Pfizer antiviral reduces hospitalization, death among high-risk people by 89%, study shows: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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An experimental antiviral drug from Pfizer to help combat COVID-19, delivered in a five-day course of pills, reduced hospitalization or death among high-risk people by 89%, according to a final analysis of a previously released study.

A second study of people at average risk found the drug reduced their chances of developing severe disease by 70%, compared to a placebo. To get these results, the drug, called Paxlovid, must be given within three days of the beginning of COVID-19 symptoms — which will require people to quickly test and request a prescription once they feel ill.

The drug was tested on people who were not vaccinated but is also expected to protect people who have so-called breakthrough infections after vaccination.

Paxlovid appeared safe in both studies, which included nearly 3,500 volunteers, half of whom received a placebo. Lab studies also suggest the antiviral will remain potent against the omicron variant, which has been rapidly spreading across the globe.

The new research “underscores the treatment candidate’s potential to save the lives of patients around the world, whether they have been vaccinated or not,” Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chairman and CEO said in a prepared statement. “Emerging variants of concern, like omicron, have exacerbated the need for accessible treatment options for those who contract the virus, and we are confident that, if authorized or approved, this potential treatment could be a critical tool to help quell the pandemic.”

Paxlovid is designed to block the activity of an enzyme that the coronavirus needs to replicate and is administered with a low dose of an HIV drug that helps slow the body’s breakdown of that enzyme so it remains active longer.

Late last month, an FDA advisory committee narrowly recommended authorizing a different COVID-19 antiviral from Merck, called molnupiravir. Unlike that drug, Paxlovid will not cause the kind of genetic mutations in the virus that had worried some on the committee.

Also in the news:

►The Air Force has discharged 27 people for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, making them what officials believe are the first service members to be removed for disobeying the mandate to get the shots. 

►On the heels of a record 37 players testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday, the NFL is requiring Tier 1 and 2 employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 50 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 798,710 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 270.8 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 202 million Americans — 60.9% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we’re reading: The omicron variant is fueling misinformation about COVID. Experts explain why and how to spot false claims.

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South African study finds omicron ‘highly transmissible,’ more resistant to COVID-19 vaccines

The new omicron variant is substantially more contagious and reduces the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, but people who are fully vaccinated are still largely protected against severe disease, according to a study from South Africa released Tuesday.

The variant, which is believed to have emerged this fall in southern Africa, looks poised to take over the world, as delta did before it. Omicron accounts for 90% of COVID-19 cases in South Africa and is a growing problem in Europe. It has been seen in at least 30 U.S. states, though the delta variant still dominates the American outbreak.

Formally identified only the day before Thanksgiving, information on omicron’s characteristics – including how contagious and dangerous it may be – are just emerging.

The new study from Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer, shows that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which provided over 90% protection against infection with the original version of the virus is only 33% protective against omicron.

Full vaccination continues to provide 70% protection against severe disease, which seemed to hold up across high-risk groups, though it declined somewhat in people over 60 and even more in those over 70. Read more here.

— Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

University of Florida launches probe into reports of pressure to destroy COVID-19 research

The University of Florida is investigating possible violations of its research integrity policy following a 274-page faculty committee report that included claims of pressure to destroy and barriers to publish COVID-19 data.

It is the latest development of the university’s academic freedom saga, which began in late October when it became public that multiple professors were restricted from participating in lawsuits against the state. The issue has developed into a nationwide debate over academics, freedom of speech, politics, prestige and money that has reached as far as UF’s accreditor and U.S. Congress.

In an emailed statement sent to faculty and staff on Friday, David P. Norton, the university’s vice president for research, said University of Florida Research and the university’s Office of Compliance and Ethics have initiated a formal investigation. He added that its results would be “made public once completed” but did not specify a timeline.

The lengthy Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom document released in early December reported the following claims:

  • There was external pressure to destroy COVID-19 data and inconsistencies in procedures for things like data destruction
  • A State of Florida government entity created barriers to and delayed publication of COVID-19 data
  • University of Florida employees were told verbally not to criticize Gov. Ron DeSantis or UF policies related to Covid-19 in media interactions

The committee report also discussed faculty members’ “grave concern about retaliation” and “a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way.”

— Danielle Ivanov, The Gainesville Sun

Contributing: The Associated Press