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Booster drive lagging: Only 40% in US have gotten extra shot; FDA unauthorizes two antibody treatments: Live COVID-19 updates

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/25/2022 Jorge L. Ortiz, Christine Fernando and Celina Tebor, USA TODAY
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The evidence about the protection from severe disease provided by booster shots is compelling, as outlined by the recent CDC study that showed they're 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations from omicron infections.

And yet that data hasn't convinced even a majority of Americans to get boosted. Only 40% of the U.S. population has received the extra dose, considerably lower than the less-than-impressive 63% who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Even though President Joe Biden and health care experts continue to harp on the importance of booster doses as protection from the initial vaccinations wanes, the average number of boosters administered per day in the U.S. has dropped from a peak of 1 million in early December to about 490,000 as of last week.

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A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Americans are more likely to believe the first vaccinations are essential, but not the boosters.

“I think the evidence is now overwhelming that the booster is not simply an optional supplement, but it is a foundational part of protection,” said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine policy expert at Yale University. “But clearly that message has been lost.”

Also in the news:

►Elton John has paused his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour after testing positive for the coronavirus. His representative said the legendary singer, 74, has been vaccinated and boosted and is experiencing mild symptoms.

►London police said Tuesday that they are investigating a "number of events" at Downing Street, which houses the residences and offices of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, amid claims of government officials violating COVID-19 restrictions. Johnson is facing calls to resign as a result of accusations he and staff m

►Rock legend Neil Young wants Spotify to remove his music in response to the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on the platform, including unfounded claims about the vaccines by Spotify's popular podcast host Joe Rogan.

►London police said Tuesday that they are investigating a "number of events" at Downing Street, which houses the residences and offices of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, amid claims of government officials violating COVID-19 restrictions. Johnson is facing calls to resign as a result of accusations he and staff members attended parties in 2020 when most social gatherings were banned in England.

►The College Board, which administers the SAT, PSAT and other standardized tests, announced the tests would shift to online for American students in 2024 as COVID-19 shutdowns spur more universities to pause or drop testing requirements.

►Australian officials said 23 crew members on a military ship delivering aid to Tonga tested positive for COVID-19. Tongan officials have been wary of international aid following the disastrous eruption of an undersea volcano because of the potential spread of the coronavirus.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 72 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 871,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 357 million cases and over 5.6 million deaths. More than 210 million Americans – 63.5% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we're reading: At least 140,000 nursing home residents died from the coronavirus through the end of 2021. If your family member is among them, USA TODAY invites you to commemorate their lives on our website here.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

FDA revokes clearance for antibody treatments made by Regeneron and Eli Lilly

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday revoked its authorizations for two monoclonal antibody treatments made by Regeneron and Eli Lilly.

In a news release, the FDA said the antibody treatments are "highly unlikely to be active against the omicron variant," which accounts for more than 99% of cases in the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates

"These treatments are not authorized for use in any U.S. states, territories and jurisdictions at this time," the FDA said. 

The Florida Department of Health said it received no advance notice that the treatments would be unauthorized, and that the FDA failed to provide clinical evidence needed to legally block access to treatments. The FDA said the drugs may be re-authorized if they prove effective against a new variant.

"In the future, if patients in certain geographic regions are likely to be infected or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments, then use of these treatments may be authorized in these regions," the FDA said. 

Other drugs, including Paxlovid, sotrovimab, Veklury (remdesivir) and molnupiravir, are still expected to work against omicron, according to the federal agency.

Worker vaccine mandate withdrawn but not dead

The Biden administration is officially withdrawing its requirement that most private-industry workers be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19 – the controversial rule the Supreme Court blocked from enforcement earlier this month.

But the federal agency that regulates workplace safety said Tuesday it is still considering whether the vaccinate-or-test rule should be imposed on a non-emergency basis, which could have a better chance of surviving another legal challenge if it is more narrowly targeted.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that although it is withdrawing the vaccination and testing rule as "an enforceable emergency temporary standard," it is not fully nixing the proposal.

A Labor Department spokesperson told USA TODAY the agency is reviewing the more than 100,000 public comments received and “has made no determinations about when or if" it will come out with a new version.

The brule had applied to businesses with at least 100 employees and would have impacted more than 80 million workers. It was challenged by a number of GOP-led states as well as some businesses and advocacy groups.

