Boston.com

Omicron: What is known — and still unknown

What is the omicron variant?

First identified in Botswana and South Africa, this new iteration of the coronavirus has prompted concern among scientists and public health officials because of an unusually high number of mutations that have the potential to make the virus more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.

The World Health Organization has called omicron a “variant of concern” and Monday warned that the global risks posed by it were “very high,” despite what officials described as a multitude of uncertainties. Cases have been identified in more than a dozen countries, among them Britain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Although omicron has not yet been detected in the United States, experts say it is only a matter of time before the variant shows up.

Should we be worried?

Omicron’s discovery has prompted considerable panic, with a number of countries banning flights from southern Africa, or — like Israel, Japan and Morocco — barring entry of foreign travelers altogether.

But public health experts have urged caution, noting that there is as yet no firm evidence that omicron is more dangerous than previous variants like delta, which quickly overtook its predecessors in the United States and other countries.

Omicron

Although delta turned out to be much more transmissible than prior variants — and there is some data suggesting it can cause more severe illness in the unvaccinated — there is little evidence it is more lethal or capable of outsmarting vaccines.

Much remains unknown about omicron, including whether it is more transmissible and capable of causing more serious illness. There is some evidence the variant can reinfect people more readily.

There are early signs that omicron may cause only mild illness. But that observation was based mainly on South Africa’s cases among young people, who are less likely overall to become severely ill from COVID.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, said that the nation’s hospitals were not overwhelmed by patients infected with the new variant, and most of those hospitalized were not fully immunized. Moreover, most patients she had seen did not lose their sense of taste and smell, and had only a slight cough.

On Tuesday, Regeneron said its COVID antibody treatment might be less effective against omicron, an indication that the popular and widely beneficial monoclonal antibody drugs may need to be updated if the new variant spreads aggressively.

That said, omicron’s emergence is so recent that it may be a while before experts know whether it is more pathogenic. COVID hospitalizations lag new infections by two weeks or more.

Scientists expect to learn much more in the coming weeks. At the moment, they say there is no reason to believe omicron is impervious to existing vaccines, although they may turn out to be less protective to some unknown degree.

There’s another reason to remain calm: Vaccine makers have expressed confidence they can tweak existing formulations to make the shots more effective against new variants.

Also reassuring: Omicron’s distinctive mutations make it easy to quickly identify with a nasal swab and lab test.

Why are scientists so concerned about omicron?

As the coronavirus replicates inside people, new mutations constantly arise. Most provide the virus with no new advantage, but sometimes mutations can give the pathogen a leg up by allowing it spread more readily among its human hosts or dodge the body’s immune response.

Researchers in South Africa sounded the alarm because they found more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, a component on the surface of the variant that allows it to bind to human cells and gain entry to the body. Some of the samples from Botswana shared about 50 mutations throughout the virus not previously found in combination.

The spike protein is the chief target of antibodies that the immune system produces to fight a COVID-19 infection. Having so many mutations raises concerns that omicron’s spike might be able to somewhat evade antibodies produced by either previous infection or vaccination.

Those mutations also raise the prospect that the variant will reduce the efficacy of monoclonal antibody treatments — a fear partly confirmed Tuesday with Regeneron’s announcement.

Still, it is worth remembering the fate of earlier variants that stirred concern: Beta and mu, for example, evolved the ability to partially evade the body’s immune defenses, but they never became a serious threat to the world because they proved to be poor at transmitting.

What about vaccines?

Vaccines are expected to provide some protection against omicron because they stimulate not only antibodies but also other immune cells that attack virus-infected cells. Mutations to the spike protein do not blunt that response, which most experts believe is instrumental in preventing serious illness and death.

Citing the potential for waning immunity six months or more after vaccination, some health experts are promoting booster shots to increase antibody levels.

Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, makers of vaccines approved for use in the United States, and AstraZeneca, which is widely used in Europe, have all said they were studying omicron and expressed confidence in their ability to tailor their formulations to target the variant.

Why is it called omicron?

When the WHO began to name emerging variants of the coronavirus, they turned to the Greek alphabet — alpha, beta, gamma, delta and so on — to make them easier to describe. The first “variant of concern,” alpha, was identified in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by beta in South Africa.

But veterans of American sorority and fraternity life might have noticed the system has skipped the next two letters in the alphabetical order: nu and xi.

