Latest coronavirus news as of 12pm on 21 October
‘Time is now’ for coronavirus Plan B, says leader of doctors’ union
The leader of the UK’s doctors’ union has accused UK ministers of being “wilfully negligent” after the health secretary ruled out immediately implementing the government’s coronavirus “Plan B”. Sajid Javid said people must get their covid-19 vaccines and any booster shots, as well as doing things like wearing masks in crowded places as he repeated a warning that cases could reach 100,000 a day. But he said the government will not be implementing its “Plan B” strategy at this point.
England’s autumn and winter coronavirus strategy includes “Plan B” as a contingency measure if the NHS comes under unsustainable pressure. That could include legally mandating face coverings in some settings, introducing mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification and asking people to work from home.
Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association Council, said: “The Westminster government said it would enact ‘Plan B’ to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed; as doctors working on the frontline, we can categorically say that time is now. By the health secretary’s own admission we could soon see 100,000 cases a day and we now have the same number of weekly covid deaths as we had during March, when the country was in lockdown. It is therefore incredibly concerning that he is not willing to take immediate action to save lives and to protect the NHS.
“It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection, such as mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing and ventilation requirements in high-risk settings, particularly indoor crowded spaces,” Nagpaul added. “These are measures that are the norm in many other nations.”
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The UK government has agreed deals with pharmaceutical companies to supply two new antiviral treatments for covid-19, subject to approval by the UK medicines regulator. The drugs would be aimed at those most at risk from the virus, including the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, either as treatments for infected people or to prevent infection in people exposed to the virus. The Department of Health and Social Care said it has secured 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir, made by Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD), and 250,000 courses of Pfizer’s PF-07321332/ritonavir. Molnupiravir has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the risk of hospital admission or death for at-risk adults with mild to moderate covid-19 by 50 per cent, while Pfizer’s antiviral is at the beginning of its phase three trials.
The Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine is highly effective at preventing infection and illness from the delta variant among adolescents, according to data from Israel. The study included data on 94,354 young people aged 12 to 18 who had been given the vaccine and the same number of unvaccinated participants. The vaccine was estimated to be 90 per cent effective against covid-19 infection and 93 per cent effective against symptomatic covid-19 on days 7 to 21 after the second dose.
Dashboard: Use our covid-19 dashboard to stay up to date with deaths, cases, and vaccination rates around the world.
Essential information about coronavirus
Where did coronavirus come from? And other covid-19 questions answered
What is covid-19?
Covid-19 vaccines: Everything you need to know about the leading shots
Long covid: Do I have it, how long will it last and can we treat it?
What’s the fairest way to share covid-19 vaccines around the world?
Covid-19: The story of a pandemic
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.
Rising infection numbers prompt call to reintroduce coronavirus restrictions
A senior figure in the National Health Service has urged the UK government to immediately enforce “Plan B” coronavirus restrictions or “risk stumbling into a winter crisis”. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, called for ministers to implement the back-up strategy which involves measures including mandatory face coverings in public places.The warning comes as coronavirus deaths in the UK rose to their highest daily level since early March, while cases are at their highest for almost three months.
Downing Street said it was keeping a “very close eye” on rising case rates, but added that the prime minister has “absolutely no plan to introduce Plan B”, which could also involve introducing vaccine passports for nightclub entry.
The NHS Confederation is the membership organisation that speaks for the whole healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Taylor said the NHS is preparing for what could be “the most challenging winter on record” and urged the public to “show extra support for the NHS” by “behaving in ways that will keep themselves and others safe”.
“It is time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because without pre-emptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis,” he said. “Also, health leaders need to understand what a ‘Plan C’ would entail if these measures are insufficient. The government should not wait for covid infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded.”
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the government does not “feel that it’s the time for Plan B right now”. “The infection rate was always likely to go up as we opened up the economy,” he said. “But what was critically important was the hospitalisation rate and the death rate as well.”
“We’re simply trying to analyse the data as we see it and come up with the right policies. Now, that’s something which could change but, at the moment, we think that the course that we’re plotting is the right one,” Kwarteng said.
