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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Preliminary studies suggest that two doses of existing coronavirus vaccines are significantly less effective against the Omicron variant, but booster shots confer much stronger immunity.

The big picture: Early South African hospitalization data also indicates that Omicron may cause milder disease than previous variants. If both of those signals continue to hold, an Omicron wave may not be as bad as feared.

Driving the news: Pfizer and BioNTech said yesterday that three doses of their vaccine effectively neutralizes the Omicron variant, at levels comparable to the what two doses offered against earlier variants.

  • If that is an indicator of real-world clinical outcomes, that's good news — it would mean the vaccines work incredibly well, especially against severe disease.
  • And even two doses may still offer strong protection against severe illness, if not from milder infections, the companies wrote in a press release.

The intrigue: Although Omicron is spreading rapidly around the world, there's a chance that it causes less severe disease than other variants — which would be welcome news for both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

  • South African researchers have said that coronavirus patients showing up to the hospital are not as sick as the ones they've treated before, per the NYT, but this data too is still extremely preliminary.

What we're watching: It's too early to take either of these encouraging signs to the bank. There's still plenty of time for South African hospitalization data to take a dark turn, and researchers are still studying how well the vaccines work against the variant in the real world.

  • But for now, there's at least hope that we've avoided the worst-case scenarios.

Go deeper

Updated 14 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Omicron is finally burning out — It's very difficult to get access to antiviral COVID treatments — Axios-Ipsos poll: Omicron's big numbersAnother wave of death — FDA limits use of Regeneron and Lilly antibody treatments.
  2. Vaccines: Pfizer begins clinical trial for Omicron-specific vaccine — The shifting definition of fully vaccinated.
  3. Politics: Alaska governor joins Texas lawsuit over National Guard vaccine mandate — Navy discharges 45 sailors for refusing vaccine — Spotify to remove Neil Young's music after his Joe Rogan ultimatum.
  4. World: U.K. to lift travel testing requirement for fully vaccinated — Beijing Olympic Committee lowers testing threshold ahead of Games.
  5. Variant tracker

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.