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Coronavirus Update: WHO says omicron variant now accounts for 99.2% of global COVID cases and warns that people are still developing severe disease and dying

The omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 accounted for 99.2% of all cases sequenced in the latest week, according to the World Health Organization, further cementing its dominance over other variants.

 In its weekly epidemiological update, the agency said that while vaccine effectiveness wanes against omicron for all disease outcomes following primary vaccination, the shots retain strong protection against severe disease, making it important that the unvaccinated get their shots.

“Despite a reduction in SARS-CoV-2 testing observed since the beginning of 2022 in many Member States, the COVID-19 pandemic continues with intense transmission and high levels of death primarily among unvaccinated at-risk populations,” the WHO warned in its update. 

The new BA.2 Omicron variant has public health experts worried about potential new Covid-19 surges. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains what you need to know about this new, more transmissible Covid variant. Illustration by: Adele Morgan

The speed with which omicron, and especially its BA.2 subvariant, have spread across the globe is not just because it’s highly infectious, but also because of the relaxation of public health and social measures in many places and a general waning of immunity following vaccination and/or prior infection, said the agency.

“The recent detection of emerging recombinants of the Delta-Omicron and Omicron descendant lineages requires ongoing close monitoring,” said the update.

The WHO cautioned that just because hospitalizations and deaths are declining during the most recent omicron wave, data still show that unvaccinated people are at higher risk of severe disease or death from an omicron infection and should not drop their guard.

“Despite the reduction in severity, the massive increases
in cases with Omicron have led to large numbers of hospitalizations, putting further pressure on healthcare systems, and in some countries, similar or higher numbers of deaths when compared to previous peaks,” said the update.

The pattern is evident in U.S. numbers with cases now ticking up again nationally after steep declines following the January peak. The U.S. is averaging 1,567 cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, up 8% from two weeks ago.

Cases are rising again in 28 of the 50 states and have more than doubled in Rhode Island.

The country is averaging 14,870 hospitalizations a day, down 15% from two weeks ago, and still the lowest since the first weeks of the pandemic. The daily death toll has fallen below 600 to 533, but that’s still an unbearably high number as most of those are unvaccinated people dying a preventable death.

Omicron can also cause long COVID, which continues to leave some patients with dire symptoms months after being infected.

Coronavirus Update: MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have so far weathered calls for them to resign their roles after they were fined by the police for breaching lockdowns, according to media reports from papers including the Guardian. Members of their own party, the Tories, have joined opposition leaders in saying their positions are untenable after fines related to the “partygate” scandal, in which government officials were found to have attended parties in large numbers without face masks or distancing during periods of strict lockdown.

• Shanghai released 6,000 more people from the central facilities where they were under medical observation to guard against the coronavirus, the government said Wednesday, though the lockdown of most of China’s largest city was being maintained in its third week, the Associated Press reported. About 6.6 million people in the city of 25 million were allowed to leave their homes Tuesday, but some were restricted to their own neighborhoods. Residents have shown their frustration at China’s “zero COVID” strategy and footage has shown them screaming on balconies and raiding supermarkets for food.

See now: Philadelphia becomes first big U.S. city to reinstate face masks, as U.S. daily COVID cases climb 10% from two weeks ago

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized after being fined by U.K. police for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules. When asked if he would quit, Johnson said he wanted to tackle the problems the country currently faces. Photo: Tayfun Salci/Zuma Press

• New Zealand is allowing Australian visitors again as the first group of foreign travelers allowed in since the start of the pandemic, creating scenes of joy in cities including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, Sky News reported. The border will open to countries that don’t require a visa to enter such as the U.K. and U.S. on 2 May.

• Sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and syphilis, spiked during the first year of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. In a new report, the agency said STDs fell during the early months of 2020, before a surge later in the year. The decline early in the year may have had more to do with a lack of testing and screening during lockdowns, said the report.

See: CDC, stung by criticism of its handling of the pandemic, announces review and revamp

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 500.9 million on Wednesday, after breaching the half-billion mark on Tuesday. The death toll rose above 6.18 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 80.5 million cases and more than 986,452 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 218.5 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 65.8% of the population. But just 98.9 million are boosted, equal to 45.3% of the vaccinated population.

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