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Coronavirus Update: New global trial to review impact of reduced COVID-19 booster shots, as England drops all restrictions

A global clinical trial was launched Tuesday to investigate the impact of reduced COVID-19 booster shots, as opposed to full ones, as a way to improve access to vaccines for those parts of the world that still have low vaccination rates.

The trial was announced by the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute with findings expected to help guide future vaccine strategies.

“For example, results could suggest that a reduced booster dose would improve, broaden, and prolong the immune response following a primary series of COVID-19 vaccination, while also putting less strain on first dose supplies,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

The data could also show whether fractional doses cause fewer side effects in recipients compared with a full dose, and where mixing and matching vaccine schedules is effective.

The plan is to involve up to 3,300 healthy individuals in Australia, Indonesia, and Mongolia.

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“Over 10.4 billion doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have now been delivered worldwide, and the rollout of booster doses has dramatically ramped up in response to the cataclysmic spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant,” said Dr. Melanie Saville, director of vaccine R&D at CEPI.

“However, despite this major progress, we continue to see a terrible chasm between rich and poor nations, with the vast majority of populations in low-income countries still waiting for their first dose.”

The news comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has scrapped all COVID restrictions in England, including the requirement to self-isolate after testing positive. That move has been slammed by scientists who are concerned it will weaken the country’s ability to monitor and track the virus, as the Associated Press reported.

The new plan foresees vaccines and treatments keeping the virus in check as it becomes endemic in the country. Everyone 75 and older will be offered a fourth vaccine dose, along with those 12 and up who have conditions that make them vulnerable to severe disease.

Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca
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vaccine, said “the decision about when and how to reduce restrictions is enormously difficult.”

It’s essential to maintain “surveillance for the virus, an early warning system if you like, which tells us about new variants emerging and gives an ability to monitor whether those new variants are indeed causing more severe disease than omicron did.”

Johnson’s Tory government has been criticized by experts throughout the pandemic, for shutting down later than others, for reopening too soon and more recently for holding a series of parties at Johnson’s Downing Street home that breached lockdown rules at the time.

During a session of Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized for attending a party on Downing Street in 2020 while strict Covid-19 lockdown measures were in place. Johnson said he believed it was a “work event.” Photo: PRU/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. is still seeing steep declines in COVID cases, which are now down more than 80% from their mid-January peak when omicron was racing across the country.

The U.S. is averaging 89,024 cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, down 65% from two weeks ago. Hospitalizations are averaging 65,681 a day, down 43% from two weeks ago. And deaths are averaging 2,096 a day, down 19% from two weeks ago.

Cases are falling in every state, the tracker shows. But West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky have the highest number of recent hospitalizations, along with vaccination rates that lag the national average.

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• Hong Kong will test its entire population of 7.5 million people for COVID-19 in March, the city’s leader said Tuesday, as it grapples with its worst outbreak driven by the omicron variant, the Associated Press reported. The population will be tested three times in March, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said. She said testing capacity will be boosted to 1 million a day or more. Hong Kong has reported about 5,000 new daily infections since Feb. 15, with the number threatening to overwhelm its healthcare system.

• International tourists and business travelers began arriving in Australia with few restrictions on Monday for the first time in almost two years after the government lifted some of the most draconian pandemic measures of any democracy in the world, the AP reported separately. Vaccinated travelers were greeted at Sydney’s airport by jubilant well-wishers waving toy koalas and favorite Australian foods including Tim Tams chocolate cookies and jars of Vegemite spread.

• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering authorizing a fourth dose of a Covid-19 vaccine later in the year, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. Theagency has started reviewing data to authorize a second booster dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the paper reported, citing people familiar with the situation.

As countries loosen Covid-19 restrictions, Hong Kong is sticking to a ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ approach – with help from Beijing. A surge in cases has overwhelmed hospitals and threatens business confidence in the global financial hub. Photo: Bertha Wang/Bloomberg

• Canadian lawmakers voted extend the emergency powers that police can invoke to quell any potential restart of blockades by those opposed to COVID-19 restrictions, the AP reported. Lawmakers in the House of Commons voted 185 to 151 to affirm the powers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier that the powers were still needed despite police ending the occupation of the nation’s capital by truckers over the weekend and police ending border blockades before that.

• Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto returned to the studio on Monday after a prolonged absence and told his audience he was in an intensive care unit suffering from COVID for a second time. Cavuto, who has a weakened immune system after a bout of cancer, a multiple sclerosis diagnosis and open-heart surgery, said he was saved by the fact that he was vaccinated. Cavuto has advocated for vaccines since his first COVID infection last fall, putting him at odds with other Fox hosts, who have actively discouraged their viewers from getting their shots.

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 426.4 million on Thursday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll climbed above 5.89 million.

The U.S. leads the world with 78.5 million cases and 935,992 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 214.7 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 64.7% of the population. But just 92.8 million are boosted, equal to 43.2% of the vaccinated population. 

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