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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Dec. 9

Vaccine makers are racing to update their COVID-19 shots against the newest coronavirus threat even before it's clear a change is needed, just in case. 

Omicron is testing the ability of vaccine producers to adapt to new variants, experts say

A child receives a dose of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination campaign targeting children in La Paz, Bolivia, on Thursday. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

The latest:

  • Ontario is dropping its tentative plan to end its vaccine passport program in mid-January, CBC News has learned.

  • Public Health Agency of Canada failed to keep tabs on most quarantine hotel stays, auditor general finds. 

  • New Brunswick sees new single-day high with 174 cases, plus two deaths.

  • In scathing report, auditor general says feds failed to protect foreign farm workers from pandemic.

  • World Health Organization warns wealthy countries again not to hoard vaccines while low-income countries go without: 'It's not going to work.'
  • Have a coronavirus question or news tip for CBC News? Email: COVID@cbc.ca

Vaccine makers are racing to update their COVID-19 shots against the newest coronavirus threat even before it's clear a change is needed, just in case. 

Experts doubt today's shots will become useless but say it's critical to see how fast companies could produce a reformulated dose and prove it works — because whatever happens with omicron, this newest mutant won't be the last.

Omicron "is pulling the fire alarm. Whether it turns out to be a false alarm, it would be really good to know if we can actually do this — get a new vaccine rolled out and be ready," said immunologist E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania.

It's too soon to know how vaccines will hold up against omicron. The first hints this week were mixed: Preliminary lab tests suggest two Pfizer doses may not prevent an omicron infection but they could protect against severe illness. And a booster shot may rev up immunity enough to do both. 

A health-care worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a woman during an initiative to vaccinate people 12 and over, in Lima, Peru, earlier this week. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

Better answers are expected in the coming weeks and regulators in the U.S. and other countries are keeping a close watch. The World Health Organization has appointed an independent scientific panel to advise on whether the shots need reformulating because of omicron or any other mutant.

But authorities haven't laid out what would trigger such a drastic step: If vaccine immunity against serious illness drops, or if a new mutant merely spreads faster? 

"This is not trivial," said Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, Pfizer's vaccine partner, shortly before omicron's discovery. A company could apply to market a new formula, he said, "but what happens if another company makes another proposal with another variant? We don't have an agreed strategy."

It's a tough decision — and the virus moves faster than science. Just this fall the U.S. government's vaccine advisers wondered why boosters weren't retooled to target the extra-contagious delta variant — only to have the next scary mutant, omicron, be neither a delta descendant nor a very close cousin.

Vaccine producers aren't starting from scratch

COVID-19 vaccines work by triggering production of antibodies that recognize and attack the spike protein that coats the coronavirus, and many are made with new technology flexible enough for easy updating.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are fastest to tweak, made with genetic instructions that tell the body to make harmless copies of the spike protein — and that messenger RNA can be swapped to match new mutations.

Pfizer expects to have an omicron-specific candidate ready for U.S. regulators to consider in March, chief scientific officer Dr. Mikael Dolsten told The Associated Press.

Moderna is predicting 60 to 90 days to have an omicron-specific candidate ready for testing. 

Pfizer and Moderna already have successfully brewed experimental doses to match delta and another variant named beta, shots that haven't been needed but offered valuable practice.

Original vaccines still offer protection

So far, the original vaccines have offered at least some cross-protection against prior variants. Even if immunity against omicron isn't as good, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, hopes the big antibody jump triggered by booster doses will compensate.

Pfizer's preliminary lab testing, released Wednesday, hint that might be the case.

But antibodies aren't the only layer of defence. Vaccines also spur T cells that can prevent serious illness if someone does get infected, and Pfizer's first tests showed, as expected, those don't seem to be affected by omicron.

Also, memory cells that can create new and somewhat different antibodies with each dose.

"You're really training your immune system not just to deal better with existing variants, but it actually prepares a broader repertoire to deal with new variants," Dolsten said.

-From The Associated Press, last updated at 5:22 p.m. ET


What's happening across Canada

WATCH | Surge in Quebec cases mirrors last year's, with one big difference, doctor says: 

COVID-19: When could omicron become dominant in Canada?

6 months ago
Duration 6:56
Andrew Chang talks to infectious diseases specialists Dr. Susy Hota and Dr. Lisa Barrett about when the omicron variant may become dominant in Canada, whether it appears milder than delta and if people should change their holiday plans.

Ontario on Thursday reported 1,290 new COVID-19 cases and 10 additional deaths. In Quebec, meanwhile, health officials reported one additional death and 1,807 new cases of COVID-19.

Canada's two most-populous provinces have been seeing an uptick in cases, sparking concern ahead of the traditionally busy holiday season.

-From CBC News, last updated at 3:06 p.m. ET


What's happening around the world

Seats and tables of a closed café are seen during a COVID-19 lockdown in Salzburg, Austria, on Wednesday. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

As of late Thursday afternoon, more than 268.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University's coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.

In Europe, the World Health Organization expressed concerns Thursday that rich countries spooked by the emergence of the omicron variant could step up the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines and strain global supplies again, complicating efforts to stamp out the pandemic.

The UN health agency reiterated its advice to governments against the widespread use of boosters in their populations so well-stocked countries can instead send doses to low-income countries that have largely lacked access to them.

"As we head into whatever the omicron situation is going to be, there is risk that the global supply is again going to revert to high-income countries hoarding vaccine to protect — in a sense, in excess — their opportunity for vaccination," said Dr. Kate O'Brien, head of WHO's department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals.

"It's not going to work. It's not going to work from an epidemiological perspective, and it's not going to work from a transmission perspective unless we actually have vaccine going to all countries, because where transmission continues, that's where the variants are going to come from."

In Austria, the health minister announced plans Thursday to impose fines of up to €3,600 (more than $5,100 Cdn) on people who flout a vaccine mandate which will be introduced in February for all residents 14 and over.

The government announced last month that it would implement a general vaccine mandate early next year, becoming the first European country to do so.

Slovakia, meanwhile, will give cash handouts to people over 60 who get vaccinated or have their booster shot, aiming to spur inoculation rates lagging behind others in the EU.

In the Americas, U.S. authorities expanded eligibility for booster shots to several million 16- and 17-year-olds.

Cuba detected its first omicron case in a person who had travelled from Mozambique, Cuban state media agency ACN reported.

In Africa, South Africa, where the omicron coronavirus variant is driving a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, has seen a 255 per cent increase in infections in the past seven days, but only six per cent of intensive care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, WHO Africa official Thierno Balde said on Thursday.

Melva Mlambo, right, and Puseletso Lesofi, both medical scientists, prepare to sequence omicron samples at the Ndlovu Research Center in Elandsdoorn, South Africa, on Wednesday. The centre is part of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, which discovered the omicron variant. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Just 7.5 per cent of more than one billion people in Africa have had initial vaccine shots.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Indian COVID-19 vaccine makers are lobbying the government to authorize boosters as supplies have outstripped demand.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is investigating its first possible case of the omicron variant.

Several parent associations in South Korea held protests against a vaccine pass mandate for children aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 among teenagers.

In the Middle East, health officials in Iran on Thursday reported 3,228 new cases of COVID-19 and 78 additional deaths.

-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 5:34 p.m. ET

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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