Latest coronavirus news as of 4pm on 20 September
Around 1.5 million people in England will be invited to book a booster shot this week
Text messages and letters will be sent to around 1.5 million people in England this week, inviting them to book a covid-19 booster vaccine jab. Those eligible include people aged 50 and over, frontline health and care workers, and people living in care homes.
“Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long terms and will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months,” said UK health minister Sajid Javid.
Speaking to reporters on his way to the UN General Assembly in New York, prime minister Boris Johnson said that the booster programme must be the UK’s priority, over donating more coronavirus vaccine doses to less wealthy nations.
Vaccinations began for 12-to-15-year-olds in England today. Meanwhile, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been found to be safe and effective in 5-to-11-year-olds, according to internal Pfizer data that will need to be reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration before the vaccine can be given to under-12s. The Guardian reports that this age group is on track to receive two doses of the vaccine in the US by the end of October.
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A trial in Manchester, UK, will test whether a new vaccine can boost immunity to new coronavirus variants in people who have already received one of the earlier coronavirus vaccines.
Due to the impact of covid-19, the population of Alabama looks likely to shrink for the first time in history.
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What to read, watch and listen to about coronavirus
New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.
The Jump is a BBC radio 4 series exploring how viruses can cross from animals into humans to cause pandemics. The first episode examines the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.
Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? is a BBC documentary, which investigates what the high covid-19 death rates in ethnic minority patients reveal about health inequality in the UK.
Panorama: The Race for a Vaccine is a BBC documentary about the inside story of the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against covid-19.
Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.
The New York Times is assessing the progress in development of potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.
Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.
Belly Mujinga: Searching for the Truth is a BBC Panorama investigation of the death of transport worker Belly Mujinga from covid-19, following reports she had been coughed and spat on by a customer at London’s Victoria Station.
Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.
COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.
The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.
A new analysis suggests that long covid affects 6 per cent of people who experience symptoms
Long covid appears to affect between 3 to 11.7 per cent of people infected by the coronavirus, according to an analysis by the UK Office for National Statistics that used several different approaches to gauge the prevalence of the chronic condition. According to the analysis, as many as 17.7 per cent of people who had symptomatic covid-19 infections self-report as experiencing long covid 12 weeks later, but the proportion of symptomatic cases who experience at least one ONS-defined long covid symptoms continuously for 12 weeks or more is lower, at 6.7 per cent.
In April, the ONS published a study suggesting that 13.7 per cent of people who test positive for covid go on to experience some symptoms for 12 weeks or longer. Now, the ONS has used several approaches to get a more detailed look at how common long covid is.
The new study found that, when looking across people who test positive for covid-19 – regardless of whether they had symptoms or not during their initial infection – long covid appears to be less common than previously thought. Among those in the study who tested positive for covid-19, 5 per cent reported one or more of 12 common symptoms 12 to 16 weeks after infection. However, 3.4 per cent of people in the control group also reported such symptoms, suggesting that the coronavirus may not be to blame in the majority of cases.
The prevalence of long covid seemed to drop even further – to 3 per cent – when the analysis focussed on people who’d tested positive who then experienced symptoms continuously for at least 12 weeks. This compares to 0.5 per cent in the control group. But the analysis estimates that 11.7 per cent of people who’d tested positive would describe themselves as experiencing long covid 12 weeks after infection, and that 7.5 per cent of people would say that long covid is limiting their day-to-day activities.
However, the ONS estimates suggest that long covid is more common among people who experience symptoms during their initial covid infection. When asymptomatic cases were removed from the analysis, the prevalence of long covid went up. The study found that 6.7 per cent of people who had symptomatic infections went on to experience one or more of 12 common symptoms continuously for at least 12 weeks. As for self-reported long covid, 17.7 per cent of people who’d had symptomatic infections described themselves as experiencing long covid 12 weeks after infection, and 11.8 per cent said that this was limiting their day-to-day activities.
The analysis also confirmed that long covid is most common in women, adults aged 50 to 69, and in people with other health conditions. Those who show signs of a high viral load during their initial infection are also more likely to experience long covid.
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Around 3000 healthcare workers who haven’t been vaccinated for covid-19 have been suspended in France. A new rule came into force on 15 September that makes vaccination mandatory for 2.7 million frontline staff.
Italy is planning to make it mandatory for most public and private workers to have a “green pass” that indicates that a person has been fully vaccinated, recently recovered from the coronavirus, or recently tested negative for it. Since August, a green pass has been necessary for accessing most leisure activities in the country.
The army may be called upon to help Scotland’s ambulance service, which is under “acute pressure”, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday.
Use our covid-19 dashboard to stay up to date with deaths, cases, and vaccination rates around the world.
More than 30,000 reported cases of menstrual changes after vaccination in the UK
A possible link between covid-19 vaccines and menstrual changes is plausible and should be investigated, according to a reproductive immunology specialist. Writing in the BMJ, Victoria Male at Imperial College London notes that changes to periods and unexpected vaginal bleeding aren’t currently listed as covid-19 vaccination side effects by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. However, more than 30,000 reports of such changes have been made to the MHRA through its yellow card side effects reporting scheme.
