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COVID-19 live updates: Pfizer says ‘game changer’ pills could save thousands of lives

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(NEW YORK) -- As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, more than 5.3 million people have died from the disease worldwide, including over 798,000 Americans, according to real-time data compiled by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

About 60.9% of the population in the United States is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Dec 14, 2:52 pm
Omicron will 'for sure' become dominant strain in US: Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN Tuesday that omicron will "for sure" become the dominant strain in the U.S. given how rapidly it is spreading.

"Omicron is going to be a challenge because it spreads very rapidly," Fauci said.

Fauci reiterated that omicron so far appears to be less severe, adding, "Whether it is inherently less pathogenic as a virus or whether there is more protection in the community, we're just going to have to see when it comes in the United States."

-ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos

Dec 14, 2:21 pm
Cornell moves exams online due to 'substantial' number of suspected omicron cases

Cornell University is moving into a "level red" alert after a "significant" number of suspected omicron cases were detected among student samples.

"While we must await confirmatory sequencing information to be sure that the source is Omicron, we are proceeding as if it is," university president Martha Pollack wrote in a letter to the community.

All final exams will be online beginning Tuesday, Pollack announced, and libraries and fitness centers are closed.

All undergraduate events are canceled, as is Saturday's recognition ceremony for December graduates, Pollack said.

Cornell has recorded more than 600 confirmed cases among students and staff in the last week alone, according to the university dashboard. While no infected students are seriously sick, Pollack said the university has "a role to play in reducing the spread."

-ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos, Chris Donato

Dec 14, 12:34 pm
Omicron 'spreading at a rate we have not seen,' WHO says

"Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant," World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Tuesday.

Omicron has been reported in 77 countries, he said, adding that the new variant is likely in most countries.

Tedros said health officials are "concerned that people are dismissing omicron as mild."

"Even if omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems," he said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

Dec 14, 11:41 am
England to lift travel ban on southern African nations

British Transport Secretary Grant Schapps announced Tuesday that England will remove all southern African nations from its travel red list.

After the omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa and Botswana in November, several countries around the world, including England and the United States, imposed travel bans on a swath of nations in southern Africa.

The World Health Organization warned that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron, deemed a "variant of concern," and that restrictions place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.

The countries of Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe will be taken off England's travel red list on Wednesday at 4 a.m. GMT, according to Schapps, who noted that all current testing measures remain in place.

"As always, we keep all our travel measures under review and we may impose new restrictions should there be a need to do so to protect public health," Schapps wrote on Twitter Tuesday.

Despite the travel bans, the heavily mutated variant has taken a foothold in London. British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Monday that omicron accounts for more than 44% of COVID-19 infections in the U.K. capital and it's expected to become the dominant variant there by Wednesday, overtaking the highly contagious delta variant.

Addressing Parliament again on Tuesday, the health secretary called omicron "a grave threat" and said the "race" to get as many people vaccinated and boosted "is new national mission."

"Scientists have never seen a COVID-19 variant that’s capable of spreading so rapidly," Javid said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

Dec 14, 7:55 am
Africa clocks fastest surge in cases this year, but deaths remain low: WHO

An 83% surge in newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 during the past week in Africa, driven by the delta and omicron variants, is causing fewer deaths than previous surges, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

But the WHO cautioned that more waves of COVID-19 infections could be building as updated forecasts warn Africa, the world's second-largest and second-most-populous continent, may not reach 70% vaccine coverage until late 2024.

Africa recorded more than 196,000 new cases for the week ending on Dec. 12, an increase of around 107,000 from the previous week, bringing the cumulative count since the pandemic began to 8.9 million cases, according to the WHO. The number of new cases is currently doubling every five days, the shortest reported this year. While the speed of the spread is fast, the WHO said, deaths remain low and even dropped by 19% last week compared with the previous week.

Africa is currently in its fourth wave of the pandemic, during which there were a little over 3,000 deaths reported in the first three weeks. About half as many cases were reported in the same time frame during the continent's third wave, which was fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, according to the WHO.

The WHO said this spike in infections coupled with low hospitalizations is particularly evident in South Africa, which saw a 66% rise in new cases last week compared with the previous seven days. While hospital admissions have jumped by 65% in the past week, the bed occupancy rate for intensive care units remains low at 7.5%, with 14% of the hospitalized patients receiving supplemental oxygen. Though the number of deaths also remain low, the WHO warned that this pattern may change in the coming weeks.

"We are cautiously optimistic that deaths and severe illness will remain low in the current wave, but slow vaccine rollout in Africa means both will be much higher than they should be," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, said in a statement Tuesday. "We've known for quite some time now that new variants like Beta, Delta or Omicron could regularly emerge to spark new outbreaks globally, but vaccine-deprived regions like Africa will be especially vulnerable."

As of Tuesday, only 20 African countries had vaccinated at least 10% of their population -- the global target the WHO had set for September 2021. Only six African nations have hit the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of their population, while just two countries -- Mauritius and Seychelles -- have reached the 70% coverage seen as essential for controlling the pandemic. At the current pace, the WHO estimates that it will take until May 2022 before Africa as a whole reaches 40% coverage and August 2024 before it reaches 70%.

