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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4:48 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Scientists are learning more about the Omicron variant. Here's what else to know about Covid today.

From CNN's Elise Hammond

The Omicron variant of coronavirus has now been identified in at least 32 states, with experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci saying it is likely to become the dominant strain in the US. Scientists say they believe Omicron is more contagious, but has led to less severe illness so far.

As the holidays loom, health officials from across the world are encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted.

Here are the other top headlines you need to know on Tuesday:

Omicron variant:

  • A South African study indicated that people infected with the Omicron variant are less likely to end up in the hospital than those infected with the original strain of the virus.
  • That same study said Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine is only about 33% effective against the Omicron variant. Dr. Anthony Fauci said two shots of an mRNA vaccine are not showing to be very good at preventing infection from the virus, but three shots does offer "optimal protection."
  • Omicron has been growing rapidly over the last three weeks in the UK, leaving officials worried about the large volume of infected people each day. The UK's Health Security Agency said there is a higher rate of reinfections with Omicron.

Covid-19 pill:

  • Pfizer said its experimental treatment for the virus cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% if given to high-risk adults within a few days of their first symptoms. 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. But, Pfizer's CEO said the pill is not prevention and people should still get vaccinated.

Global vaccination effort:

  • Officials in Nigeria say the country will destroy one million expired Covid-19 vaccines. The country said it would no longer accept vaccines with a short shelf life.
  • In the meantime, the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa says it is necessary to “dispel” the notion that vaccines are being wasted, explaining less than 0.25% of doses made available to the continent have expired. 

The pandemic around the globe:

  • South Korea has reported a record number of Covid-19 patients in critical condition and Covid-19-related deaths from Monday. The country reported more than 5,500 new cases yesterday.
  • Greece also has recorded its highest daily death toll from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic with 130 deaths, according to government officials.
  • The Italian government has approved an extension of a state of emergency until March 31 next year, according to a statement on Tuesday. Italy has suffered the biggest rise in Covid-19 deaths since May with 120 in the last 24 hours.
4:24 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Vaccines prevented more than 1 million Covid-19 deaths in the US, study estimates

From CNN's Deidre McPhillips

A Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is prepared for administration at a vaccination clinic on September 22 in Los Angeles.
A Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is prepared for administration at a vaccination clinic on September 22 in Los Angeles. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Vaccines prevented more than 1 million Covid-19 deaths and more than 10 million hospitalizations in the United States, a study published Tuesday by The Commonwealth Fund estimates.

The model also predicts that there would have been nearly 36 million additional infections through November 2021 in the absence of vaccines.

Most of the deaths and hospitalizations that vaccines helped to avoid would have occurred in the late summer and early fall as the Delta variant began to spread widely across the country and surge in southern states, according to the study. During that time, average daily deaths could have spiked as high as 21,000 per day. That’s about six times the January 2021 peak of about 3,400 deaths per day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.   

“Even the 2.6 million COVID-related hospitalizations that occurred during 2021 placed an enormous strain on hospitals, with many staff lost not only to the virus but also to exhaustion and burnout. Faced with such unprecedented demand, U.S. hospitals operating under crisis standards of care would likely have had no choice but to turn away tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of individuals,” the authors wrote. 

Researchers from The Commonwealth Fund built their model using published data about vaccine effectiveness and the pace of vaccinations, as well as a timeline and characteristics of the original coronavirus strain and three variants: Alpha, Delta and Iota. They assumed that increased social activities – as well as reopening of business and schools – would have moved forward consistently even without the introduction of vaccines.

 “Our findings highlight the ongoing tragedy of preventable death and hospitalization occurring among unvaccinated Americans,” the researchers wrote. “As immunity wanes and breakthrough infections continue to emerge, it is clear we must vaccinate (and give booster shots) to many more people — building on the tremendous, though mostly invisible, successes the U.S. vaccination program has accomplished thus far.”

Some more context: According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of dying from Covid-19 is 14 times higher for unvaccinated people than it is for those who are fully vaccinated. And cumulative hospitalization rates for adults are also about eight times higher among unvaccinated people than they are among fully vaccinated people.  

Now one year into vaccinations in the US, more than 202 million people – about 61% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Overall throughout the pandemic, the US has reported more than 50 million Covid-19 cases and about 800,000 deaths, according to JHU.

4:18 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Biden says he's "encouraged by the promising data" on Pfizer’s Covid-19 antiviral pill

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

Paxlovid, Pfizer's Covid-19 pill, is seen manufactured in Ascoli, Italy, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on November 16.
Paxlovid, Pfizer's Covid-19 pill, is seen manufactured in Ascoli, Italy, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on November 16. (Pfizer/Handout/Reuters)

As his administration continues to learn more about the Omicron variant, President Biden wrote that he’s “encouraged by the promising data” from Pfizer after results showed the company’s experimental treatment for Covid-19 cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% if given to high-risk adults within a few days of their first symptoms.

He also again urged Americans to get vaccinated, calling that one of the “most important tools we have to save lives.”

“This news provides another potentially powerful tool in our fight against the virus, including the Omicron variant,” the President wrote in a statement released Tuesday. “Several steps remain before the Pfizer pill can become available, including authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. To make sure that we are ready, my Administration has already placed an order for enough of these pills to treat 10 million Americans.” 

“Getting vaccinated and getting your booster shot remain the most important tools we have to save lives,” the statement continues. “But if this treatment is indeed authorized — and once the pills are widely available — it will mark a significant step forward in our path out of the pandemic. The combination of widespread vaccinations and boosters, testing, and effective pills for those who become ill will help us further reduce the impact of Covid-19 on our lives and our economy as we continue to build back better.”

4:01 p.m. ET, December 14, 2021

Many Omicron cases in South Africa have no symptoms, hospital CEO says

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

Most people who test positive for coronavirus in the wave of infections led by the Omicron variant in South Africa have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, the CEO of a large private hospital system told CNN on Tuesday.

“Thus far – and it is very early days – our data over the last 30 days indicates that we are seeing a very mild to moderate form of Covid-19. Many of the cases are asymptomatic,” Richard Friedland, CEO of the private hospital network Netcare in South Africa, told CNN.

Friedland said findings released by Discovery Health, a large health insurance company in South Africa that found less vaccine effectiveness against infection but more mild cases, matched his hospital network’s experience.

“Many of those findings corroborate what we have seen across our network of 49 hospitals, and 10,000 hospital beds, and more than 60 primary care centers across South Africa,” Friedland said. “There is a small cohort of more elderly patients with comorbidities that are being hospitalized, but we don't yet have evidence that this variant is causing the severe disease which really results in hospitalization and potential death.”

He said many fewer patients require oxygen, in contrast to the early waves of the pandemic. Most cases being seen in South Africa are caused by the Omicron variant, Friedland said.

“We know it's highly transmissible. It's 4.2 times more transmissible than Delta,” he said. “We know it's a robust virus, taking over from Delta in terms of being most predominant virus. We know it's causing mild or moderate disease, but the question is, is it the virus itself that is not that virulent or deadly, that isn't causing the severe disease – or is it because of high levels of underlying immunity in South Africa?”

It's possible that people already have some immunity to the virus, either through vaccination, previous infection or both, and that’s protecting them, Friedland said. Multiple studies have shown that people who are naturally infected and then vaccinated have very strong immunity.

“So, about 73% of the cases we've admitted are unvaccinated, but many of them are young children and adolescents who ordinary wouldn't have been vaccinated by this stage. At the moment, it's toward mainly unvaccinated people – certainly in the deaths that we've seen,” he said.

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.

Watch:

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.