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The UK government is keeping a “close eye” on a descendant of the coronavirus delta variant that is being seen in a growing number of cases. Downing Street said it was monitoring the AY4.2 variant, but said there was no evidence it spreads more easily. Scientists say AY4.2 carries two characteristic mutations in the spike protein, Y145H and A222V, both of which have been found in various other coronavirus lineages since the beginning of the pandemic, but they have remained at low frequency until now.
Children in England aged between 12 and 15 will be able to get their covid-19 jabs at vaccination centres following concerns about rollout delays. Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs the national booking service will be opened up to younger teenagers to book their covid-19 vaccinations outside of school to “make the most of half-term”. It comes after headteachers’ unions called for vaccines to be offered to pupils in walk-in centres, as well as school, after figures revealed the scale of the low take-up of the covid-19 jab among the cohort.
The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) shows the number of children out of school for covid-19 related reasons in England has risen over the past fortnight. The DfE estimates that 2.6 per cent of all pupils – around 209,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on Thursday last week. This is up from more than 204,000 children, or 2.5 per cent of all pupils, on 30 September.
Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist
No herd immunity: Nearly every person in Iran seems to have had covid-19 at least once, but the virus is still spreading, adding to evidence that herd immunity requires vaccination.
The UK faces “challenging” months ahead, Downing Street has warned as the country’s daily case numbers approach 50,000 for the first time since July. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show coronavirus infection levels in England are getting close to the peak seen at the height of the second wave and are mostly being driven by infections among schoolchildren.
“We always knew the coming months would be challenging,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. “What we are seeing is case rates, hospitalisations and deaths still broadly in line with the modelling as set out a few months back now. The vaccination programme will continue to be our first line of defence, along with new treatments, testing and public health advice. But we will obviously keep a close watch on cases.”
Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London and member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that another lockdown is unlikely, but urged caution. “People need to be aware that we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic,” he said. “For the last three or four months we’ve been up at well over 1 per cent of the population infected at any point in time.”
Ferguson suggested waning immunity is one reason why the UK has higher infection rates than other European countries that began vaccine rollouts later on, and said it is “critical” that we accelerate the booster programme, as well as vaccination for teenagers.
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A private laboratory suspected of issuing over 40,000 false negative results for covid-19 PCR tests was not fully accredited to perform the work, contrary to statements by health officials, The Guardian has reported. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced on Friday that it was investigating Immensa Health Clinics Ltd, which has received nearly £170 million in test-and-trace contracts since being set up in May 2020. Both the UKHSA and a government spokesperson said the lab had been fully accredited before being appointed. But UKAS, the UK accreditation body, told The Guardian that neither Immensa Health Clinicas Ltd nor its sister company, Dante Labs, has ever been accredited by the service.
The US Food and Drug Administration is planning to allow booster shots from a different manufacturer to a person’s original vaccination, according to The New York Times. Last month the FDA authorised booster doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for some groups, but only for those who had previously received that vaccine. The agency is expected to approve Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to be given as boosters this week, and will allow a “mix-and-match” approach to enable greater flexibility, the newspaper reports.
Valneva vaccine shows good outcomes in comparison with AstraZeneca jab
A covid-19 vaccine made by Valneva produced stronger antibody responses and fewer side effects than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in a clinical trial, the French company has announced. The trial included more than 4600 participants in the UK, who were randomly allocated one of the two vaccines, while delta was the predominant coronavirus variant in circulation. The rate of covid-19 cases was similar in the two groups and no participants developed severe illness from covid-19.
Valneva’s experimental vaccine, VLA2001, consists of inactivated whole virus particles, in combination with two adjuvants – drugs given to augment the immune response. “This is a much more traditional approach to vaccine manufacture than the vaccines so far deployed in the UK, Europe and North America and these results suggest this vaccine candidate is on track to play an important role in overcoming the pandemic,” said Adam Finn at the University of Bristol, UK, chief investigator for the trial, in a press release.
Last month, the UK government scrapped an order for 100 million doses of Valneva’s vaccine, with health secretary Sajid Javid later telling MPs it had been clear the vaccine “would not get approval” by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK. Valneva said on 13 September that the UK government served notice over allegations of a breach of the supply agreement, which the company strenuously denied.
