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Coronavirus Update: Airport-based study found first U.S. case of BA.2 subvariant of omicron in December

An airport-based COVID-19 surveillance program detected the first known U.S. case of the highly transmissible omicron BA.2 subvariant in December, according to a new study that was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We enrolled arriving international air travelers in SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance, using molecular testing of pooled nasal swabs, and sequencing positive samples for viral lineage,” wrote the authors of the report, which has not yet been peer-reviewed. “Traveler-based genomic surveillance provided early warning variant detection; we reported the first U.S. Omicron BA.2 and first BA.3 in North America, weeks before next reported detection.”

The study involved more than 16,000 travelers and was carried out by the CDC with partners the XpresSpa Group
XSPA,
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which pivoted from offering spa services at airports to passengers waiting for flights into a testing site during the pandemic; and biotech Ginkgo Bioworks
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-6.18%
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which has a network of laboratories across the U.S.

The results suggest that pooled testing of international travelers may be an effective way to monitor new variants of the virus, the New York Times reported. 

U.S. COVID numbers continue to decline overall and the nation is now averaging 30,387 new cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, down 15% from two weeks ago, but slightly higher than Thursday’s count.

The average daily number of hospitalizations stands at 19,875, down 39% from two weeks ago. Deaths are averaging 830 a day, down 36% from two weeks ago, but still an undesirably high number.

But cases are again rising in 11 states, as well as American Samoa and Puerto Rico. Cases are up 44% in New York, up 35% in Kentucky from two weeks ago, up 23% in Arkansas, up 21% in Colorado, up 18% in Connecticut, up 17% in Texas, up 15% in Massachusetts, up 11% in Rhode Island, up 5% in Washington, D.C. and up 1% in Illinois.

Experts have said that the U.S. would likely see another wave of cases in a week or two, following a renewed wave in Europe, which typically is about three weeks ahead.

Vaccination rates have ground to a halt in the U.S., however, according to the Washington Post, which reported Friday that the seven-day average stood at fewer than 182,000 a day on Wednesday. That’s lower than at any time since they became available.

Booster shots have become more popular than primary shots but are still way below levels seen in many Western European countries, even as those have suffered rising cases in recent weeks.

The omicron variant and its subvariants have caused many breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, but those have mostly been mild or asymptomatic. Public health agencies and experts continue to say that vaccines offer the best protection against severe disease and death and are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots.

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• New York City’s mayor exempted athletes and performers — including Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving — from the city’s vaccine mandate Thursday as expected, while keeping the rule in place for private and public workers who risk losing their jobs for refusing to get inoculated, the Associated Press reported. Several public employees unions whose members were fired for refusing the shots blasted Mayor Eric Adams for apparently lifting the rule only for wealthy and famous athletes. Adams dismissed the criticism, saying exemptions for athletes and performers were important to the city’s economic recovery.

• China counted almost 5,000 COVID cases on Friday as the omicron variant continues to spread, creating frustration with the country’s zero COVID policy, the Guardian reported. After the death of a nurse in Shanghai who was denied hospitalization after suffering an asthma attack, many are angry that China’s approach may be causing more deaths than the virus itself. The news echoed cases of people who died during a lockdown in Xi’an last year because they were denied medical care due to strict rules.

MarketWatch editor in chief Mark DeCambre and Barron’s deputy editor Ben Levisohn take a look inside this week’s biggest market news. Office Hours, Barron’s and MarketWatch journalists take questions from readers.

• Australia and El Salvador have become the latest countries to approve a fourth vaccine shot, or booster dose, the New York Times reported. El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, announced on Facebook last week that boosters would be offered to everyone above the age of 12. Australia will offer boosters to vulnerable people starting in April.

Read now: COVID vaccinations have ground to a halt in Ukraine, WHO warns, and Russia has carried out 64 attacks on healthcare systems and workers

• Novavax
NVAX,
-6.37%

said its experimental COVID-19 booster is being tested in a Phase 1/2 clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. This study is evaluating Novavax’s protein-based booster candidate in people who have already received the primary series of shots developed by BioNTech SE
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-5.11%

and Pfizer Inc.
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+1.15%
,
Johnson & Johnson
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+1.35%

or Moderna Inc.
MRNA,
-7.14%

Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine has not been authorized in the U.S.; it is currently being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration. The study is enrolling 1,130 adults; approximately 180 of them will receive the Novavax shot as a booster.

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 477.5 million on Tuesday, while the death toll rose above 6.11 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 79.9 million cases and 975,862 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 217.3 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 65.4% of the population. But just 96.9 million are boosted, equal to 44.6% of the vaccinated population.

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