Because menstrual changes have been reported after various different kinds of covid-19 vaccine, Male suggests that, if there is a link, it is likely to be caused by the body’s immune response to vaccination, rather than a reaction to a specific vaccine component. Male notes that a study of menstruating women found that a quarter of those who caught covid-19 experienced menstrual disruption, and that vaccination against the human papillomavirus has been linked to menstrual changes.
According to Male, most people who report changes to their periods after vaccination find that they return to normal the following cycle. There is no evidence that covid-19 vaccination reduces fertility. However, she argues that it is important to research the effects of the vaccines on menstruation. “Vaccine hesitancy among young women is largely driven by false claims that covid-19 vaccines could harm their chances of future pregnancy,” she writes. “Failing to thoroughly investigate reports of menstrual changes after vaccination is likely to fuel these fears.”
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For the seventh day in a row, over 8000 people in the UK are in hospital with covid-19.
Nadhim Zahawi, the UK’s vaccine minister, is to switch to the role of education secretary. The move came as part of the prime minister’s reshuffle yesterday.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is in isolation, after a number of people in his entourage caught covid-19.
Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist
Rapid increase in covid-19 hospitalisations in England predicted for October
Modellers on the UK government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers have calculated that between 2000 and 7000 people a day could be hospitalised with covid-19 in England in October unless some restrictions are introduced to curb infection rates.
Around 1000 people a day are currently being admitted to UK hospitals with covid-19. At the height of last winter’s peak, 4500 people were hospitalised across the UK daily. This winter, hospitals are likely to be under even more strain, as they handle long-covid cases and seasonal flu.
According to SAGE, “it is highly likely that a significant decrease in home working in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions. If enacted early enough, a relatively light set of measures could be sufficient to curb sustained growth.”
These measures would include more widespread testing, a return to encouraging working from home, increased mask-wearing, and requiring fully-vaccinated people who’ve had contact with a positive case to self-isolate. However, to be effective in preventing a large wave of infections, these measures would need to be implemented before infection rates begin to rapidly accelerate.
The health minister Sajid Javid yesterday said the government’s “plan A” for autumn and winter is to expand vaccination to 12-to-15-year-olds and to give booster jabs to the clinically vulnerable and people over the age of 50. The prime minister Boris Johnson said yesterday that mandatory masks and advice to work from home are the government’s “plan B”.
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The World Health Organization yesterday issued an urgent call for vaccine equity worldwide, with a particular stress on the need for vaccination in Africa. WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was joined by various global health leaders in calling for better cooperation in vaccine supply and access.
1 in 500 US residents have died of covid-19 since the pandemic started, reports CNN.
France’s vaccination mandate for healthcare workers comes into effect today.
The government of New South Wales in Australia is planning to make it illegal to attend hospitality venues without being fully-vaccinated.
Two covid-19 vaccines approved in UK for potential use as booster shots
The Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccines have been approved as safe and effective for use as a third shot by UK regulator the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). But a general booster campaign has not yet been recommended by the body that advises the UK government on who should receive vaccines, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). “This is an important regulatory change as it gives further options for the vaccination programme. It will now be for the JVCI to advise on whether booster jabs will be given,” June Raine of the MHRA said in a statement.
The JCVI met yesterday to discuss results from a large UK trial called COV-Boost, comparing the results of giving seven different vaccines as booster doses. So far, the JCVI has only advised third shots for people who are severely immunocompromised – which it says are not boosters but top-ups, as this group may not have had strong immune responses to the first two jabs.
Meanwhile, Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, has joined those saying a mass booster programme is not yet needed in the UK, and that supplies should be directed to low-income countries. She told The Telegraph that evidence suggests immunity is “lasting well”.
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The US will introduce strict new rules on vaccines that will affect 100 million working people, about two-thirds of the country’s labour force. Yesterday President Joe Biden said firms with more than 100 employees will have to ensure their staff are either fully vaccinated or take weekly covid-19 tests. And vaccination will be mandatory for federal government workers, contractors for the federal government and healthcare staff in settings that receive federal reimbursement. “The bottom line: we’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” Biden said at a press conference. Meanwhile Scotland is set to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and sports events from 1 October.
A simple blood test could identify who is most at risk from developing severe covid-19 early in the course of infection. The test measures levels of antibodies against substances released by dying blood cells.
Major airlines are giving out inaccurate information about covid-19 testing requirements to their passengers, according to an investigation by Which? In seven of 15 calls from investigators posing as customers, agents gave wrong answers, including some that would have seen passengers turned away at the airport.
An auto-immune condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome has been added to the list of very rare side-effects from the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by the European Medicines Agency. The EMA says 833 possible cases have been recorded out of 592 million doses given.
Platelets could be to blame for deadly covid-19 blood clots
Tiny particles in the blood that promote clotting could be key to explaining why covid-19 can be deadly. The finding suggests that we may be able to use existing medicines to damp down platelet-triggered clotting in covid-19 patients.