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Lockdown measures will remain in place in Auckland, New Zealand, for two more weeks, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced. The country’s largest city has been under severe restrictions since mid-August in an effort to contain an outbreak of the delta variant. Earlier this month, Ardern announced plans for a transition out of lockdown, but said today that restrictions would be needed for a while longer. “Any interim easing of restrictions… will not work towards our plan of minimising cases while we increase vaccinations,” she told a news conference.
Thousands of children have returned to school in Sydney, Australia, for the first time in months as a tranche of covid-19 restrictions were eased in the city. The vaccination rate in the state of New South Wales reached 80 per cent, enabling the next stage of relaxations to go ahead under the national covid-19 strategy. Many shops and businesses can now reopen with capacity limits to allow social distancing. In Melbourne, a stay-at-home order that has lasted 73 days will be lifted next Friday with the vaccination rate in the state of Victoria due to pass 70 per cent.
Operations suspended at Wolverhampton testing lab after investigation
An estimated 43,000 people may have been given false negative results on covid-19 PCR tests, the UK Health Security Agency has said. NHS Test and Trace has suspended testing operations provided by Immensa Health Clinic Ltd at its laboratory in Wolverhampton following an investigation into reports of people receiving negative PCR test results after they have previously tested positive on a lateral flow test.
Samples that would have gone to the lab are now being redirected to others. “There is no evidence of any faults with LFD [lateral flow] or PCR test kits themselves and the public should remain confident in using them and in other laboratory services currently provided, said Will Welfare, public health incident director at UKHSA.
The errors relate to test results given to people between 8 September and 12 October, mainly in the southwest of England. It is estimated that around 400,000 samples have been processed through the lab. A full investigation is being carried out into why incorrect results were given, NHS Test and Trace said. It is now contacting the people who could still be infectious to advise them to take another test. Close contacts who are symptomatic will also be advised to take a test, as is already recommended.
Problems have also been identified at the Newbury Showground testing site in Berkshire. West Berkshire Council said some negative results may have been given incorrectly. Anyone who got a negative result at the site between 3 and 12 October has been urged to take another test.
Other coronavirus news
People who are taking statins may be less likely to die from coronavirus than similar people not on the medication, research suggests. Statins are a common treatment prescribed for lowering cholesterol in the blood. The research, published in PLOS Medicine, analysed data from 963,876 residents of Stockholm over the age of 45 between March and November 2020. It found that statin treatment was associated with a slightly lower risk of dying from covid-19. It is unclear whether the statins themselves cause a lower death rate, or if other factors are responsible.
Charities have called the rollout of booster vaccines for people with compromised immune systems in the UK “a chaotic failure”, with less than half of those eligible contacted so far. Surveys by Blood Cancer UK and Kidney Care UK found that between 55 and 60 per cent of both patient groups have yet to be invited for a third dose. “It is now clear that the rollout of the third doses for the immunocompromised has been a failure that was poorly planned and badly implemented,” said Gemma Peters, chief executive for Blood Cancer UK.
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Long covid clinics: There are an estimated 706,000 people in England with long covid symptoms, and only 89 specialist clinics set up to help them. Support groups fear that capacity may be stretched if there is another large peak in cases this winter.
Lateral flow tests are more accurate than first thought, analysis suggests
Positive results on lateral flow tests should be trusted when levels of covid-19 in the population are high, say researchers after a new analysis of the tests’ accuracy.
Lateral flow (LF) tests, which can be carried out at home and give rapid results, are considered less reliable than PCR tests done in a laboratory. However, the tests measure different things: LF tests detect material from the surface proteins of the virus and identify people who are likely to be infectious, while PCR tests detect genetic material from the virus which can remain in the body for weeks after someone is infectious. This means it is expected that LF tests will not identify all the same cases as PCR tests, so a like-for-like comparison is inappropriate, says Irene Peterson at University College London.
Using a new formula to assess the tests’ sensitivity, Peterson and her colleagues found that LF tests are more than 80 per cent effective at detecting any level of covid-19 infection and likely to be more than 90 per cent effective at detecting who is most infectious when they take the test.
UK government guidance says that people who test positive on LF tests should have the result confirmed with a follow-up PCR test, but this is not necessary, Peterson suggested to BBC News.
The finding has implications for reports of an increasing number of people who are testing positive in lateral flow tests and then getting negative PCR tests. There is concern that these negative PCR results are giving false reassurance to people who are currently infectious (see yesterday’s update).