Officials thought nu would be too easily confused with “new,” but the next letter, xi, is a bit more complicated. WHO officials said it was a common last name, and therefore potentially confusing. Some noted that it is also the name of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

A spokesman for the WHO said organization’s policy was designed to avoid “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

Next in line? Omicron.

I’m fully vaccinated — I’ve even had my booster. So why should I care about omicron?

Like delta, which was first identified in India, the rise of yet another worrisome variant in the developing world points to a more fundamental problem facing the global community more than a year and a half into the pandemic.

The hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries while poorer nations struggle to obtain them provides more opportunities for SARS CoV-2 to replicate and mutate among the unvaccinated. More mutations mean there are more chances for the virus to become more infectious, immune-resistant or lethal.

And as the rapid spread of delta showed, a dangerous new variant is unlikely to remain in one place for very long.

The risks extend beyond public health. The resulting economic devastation from a new variant can hit affluent countries nearly as hard as those in the developing world. One academic study estimated trillions of dollars in economic loss to wealthy countries when residents of poorer countries remain largely unvaccinated.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Haverhill’s Hannah Duston statue vandalized with red paint, again

For the third time in the last 18 months, a controversial statue in downtown Haverhill has been vandalized, according to The Eagle-Tribune.

According to WHAV, the monument was vandalized with red paint sometime between last Wednesday night and Thanksgiving morning.

The statue depicts Hannah Duston, or Dustin, who reportedly slaughtered her Native American captors after the gruesome killing of her baby. Historians dispute some of the popular facts of the tale.

Plaques on the base of the monument, which depict Duston wielding an ax or hatchet, refer to Native Americans as “savages,” according to WHAV.

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini told The Eagle-Tribune that he has long had concerns about the appropriateness of the statue.

“But it is never appropriate to vandalize those things we disagree with,” he said.

The city has considered relocating or altering the statue, which was erected in 1879, according to NBC Boston.

Diane Dustin Itasaka, an eighth-generation descendant of Duston, told the TV station that her ancestor’s image is misunderstood

“We see her image as someone — most of us in the community — as someone who survived,” she said.

Revolution fall to New York City FC on penalties in Eastern Conference semis

The Revolution came up short in the Eastern Conference semifinals against New York City FC on Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium, falling on penalty kicks after a 2-2 deadlock could not be decided in regular time.

In extra time, New York’s Valentín Castellanos, winner of the 2021 MLS Golden Boot, scored to give the visitors a brief 2-1 lead before Tajon Buchanan dramatically tied it for the Revolution in the final minutes. The game went to penalty kicks, where Revolution forward Adam Buksa’s miss was the difference.

New England, winners of the Supporters’ Shield as the best team in the regular season, fell at the first hurdle in the MLS Cup playoffs.

The game began disastrously for New England, which started like a team coming off a 23-day layoff.

New York’s midfield was able to wrest control early, spreading the ball wide to right back Tayvon Gray, whose cross was perfectly placed into the far corner of the goal by 21-year-old midfielder Santiago Rodríguez in the third minute.

Having conceded an early opener, the Revolution responded almost as quickly. After drawing a foul near the New York end line, Carles Gil’s ensuing free kick found the head of Adam Buksa, who nodded in a ninth minute equalizer.

With the score once again level, each team pressed the other relentlessly. The result was a physical contest as each team struggled to gain consistent dominance. New York emerged with most of the early possession, and Gil had an uncharacteristically quiet first half.

The second half began with the same tense feel with which the first half ended. Each team continued to struggle creating much.

Slowly, NYCFC began to find spaces in New England’s defense. Starting with a 63rd minute breakaway for New York midfielder Jesús Medina—saved only by a last-ditch tackle from Revolution left back DeJuan Jones—the visitors created a flurry of chances that included Maxi Moralez hitting the post for NYCFC.

But the second goal did not come, and after New England forward Gustavo Bou forced a strong save from New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson in the 68th minute, the game evened out once again.

Both teams began to tire towards the end of the second half following the uptempo start. Even with the game increasingly stretched, neither side was able find a breakthrough before the end of 90 minutes.

In extra time, both teams continued to press in a desperate attempt to find a deciding goal. It finally came in the 109th minute from Castellanos, who pounced on a cross at the back post to give NYCFC the decisive lead.