People with severe covid-19 often have complications from excessive blood clotting, such as heart attacks, strokes and kidney damage. Tessa Barrett at NYU Langone Health in New York and colleagues found that platelets from 291 hospital patients with covid-19 had higher levels of two molecules involved in clotting compared with platelets from uninfected people. Levels were especially high in those who had to stay longer in hospital, found the study, published in Science Advances yesterday.
The team found that, when they grew healthy cells from blood vessel walls in a dish and exposed them to fluid from platelets that had encountered the pandemic coronavirus, they made more clotting molecules than when platelets were exposed to a coronavirus that causes the common cold. And the gaps between the cells became wider, which could be why blood vessels become more “leaky” in severe covid-19, causing fluid to build up in the lungs. “Our findings may explain in large part what makes covid-19 so much more deadly than its relatives that cause the common cold,” Barrett said in a statement.
Stroke drugs that block platelet-induced clotting are currently being trialled as a treatment for covid-19.
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The UK is considering making covid-19 and flu jabs compulsory for frontline NHS staff and social care workers. The government has today launched a six-week consultation on making full vaccination against the two viruses a condition of employment, unless people are medically exempt. About nine in ten NHS staff have had two covid-19 doses so far, but that ranges from 78 to 94 per cent between hospitals. The flu vaccination rate among health service workers was 76 per cent last year.
Speculation continues on whether the UK will start offering third coronavirus vaccine doses to the wider population, with the i newspaper reporting today that a booster programme for older age groups could begin in the next two weeks. Yesterday the World Health Organization said there should be no general booster campaigns until at least the end of the year to let low-income countries give 40 per cent of their populations their first two doses. Here’s what we know so far about the pros and cons of boosting.
There is no evidence of airborne transmission of covid-19 in public toilets, according to a systematic review published in Science of Total Environment. The risk is very low, probably because people spend so little time in there and rarely interact with others, says Sotiris Vardoulakis at the Australian National University in Canberra.
UK researchers are looking for volunteers to help identify covid-19 infections from the sound of people’s speech and coughing. You need to be prepared to upload sound recordings of yourself within three days of taking a lateral flow or PCR test for covid-19.
Latest figures show four in five of people 16 and over have now had two covid-19 vaccine doses
Four in five UK people aged 16 and over have had both covid-19 vaccine doses, according to government figures. They also show more than half of all teenagers aged 16 or 17 have had their first jab, just over four weeks since they were offered vaccination, suggesting low vaccine hesitancy among teenagers. Health and social care minister Sajid Javid called the figures “a phenomenal achievement”.
This week the UK government launched a campaign to further promote vaccine take-up among young people, involving TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, MTV and radio stations. It will have two strands. One targets teenagers with the message: “Don’t miss out on half-term plans, good times, and the covid jab.” The other is aimed at parents, reassuring them that the vaccine is safe and protects families.
The move comes as the latest figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics show a continuing gradual increase in the numbers of deaths registered in England and Wales. In that week ending 27 August, the number of registered deaths was 13 per cent higher than the average for the past five years. Covid-19 was mentioned in the registration paperwork of 6.5 per cent of all deaths.
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The head of pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca says a third vaccine dose may not be needed for everyone. Writing in The Telegraph, chief executive Pascal Soriot and a colleague said: “A third dose for all may be needed, but it may not. Mobilising the NHS for a boosting programme that is not needed would potentially add unnecessary burden on the NHS over the long winter months.” The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is likely to decide on a booster programme this week.
The UK government has denied reports in the i newspaper on Monday that it is planning a two-week “firebreak” lockdown around the school October half-term holiday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said there were contingency plans for a range of scenarios, but a firebreak would be a last resort.
Newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in England fell by a third in 2020 compared with the year before. The drop is because people met up less during lockdowns and fewer people went to clinics to get tested, says Public Health England.
Lab tests suggest the delta variant escapes immune responses more easily than alpha
The delta variant of the coronavirus is less sensitive than other common variants to antibodies in the blood of people who have previously been infected or vaccinated, researchers have found. The study, published in Nature, also found that the delta variant is more efficient at replicating and better at breaking into cells from the respiratory tract. These traits may account for why this variant has spread across the world rapidly since it was first identified in India in late 2020, becoming the dominant form of the virus worldwide.
In lab experiments, Petra Mlchova at the University of Cambridge and her colleagues compared the delta variant with alpha, which was the dominant form in the UK before being overtaken by delta in May. Delta was 5.7 times less sensitive to serum from the blood of people who’d previously had covid-19 and eight times less sensitive to serum from people who had been vaccinated.
Antibodies are proteins produced as part of the body’s immune response to infection. They work by recognising and binding to parts of invading viruses and microbes, such as the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. Previous research has found that the delta variant doubles the risk of hospitalisation for unvaccinated people compared with the alpha variant, and that vaccines have a somewhat lower effectiveness against the delta variant – although the protection conferred by receiving two shots of the vaccine is still regarded as good.
