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The Covid pandemic ‘nothing near over’, says WHO

The highly transmissible Omicron variant has swept around the world since it was first discovered in South Africa in November. However, the fact that it is less likely to cause serious illness than previous variants of coronavirus has led to much speculation as to whether it could mark a turning point or a conclusion on the pandemic.

Omicron continues to infect the world at an astonishing rate, with more than 18 million cases reported last week alone, according to the WHO. The number of Covid patients in the United States is at a record high and continues to rise, overwhelming hospitals. From Australia to Germany, infections are jumping to unprecedented levels, putting a significant strain on healthcare systems.

"Omicron may be less serious - on average, of course - but the narrative that it is a mild illness is misleading, damages the overall reaction and costs more lives," Tedros said. "Make no mistake, Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are flooding health facilities. The virus is circulating too intensely with many still vulnerable."

The same message was repeated a day earlier by Dr. Anthony Fauci, US President Joe Biden's top medical adviser. Fauci was asked at the online World Economic Forum whether coronavirus this year can go from pandemic to endemic level when a disease has a constant presence in a population but does not affect an alarmingly large number of people. He replied: "I would hope that is the case, but it would only be the case if we do not get another variant that evades the immune response."

Fauci added that the world is still in the first of what he described as five pandemic phases: "the real pandemic phase", where the world is "very negatively affected", which is followed by deceleration, control, elimination and eradication.

And yet it seems that some governments are ignoring such step-by-step steps and surrendering to the virus that is tearing through their populations indefinitely. According to their logic, "we must learn to live with this virus." But what exactly does it look like and how long does it last?

In some European countries, the pandemic strategy continues to move towards fewer mitigation measures, reduced quarantine periods and fewer travel restrictions. In fact, in places like Spain, the idea is to treat Omicron more like the flu - despite public health officials, including the WHO, warning against this approach. "I think we need to evaluate the development of Covid into an endemic disease, from the pandemic we have faced so far," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week.

In the UK, which flirted with a controversial "flock immunity" strategy in the early pandemic and continued to raise eyebrows with its "keep calm and continue" stance on the virus, an Omicron rise threatened to put the country's healthcare system on a " war foot ". But now that the tide seems to have reached - 93,890 new cases were reported on Tuesday compared to 129,544 on the same day last week - the limited "Plan B" restrictions imposed in December, which included masks on public transport, will be relaxed next week.

"Decisions about the next steps remain finely balanced," Downing Street said in a statement, stressing that "the Omicron variant continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over."

Government workers are investigating a pet store that closed after some pet hamsters were tested positive for coronavirus in Hong Kong on January 18.

In other news:

  • Australia, New Zealand and the WHO are working in contactless ways to provide assistance to tsunami-stricken Tonga, which is one of the few places in the world that has remained almost completely Covid-free.
  • Two of Pope Francis' best aides have tested positive for Covid-19, reports Reuters.
  • There are calls for France's education minister to resign after announcing strict new Covid rules for schools from an Ibiza beach holiday. Here is what he had to say to himself: "In winter it is not at all like in summer."
  • Hong Kong plans to kill 2,000 hamsters due to fears of coronavirus. Pet owners are outraged.


Q: How can I tell if my mask is authentic?

ONE: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that Americans should wear the most protective masks they can, but there are counterfeit respirators (specialized filtration masks like the KN95s and N95s) everywhere. Approximately 60% of the KN95 respirators evaluated during the 2020 and 2021 pandemics by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a US federal agency evaluating safety equipment, did not meet the requirements.

Properly fitted KN95 and N95 respirators are designed to filter up to 95% of the particles in the air, but only the latter are approved for use in the US healthcare sector. KN95s are certified in China, making them harder to vet, and it's a good idea to check if the manufacturer has a valid lab report.

Here are some signs that a respirator may be counterfeit, according to NIOSH:
  • No markings at all on the filtering respirator
  • No approval number (TC) on filtering respirator or headband
  • No NIOSH marks, or NIOSH misspelled
  • Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative additions (eg sequins)
  • Filtering respirators have ear straps instead of headbands
You can look for additional NIOSH-approved products on the CDC Web site, as well as guidelines and examples of images that describe how to see counterfeit masks.

