Today’s coronavirus news: Booster eligibility expands across Ontario; Moderna says initial booster data shows good results on Omicron

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Monday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

8:26 a.m. The European Union’s drugs regulator gave the green light Monday to a fifth COVID-19 vaccine for use in the 27-nation bloc, granting conditional marketing authorization to the two-dose vaccine made by U.S. biotech company Novavax.

The European Medicines Agency decision to grant conditional marketing authorisation for the vaccine for people aged 18 and over, which must be confirmed by the EU’s executive commission, comes as many European nations are battling surges in infections and amid concerns about the spread of the new omicron variant.

Novavax says it currently is testing how its shots will hold up against the omicron variant, and like other manufacturers has begun formulating an updated version to better match that variant in case in case it’s eventually needed.

8 a.m. Moderna said Monday that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

Moderna said lab tests showed the half-dose booster shot increased by 37 times the level of so-called neutralizing antibodies able to fight omicron.

And a full-dose booster was even stronger, triggering an 83-fold jump in antibody levels, although with an increase in the usual side effects, the company said. While half-dose shots are being used for most Moderna boosters, a full-dose third shot has been recommended for people with weakened immune systems.

Moderna announced the preliminary laboratory data in a press release and it hasn’t yet undergone scientific review. But testing by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, announced last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, found a similar jump.

Read more from The Associated Press.

7:07 a.m. Britain’s main nurses’ union warned Monday that exhaustion and surging coronavirus cases among medical staff are pushing them to breaking point, adding to pressure on the government for new restrictions to bring down record-high infection numbers driven by the Omicron variant.

Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing union, said the situation over the next few weeks looked “very bleak,” as growing absences from sickness and self-isolation hit hospitals struggling to clear a backlog of postponed procedures and treat normal winter sicknesses alongside coronavirus cases.

“In many places they’re already under immense stress and pressure, and so they are starting to go off sick themselves with COVID, but also mental and physical exhaustion,” she told the BBC. “So, staff are looking forward now thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what is coming?’”

Having repeatedly promised that there will be no repeat of last year’s lockdown-marred Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces an agonizing choice: wreck the holiday plans of millions or face a tidal wave of cases and disruption.

6:10 a.m. As figure skaters twirl around a busy Nathan Phillips Square rink outside his city hall office window, Mayor John Tory is troubled about the year ahead.

Another pandemic budget the city can’t afford, rising cases of a fast-moving variant of COVID-19 that threatens another holiday season together and uncertainty about Toronto — which he often refers to as the “economic engine” of the country — revving back to life in 2022 as hoped.

If the mayor had a wish list this holiday season, it would include this: committed funding from the provincial and federal governments for the cost of shelter and to cover the lack of TTC fares, the arrival of previously promised money to fight gun violence and agreement on council for a path forward on housing options across the city.

“I’m never satisfied because there’s always things to be done,” Tory said in a wide-ranging year-end interview with the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro.

6 a.m. Ontarians 18 and older will be able to book a COVID-19 vaccine booster through the provincial portal this morning, as long as it has been at least three months since getting the second shot.

The province announced Wednesday that it was expanding eligibility in an effort to bolster defences against the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Pharmacies were able to start offering the boosters to younger adults on Friday, but now Ontarians can make appointments through the province’s or a local public health unit’s website.

There are also new public health restrictions in effect in Ontario, in a move Premier Doug Ford said was designed to protect against Omicron while the population gets boosters.

As of Sunday, restaurants, retailers, gyms and other indoor settings will only be allowed to open at 50 per cent capacity.

Indoor social gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people, while outdoor gatherings can only have 25.

5:45 a.m. Cancelling flights, paring down gatherings and wrangling rapid tests and booster shots have become the new hallmarks of the 2021 holiday season as the highly contagious Omicron variant has led to an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Ontario. Even some NHL teams will be staying at home.

And, with Christmas less than a week away, holiday plans are being quickly re-evaluated, or tossed out completely, according to a new study by Forum Research provided exclusively to the Star.