The latest study also looked at how the virus behaves in “mini-organs” grown up in the lab from cells taken from people’s airways. Because the delta virus particles have more spikes on their surface, they were better able to break into cells and replicate inside them.
Infection of vaccinated healthcare workers with the delta variant is a significant problem, said study co-author Anurag Agrawal from the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi, India. “We urgently need to consider ways of boosting vaccine responses against variants among healthcare workers. [The study] also suggests infection control measures will need to continue in the post-vaccine era,” he said in a press release.
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The UK government has drawn up plans for a “firebreak” lockdown in October in case hospitalisations remain high, according to the i newspaper. A member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) told the paper that the government could be forced to reintroduce restrictions if the National Health Service is at risk of being overwhelmed. “This is essentially the precautionary break that Sage suggested last year,” the unnamed SAGE member said. “It would be sensible to have contingency plans, and if a lockdown is required, to time it so that it has minimal economic and societal impact.” School half-term holidays, which fall at the end of October, could be extended from one to two weeks to help reduce transmission, the newspaper reported.
The NHS will be given an extra £5.4 billion over the next six months to continue the response to coronavirus and tackle the treatment backlog caused by the pandemic. The Department of Health and Social Care said £1 billion of this funding will be specifically used to clear the waiting lists faced by patients due to covid-19, while £2.8 billion will be allocated for costs such as better infection control to continue to protect against the virus. A further £478 million will go towards discharging patients from hospitals to free up beds.
UK may push ahead with vaccinating 12-15 age group pending medical officers’ review
Sending children back to schools with inadequate mitigations for covid-19 in place will lead to widespread infections and disruptions to learning, a group of scientists have warned. In an open letter to UK education secretary Gavin Williamson published in the British Medical Journal on Friday, scientists and educators said allowing mass infection of children is “reckless” and recommended nine measures to protect children and wider society from a fourth wave. The measures included vaccinating all 12-to-15-year-olds, investing in ventilation in schools, providing remote learning options, and mental health support for students and staff.
The letter highlighted that the prevalence of infection is now 26 times higher than at the same time last year, and the UK is experiencing 40 to 50 hospitalisations of under-18s every day. “There has been no plan for robust mitigation measures in schools to reduce the risk for children from infection and the consequences thereof, including long covid, hospitalisations, staff safety and educational disruption,” the authors wrote.
On Friday, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation decided against extending the vaccination programme to children aged 12 to 15 who do not have underlying conditions or vulnerable family members, saying that as the coronavirus presents only a very low risk to healthy children, the marginal benefit of vaccination to their own health is not great enough to support mass vaccination from a purely health perspective.
However, the government has asked the UK’s chief medical officers to review the wider benefits of vaccinating the age group, such as minimising school absences. The outcome is expected within days and ministers have indicated they are keen to authorise a wider rollout.
The UK Department of Health and Social Care has said parents of healthy 12-to-15-year-olds will be asked for consent if coronavirus jabs are approved for their children, as with other immunisation programmes. But vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Times Radio that children in this age group could override their parents’ wishes “if they’re deemed to be competent to make that decision, with all the information available”.
Several countries, including the US, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands are already vaccinating children aged 12 and over.
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Ireland will continue with a major easing of covid-19 restrictions today, with live music returning and larger crowds allowed at indoor venues. The Irish government confirmed last week that it would be embarking on a phased easing of covid-19 restrictions, which will eventually see the vast majority of public health regulations removed by the end of October. The numbers permitted to attend outdoor sports events increases from today, while restrictions on indoor venues will also be eased, with larger crowds permitted.
Vietnam has extended covid-19 restrictions in the capital, Hanoi, for a further two weeks in an effort to contain the delta variant. The city has been divided into red, orange and green zones based on infection rates, and barricades have been put in place to separate red zones from other areas. Authorities are planning to test up to 1.5 million people for the virus in higher-risk areas, Reuters reports.
The UK will send 4 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to Australia as part of an exchange deal, with Australia returning the same volume before the end of the year.
The arrangement will allow the UK to better align timings of vaccine supply with future need, including for any booster programme or extension of the rollout to younger teenagers, the UK Department of Health and Social Care said.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said the agreement would speed up the country’s efforts to come out of lockdown. “This will enable us to bring forward significantly the opportunity for Australia to open up again,” he told reporters.
More than half the country’s population, including the cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, are under stay-at-home orders. Only 36 per cent of people over 16 are fully vaccinated.
New South Wales recorded 1431 new cases and 12 deaths today, the state’s highest daily number of deaths so far. State premier Gladys Berejiklian said infections are expected to peak in the next fortnight.
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Around one in four young adults in the UK have still not received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine, figures show. The proportion of 18 to 29-year-olds who are unvaccinated is 23.5 per cent in Wales, 25.6 per cent in Scotland, 27.7 per cent in England and 29.2 per cent in Northern Ireland, according to the health agencies of the four nations. Adults over 18 have been able to get their first dose across the UK since the end of June. New figures also showed that almost two-thirds of 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales have had a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, while half of this age group in England and Scotland and 40 per cent in Northern Ireland have had a vaccine.