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Coronavirus infections were rising exponentially among five to 17-year-olds in England in September, coinciding with the start of the autumn school term. The latest results from the React-1 study, based on more than 100,000 swabs from a random sample of the population, show that the overall prevalence of the virus has remained stable, with one in 120 people infected between 9 and 27 September. However, the infection rate grew among those aged under 18, and fell among those aged 18-54. The data also show that for vaccinated people, the risk of infection increases more than three months after vaccination. This finding “reinforces the need for a booster programme”, study leader Paul Elliott at Imperial College London told The Guardian.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a new team of 26 scientists charged with investigating the origins of the covid-19 pandemic. Its initial investigation concluded in March 2021 that the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans via another animal, but said more research was needed. The new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (Sago) will review what is already known and assess what further studies should be undertaken. “This is our best chance, and it may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. However, Chen Xu, China’s Ambassador to the UN, said the results of the initial study were “quite clear” and teams should be sent to other places.
UK authorities investigate discrepancies between PCR and lateral flow tests
The UK Health Security Agency is investigating reports of people testing positive for the coronavirus in lateral flow tests but getting negative results on PCR tests, many of whom also have symptoms of covid-19. Under current rules, those who have negative results on PCR tests do not have to self-isolate, but scientists are increasingly concerned that PCR tests may be giving false assurances.
PCR tests are generally considered to be the “gold standard”, but some studies suggest they give false negative results to as many as 30-40 per cent of people who actually have the virus. However, the proportion of lateral flow positives that were confirmed by PCR tests dropped in the most recent NHS Test and Trace statistics, suggesting something else besides false PCR negatives is happening, Oliver Johnson at the University of Bristol told The Guardian.
Some have speculated that a new variant is not getting picked up by PCR tests, but this is considered unlikely. Genomic surveillance has not detected a new variant and PCR tests target three parts of the viral genome, making it unlikely that a new variant could emerge that would have mutations in all three.
One possibility is that lateral flow tests are responding to a different seasonal coronavirus. Alternatively, there may be a problem with the PCR testing process, such as a faulty batch of reagents.
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The US will reopen its land borders with Canada and Mexico for fully vaccinated travellers next month. Only essential travel has been permitted since the start of the pandemic. The US will accept travellers who have been immunised with any of the vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, not just those in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essential travellers such as truck drivers will also have to be vaccinated, but this requirement will not come into force until January, officials said.
Around one in three UK doctors do not believe their organisation is ready for the challenges of winter, a doctors’ group is warning. A poll for the Royal College of Physicians found that medics also felt personally unprepared to deal with upcoming pressures, with many experiencing exhaustion and feeling demoralised. In the poll of more than 800 doctors, eight out of 10 of whom were consultants and most of whom worked in the NHS, 36 per cent said their organisation was not at all prepared for winter. Some 27 per cent of doctors said they were personally unprepared, and almost two-thirds said they were feeling tired or exhausted.
French study finds three covid-19 vaccines highly effective at preventing hospitalisation
Vaccination cuts the risk of dying or being hospitalised with covid-19 by over 90 per cent, according to a French study that is the largest of its kind yet. The research compared 11.3 million vaccinated people over the age of 50 with the same number of age-matched unvaccinated people between December 2020 and July 2021. The effectiveness was similar for the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, and did not diminish during the five-month period of the study.
The delta variant emerged in France just one month before the end of the study, but the results suggest that in this period, the vaccines were 84 per cent effective for those aged 75 and over and 92 per cent effective for those aged 50 to 74.
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Members of parliament have criticised the UK government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic in a wide-ranging report published today, accusing ministers of adopting a “fatalistic approach” to how much it could slow the spread of the virus. The report says the government made serious mistakes including ending community testing in March 2020, waiting too long to implement a lockdown, and allowing infected people to be sent from hospitals to care homes. Read our full story for more details.
The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has signed an executive order prohibiting any entity from enforcing covid-19 vaccine mandates in the state. The order conflicts with new rules being drawn up by the Biden Administration requiring employers with more than 100 workers to ensure their staff are vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus.
