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It may feel a lot like last December. But a lot has changed since then

December 16, 2021, 8:11 PM UTC

Once again, the coronavirus has thrown holiday plans into disarray. The CDC is warning of a wave of cases driven by Omicron by January, much as the UK is already experiencing right now. Globally, people are suffering from anxiety and depression. In the US, we’re mourning the deaths of over 800,000 Americans.

In some ways, it feels a lot like last December. But it’s important to remind ourselves that so much has changed since then.

In December 2020, most people were defenseless against COVID. The FDA had just issued emergency use authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine—the first to become available in the US. Since then, the country has authorized two more highly effective vaccines, and more are still in development. Over 60% of the country is now fully vaccinated—a solid proportion, though not quite enough. Effective medications, antibody treatments, diagnostic tests, and booster shots are now all available. We are well equipped with excellent tools for beating the pandemic. The most important thing to do now is to use them—and use them well.

The vaccines are tremendously protective against severe disease and death from COVID, and it appears that a booster dose can bolster our defenses against Omicron. But vaccines can only help if they get into people’s arms. Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy remains a formidable obstacle in rich and poor countries alike. As Olga Khazan reported recently in the Atlantic, vaccine hesitancy stems from mistrust—of leaders, governments, health officials, and institutions—which we can begin to overcome by providing more funding to public health. Researchers have found that giving people ready access to vaccines and high-quality information about them makes a big difference in overcoming hesitancy.

Vaccine inequity is another hurdle. People in developing countries who want vaccines are often unable to get them because doses have been unevenly distributed around the world—most often, sadly, to the highest bidders. If we are serious about ending the pandemic, the onus is on governments of wealthy nations to share more doses and on vaccine-makers to make their shots more accessible by lifting their patents so developing nations can manufacture their own doses. Vaccine-makers’ argument that the technology is too advanced for those nations to reproduce has been refuted, and there is simply no time to wait for these companies to manufacture and distribute enough doses for everyone on the planet. Widespread global vaccination is the only way to prevent the next omicron from popping up because new variants will continue to emerge as long as the virus can circulate.

Omicron seems to be able to infect people who have had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and it’s likely the variant will lead to a surge in breakthrough infections, which can lead to downstream spread. This makes it all the more important to ramp up testing, which is “really going to be our first line of defense against spread,” said Harvard epidemiologist Stephen Kissler on a recent press call. Fortunately, testing has greatly improved in the US, in part because at-home rapid tests are more widely available now. It’s on the Biden administration to widen access to those tests even further—and it’s on us to use them.

Arguably, the most important thing to do is to keep up the fight against COVID, despite the curve balls the virus continues to throw our way. After so many setbacks, it can be dangerously easy to become jaded and apathetic—after reporting on COVID for what feels like a lifetime, I often find myself feeling weary—but that’s why it’s so important to keep reminding ourselves of how far we’ve come. Without the vaccines, so many Americans would have become severely ill or died. Without testing, spread would have become even more rampant. Without genomic surveillance, Delta and Omicron would never have been detected. Without the cooperation of millions of Americans in trying to keep one other safe, we’d be far, far worse off than we are right now.

This is the last Capsule newsletter. You can keep up with Fortune’s health coverage, including the latest news on COVID-19, by signing up for My Favorites, a tool that sends you a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you. You can select from more than 50 topics, including coronavirus and COVID-19 vaccines. I’d like to thank you for reading these past few months. As always, stay safe out there, and have a happy holiday.

And please get vaccinated and boosted, if you’re able.

Yasmin

@yeahyeahyasmin

DIGITAL HEALTH

AbbVie’s ‘Migraine Relief-Tok’ brings some chill to TikTok. The TikTok account for Ubrelvy, AbbVie’s migraine drug, posts soothing 20-second videos of ocean waves and singing birds in lieu of more traditional pharmaceutical ads. The videos, which are unexpectedly calming, are a welcome respite from TikTok’s usual chaos and a clever way to reach Ubrelvy’s target audience: people living with migraines, who tend to be younger and female. As Endpoints News reports, Ubrelvy is one of the few pharma brands with its own (increasingly popular) TikTok account, and advertising experts agree that the social media platform is “rife with opportunities” for pharma.

INDICATIONS

Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline vaccine shows promise as a booster, but the data is delayed. On Wednesday, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline announced that its coronavirus vaccine elicited a strong immune response when administered as a booster in people who had previously been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or Johnson & Johnson shots. The full booster data, however, won’t be released until the first quarter of 2022. The data was expected to be released this year, but the companies said that they needed more data on participants who had never been infected with COVID. Their vaccine, which has not yet been authorized anywhere in the world, has been held up several times in development. (Fierce Biotech)

Pfizer’s antiviral offers potent protection. On Tuesday, Pfizer announced that Paxlovid, its COVID antiviral pill, reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 88% in people who were  unvaccinated and at high risk of severe COVID when it was administered within five days of the start of symptoms. Like Merck’s COVID antiviral molnupiravir (which is still pending authorization from the FDA, in part due to concerns about its effect on pregnant women), Pfizer’s pill is expected to reduce the burden on hospitals significantly. Encouragingly, the company says the treatment has the potential to “maintain robust antiviral activity against Omicron” and is pursuing further research on the variant. According to the New York Times, the drug could be authorized by the FDA within days.

THE BIG PICTURE

The youth mental health crisis is getting worse. There’s no beating around the bush: the outlook for Omicron is grim. The variant has been detected in over 70 countries, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the variant is better at spreading than other variants. It’s not clear yet, though, whether that’s because it’s more adept at evading the immune system or whether it is inherently more transmissible; it’s also too soon to say whether it causes more severe disease. Regardless, the “astronomical case projections,” as Science put it, suggest we are in for a tough winter. As ever, vaccination, booster shots, mask mandates, improved ventilation, and continued social distancing remain our most effective tools for keeping the situation under control.

REQUIRED READING

College campuses are readjusting their approach to safety measures as Omicron cases rise by Collin Binkley and the Associated Press

Fauci says boosters work against Omicron, sees no need for variant-specific shot right now by Josh Wingrove and Bloomberg

The CDC now fears a massive January surge of COVID as Omicron cases spike 7-fold by Chris Morris

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