The latest on the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant

By Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 1048 GMT (1848 HKT) December 15, 2021
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2:37 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

"Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant," WHO chief says

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

The Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading at a rate not seen before, and there is concern that people are dismissing it as mild, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.

Tedros noted that 77 countries have now reported cases of Omicron, and “the reality is that Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet.”

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” he said. “We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild. Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.” 

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.

Tedros said that vaccines alone won’t get any country out of this crisis.

“Countries can and must prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today,” he said. “It’s not vaccines instead of masks. It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”

12:28 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Nurse who was first American to get Covid-19 vaccine reflects back with "tremendous gratitude"

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Covid-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on December 14, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York City.
Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Covid-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on December 14, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York City. (Mark Lennihan/Pool/Getty Images)

Sandra Lindsay, a nurse who was the first person to get the Covid-19 vaccine in the United States exactly one year ago today, reflected on the state of vaccinations in the US. 

“I look back with tremendous gratitude that I was able to get vaccinated and pride in the work that I've done so far to be an activist for vaccinations. Although we've made some progress, we still have some way to go. We're only about 61% of our population vaccinated, and so my hope is that here as Americans and around the world we can unite to finally put an end to the pandemic,” said Lindsay, the director of patient care services at Northwell Health's Long Island Jewish Medical Center. 

“I’m very, very honored to hold this place in history,” Lindsay added. 

She said that people still on the fence about getting vaccinated can be persuaded to get their shots using facts and understanding. But she still encounters people who she says are too “far down” the tunnel of conspiracy theories. 

“I can speak on behalf of health care workers at my organization when I say that we are tired, and we're concerned, especially because we know that the public now has options,” she said. 

12:14 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Pfizer CEO: Covid-19 treatment pills are not a substitute for vaccines

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Pfizer's updated results for its experimental treatment for Covid-19 showed it cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% if given to high-risk adults within a few days of their first symptoms, the company announced in a news release Tuesday.

While CEO Albert Bourla called it a "game changer," he cautioned that people should not see the treatment as a replacement or alternative to taking the vaccine.

"I'm afraid that there will be some people that will think like that. It's a very big mistake. Vaccines are needed. Vaccines is the primary frontier that you should be using to stop the disease," he told CNN.

The goal is prevention from the disease, which is accomplished by the vaccine, he urged.

"The goal is not to get sick. And ... to prevent sickness from your kids, prevent that you get sick and then you transfer that to your mothers, to your fathers, to your parents. It's very important that people will take the vaccines," said. "For those that are unfortunate that ... they're sick, of course now, we have something that will save a lot of lives."

Some background: A five-day course of the treatment comprises three pills given twice a day. Pfizer hopes it can eventually offer the pills, under the name Paxlovid, for people to take at home before they get sick enough to go to the hospital. The company announced it has shared this latest data with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of its ongoing application for emergency use authorization. No date has been set by the FDA advisory committee expected to weigh in on the treatment.

Once Pfizer receives the approval, Bourla says "tens of thousands" of the treatment, which includes can be made available immediately.

"In January, it will go to hundreds of thousands. And then February, March, we go to millions," he told CNN on Tuesday.


10:25 a.m. ET, December 14, 2021

England will remove all 11 countries from its travel red list

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

Travelers pass through the international arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport on November 28, in London, England.
Travelers pass through the international arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport on November 28, in London, England. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

England will remove all 11 countries from its red travel list amid the spread of the Omicron variant within the United Kingdom, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the British Parliament on Tuesday. 

Javid said the government “isn't prepared to keep measures in place a moment longer than we need to.” 

“Now that there is community transmission of Omicron in the UK, and Omicron has spread so widely across the world, the travel red list is now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad,” he said. 

This means that Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe will be removed from the red list starting at 4 a.m. local time Wednesday morning. 

People arriving into England from these countries will no longer need to complete a mandatory hotel quarantine period.

Javid told members of Parliament that he has asked for a review into whether people currently undergoing hotel quarantine stays may be released.  

9:56 a.m. ET, December 14, 2021

UK is facing a "very difficult" four weeks ahead due to Omicron, chief medical adviser says  

From CNN's Nina Avramova

The coronavirus variant Omicron has been growing rapidly over the last three weeks and has left the chief medical adviser of the UK's Health Security Agency concerned about the large volume of people infected daily.

“We are concerned with the large volume of individuals who are being infected every day in the population, that we are going to have a very difficult four weeks ahead with cases in the community, which will of course cause individuals to need to stay off work and school and then for those cases to transfer into admissions to hospital," Dr. Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser, told British lawmakers on Tuesday. 

Currently, 10 people are hospitalized in the UK, who tested positive before or on the day of admission for Omicron, said Hopkins. She explained that there aren't enough people in the hospital to give an understanding of the variant's severity. 

Discussing reinfections, Hopkins pointed out that there is a higher rate of reinfections with Omicron, “with a rate of three to eight times the reinfection risk for Omicron, compared to what we had seen with Delta.” 

Hopkins expects Omicron to displace the Delta variant. "But they are going to live together in parts of the country for longer. And we are going to continue to see hospitalizations from Delta for the next two weeks baked in from the numbers that we have and then we will start seeing the Omicron case numbers come into hospital," she said.