Fifty-one per cent of Ontario residents surveyed will be celebrating only with their immediate household, according to the poll, published Monday.

Read more from the Star’s Olivia Bowden.

5:35 a.m. The COVID-19 Omicron variant is “just raging around the world,” the White House’s top medical adviser said Sunday as President Joe Biden prepares to issue “a stark warning of what the winter will look like” for unvaccinated Americans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the real problem” for the U.S. hospital system is that “we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated.”

The prospect of a winter chilled by a wave of coronavirus infections is a severe reversal from the optimism projected by Biden some 10 months ago, when he suggested at a CNN town hall that the country would essentially be back to normal by this Christmas. Biden has been careful not to overpromise, yet confidence in the country has been battered by an unrelenting wave of COVID-19 mutations and variations that have left many Americans emotionally exhausted, dispirited and worried about infections.

5:30 a.m. Mere weeks after raising the curtain to in-person audiences following a once-in-a-generation shutdown, many theatres are finding themselves back where they were in March 2020. Amid rising COVID-19 case counts, the threat of the Omicron variant and new capacity limits introduced by the province, production companies across Ontario are once again being forced to cancel or postpone upcoming productions.

On Sunday, Mirvish Productions announced that it has cancelled its highly-anticipated production of “Leopoldstadt.” Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning play was scheduled to make its North American premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Jan. 22 for a seven-week engagement.

“The sudden arrival of the Omicron variant has made it impossible for me to fulfil my dream of presenting ‘Leopoldstadt’, a play that greatly moved me when I saw it in January 2020 at its first preview performance,” said show presenter David Mirvish in a statement issued Sunday.

Read more from the Star’s Joshua Chong.

5:20 a.m. Quebec is tightening public health measures again today as COVID-19 cases spike across the province.

Premier François Legault announced tougher measures last week to combat the Omicron variant as the province reported a jump in hospitalizations, with record-breaking cases for the province’s daily tally over the weekend.

The government backtracked on increasing the maximum of indoor gatherings to 20, maintaining the maximum at 10 people instead.

Bars, restaurants, retail stores, places of worship and entertainment activities are to operate at half capacity as of today.

The Quebec government is also reintroducing a ban on karaoke and dancing, and all sports tournaments and competitions are suspended until further notice.

5:15 a.m. New COVID-19 restrictions ranging from audience capacities on large venues to the number of people able to attend indoor gatherings are in effect today.

The health measures are scheduled to last until Jan. 31.

Health officials say the restrictions, which also include the cancellation of all New Year’s Eve parties, are being implemented over fears of the Omicron variant overwhelming B.C. hospitals.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said the Omicron variant is adding new and more complex challenges to managing the pandemic.

B.C. reported 302 cases of the Omicron variant on Friday, up from 135 on Thursday.

5:05 a.m. Canada’s battle to contain the Omicron variant continues on multiple fronts today, with three provinces reintroducing public health restrictions and a fourth expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

British Columbia and Quebec are both capping capacity at bars and restaurants at 50 per cent as of today, while Newfoundland and Labrador has limited bars to 50 per cent and restaurants to 75 per cent with physical distancing in effect.

B.C. is also limiting indoor social gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

Ontario, meanwhile, is expanding COVID-19 vaccine booster eligibility to all adults, provided it’s been at least three months since they received their second dose.

5 a.m. Israeli ministers on Monday agreed to ban travel to the United States, Canada and eight other countries amid the rapid, global spread of the Omicron variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office announced the decision following a Cabinet vote.

The rare move to red-list the U.S. comes amid rising coronavirus infections in Israel and marks a change to pandemic practices between the two nations with close diplomatic relations. The U.S. will join a growing list of European countries and other destinations to which Israelis are barred from traveling, and from which returning travelers must remain in quarantine.

A parliamentary committee is expected to give the measure final approval. Once authorized, the travel ban will take effect at midnight Wednesday morning.

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