Of course, as had been the case throughout New England’s season, the drama didn’t end there. First it came again from Castellanos. Already on a yellow card, he was sent off after making a late tackle.

And New England, having led the league in goals in 2021, managed to find one more in the 118th minute to save their season (albeit temporarily). Buchanan, waiting on a cross from Emmanuel Boateng, coolly fired it into the far corner to once again level.

With the game decided on penalty kicks, it was New York who were mistake free, making each of their chances from the spot, while Johnson saved Buksa’s attempt to send the visitors to the Eastern Conference final.

Former Berklee student, Connecticut father-son duo advance to ‘The Voice’ top 8

The last two contestants with New England ties are going into next week’s episode of NBC’s “The Voice.” They are officially part of the show’s top 8 finalists.

The Voice

Lana Scott from Team Blake and Jim and Sasha Allen from Team Ariana were voted into the following round. Both contestants safely made their way into next week’s competition and were spared from the nerve-wracking instant save finale.

Two contestants — Holly Forbes from Team Ariana and Jeremy Rosado from Team Kelly — were sent home, while Jershika Maple from Team Legend received the show’s instant save.

Scott was a former Berklee student while Jim and Sasha Allen are from Newtown, Connecticut.

During last night’s challenge episode, Scott sang a country version of Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away,” while Jim and Sasha Allen sang a rendition of “Stay” by Rhianna.

The coaches were quick to heap praise on their successful team members. Coach Blake Shelton tweeted a picture congratulating his whole team, as his entire roster survived elimination this week.

“I love… these two humans more than words can express and HAVE SINCE THE VERY BEGINNING,” Coach Ariana Grande tweeted about Jim and Sasha Allen. “I am so so very proud.”

Jake DeBrusk trade request hasn’t been a distraction for Bruins, per Taylor Hall

On Monday, winger Jake DeBrusk put in a trade request to the Bruins, according to his agent — citing a need for a fresh start.

The Bruins, it seems, respect DeBrusk’s position. Per general manager Don Sweeney, the team will attempt to accommodate the 25-year-old, and on Tuesday, winger Taylor Hall said the team doesn’t see DeBrusk’s situation as a distraction.

“He talked to us this morning,” Hall said after the Bruins dropped a 2-1 loss to the Red Wings. “He just said, ‘I love you guys. This is something in my career that I’m at a crossroads,’ and he’s going to have to do.

“But he’s not a distraction at all. It’s almost better that it’s out there. You have a day to kind of digest that. Jake’s a great kid. He’s got a lot of skill, and he’s going to have a great career in this league.”

The Bruins selected DeBrusk with the No. 14 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft. He is on the final year of a two-year contract and will become a restricted free agent after the season.

On Monday, Sweeney hinted the team knew about DeBrusk’s desire for a fresh start for a while.

“I’m not overly surprised that this eventually came out,” he said. “I’ve been in the know for quite some time, and we’ve been trying to look at a hockey trade situation that would help the Boston Bruins and, as I do my job, accommodate with what Jake thinks [is] best. There’s a balance there.”

Hall said the team will deal with DeBrusk’s request “head-on.”

“You just go play the game,” he said. “And that’s the culture, that’s the model that we have. Whoever is in, you have to play well, and that’s what we said this morning: We expect Jake to play as well as he can even under the circumstances.” 

DeBrusk has just three goals and three assists in 17 games this season. He notched 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists) in his first year with the Bruins.

New antiviral pills no substitute for COVID vaccines, doctors say

DAYTON, Ohio — Oral antiviral pills could soon get federal approval to treat COVID-19 but health leaders say preventing the disease with vaccination is still important.

Readers continue to have questions about the coronavirus pandemic. So the Dayton Daily News assembled a panel of trusted experts to provide answers on a regular basis. Here are answers to some of the questions we’ve received from readers in recent weeks.

Experts quoted in this article are:

Oral antiviral pills from Merck and Pfizer could be soon approved to treat COVID-19. Is it still worth getting the COVID-19 vaccine if these become widely available?

Colon: Absolutely. The vaccines remain our best line of defense against COVID-19 as they help prevent the disease in the first place. The new antiviral treatments should be viewed as an additional tool when vaccines fail or in those cases where someone is not able to receive a vaccination. In medicine, prevention is always the preferred strategy, and this is what vaccines do.

