and processing labs to be ready for a massive spike in demand over the next two months, a report revealed on Thursday.
Confirmed Omicron cases jumped 32 percent day-over-day on Thursday.
While scientists say it appears to be milder than the dominant Delta variant, they warn it could still pose a problem for people who haven’t had their booster shot or are completely unvaccinated.
It’s already exploding in the UK, where pubs and restaurants have closed early for the holidays and health officials fear there could be 460,000 daily COVID cases by Christmas Eve.
Britain’s daily case rate hit an alarming record high with more than 88,000 people diagnosed in the last 24 hours.
Biden’s health officials privately told the companies to be ready for demand to double or triple to up to 5 million tests daily, five unnamed sources told Politico.
HHS’s Testing and Diagnostic Working Group is reportedly projecting that 3 to 5 million coronavirus tests could be needed per day in January or early February.
Currently the number is around 1.6 million per day.
An HHS official told DailyMail.com that ‘We are modeling for a range of scenarios to prepare for potential future public health needs as we learn more about the Omicron variant.’
‘Testing demand involves many behavioral variables, but we are focused on preparedness and continuing to make sure plenty of tests are available along with vaccines, boosters, and other tools to help protect the American people.’
Health experts and officials indicate another wave fueled by the Omicron variant is all but certain with a former White House COVID adviser warning it will be the dominant strain by January.
‘Doubling every 3 days is a little jarring. 100,000 cases at Christmas would turn into 400,000 cases by New Years’ Eve,’ ex-Senior Advisor to the COVID-19 Response Coordinator Andy Slavitt said early Thursday.
‘Holiday travel & family gatherings will be like gathering kindling together in a path during a blazing fire.’
The ex-Biden official provided what he termed a ‘Covid update’ on Twitter shortly after midnight.
‘COVID Update: Omicron will peak in the US in the third wave in January according to a consensus of 10 scientists we interviewed,’ he wrote.
The Omicron variant spreads 70 times faster than Delta, according to a recent study out of Hong Kong. But global health officials also say it’s much milder.
Hong Kong University researchers found the new variant replicates 10 times slower in the lungs than predecessors – which could be why cases have not been as severe.
But the Delta variant is still the dominant Covid strain in the US, accounting for around 97 per cent of sequenced cases.
Omicron is quickly making up ground, though, with the newly discovered variant jumping seven-fold from making up 0.4 percent of cases to 2.9 percent of case.
There have been 319 confirmed and reported cases of the variant so far, up from 241 yesterday. The flu, which largely vanished last year, is making its comeback as well.
Fauci said on Thursday that not all currently available tests could be useful in detecting the mutated strain.
‘We’re getting preliminary information that not all of the diagnostic tests will be accurate with Omicron. Some, and many of the commonly used ones appear to pick up and detect omicron quite well,’ he said at a virtual event for the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
‘We’re hearing, and we’re in the process of doing large screening to determine which of these antigen point of care, rapid tests, still maintain their accuracy of diagnosis.
‘But clearly there are some that do. We’re trying to find out those that don’t reflect an accurate result. And if we do, make sure that those tests are not used to diagnose Omicron.’
Former White House COVID adviser and former Acting Administrator of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Andy Slavitt warned that gathering for the holidays would be like putting ‘kindling’ on a fire
Early data also shows that people who are only fully vaccinated, but have not yet received their booster, are still extremely vulnerable to the virus.
Booster shots have been deemed effective against the variant, though, with both Moderna and Pfizer revealing data in recent days showing their vaccines will cause massive increases in antibody levels.
Only around 16 percent of Americans have received the additional vaccine dose so far though – as they were not widely available until late November – meaning that more than 80 percent of Americans are at risk from Omicron.
Fauci on Wednesday said that it was likely the booster worked against the new variant, and they were not currently in search of an Omicron-specific booster.
‘Our booster vaccine regimens work against Omicron,’ he said.
‘At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster.’
At a recent White House Covid briefing, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Jacob Lemieux warned that both variants will contribute to the oncoming wave.