The European Commission has reached an agreement with AstraZeneca on the delivery of covid-19 vaccines, bringing an end to an acrimonious legal dispute. Under the settlement, the drugmaker will have until the end of the first quarter of 2022 to deliver the remaining 200 million doses it has committed to the European Union, having missed its original deadline at the end of June.
People with weakened immune systems offered third vaccine dose
Around half a million people in the UK who have severely weakened immune systems will be offered a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine. The recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will apply to people over the age of 12 with conditions such as leukaemia, advanced HIV and recent organ transplants. These people may not have been able to mount a full immune response to vaccination, the advisers said, meaning they could be less protected than the wider population.
The JCVI is still deliberating on the potential benefits of booster vaccines for the rest of the population and is awaiting further evidence to inform its decision. Anthony Harden, the deputy chairman of the JCVI, told Today on BBC Radio 4: “I think it’s highly likely that there will be a booster programme. It’s just a question of how we frame it. This will be decided over the next few weeks.”
The JCVI is also considering whether to expand the vaccine programme to most 12- to 15-year-olds. “There’s many, many arguments for and against giving vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds, and we’re deliberating on what we think as a committee is best for children,” Harnden said.
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Having two doses of coronavirus vaccine almost halves the likelihood of infected adults developing long covid, a new study has found. Researchers at King’s College London analysed data from more than 2 million people logging their symptoms, tests and vaccine status on the UK Zoe Covid Symptom Study app. The results suggest people who are double-jabbed are 73 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital and 31 per cent less likely to develop severe symptoms.
Scotland plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and some music festivals and football matches to curb coronavirus infections. First minister Nicola Sturgeon said the move – which is yet to be confirmed in a Holyrood vote next week – is “appropriate” as cases continue to surge. The scheme will apply to clubs as well as unseated indoor live events with more than 500 people in the audience. It will also apply to unseated outdoor events with more than 4000 in the audience, and at any event with more than 10,000 in attendance. From Friday, people in Scotland will be able to download a QR code showing their vaccination status. Children and people with certain medical conditions who cannot be vaccinated will be exempt from the scheme, Sturgeon said.
Mu variant identified in Colombia may be more resistant to vaccines
A new coronavirus variant, named mu, has been designated a variant of interest by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Mu, or B.1.621, was first identified in Colombia and cases have been recorded in South America and Europe. The WHO’s weekly bulletin on the pandemic said the variant has mutations indicating “potential properties of immune escape”, meaning current vaccines would be less effective against it, but that more studies would be needed to examine this further.
“Since its first identification in Colombia in January 2021, there have been a few sporadic reports of cases of the mu variant and some larger outbreaks have been reported from other countries in South America and in Europe,” the bulletin said. “Although the global prevalence of the mu variant among sequenced cases has declined and is currently below 0.1 per cent, the prevalence in Colombia (39 per cent) and Ecuador (13 per cent) has consistently increased.”
There are currently four coronavirus variants of concern, as deemed by the WHO, with the alpha variant seen in 193 countries, beta in 141, gamma in 91 and delta in 170 countries, while mu is the fifth variant of interest.
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One in seven children and young people infected with the coronavirus may still have symptoms 15 weeks later, according to preliminary findings from the world’s largest study on long covid in children. Researchers surveyed 3065 people in England aged 11 to 17 who tested positive for the virus between January and March and a matched control group who tested negative. Unusual tiredness and headaches were the most common persistent complaints.
The UK will press on with plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs from the end of September, Downing Street has confirmed. The proposals have previously been met with criticism from politicians on both sides as well as leaders in the night time hospitality industry. The scheme would see members of the public required to show proof of their vaccine status to gain entry to nightclubs and some other settings.
Ireland has announced plans to end almost all coronavirus restrictions on 22 October. Vaccine certificates will no longer be required to enter bars and restaurants and there will be no limits on people attending indoor or outdoor events. Some restrictions will be relaxed earlier, with cinemas and theatres able to open at 60 per cent capacity on 6 September and workers beginning to return to workplaces on 20 September.
Covid-19 surge in Scotland “a cautionary tale” as schools reopen in England
Students are being encouraged to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests to help prevent a surge in covid-19 transmission as the new school year begins across the UK.
In England and Wales, rules concerning face masks, social distancing and “bubbles” have been relaxed, although some schools are choosing to keep extra precautions in place.
The UK’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, says it is not just a matter for schools. “Parents too have a responsibility to make sure that their children are tested regularly,” he wrote in a Daily Mail article.
Scotland has seen a sharp rise in covid-19 infections with cases having doubled every week since 9 August, when most restrictions were eased. The surge is thought to be partly fuelled by children returning to school more than two weeks ago. On Sunday, 7113 cases were reported in Scotland, the highest daily figure ever.
“Scotland is proving to be a cautionary tale of what happens when restrictions are dropped & then schools reopened without adequate mitigations when R is already above 1 (which is where we are in England),” Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, wrote on Twitter. “We can expect worse in England in the near future.”