Post your questions here. Are you a health worker fighting Covid-19? Send us a message on WhatsApp about the challenges you face: +1 347-322-0415.


A fourth dose of vaccine may not protect you from Omicron

Early data from Israel suggest that a fourth dose of either the Pfizer / BioNTech or Moderna coronavirus vaccine may lead to an increase in antibodies - more than what has been seen after a third dose - but it may still not be enough to protect against breakthrough infections caused by the Omicron variant, reports Jacqueline Howard.

"These are very preliminary results. This is before any publication, but we release it as we understand how urgent it is for the public to get any information about the fourth dose," Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center, told reporters during a virtual press conference on Monday about the data. She added that she supported giving a fourth shot to vulnerable people who may see some benefits from it, but that the research was probably not enough to support a decision to distribute it to the wider population.

In December, Sheba Medical Center began testing a fourth dose of the vaccines for healthy people ahead of the rollout of the extra booster shot for vulnerable people, making it the first study of its kind. Research in Israel, an early leader in Covid vaccines, was closely monitored around the world while governments struggled with increasing cases run by Omicron.

A protester wears a mask showing syringes during a demonstration against coronavirus measures in Geneva on October 9, 2021.

Europe's unvaccinated violations are falling out of society

Before Covid-19, Nicolas Rimoldi had never participated in a protest. But somewhere along the long and winding road of the pandemic, where his native Switzerland first introduced a lockdown, then another and eventually introduced vaccination certificates, Rimoldi decided he had had enough. Now he leads Mass-Voll, one of Europe's largest youth-oriented anti-vaccine passport groups.

Because he has chosen not to be vaccinated, the student and part-time supermarket cashier Rimoldi is - for now at least - locked out of large parts of public life. Without a vaccine certificate, he can no longer complete his education or work in a grocery store. He is barred from eating at restaurants, attending concerts or going to the gym. "People without a certificate like me, we are not part of society anymore," he said.

Faced with lingering pockets of hesitation with vaccine, or outright rejection, many nations impose increasingly stringent rules and restrictions on unvaccinated people, effectively making their lives harder in an attempt to convince them to get their shots. In doing so, they test the boundary between public health and civil liberties - and increase tensions between those vaccinated and those who are not, reports Rob Picheta.

China risks its economy with zero-Omicron access

The Chinese government's unwavering insistence on eradicating any trace of coronavirus is facing its biggest test to date, while authorities struggle with Omicron's growing proliferation. And it could cost the world's second largest economy dearly this year, reports Laura He.
Covid-19 cases have surfaced across China in recent days, including in major port cities like Dalian and Tianjin, which have given rise to restrictions that could hamper business operations in those places. In Beijing, a single Omicron case led to a zipper and mass test just weeks before the 2022 Winter Olympics. The rest of the world is also dealing with Omicron, but China is different because of how the authorities intend to prevent a widespread outbreak with their zero-covid approach.

The strict strategy has so far been effective: China has registered far fewer Covid-19 cases than many other nations during the pandemic, and its economy was the only major one to grow in 2020. But in the light of a more transferable variant, i.e. far harder to curb, and as the rest of the world learns to live with the virus, economists say China's zero-tolerance strategy is likely to do more harm than good in 2022.


School closures are affecting children worldwide, according to research published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, which looked at children and adolescents from 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The study found that children experienced both mental and physical health problems - anxiety, depression, lower physical activity, food insecurity and school freedom - associated with school closures and social closures. Madeline Holcombe spoke with experts who had these tips for families trying to protect their children's mental and physical health in the midst of the unrest:
  • Find ways to bring children safely into the world, keep them busy, and help build skills with them. Experts suggest activities such as walks, outdoor play dates, meditation and yoga.
  • Create a stable routine to help mitigate negative influences. Experts say that a sense of predictability and control is the key to all our well-being.
  • Focus on making connections and reassuring the children that they are still being taken care of by the adult world. Creating a safe and supportive home environment is the best thing families can do right now.


The twists and turns of the pandemic have put many of us on edge. But did you know that changing your expectations can have a noticeable effect on your well-being? In this week's episode, CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta with science writer David Robson on how our thoughts about the future can affect our lives right now, for better or worse. Listen up.

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