Unvaccinated pregnant women make up one in six of the most critically ill covid cases
One in six critically ill covid-19 patients in England are unvaccinated pregnant women, according to new figures from July to September. Of the 118 covid-19 patients in England who received extra corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) during this time, 20 of them were pregnant. ECMO is usually given to critically ill people who have not responded to going on a ventilator.
Of the 20 pregnant women who received ECMO, just one had been vaccinated – though she had only received one dose, NHS England said. In April, the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advised that pregnant women should be offered covid-19 vaccines, preferably the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna jabs.
Out of the other 98 people who received ECMO between July and September, only seven people had been fully vaccinated, and three had received one dose of a vaccine.
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The strict lockdown in Sydney, Australia, ended today. The city has had tight restrictions for four months in an effort to tackle the delta variant. Over 70 per cent of people aged 16 and over are now fully vaccinated, and daily new infection numbers are falling.
Infection numbers are rising in New Zealand as the country continues to ease restrictions. On Sunday 60 new cases of coronavirus were reported – 56 of them in Auckland. “We are still on the knife-edge,” Michael Plank at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch told Stuff. The government announced plans to relax Auckland’s lockdown last Monday – effectively ending its elimination strategy. Experts fear the virus could spread out of the city to less vaccinated populations.
Covid passports will be required in Wales to attend big events or nightclubs from today. They will be compulsory for over-18s and will show whether people are fully jabbed or have tested negative for the virus recently. Wales’s rugby game against New Zealand on 30 October will be one of the first mass events to require Covid passes.
Vaccines are up to 94 per cent effective over 6 months in people who’ve also had covid-19
People who were infected with covid-19 and then received two vaccine doses have higher immunity against the virus than those who never had a natural infection.
Figures from users of the Zoe Covid Symptom Study App suggest that people who got two Pfizer/BioNTech jabs after having the illness saw a 94 per cent reduction in their chances of a further infection within six months of their second dose, compared with 80 per cent protection for people who hadn’t ever had covid-19.
For the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, people who’d had covid-19 were 90 per cent protected, compared with 71 per cent in people who hadn’t caught it.
The figures also indicate that having covid-19, but not getting vaccinated, gives 65 per cent protection against getting infected – and this did not wane for up to 450 days after being infected.
“This is really positive news for overall immunity levels in the UK and means that large numbers of people will have effective and long lasting protection from covid-19,” Tim Spector at King’s College London, who is the lead scientist on the Zoe app, said in a statement. “This is also strong evidence to support the need for vaccination, even for those who have already had covid-19.”
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More than 400,000 people in the UK say they have had long covid for a year or more, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. The most common symptoms were fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell and difficulty concentrating. About 1.1 million people or 1.7 per cent of the population were experiencing self-reported long covid of any duration, defined as symptoms lasting for more than four weeks after the first suspected coronavirus infection.
Countries are rushing to buy supplies of molnupiravir, the first antiviral drug shown to reduce the risk of severe covid-19 that can be taken when people first get infected. Australia, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore have announced deals to buy five-day courses of the medicine, with Taiwan and Thailand also in talks with US-based manufacturer Merck. When taken twice daily, the drug halves people’s chances of needing hospital treatment or dying.
Study explains why virus may lead to skin condition on hands and feet
The skin condition known as “covid toe” may be a side effect of the immune system’s response to fighting off the virus, a study has found. The symptom results in chilblain-like inflammation and redness on the hands and feet, which can last for months at a time. It typically develops within a week to four weeks of being infected and can result in toes and fingers becoming swollen or changing colour.
Researchers behind the study, which has been published in the British Journal of Dermatology, examined 50 participants with covid toes and 13 with similar chilblain lesions that arose before the pandemic. They found one mechanism behind both types of the condition involved the body generating an immune response with high levels of certain auto-antibodies, which mistakenly target and react with a person’s own cells and tissues as well as the invading virus. They also found a link with type I interferon, a key protein in the antiviral response.
Cells lining blood vessels that supply the affected areas also appeared to play a critical role in the development of covid toes and chilblains.
Covid toe was a common symptom in the early stages of the pandemic, but has been seen much more rarely after vaccination, a spokeswoman for the British Skin Foundation told BBC News.