"In a world where Africa had the doses and support to vaccinate 70% of its population by the end of 2021—a level many wealthy countries have achieved—we probably would be seeing tens of thousands of fewer deaths from COVID-19 next year," Moeti said. "But we can still save many lives if we can accelerate the pace of vaccination in early 2022."

Dec 14, 6:45 am
Pfizer says 'game changer' pills could save thousands of lives

Pfizer's forthcoming COVID-19 treatment could be authorized for emergency use in the United States by the end of this year or early next year, pending the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory timeline, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told ABC News.

The pharmaceutical giant announced Tuesday that it has submitted promising new data to the FDA, including lab experiments showing its oral antiviral medicine, Paxlovid, will likely work against the omicron variant. And in updated clinical trial data, Pfizer found the treatment reduces the risk of being hospitalized or dying by 89% when taken within three days of being diagnosed with COVID-19, and 88% when taken within five days of being diagnosed among high-risk, unvaccinated patients.

"It is a game changer," Bourla told ABC News. "But at the same time, I want to emphasize that no one should use the existence of the pill as an excuse to avoid vaccination."

Bourla said the medicine could save thousands of lives.

"We did some calculations how many deaths or hospitalizations can be avoided based on the current U.S. mortality rates and the current U.S. hospitalization rates," he said. "On the back-of-the-envelope calculation, we estimate that 100,000 people if they take the pill, we will avoid 6,000 hospitalizations and 1,200 deaths approximately."

-ABC News' Sony Salzman

Dec 14, 6:45 am
Pfizer says COVID-19 pills could be FDA authorized by end of year

Pfizer's forthcoming COVID-19 treatment could be authorized for emergency use in the United States by the end of this year or early next year, pending the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory timeline, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told ABC News.

The pharmaceutical giant announced Tuesday that it has submitted promising new data to the FDA, including lab experiments showing its oral antiviral medicine, Paxlovid, will likely work against the omicron variant. And in updated clinical trial data, Pfizer found the treatment reduces the risk of being hospitalized or dying by 89% when taken within three days of being diagnosed with COVID-19, and 88% when taken within five days of being diagnosed among high-risk, unvaccinated patients.

"It is a game changer," Bourla told ABC News. "But at the same time, I want to emphasize that no one should use the existence of the pill as an excuse to avoid vaccination."

Bourla said the medicine could save thousands of lives.

"We did some calculations how many deaths or hospitalizations can be avoided based on the current U.S. mortality rates and the current U.S. hospitalization rates," he said. "On the back-of-the-envelope calculation, we estimate that 100,000 people if they take the pill, we will avoid 6,000 hospitalizations and 1,200 deaths approximately."

-ABC News' Sony Salzman

Dec 14, 5:57 am
France mulls tightening entries from UK due to omicron

France is considering tightening restrictions for travelers arriving from the United Kingdom, where the omicron variant appears to be spreading swiftly.

"Regarding Britain, the current rule is to show a negative test less than 48 hours old in order to enter France," French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told France Info radio on Tuesday. "But we are always looking at means to tighten the framework, we are currently working on that and we should, I think, come to a conclusion in the coming days."

Dec 14, 5:44 am
Mainland China confirms 1st case of omicron variant

China has confirmed its first case of the omicron variant on the mainland, state-run media reported Monday.

The variant was detected in a traveler from overseas who arrived in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin on Dec. 9. The individual tested positive for COVID-19 last week and subsequent genome sequencing confirmed it was the omicron variant.

The patient, who showed no symptoms, is being treated in isolation at a hospital, according to state-run media.

Dec 14, 5:31 am
UK reports 1st death from omicron variant

At least one person has died in the United Kingdom after being infected with the omicron variant, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday.

It's the first publicly confirmed death globally from the new variant of the novel coronavirus, which was initially identified in southern Africa last month and has since spread rapidly around the world. Deaths from omicron may have already occurred in other countries but no others have been publicly confirmed yet.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to a vaccination clinic in London, Johnson said the death was a patient who had been diagnosed at a hospital but gave no further details.

"Sadly, at least one patient has now been confirmed to have died with omicron," the prime minister said. "So I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that's something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population. So the best thing we can do is all get our boosters."

Dec 13, 9:59 pm
NFL to require vaccinated Tier 1 and 2 employees receive boosters by Dec. 27

The NFL will require that all its vaccinated Tier 1 and 2 employees receive their COVID-19 booster shots by Dec. 27, according to a memo they sent all 32 teams on Monday.

This group of employees includes coaches and other employees who work closely with players and help in essential league operations.

"On November 29, the CDC issued a study showing that the effectiveness of the approved COVID-19 vaccines may decrease over time and has recommended that all eligible vaccinated individuals over the age of 18 should receive a booster shot," the memo reads. "Given the increased prevalence of the virus in our communities, our experts have recommended that we implement the CDC’s recommendation."

The memo came as 36 players were added to the league's COVID-19 reserve list. Players are currently not required to receive boosters, but in Monday’s memo, the NFL said clubs should consider making boosters available for players and their families.

"Any individual who is not currently subject to the requirement for boosters will be required to obtain the booster within 14 days of becoming eligible," the memo reads.

-ABC News’ Katie Conway

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