Weinstein: Prevention of a disease is always better than seeking a cure after getting infected. These drugs will be a great step forward in our ability to treat COVID-19, but they only work if taken early in the course of infection. Vaccination cuts off the pattern of transmission in the community by limiting the number of people who get infected. Most of the individuals being hospitalized and those dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

How accurate are at-home COVID-19 test kits?

Paton: This depends on the test that is used, but in general these tests are very good at identifying people who have the disease. Around 85 percent of people who are infected will test positive. This percent is higher for people who are having symptoms and during the first week of infection.

When is full approval by the FDA expected for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines?

Frenck: The requirement the FDA used for a vaccine to be available by emergency use authorization was at least two months of safety data on at least 50 percent of the participants in the clinical trial. For approval, the FDA has to have six months of data from the time of the last participant in the trial. That is why Pfizer was given approval in about August. My guess is that Moderna and J&J are getting close to the six-month time point. So, the best I can say is that I would expect a decision from the FDA “soon.”

When do you expect Moderna or Johnson & Johnson will be approved for children?

Frenck: Moderna has submitted their adolescent data (12-17) to the FDA. It still is under review. The FDA will make a decision on lowering the age for the emergency use authorization based on the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine in the adolescent group. J&J has not conducted a trial in adolescents.

When do you expect any coronavirus vaccine will be approved for children under 5?

Frenck: Based on the status of the clinical trials in the kids under 5 years of age, I don’t see a vaccine for under 5 before late spring, early summer.

Police: Amesbury man allegedly clocked at 114 mph while driving drunk

GREENLAND, N.H. — An Amesbury man who was arrested and charged with allegedly driving drunk and speeding, was then charged with allegedly assaulting two corrections officers in jail, according to a statement from New Hampshire State Police.

Craig Cooper, 51, of Amesbury faces charges of aggravated driving while intoxicated, an open container violation, reckless operation, and simple assault on a correctional officer.

Police say they received a call around 9 a.m. Tuesday about a white SUV traveling erratically on I-95 near Portsmouth.

Trooper Scott Garton, of the New Hampshire State Police Special Enforcement Unit, was monitoring traffic from the state police aircraft on I-95 southbound in Greenland when he noticed the white SUV speeding, according to the statement.

Garton clocked the car traveling 114 mph in a 65 mph zone, according to police.

Garton radioed troopers on the ground, who located the SUV — a 2017 Ford Explorer, according to the statement. Authorities say the car was then clocked traveling in excess of 100 mph.

Sgt. Christopher Storm stopped the car and arrested the driver, who police identified as Cooper.

Cooper was taken to the Hampton Police Department, and later to the Rockingham County Jail for protective custody due to his level of intoxication, according to the statement.

While at the jail, police say Cooper assaulted two correctional officers.

He is due to appear in the 10th Circuit Court in Portsmouth on Jan. 31 at 8 a.m.

‘Youngster, nicely done’: Watch Drew Bledsoe congratulate Mac Jones after Patriots win

Drew Bledsoe made an appearance in the Patriots‘ locker room on Sunday to congratulate Mac Jones on the team’s a 36-13 victory over the Titans.

“Youngster,” Bledsoe said, approaching Jones and reaching to dap him. “Nice job.”

The locker room was predictably happy after a sixth consecutive victory, which lifted the Patriots to 8-4 — second in the AFC behind only the Ravens (8-3). Robert Kraft stood in the middle of the room, handing out handshakes and hugs.

“That was great,” he told linebacker Matt Judon as the NFL’s No. 3 leader in sacks embraced him.

Kraft later could be seen hanging out with Patriots wide receivers.

“Can we get him to get a little more enthusiasm?” Kraft asked facetiously about a cackling Kendrick Bourne. “He’s too quiet.”

Bourne seemed to be a popular figure.

“Where’s my man? Where’s KB?” Bill Belichick later asked, before pretending to stiff-arm the wide receiver.

Everything is light and happy after a win, but the Patriots certainly seem to like each other quite a bit.

Belichick addressed the team once they were all assembled, delivering a congratulatory message that — as Belichick tends to do — looked ahead.

“That’s what we thought it was going to be right there,” Belichick said. “Good job of grinding it out — a shut out in the second half, once again no turnovers, which drives the percentage of winning up right there, and four turnovers on defense.”

The locker room burst into applause.