11:01 a.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Fauci: Omicron will likely become the dominant Covid-19 variant in the US

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on December 1.
Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on December 1. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Early data about the Omicron coronavirus variant presents "a very strong argument for people getting their boosters," according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"Omicron is going to be a challenge because it spreads very rapidly, and the vaccines that we use — the regular two-dose mRNA — don't do very well against infection itself. But particularly if you get the boost, it is pretty good," Fauci told CNN.

"There is no doubt that the optimal protection is going to be with three doses of an mRNA," Fauci said.  

In South Africa, where the variant was first identified, while there is "almost a vertical spike of infection," the country is not seeing severe hospitalizations, Fauci said.

"The real question is, is that an inherent diminution of virulence of the virus or is it because there are so many people in the population who have already been infected and now have residual post-infection immunity — which is not protecting them from getting infected, but is protecting them from getting severe disease?" Fauci said.

"Whatever it is, the disease seems to be less severe. Whether it's inherently less pathogenic as a virus or whether there's more protection in the community, we're just going to have to see when it comes in the United States. And for sure ... it is going to be dominant in the United States, given its doubling time," Fauci said.

Fauci also said that even though it's been one year since vaccines became available in the US, 60 million eligible people still need to get their shots.

"We have got to be doing better than that if we want to get this thing over with," he said.  

10:46 a.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Pfizer's Covid-19 pill is a treatment, not a preventative measure, official says

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla delivers a speech in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 12.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla delivers a speech in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 12. (Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images)

Pfizer Chair and CEO Albert Bourla said that the company’s antiviral pill is a Covid-19 treatment, not prevention, and people still need to get vaccinated.

“This is a treatment, this is not something that we use for prevention at this stage,” Bourla said, when asked on CBS Mornings on Tuesday about how the pill could be a gamechanger for dealing with Covid-19.

“People that are getting sick, unfortunately some of them ending up in hospitals or ending up dying. With this pill, we have now proof that instead of 10 of them going to hospital, only one will go and, frankly, no one died in this study," he said.

Mortality should be prevented at very high levels, he said. 

“It’s a game changer,” he said. 

Asked if the news about the treatment would encourage those who haven’t been vaccinated to think that they don’t need to be, Bourla said, “there is a risk to happen, what you said, and that will be a very big mistake. Vaccines are needed, people need to prevent getting sick. They should not take chances that they may not get seriously sick because there’s a pill that could treat them. People should prevent.” 

People need to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those that they love, he said. 

“But, unfortunately, there will be cases of Covid disease,” he said. “And now, this is the big news, when we have Covid surges, usually what is happening is that our hospitals are overwhelmed, people are in ICUs, hospitals need to change the normal procedure, sometimes they postpone elective surgeries. It’s a very big problem for the health care system. Right now, with this pill, instead of 10 going there, only one, nine will stay at home and hopefully nobody will die. This is a very big deal.” 

8:25 a.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Vaccines are not being wasted in Africa, WHO official says

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

The World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa says it is necessary to “dispel” the notion that vaccines are being wasted in Africa, explaining less than 0.25% of doses made available to the continent have expired. 

“It’s necessary to dispel the impression that, even as we are expressing concerns over access to vaccine supplies, that there are millions of doses being wasted and expiring in Africa,” WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, told journalists during a virtual news conference on Tuesday. 

“That is not the case,” she added.

Moeti went on to break down the number of vaccines received, administered and the ones which have expired in Africa.

“We have had about 434 million doses received in Africa, about 264 million doses administered in Africa, about 61% of those that have been received and 910,000 vaccines have expired in 20 countries,” she said. “That represents less 0.25% of the doses that have been received in Africa.”

Moeti explained that the main challenge in Africa continues to be “access to vaccine supplies,” but conceded that the planning operation for vaccine delivery in the continent, which has been largely dependent on donations of a wide variety of vaccines, had also been a factor. 

“Planning for the operation of vaccine delivery has been extremely challenging for African countries,” she said. “There is a great deal of concern now about ensuring that the vaccines that are being delivered in African countries have an adequate shelf life to enable the delivery operation to be undertaken in such a way that we minimize the expiry of vaccines and what might be considered the waste of vaccines.”

10:35 a.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Science around definition of fully vaccinated still evolving, CDC director says  

From CNN Health’s Naomi Thomas

Dr. Twana Jackson prepares a Covid-19 vaccine in Freeport, New York, on November 30.
Dr. Twana Jackson prepares a Covid-19 vaccine in Freeport, New York, on November 30. (Steve Pfost/Newsday RM/Getty Images)

The science around whether the definition of "fully vaccinated" should change from two shots to three shots is still evolving, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on NBC’s Today on Tuesday.

“What we know about variants is that the more mutations you have, the more immune boost you need in order to combat them, so that’s exactly why we’re saying this variant has a lot of mutations, we want to make sure that we have as much immune protection as possible,” Walensky said, when asked if the definition of fully vaccinated should be changed to include a booster shot. 

She urged people to get the vaccine if they hadn't yet, and if eligible for a booster shot, to "get that boost because you’ll have more protection."

Asked again if fully vaccinated should be two or three doses, Walensky said that the science is evolving right now: “As that science evolves, we will continue to follow it for that question,” she said.