‘Our Delta surge is ongoing and, in fact, accelerating. And on top of that, we’re going to add an omicron surge,’ Lemieux said on Tuesday.
‘That’s alarming, because our hospitals are already filling up. Staff are fatigued.’
Slavitt echoed the worry on Thursday.
‘Our principal fear now is the ability of our hospitals to meet the overwhelming rush of cases in a short period,’ he said.
‘Several states are telling me they are cancelling elective procedures and we haven’t even begun to see Omicron cases.’
He called on state and local leaders to act quickly to mitigate the strain on healthcare systems while acknowledging ‘large parts of the public are fatigued, unvaccinated & disbelieving.’
‘Colleges, sports leagues and schools are already seeing outbreaks & are temporarily suspending. Offices that can are keeping people at home. As hospitals fill, governors will come to grips with other stronger steps they need to take. Many won’t act until it’s too late,’ Slavitt said.
‘Policy reactions are hard when people’s different circumstances suggest they want a targeted response when in a pandemic, only a broad response will protect the onslaught to hospitals.’
Former Senior Adviser to the COVID Task Force Coordinator under Biden Andy Slavitt posted a dire warning about the rising number of Omicron cases early on Thursday, and urged state and local leaders to act
The combination of a Delta and Omicron wave is a particularly troubling threat as millions of people gear up for holiday travel
But while elected officials are slow to act, businesses, universities and other private groups are leading the way by updating the meaning of ‘fully vaccinated.’
Georgetown, New York University, Smith College and Notre Dame are just some of the schools adding booster requirements for students and staff.
New York City’s Metropolitan Opera will now require all employees and audience members to have received booster vaccinations, the New York Times reported.
The National Football League is also mandating coaches and players be boosted by December 27.
Whether Delta or Omicron, U.S. is experiencing yet another surge of COVID cases during the holiday season. The nation is recording 121,188 new cases every day – a 40 percent increase over the past two weeks.
Deaths are making a sharp rise as well, up 34 percent to 1,302 per week. The number of Americans hospitalized with the virus increased over the past 14 days as well, up 21 percent to 68,079.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects that the situation will only worsen as well. The agency released forecasts on Wednesday night showing that weekly COVID cases will increase by 55 percent to 1.3 million per week – or 185,714 per day – by Christmas.
It also predicted deaths with jump by 73 percent to up to 15,600 per day by early January – or 2,228 deaths per day.
Is THIS why Omicron is spreading so rapidly? Study claims ultra-infectious variant replicates in airways 70 TIMES quicker than Delta… but it struggles when it reaches the lungs in more proof it may be milder
Reporting by Emily Craig
The Omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster than Delta in the airways, according to a study.
Hong Kong University researchers also found the new variant replicates 10 times slower in the lungs than predecessors.
The finding may explain why the mutant virus is spreading at a ferocious pace, and also lends weight to the theory it is milder than the past variants, something which doctors in South Africa have been claiming for weeks.
The researchers exposed lung tissue in a laboratory to the original Covid strain that was identified in Wuhan last year, along with the two variants, to compare how the viruses behave after infection.
Omicron replicated faster in the bronchus — tubes connecting the windpipe and lungs — suggesting people with the strain may be more infectious.
Higher viral loads nearer the throat means people are more likely to breathe out viral particles.
Delta was found to duplicate much quicker in the lungs, where more of the virus can lead to the most severe illness.
The finding may be the biological clue behind why doctors insist people infected with the strain only suffer cold-like symptoms.
The graphs show the amount of the coronavirus detected in human bronchial cells (left) and lung cells (right) 24 and 48 hours after coming into contact with the original strain of the virus (green), Delta (orange) and Omicron (blue). There was 70 times more Omicron recorded in the bronchus — the main pipe connecting the airways and lungs — compared to previous strains, but 10 times less virus in the lungs when compared to the original version and Delta. Experts from the University of Hong Kong said this suggests the virus is more transmissible but may cause less severe illness
The image depicts the Omicron variant (shown in red) in infected human bronchus tissue
The image shows human bronchus tissues after Covid infection, with the red arrows pointing to virus particles
But Dr Michael Chan Chi-wai, a public health expert at Hong Kong University and chief investigator, warned speed of replication is only one way of measuring the severity of Covid infection and individuals can still become unwell with the virus.