“Good fundamentals,” he continued. “Just good fundamentals. We need everybody ready to go. We need everybody’s best Monday night in Buffalo. We’re going to need that. That’s a good win. They were what we thought they would be. Mentally and physically tough, they battled us all the way, and you just out-executed them.

“There’s going to be games like that, that’s what it’s going to be, so that’s a nice job today. Let’s get ready to go Monday night.”

The Bills and Patriots kick off their first of two crucial meetings at 8:15 p.m. on Monday.

Possible new clue emerges in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist

More than 30 years after the legendary art heist, a man has come forward with a possible new clue about the artwork stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, according to The Boston Globe.

Paul Calantropo, a retired jeweler and fine art appraiser, said in 1990 a friend of his named Bobby Donati brought him an eagle finial to appraise that seemed to be one of the items stolen about a month earlier from the museum.

He said he told Donati he couldn’t appraise the gilded bronze sculpture meant to sit atop a flagpole — the piece was worthless because the whole world knew it was stolen, Calantropo told the Globe.

“Jesus, Bobby why didn’t you steal the Mona Lisa?” Calantropo recalled asking him.

A little more than a year later, Donati was attacked outside his Revere home, according to the paper. His body turned up days later in the trunk of his Cadillac.

The Globe noted that the FBI believed at the time that Donati was targeted because of his connections to reported mobster Vincent Ferrara. Donati had a police record that stretched back to the 1950s, and included convictions for armed robbery and arson.

For years Calantropo was reluctant to speak about the conversation with Donati, fearing for his safety. However, he recently recounted what transpired that day for the FBI, according to the paper.

Calantropo is now part of a group of four men — including a retired law enforcement official, two former convicts, and retired Globe investigative reporter Stephen Kurkjian — investigating the heist.

Related

They hope to solve the mystery of what happened to the stolen artwork and claim the $10 million reward offered by the Gardner Museum. Today the stolen items would be worth about $500 million.

According to the Globe, early on the morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed like police officers talked their way into the museum, restrained two guards, and left with 13 pieces, including three Rembrandts, among them his only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”; Vermeer’s “The Concert”; works by Flinck, Manet, and Degas; an ancient Chinese vase, and the finial.

Since the theft, there have been numerous theories about who stole the artwork and where it ended up. There have also been several reported sightings of the stolen masterpieces, but few of those have been considered credible by authorities, according to the paper.

Donati has long been a suspect in the theft and the FBI did search his last residence in Revere, according to the Globe.

Members of the group told the paper they gave the FBI several addresses Donati had a connection to in the area. In August, the FBI searched one of them, but didn’t find anything.

“I was pretty crestfallen,” Calantropo told the Globe. “I believe the secret of the location died with Bobby.”

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on Calantropo’s account or what, if any, connection Donati may have to the legendary art heist.

Rhode Island man charged in Jan. 6 Capitol breach

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A Rhode Island man who federal authorities say was caught on video using what appeared to be a wooden table leg to assault police at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is facing charges according to a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday.

Timothy Desjardins, 35, of Providence faces six charges in federal court in Washington D.C. including assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain officers using a dangerous weapon or inflicting bodily injury, the FBI said in a statement.

In addition, a backpack containing an identification card for Desjardins as well as three small axes and other personal items was recovered the day after the insurrection from outside a Washington building where Desjardins had been sleeping, according to an FBI affidavit.

Desjardins also faces charges of civil disorder; entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon; engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly conduct in a capitol building; and parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a capitol building, according to court documents.

Capitol Riot

He was charged on Nov. 19.

No defense attorney was listed in online court records. A telephone number for the Providence barbershop he runs was not in service.

Desjardins is currently in state custody on unrelated charges, according to online state Department of Corrections records.

Desjardins was identified through publicly available video, U.S. Capitol Police surveillance video and police body-worn camera footage, according to the affidavit.

“A review of videos posted on YouTube revealed Desjardins assaulted multiple law enforcement officers … by striking the officers repeatedly with what appears to be a significant amount of force and using what appears to be a broken wooden table leg,” the affidavit said.

The alleged assault occurred in what’s known as the tunnel area of the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol, authorities said.

Supporters of President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 after a rally near the White House where he made false claims of election fraud and challenged them to “fight like hell.” About 700 people have been federally charged. Nine people died during and after the rioting.