-- Maureen Groppe

WHO says new version of omicron 'increasing in many countries' 

The World Health Organization recommended Monday that officials begin investigating a new version of the omicron variant that has been reported in several countries. The original omicron variant is called BA.1. Virologists are referring to the new version as BA.2. Investigations into BA.2 should be "prioritized independently (and comparatively) to BA.1," the WHO said. 

“The BA. 2 descendant lineage, which differs from BA. 1 in some of the mutations, including in the spike protein, is increasing in many countries,” the WHO wrote on its website. 

The U.K. Health Security Agency designated BA.2 as a variant under investigation last week but said the original version of omicron continues to be dominant, and proportions of cases of the new version are low. The agency reported last week there have been over 40 cases of the new sublineage confirmed in the U.K. Meanwhile, UKHSA said over 8,000 BA.2 cases have been reported in 40 countries.

Meera Chand, COVID-19 Incident Director at UKHSA, said in a statement last week that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the new sublineage causes more severe illness than the original omicron variant.

In Denmark, the Danish research institute Statens Serum Institut said last week that BA. 2 made up 45% of the country's COVID-19 cases, and the frequency of BA.1 has dropped. The institute said other countries, including Great Britain and Sweden, have had increases in BA. 2 cases, but not to the extent that Denmark has seen. Initial analysis shows no differences in hospitalization rates for BA.2 compared to BA.1, and it is expected that vaccines will still "have an effect against severe illness upon BA.2 infection," according to the institute.

Norway also reported BA.2 is "increasing rapidly." The country reported seven cases of the new sublineage on Jan. 4 and 611 by Jan. 19.

Not much resolution to court battles over mask mandates in schools

The battles over mask mandates in schools continue, with little clarity about their outcome.

In New York state, education officials told school administrators to continue enforcing the state’s mask mandate for students and teachers Tuesday despite a judge’s ruling overturning it the previous day. The mixed messages sowed confusion as some districts rushed to make masks optional.

The Education Department said the state had filed notice that it would appeal the ruling by a judge in Long Island, a step that could keep the rule in place at least until its planned expiration Feb. 1.

In Iowa, the state will be able to enforce a law that prevents local schools from imposing mask mandates after getting a favorable ruling from two members of a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the judges excepted schools attended by students whose disabilities make them more vulnerable to severe illness if they get COVID-19.

The court found that a mask requirement is a reasonable accommodation for students with such disabilities and allowed a group of parents of disabled children to pursue a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the law.

Pfizer, BioNTech announce omicron-specific vaccine trials for adults

Vaccine makers Pfizer and BioNTech announced plans early Tuesday to test an omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine in people

The companies will run three simultaneous trials in adults ages 18-55 to determine whether an omicron-specific vaccine is more effective than current shots.

The existing vaccine was developed to target the original or "ancestral" strain of COVID-19. While three shots appear to provide some protection against omicron infection, the vaccine, called Comirnaty, is not as effective as it was against earlier strains. COVID-19 vaccines in general continue to do well in preventing severe disease, but recent studies suggest protection against mild to moderate disease wanes faster with omicron than other variants.

“This study is part of our science-based approach to develop a variant-based vaccine that achieves a similar level of protection against omicron as it did with earlier variants but (with a) longer duration of protection,” BioNTech CEO and co-founder Uğur Şahin said in a statement.

– Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

Some immunocompromised patients eligible for 4th COVID shot being turned away

Patients with weakened immune systems – who are at high risk from COVID-19 – say pharmacies are turning them away when they seek additional vaccine doses recommended by federal health officials.

Alyson Smith became eligible this month for a fourth vaccine dose because her medications leave her immunocompromised. But when she showed up at a Chicago-area Walgreens for a vaccination appointment Jan. 19, an employee told her the pharmacy chain wasn’t administering fourth doses to anyone.

Although the CDC encourages most adults to receive a total of three mRNA vaccine doses – two “primary” vaccinations and a booster – the agency now advises people with weak immune systems to also get a fourth shot.

Mitchel Rothholz, chief of governance and state affiliates at the American Pharmacists Association, said frequent revisions in vaccination guidelines and a heavy workload for pharmacy employees have led to confusion.

“The CDC continues to make updates, and it’s becoming very difficult for providers at the grassroots level to keep up,'' Rothholz said. "I can understand why a pharmacist would say, ‘Corporate hasn’t given us the green light.’”

– Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Booster drive lagging: Only 40% in US have gotten extra shot; FDA unauthorizes two antibody treatments: Live COVID-19 updates

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