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This time a year ago, the US was heading into its first COVID winter with dimming spirits. Even as the pandemic slogs on, with 59 percent of the country fully vaccinated we’re now in a much better position. Developments large and small, from a potential treatment for COVID in the form of a pill to national policy changes on employer-enforced vaccination, will all help make next year even brighter.

Britain becomes first country to approve COVID-19 antiviral pill

On Thursday, Britain approved the COVID-19 antiviral pill, molnupiravir, jointly developed by American Merck and Ridgeback Pharmaceuticals. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommends the pill, branded Lagevrio in the UK, for those with mild to moderate COVID-19, and for those with at least one risk factor for developing severe illness such as heart disease, obesity, and asthma. US advisers will convene this month to vote on whether to greenlight the pill. This approval comes just after detection of a coronavirus subvariant in the country, which now comprises more than 10 percent of COVID-19 cases there.

Molnupiravir works by inserting errors to SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code, which then prevents it from replicating and causing COVID-19 symptoms. Merck reported that in a Phase 3 study, the pill reduced risk of hospitalization or death by about 50 percent compared to a placebo, and that the pill sabotages the most common coronavirus variants. The regimen entails taking the pill twice daily for five days.

Biden administration sets January 4 as deadline for employer compliance

On Thursday the US Labor Department announced January 4 as the deadline for many employers to either guarantee employee vaccination or require weekly COVID-19 testing, plus the use of a face covering in the workplace. This vaccine directive applies to businesses with 100 or more employees, and will affect more than 84 million workers. Under this policy, employers aren’t required to provide or pay for tests. Businesses that don’t stick to these rules risk penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.

Pfizer vaccine approved for kids age 5-11 while Moderna needs further review 

This week, an advisory panel from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) unanimously recommended Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11. That means some 28 million children are newly eligible for vaccination. 

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs more time to review Moderna’s vaccine for children aged 12 to 17. The FDA is particularly focused on assessing teens’ risk of developing myocarditis, or swelling of the heart. Review may continue into the new year. Back in June, Moderna applied to expand the vaccine’s emergency authorization to this age group after a study showed 100 percent effectiveness among teens.

There’s a slightly more transmissible Delta subvariant in the US

Called AY.4.2, this coronavirus subvariant has reared up in Rhode Island, Nevada, Maryland, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Washington, Florida, California, and the District of Columbia. Health authorities assure that current vaccines effectively fight AY.4.2, and while it may spread more quickly, there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness. The World Health Organization has not yet clocked it as a variant under investigation or variant of concern. However, its appearance reinforces the need to get vaccinated.

Wild white-tailed deer spreading SARS-CoV-2 and hunting season

Wild deer can contract SARS-CoV-2 both from each other and humans, according to a new study of deer in Iowa. The study, which examined the lymph nodes of roadkill and hunted deer, found that 80 percent of animals sampled between April 2020 and January 2021 were infected. Researchers took most of their samples in September—the beginning of Iowa’s hunting season. Authors believe that the increased human-deer interaction during this period helped spread infection among the animals. For now, however, there is no evidence that humans can receive the virus from deer.

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