World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine advisers today updated their COVID-19 vaccine prioritization guidance, which backs booster shots in high-priority groups and refined their recommendations for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which it now recommends in a reduced dose for children ages 5 to 11 years.
In other developments, health officials in Europe provided a snapshot of the latest Omicron variant impacts, with the United Kingdom designating the BA.2 subvariant as a variant under investigation.
Most vulnerable highest priority
The WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) met on Jan 19 to assess the latest vaccine developments and update their recommendations, including those relating to emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine. Today at a briefing, they announced the third revisions to their roadmap for COVID-19 vaccine prioritization, which was first issued in October 2020.
They said the main focus remains on fully protecting the most vulnerable groups, adding that booster doses should be offered to high-priority groups such as older people and healthcare workers 4 to 6 months after completing the primary vaccine series. The interval the WHO recommends is in line with shorter intervals adopted by some countries.
SAGE also emphasized that countries with high vaccine coverage in their high-risk populations should prioritize global sharing of vaccine over vaccinating healthy children and adolescents, who are at the lowest risk of severe illness.
Regarding their updated assessment of the Pfizer vaccine, they recommended extending the use of the lower 10-microgram dose version to children ages 5 to 11.
Tracking Omicron, watching the BA.2 subvariant
In an epidemiologic update on the Omicron variant and its impacts today, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said it accounts for 69.4% of sequenced samples in 23 countries that have adequate sequencing, 20% higher than in the previous week.
Though it is present in all of the region’s countries, Omicron isn't yet dominant in some, which include Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
Of cases with known clinical status, 76% were symptomatic. And of cases with known outcomes, 1.14% were hospitalized, 0.16% required intensive care unit (ICU) treatment, and 0.06% died.
In other Omicron developments, the UK's Health Security Agency (HSA) today said it has designated the BA.2 subvariant as a variant under investigation. It said BA.2 numbers in the United Kingdom are low, but it made the designation due to increasing numbers in both domestically and internationally.
The earliest UK BA.2 case was detected on Dec 6, and so far sequencing has identified 426 cases, with the largest numbers in London and the South East.
Early analysis hints at a higher growth rate than the original Omicron variant, but the findings aren’t certain, and more analysis is needed. The HSA also notes that the variant lacks the genetic deletion on the spike protein that produces the S-gene target failure on some PCR tests, which has been a proxy for identifying Omicron cases.
Officials said it's not clear where BA.2 originated, but the first samples were submitted from the Philippines, with the most samples uploaded to sequence-sharing databases from Denmark. Other countries that have uploaded more than 100 samples include India, Sweden, and Singapore.
More global headlines
- Some European countries continue to report record daily highs, including Germany, where the health minister predicts daily cases could reach 400,000 by the middle of February, and Poland, where the government has ramped up testing offered free at pharmacies.
- Africa’s cases have dropped significantly, and deaths in the region are starting to drop, officials from the WHO’s African regional office said yesterday. They noted that if trends continue, the bump in deaths could be the shortest of any of Africa’s COVID-19 waves. Despite an increasing vaccine supply, immunization levels are still low, averaging 10% with two doses.
- Pakistan today reported a daily record high, with hospitalizations rising and Karachi as the country’s main hot spot, according to Reuters.
- Austria's lower parliament yesterday passed a mandatory vaccination bill. If it passes the upper house and is signed into law, as expected, it will mark the European Union’s first sweeping vaccine mandate.
- The global total topped 340 million today, rising to 344,904,162 cases and 5,581,538 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.