The World Health Organization said a strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and that was first detected in Colombia in January has become a “variant of interest” that will be closely monitored for signs it is resistant to the vaccines that have been authorized for use so far.

In its weekly epidemiological update, the agency said the variant it has assigned the Greek letter mu, or B.1.621, has “a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape.” 

Further studies are required to understand the phenotypic and clinical characteristics of mu, which has shown up in 39 countries, said the WHO.

The highly transmissible delta variant, meanwhile, is in 170 countries, according to the update for the week through Aug. 29, or seven more than in the previous week. The number of new cases recorded globally in the week is flat at just under 4.4 million, with all regions reporting a small decline or similar numbers to the previous week with the exception of the Western Pacific Region, which saw cases tick up by 7%.

Death at just over 67,000 were also flat versus the prior week.

In the U.S., the seven-day average of new cases stood at 160,041 on Tuesday, according to a New York Times tracker, up 14% from two weeks ago. Hospitalizations stood at 100,868, continuing to trend above 100,000 to match numbers seen in winter, while deaths were averaging 1,346 a day, matching levels last seen in March.

The debate about booster shots and whether they are needed for all vaccinated Americans or just the immuno-compromised, is picking up steam, as MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported.

Experts are concerned that White House officials, including President Joe Biden, were getting ahead of the themselves when they announced last month that Americans who are vaccinated with the Pfizer

and BioNTech SE

vaccine or the Moderna Inc.

one can get a booster dose starting Sept. 20, as long it has been eight months since someone has been fully vaccinated, the FDA authorizes or approves the booster, and the CDC gives its blessing. They said the first boosters would likely go to groups of people who are at higher risk of severe disease. 

That announcement “led everyone—it led physicians, it led the public—to believe that they had access to information about these vaccines and the need for boosters that had not yet been publicly released,” Dr. Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, said Monday. “To me, that opened the door to a lot of confusion,” said Fryhofer, who serves as a liaison to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for the American Medical Association.

Federal health officials have said they are worried that the vaccines will soon be less effective at protecting people against severe disease, hospitalization, and death, and that is their rationale for booster shots. But the decisions should be based on data that’s available now, and not on what is projected to happen, in keeping with the usual practice governing regulatory decisions.

The CDC’s vaccine tracker, meanwhile, remains relatively static with some 174 million Americans fully vaccinated, equal to 52.4% of the overall population. That means they have had two shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or one of Johnson & Johnson’s

one-shot regimen.

Some 61.8% have received at least one dose. Among adults 18 years and older, 63.5% are fully vaccinated and 74.2% have received at least one dose.

An Axios/Ipsos poll this week found vaccine hesitancy at its lowest level among Americans since the start of the outbreak, with mandates from employers driving the trend. But there are still more than 100 million Americans, including children below the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for shots, who need to step up and avoid contracting a preventable illness that can kill.

Elsewhere, New Zealand recorded 75 new COVID cases on Wednesday, Reuters reported, a disappointing increase from 49 a day earlier. Of those, 74 were in Auckland and one was a household contact in Wellington. The total cases from the current outbreak rose to 687, nearly all in Auckland.

The U.K. government will push ahead with plans to impose vaccine passports for nightclubs and other indoor venues where people gather closely in crowds, the Guardian reported. The government has been targeting adverts and other media at young people over the summer, stressing the importance of the vaccine in returning life to normal.

The Irish government said it would lift most of its COVID restrictions on Oct. 22 after enduring some of the strictest curbs since late December. Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Micheál Martin said Ireland had “kept our head as a country,” followed the best health advice and stuck together during the worst of the pandemic, the Irish Times reported.

Latest tallies

he global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 217.7 million on Wednesday, while the death toll rose to 4.52 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. leads the world with a total of 39.2 million cases and 6340,109 deaths.

India has the second highest death toll after the U.S. at 439,020 and is third by cases at 32.8 million, the JHU data shows. Brazil has second highest death toll at 580,413 and has 20.8 million cases. In Europe, Russia has 180,781 deaths, followed by the U.K. with 132,859.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 107,054 confirmed cases and 4,848 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

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