The Welsh government has announced it will pay for 30,000 carbon dioxide sensors and 1800 ozone disinfecting machines to improve safety in schools, colleges and universities.
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A new variant of the coronavirus known as C.1.2 has now spread to most provinces in South Africa and seven other countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. The variant is still occurring at a much lower rate than the delta variant in South Africa, researchers say. Scientists have not yet determined how the variant compares with others and it has not been listed as a variant of interest or concern by the World Health Organization. However, researchers say it contains several mutations that have been linked to increased transmissibility and lower sensitivity to antibodies.
A new vaccine developed by South Korean firm SK Bioscience has begun a late-stage clinical trial involving 4000 volunteers worldwide. The vaccine is being combined with an adjuvant – a drug that boosts the immune response – produced by GlaxoSmithKline, and will be compared with AstraZeneca’s vaccine in the trial.
Study compares risk of blood clotting problems after covid-19 infection and vaccination
The risk of blood clotting problems is much higher after covid-19 infection than after receiving a covid-19 vaccine, according to research from the University of Oxford.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at more than 29 million people aged 16 or older who had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in England between December 2020 and April 2021. It focused on the risks of blood clots and thrombocytopenia, a condition involving low levels of platelets – cells that help the blood clot.
Their findings suggest the risk of thrombocytopenia in someone with the coronavirus is almost nine times higher than in someone who has had one dose of the Oxford jab. They estimated that in 10 million people vaccinated with this jab, there would be 107 additional cases of thrombocytopenia in the 28 days post-vaccination, compared with 934 in vaccinated people infected with the virus.
The analysis found an association between vaccination with the Pfizer jab and an increased risk of stroke, but the risk was more than 10 times greater after infection with the virus. There were an estimated 143 extra cases of ischaemic stroke per 10 million people within 28 days of the Pfizer vaccine, compared with 1699 cases within 28 days of a positive covid-19 test.
For cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a type of blood clot in the brain, as well as other types of blood clot, the risks were also much higher after covid-19 than after either jab.
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Around half of all people hospitalised with covid-19 still have at least one persistent symptom after one year, according to a study of 1276 patients from Wuhan, China. Around a third of participants experienced shortness of breath after one year. Fatigue and muscle weakness affected about half of participants after 6 months, but fell to one in five after 12 months.
Seven destinations have been added to the UK’s green list for travel, meaning people arriving from those places will not have to quarantine. The Azores, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Switzerland will be redesignated from 30 August. Thailand and Montenegro will be moved to the red list, meaning returning UK residents must quarantine in a hotel for 11 nights on arrival.
Lockdown will be relaxed in most of New Zealand from 1 September, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced, but stringent restrictions will remain in Auckland and Northland. The changes in most of the country mean businesses can operate for online orders and contactless services, but public venues remain closed. Nearly 350 people have been infected in the latest outbreak. “We may be seeing the beginning of a plateau of cases, but caution is still required,” Ardern said.
English health providers planning for possible vaccine rollout as pupils return to schools
The National Health Service in England is preparing for the possible rollout of vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds from 6 September, according to media reports. NHS trusts are being told they must have plans ready by 4pm on Friday, The Daily Telegraph reported.
The Department of Health has said no decisions have yet been made to extend the vaccine programme to younger people, but said they “continue to plan for a range of scenarios”. So far, vaccines have been offered to people aged 16 and above and children aged 12 to 15 with a high-risk condition or a vulnerable family member. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is still deliberating on broadening the rollout further. Children aged 12 and over are already being vaccinated in the US, Canada, France and the Netherlands.
“Either you’re going to be exposed to covid without any protection or you can be exposed and have a vaccine. And we should be offering teens that vaccine so they have that protection before going back into schools,” Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
While younger people are more likely to experience myocarditis, a rare heart side effect, after receiving some of the covid-19 vaccines, a study in the US released earlier this month found that myocarditis is more common after coronavirus infection than vaccination.
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Japan has suspended the use of 1.63 million doses of Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine after reports that some vials had been contaminated with “particulate matter”. Japan and Moderna say the move is a precaution and that no safety or efficacy issues have been identified. According to a health ministry official, Takeda, the pharmaceutical company that is distributing the Moderna shots in Japan, first learned of the issue on 16 August, but did not notify the government until 25 August, because it needed time to find out which vials were affected and where they had been distributed.
Trials have shown that a booster shot of Johnson & Johnson’s covid-19 vaccine produces a big increase in antibody levels, the company has announced. The J&J vaccine has been administered as a single dose since it was approved for emergency use in the US in February. Trial volunteers who received a second dose six to eight months after the first saw antibody levels rise nine times higher than 28 days after the first shot, the company said.
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Origin of the virus: Scientists tasked by the World Health Organization to discover how the virus emerged are calling for a second phase of origin studies to start urgently.
