What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

FILE PHOTO: Pedestrians wearing protective masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, walk on a street in Tokyo, Japan, February 2, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
FILE PHOTO: Pedestrians wearing protective masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, walk on a street in Tokyo, Japan, February 2, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

(Reuters) - Here's what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Coronavirus spreads in Australia's pubs; Omicron cases linked to party boat

COVID-19 infections have been spreading in pubs and clubs in Australia's biggest city, including three new cases of the Omicron variant found among people who went on a harbour party cruise, sending officials rushing to trace contacts. Dozens of people who attended a Sydney pub quiz tested positive for the coronavirus and officials are awaiting the results of genomic tests to see if they are infected with the Omicron variant.

Some 50 cases of the Omicron variant have now been detected including the three linked to the Sydney party boat. The variant is potentially more contagious than previous ones although initial signs point to a more mild illness.

Jefferies outbreak casts pall over Wall St office return

Investment bank Jefferies Financial Group on Wednesday asked staff to work from home again because of a spate of COVID-19 cases, raising questions about its efforts to return to business as usual. Jefferies said it was also cancelling client parties and virtually all travel. The firm's disclosure prompted speculation about whether other banks would follow suit.

The firm, with its headquarters in midtown Manhattan, has had more than 40 new COVID-19 cases this month including 10 on Tuesday, it said in a memo, adding that only very few cases required hospitalisation. Chief Executive Richard Handler said Jefferies was re-imposing a mask mandate in all offices, regardless of vaccination status. Jefferies, which had seen attendance average as high as 60% many days globally in recent weeks, said it will require booster shots by Jan. 31.

Japan's COVID-19 cases defy Asia rebound

Japan's COVID-19 infections are falling in contrast with rebounds in other parts of Asia, baffling experts. New daily infections have slowed to fewer than one per million people, the fewest among major economies except China, and fatalities have fallen to zero in recent days.

One new hypothesis to explain the divergence is that the type of coronavirus dominant in Japan evolved in a way that short-circuited its ability to replicate. Ituro Inoue, a professor at Japan's National Institute of Genetics, said that a subvariant of Delta, known as AY.29, now may be conferring some immunity in the population.

Omicron is a wake-up call for COVID-19 vaccine developers

The arrival of the highly mutated Omicron variant is a wake-up call to develop vaccines less susceptible to rapid changes in the coronavirus, prominent virologists and immunologists told Reuters. Most first-generation COVID-19 vaccines target the spike protein on the outer surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus used to infect human cells.

The dramatic evolution of the virus highlights the need for vaccines that target parts of the virus less prone to mutate. Several research groups and companies have started work on more broadly protective vaccines, such as those that target parts of the virus too essential for its survival to change. Experts caution it will likely take more than a year and generous funding to succeed.

Experimental saliva test nearly matches PCR for accuracy

An experimental saliva test can diagnose SARS-CoV-2 infection in minutes, nearly as accurately as gold-standard PCR tests, researchers believe. Like other rapid antigen tests, this one, called PASPORT, binds the virus to nanoparticles. But PASPORT adds a second type of nanoparticle that binds to the first set, yielding a stronger signal and making the test more sensitive at finding the virus at any time of day, the researchers reported on Monday in Microchimica Acta.

"Although PCR has been the gold standard, it requires trained personnel and laboratory infrastructure," study leader Dr Danny Jian Hang Tng of Singapore General Hospital and Duke-NUS Medical School, said in a statement. A reliable, painless, affordable and convenient saliva test "would encourage more to be tested, and more frequent testing".

(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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