COVID-19 Roundup: Pfizer Says Booster Protects Against Omicron; CDC Urges Self-Testing Before Some Indoor Gatherings; and More

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December 10, 2021

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Pfizer: Booster of COVID-19 Vaccine Provides 25-Fold More Protection Against Omicron;

FDA and CDC Expand Booster Eligibility to 16- and 17-year-olds

Pfizer states that a booster dose of its Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine likely provides strong protection against severe illness from the new omicron variant — although the initial two doses appear significantly less effective than three doses.

Pfizer said a booster dose of its vaccine increased levels of virus-fighting antibodies against the omicron variant by 25-fold. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Thursday expanded eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot to people who are 16- and 17-years-old — at least six months after their primary vaccination. Boosters are already approved for all adults, 18 and older.

According to Pfizer-BioNTech’s preliminary data, a third dose, or booster, provides a similar level of neutralizing antibodies to omicron as two doses does against other variants that have emerged before omicron.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” said Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer, Pfizer, in a news release. “Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

In its announcement of expanded booster eligibility, the FDA stressed that vaccination remains the best protection as both the delta and omicron variants continue to spread. 

“Since we first authorized the vaccine, new evidence indicates that vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 is waning after the second dose of the vaccine for all adults and for those in the 16- and 17-year-old age group,” said Peter Marks, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in a news release. “A single booster dose of the vaccine for those vaccinated at least six months prior will help provide continued protection against COVID-19 in this and older age groups.”

Discovered in South Africa last month, cases of omicron are starting to surface throughout the U.S., but the delta variant remains the dominant strain of COVID-19. Researchers are trying to determine if omicron is more transmissible than delta. Preliminary reports from South Africa have indicated that omicron does not produce more severe illness than other variants. But the new variant carries a concerning number of mutations that may make it more likely to overcome existing antibodies from vaccination or previous infection.

“Our preliminary, first dataset indicate that a third dose could still offer a sufficient level of protection from disease of any severity caused by the Omicron variant,” said Ugur Sahin, M.D., CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, in a news release. “Broad vaccination and booster campaigns around the world could help us to better protect people everywhere and to get through the winter season.”

CDC Updates Guidance on COVID-19 Self-Testing Before Indoor Gatherings

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidance on the use of at-home COVID tests, indicating that self-testing before indoor get-togethers with members of other households. For the first time, the CDC is suggesting the use of these tests regardless of vaccination status or whether someone is experiencing symptoms.

The updated guidance comes as the holiday season approaches and more people are likely to gather indoors from different households. It also coincides with the emergence of the omicron variant of COVID-19, which could be more transmissible than the currently dominant delta variant.

Previously, the CDC had indicated that at-home self-tests be used only when someone is symptomatic.

“COVID-19 self-tests (also referred to as home tests or over-the-counter (OTC) tests) are one of many risk-reduction measures, along with vaccination, masking, and physical distancing, that protect you and others by reducing the chances of spreading (COVID-19),” states the CDC.

A positive test result indicates that you likely have a current infection, and you should isolate and inform close contacts, the CDC states. “A negative test result indicates that you may not be infected and may be at low risk of spreading disease to others, though it does not rule out an infection,” the agency states.

How do you use a self-test? The CDC says to read the complete manufacturer’s instructions and “talk to a healthcare provider if you have questions about the test or your results.”  Here are the CDC’s videos on How to Use a Self-Test and How to Interpret Self-Test Results.

Study: Blood Pressure Levels Increased Among U.S. Adults After COVID-19 Shutdowns

Blood pressure levels among U.S. adults increased after the pandemic-related shutdowns of early 2020, according to new research published Monday in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

The study found that women and older adults had the highest increases. Nearly half of U.S. adults suffer from high blood pressure, or hypertension, which is a leading cause of heart disease. Blood pressure is made up of two numbers: systolic, the top number that measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, and diastolic, the bottom number that measures pressure in arteries between beats when the heart is resting.

“Increases in blood pressure are likely related to changes in eating habits, increased alcohol consumption, less physical activity, decreased medication adherence, more emotional stress and poor sleep,” stated lead study author, Luke Laffin, M.D., co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, in a news release.  “And we know that even small rises in blood pressure increase one’s risk of stroke and other adverse cardiovascular disease events.”

Researchers reviewed health data from 2018 to 2020 for 464,585 participants with an average age of 46. There was no change in blood pressure levels before March 2020, when the arrival of COVID-19 sparked shutdowns across the country. However, from April to December 2020, average monthly blood pressure increases ranged from 1.1 to 2.5 mmHg higher for systolic measurements, and 0.14 to 0.53 mmHg higher for diastolic — compared to levels recorded before the pandemic.

Overall, 1 in 4 adults in the study were “reclassified to a higher blood pressure category by the end of 2020,” states the news release from the American Heart Association.

“Even in the midst of the pandemic, it’s important to pay attention to your blood pressure and don’t ignore your chronic medical conditions,” Dr. Laffin stated. “Get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol. See your doctor regularly to learn how to reduce cardiovascular risk factors.”

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