Covid passes: How are they used, are they ethical and do they work?Previous updates
More UK data suggest efficacy of two vaccines wanes over time
The protection provided by two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines starts to wane within six months, new research suggests. The Pfizer jab was 88 per cent effective at preventing covid-19 infection a month after the second dose, but after five to six months the protection decreased to 74 per cent, according to analysis from the Zoe Covid study involving more than 1.2 million participants in the UK. With the AstraZeneca vaccine, protection dropped from 77 per cent one month after the second dose to 67 per cent after four to five months. “In my opinion, a reasonable worst-case scenario could see protection below 50 per cent for the elderly and healthcare workers by winter,” said Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study.
The study’s findings are in line with another recent analysis, which found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine wanes in effectiveness by around a fifth every month after the second dose, and that both vaccines are less effective in older age groups.
Another study, published as a preprint this week by The Lancet, found that two in five people who have impaired immune systems have a “low or undetectable” antibody response after being double vaccinated. The researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham said their results support giving a third dose of coronavirus vaccine to people who had no or lower level antibody responses.
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A US intelligence report ordered by president Joe Biden has been unable to determine whether the SARS-CoV2 virus arose naturally or escaped from a lab, according to The Washington Post. Intelligence agencies will seek to make parts of the report public within days, officials familiar with the matter told the newspaper.
The prime minister of Vietnam, Pham Minh Chinh, has written to the head of the World Health Organization to urge its vaccine sharing programme COVAX to prioritise Vietnam “in the fastest manner and with the largest volume possible.” After successfully containing the virus for most of last year, the country is now facing a crisis driven by the delta variant. Only 2 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated. In the past two days, China and the US have announced they will donate 2 million and 1 million vaccine doses to Vietnam, respectively.
Thousands of people test positive after attending music and surfing festival
Almost 5000 coronavirus cases are suspected to be linked to Boardmasters, a music and surfing festival that took place earlier this month in Cornwall, UK. Health officials said 4700 people who tested positive for the virus confirmed they had attended the festival or had connections to it. The cases are spread across the country but around 800 are living in Cornwall, a Cornwall Council official said.
Boardmasters was held between 11 and 15 August in the Newquay area. The covid-19 policy on its website said all ticket-holders aged 11 and over would be asked to demonstrate their covid-19 status through the NHS Covid Pass app before entering. This meant attendees had to provide proof of a negative lateral flow test taken within 24 hours of arrival at the festival gates, proof of being vaccinated with both doses (with the second received at least 14 days before the festival), or proof of a prior infection confirmed by a PCR test at least 10 days and up to 180 days earlier.
People who camped at the festival had to take a second lateral flow test during the event on 13 August and log their results in the NHS Covid Pass app. Face masks were not compulsory but were encouraged.
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The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has become the first covid-19 jab to get full approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The vaccine has been in use since December 2020, when the FDA granted it emergency use authorisation for people aged 16 and over. It has already been administered to more than 204 million people in the US. President Joe Biden said he hoped the decision would encourage those who have not been vaccinated to come forward for their shots. Several major employers, including the Pentagon, responded by announcing new requirements for their workers to be vaccinated.
The number of patients with covid-19 in hospital in England has hit 6000 for the first time in more than five months. The figure, which is a snapshot of patients as of 8am on 23 August, is up 11 per cent on the previous week. Patient levels have not been this high since 14 March, according to data published by NHS England. An average of 100 deaths per day from covid-19 have been recorded in the UK over the past week, another figure last seen in March.
Antibody testing programme to collect data on immune responses and vaccine effectiveness
The UK is launching an antibody testing programme for people who have contracted the coronavirus. The programme, which plans to offer tests to thousands of adults per day, aims to improve our understanding of how much protection antibodies give us following covid-19 infection and vaccination.
Antibodies are proteins produced by the body to defend against viruses and other invading microbes. Antibody testing can give an indication of how strong someone’s immune response is, but they do not definitively show whether someone is protected against infection.
From Tuesday, anyone over 18 from any of the four UK nations can opt in to the programme when taking a PCR test. Of those who go on to test positive for coronavirus, up to 8000 will be sent two finger prick antibody tests to complete at home and send back for analysis. The first must be taken as soon as possible after the positive result, and the second must be taken 28 days later.
The UK Health Security Agency, which is running the programme, will use the results to monitor levels of antibodies in positive cases across the UK. The Department of Health and Social Care says it will be the first time antibody tests have been made available to the general public, and the scheme could also provide insights into whether some people do not develop an immune response. The data will be used to inform the government’s ongoing approach to the pandemic and give further insight into the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants.
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UK health minister Sajid Javid has promised to crack down on “cowboy” behaviour by companies who take advantage of holidaymakers with misleading prices for coronavirus testing kits. Javid highlighted 82 private travel testing firms, who make up around 18 per cent of those on the government website, who will be issued with a two-strike warning and could be struck off the official gov.uk list. A recent Department of Health and Social Care review discovered they were displaying lower prices on the gov.uk site than people would have to pay in reality once they get to the checkout.