And the threat from Omicron ‘is likely to be very significant’ and could lead to higher rates of severe illness and deaths at a population level than other strains by infecting many more people, he said.
The findings add to data, studies and reports from doctors on the ground that the virus spreads rapidly but causes less severe symptoms.
A real world study in South Africa found there was 29 per cent less severity from Omicron compared to earlier waves, while there were a third fewer hospitalisations.
It comes as the UK yesterday recorded its highest number of daily Covid cases since the pandemic began, with 78,610 confirmed.
The actual number infected will be many times higher, with the UK Health Security Agency estimating 200,000 people caught Covid on Monday alone.
However, the UKHSA has only reported 15 hospitalisations and one death linked with the variant.
At a Downing Street briefing last night, the Prime Minister urged Britons to scale back their Christmas plans and only socialise when necessary in a bid to control the spread.
Experts have warned that even if the virus is much milder, record numbers will become infected in the coming weeks which could lead to more hospitalisations than last winter.
The Hong Kong researchers used discarded lung tissue taken during operations to treat lung conditions.
Their results, which have not been published in full or peer-reviewed, show that 24 hours after becoming infected with Omicron, the virus replicated at a rate 70 times higher than Delta and the Wuhan strain in the bronchus.
But in the lungs, it replicated less efficiently – 10 times slower – than the original virus. This may explain why Omicron is thought to cause less severe disease.
Dr Chan said: ‘It is important to note that the severity of disease in humans is not determined only by virus replication but also by the host immune response to the infection.
‘It is also noted that, by infecting many more people, a very infectious virus may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less pathogenic.
‘Therefore, taken together with our recent studies showing that the Omicron variant can partially escape immunity from vaccines and past infection, the overall threat from Omicron variant is likely to be very significant.’
Dr Muge Cevik, an infectious diseases expert at the University of St Andrews, said on Twitter: ‘For those asking whether this is good/bad news, simple answer: I don’t know.
‘While Omicron may infect the lung cells less efficiently, a higher viral load may worsen immune response.
‘The only thing I am sure of is that Omicron will spread so quickly through the population, making it likely impossible to contain even with the most stringent measures and giving us very little time over the next few weeks. So get your vaccines and boosters.’
A record 26,976 infections were detected over the last 24 hours in South Africa, surging past the previous high of 26,485 cases from early July when Delta was running rampant
It also marked a 36 per cent rise on last Wednesday, and cases rose week-on-week in every province except the epicentre Gauteng (red line) where the outbreak may be peaking
Dr Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist at the UKHSA, yesterday tweeted: ‘I remain optimistic about Omicron being milder.’
She said up to eight in 10 people in hospital wards and care homes were testing positive for the strain — an infection rate not seen since the vaccines were rolled out a year ago.
But most are ‘asymptomatic and mild infections’, Dr Kall said.
‘I am 100 per cent certain that large-scale immunity conferred by vaccines or infection will drive down the rates of severe disease compared to previous variants,’ she added.
It comes as millions of Britons have axed their festive plans so they can see family on Christmas Day.
The Prime Minister and Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, triggered a wave of pub and restaurant cancellations by urging the country only to socialise if necessary – and not in large groups or with strangers.
People have started voluntarily self-isolating in a bid to avoid having to isolate on December 25 if they test positive for Covid.
Professor Whitty said that a rise in Omicron hospitalisations is ‘nailed on’ after cases hit a record high yesterday, telling a televised No 10 press briefing: ‘I think that what most people are doing is – and I would think this seems very sensible – is prioritising the social interactions that really matter to them and, to project those ones, de-prioritising ones that matter much less to them.’
He also rubbished a major real-world study from South Africa which suggested that the variant was milder, insisting Omicron ‘is going to be a problem’.
And after weeks of refusing to admit Christmas plans could be under threat, Mr Johnson told the country to cut back on Christmas partying and ‘think carefully’ before going out during the festive season.