Taiwan has begun rolling out a homegrown vaccine with clinical trials yet to be completed and no data available on the vaccine’s efficacy. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen was among the first to receive the vaccine developed by Medigen. The government has ordered an initial 5 million doses. So far around 40 per cent of Taiwan’s population has received at least one dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
New Zealand has extended its lockdown, with restrictions set to remain across the country until Friday and in Auckland until at least 31 August. Thirty-five new cases were recorded today, bringing the number of current infections to 107.
Ronapreve, the first drug designed specifically to tackle covid-19, gets approval
The UK has approved the first treatment to use artificial antibodies to prevent and fight the coronavirus. According to The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the drug may be used to prevent covid-19 infection, treat acute symptoms of the disease and reduce the likelihood of being admitted to hospital due to the virus. Sajid Javid, UK Health Secretary, said that he hoped it would be rolled out to patients soon.
Trials of the drug, called Ronapreve, took place before widespread vaccination and before the emergence of virus variants. The drug, previously known as REGN-Cov2, was given to former US president Donald Trump when he was admitted to hospital with covid-19 last year.
Ronapreve, developed by pharmaceutical firms Regeneron and Roche, is given either by injection or infusion and acts at the lining of the respiratory system, where it binds tightly to the virus and prevents it from gaining access to the cells, the MHRA said. It consists of monoclonal antibodies, proteins produced in the lab that mimic antibodies found in the immune system.
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Another antibody drug developed by AstraZeneca reduced the risk of developing symptomatic covid-19 by 77 per cent in clinical trials, the company has announced.
Javid has said he is confident a coronavirus booster campaign can start next month across the UK, however the government is waiting on final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, before giving further details. The JCVI met on Thursday and had been expected to discuss the potential for boosters for the most vulnerable. But officials told the PA news agency that boosters had not been discussed at the meeting, although they would not confirm what was spoken about.
Lockdown has been extended in Sydney, Australia, until the end of September and a nightly curfew will be introduced from 23 August in the 12 worst-affected council areas, covering 2 million residents.
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Third doses of covid-19 vaccines will be rolled out to combat delta variant surge in US
The US will start making booster vaccines available on 20 September, health officials have announced. The shots will be offered to people who had their second dose eight months earlier, initially focusing on healthcare workers, nursing home residents and older people, who were among the first to be vaccinated.
“It’s the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that may arise,” president Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “It will make you safer and for longer. It will help end this pandemic faster.”
However, the World Health Organization has urged rich countries and vaccine manufacturers to prioritise distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries before pushing ahead with third doses at home.
Biden also announced that his administration would make vaccination of employees a condition for nursing homes to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.
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The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is meeting today to discuss a potential booster campaign and which people might “really need” a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine, a government scientific adviser said.
Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think there’s enough evidence, and I think we’ll be imminently deciding, that there will be some people who will need a third dose, particularly people who we know are very unlikely to be well protected by those first two doses. But I think we do need more evidence before we can make a firm decision on a much broader booster programme.”
Finn also told BBC Breakfast: “I think it’s less clear really whether a third dose in a more general way, for sort of all people above a certain age, is really going to make very much difference.”
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Vaccine evidence: A UK study has found that protection from the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines wanes over time. Both vaccines provide good protection against symptomatic infections by the delta coronavirus variant, but are around 15 per cent less effective against delta than against the alpha variant. The findings also imply that vaccinated people who do get infected might be just as infectious as unvaccinated people.
The ventilation problem: Maximising airflow in public spaces is crucial to cut covid-19 transmission, but questions remain about what technology to use and how effective it needs to be.
Ten cases confirmed in outbreak of delta variant in Auckland
New Zealand has begun a nationwide lockdown in a bid to contain the delta variant of the coronavirus. So far 10 cases have been confirmed in the outbreak, but modelling suggests the numbers could rise to between 50 and 100. “From the experience of what we’ve seen overseas, we are absolutely anticipating more cases,” prime minister Jacinda Ardern said. The level 4 alert, the highest level, means people other than essential workers can only leave home for groceries, healthcare, covid-19 tests and exercise. The lockdown will cover the entire country for at least three days, and remain in place in Auckland for a week. New Zealand had been free of local covid-19 infections since February, and only 21 per cent of the total population has been fully vaccinated.
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The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has tested positive for covid-19, his office has announced. Abbott is fully vaccinated and not showing any symptoms, and he is receiving a monoclonal antibody treatment, according to a statement. Abbott has restricted the extent to which local authorities in Texas can mandate covid-19 vaccination and the wearing of face masks. On Monday, he attended a Republican party event with a crowd of hundreds. Texas is currently a hotspot in a covid-19 surge taking place in the southern US, driven by the delta variant. Yesterday the US recorded more than 1000 covid-19 deaths for the first time since March, according to a Reuters tally.
Vaccine supplies are urgently needed in southeast Asia, the Red Cross has warned. The region has recorded 38,522 deaths in the past two weeks, nearly twice as many as North America. Indonesia is one of the worst-affected countries, with an average of 1466 deaths a day during the last week. “We fear that as the virus spreads from cities to regional and rural areas that many more lives will be lost among the unvaccinated,” said Alexander Matheou, Asia Pacific Director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in a statement.
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