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One in seven cancer patients globally had potentially life-saving operations postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Oncology. Researchers analysed data on more than 20,000 patients in 61 countries with 15 common cancers. During full lockdowns, 15 per cent of patients did not receive their planned operation for covid-related reasons, compared to 0.6 per cent during periods of “light restrictions”. The study authors called for plans to be put in place so that, in the event of another public health emergency, urgent surgeries can continue to take place.
Covid passes will be required to enter nightclubs and certain large events in Wales after the Welsh Government won a tight vote in the Senedd yesterday. From 11 October, the rule will apply to adults attending indoor, non-seated events for more than 500 people, such as concerts or conventions, outdoor non-seated events for more than 4000 people and any setting or event with more than 10,000 people in attendance. The NHS Covid Pass must be used to show that someone is fully vaccinated or has had a negative lateral flow test result within the last 48 hours.
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New Zealand: Experts fear the country’s planned move away from its “elimination strategy” will lead to a spike in cases that will overwhelm the health system.
Immunity wanes six months after second dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine
The Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine is highly effective at preventing hospital admission even with the delta variant, new research shows – though its effectiveness against infection almost halves after six months. Two doses of the jab are 90 per cent effective against covid-19 hospital admission for all variants for at least six months, according to the study. But effectiveness against infection fell over the study period, dropping from 88 per cent within one month of receiving the second dose to 47 per cent after six months.
Researchers analysed more than 3 million electronic health records from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California health system between December 2020 and August this year. They found that the drop in vaccine effectiveness against infection over time is probably due to waning immunity, and not the delta variant escaping the protection offered by the jab.The study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and Pfizer, is published in The Lancet.
In the UK, Pfizer/BioNTech booster jabs are currently being offered to those who had their second vaccine at least six months ago and are living in residential care homes for older adults, are over 50, or are frontline health and social care workers. People aged 16 to 49 with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe symptoms. and adults who have household contact with immunosuppressed individuals, are also being offered third doses.
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The European Union’s medicines regulator has recommended that people with weakened immune systems should have a third dose of Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. The agency also said a booster shot of this vaccine could be considered for adults with normal immune systems around six months after the second dose, but left it to member states to decide whether the wider population should get boosters.
AstraZeneca has submitted a request to US regulators to authorise a new treatment to prevent covid-19 in people who have an impaired response to vaccines. The therapy, called AZD7442, contains lab-made antibodies designed to stay in the body for months. Trial results suggest that it cuts the risk of people developing any coronavirus symptoms by 77 per cent, the company has reported.
Vaccine rollout will allow New Zealand to scrap strict lockdowns, says prime minister
New Zealand will shift away from its “zero-covid” strategy to one in which virus transmission is controlled using vaccines, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.
Since the start of the pandemic, the country has sought to eliminate the virus by imposing strict lockdown measures in response to any outbreak. The approach was largely successful until August this year, when the arrival of the more infectious delta variant made it more difficult to stamp out transmission. Over 1300 cases have been recorded in the latest outbreak, which began in August.
“With this outbreak and delta, the return to zero is incredibly difficult,” Ardern told a news conference today. “This is a change in approach we were always going to make over time. Our delta outbreak has accelerated this transition. Vaccines will support it,” she said.
Restrictions will start to be lifted on Wednesday in Auckland, the nation’s largest city, which has been in lockdown for almost 50 days. People will be able to leave their homes and meet outdoors in groups of up to 10.
About 2 million people have been fully vaccinated so far, or 48 per cent of the eligible population, which is everyone aged 12 and over. Strict lockdowns will end once 90 per cent of eligible people have been vaccinated, Ardern said.
Other coronavirus news
An antiviral pill developed by Merck cuts the risk of hospitalisation or death in covid-19 patients by about half, according to interim trial results. The trial involved 775 adults with mild to moderate covid-19 who were considered high-risk for severe disease. Half of the group were given a five-day course of molnupiravir, taken twice a day. The results were so encouraging that independent experts monitoring the trial recommended that it be stopped early. The company will seek emergency authorisation from US regulators in the next two weeks. If approved, the drug would be the first oral antiviral medication for covid-19.
New rules making it easier to travel to the UK have come into force today. The traffic light system involving green, amber and red lists has been scrapped, with locations categorised as either on the red list or not. Fully vaccinated residents – and unvaccinated under 18s – from more than 50 countries and territories can now enter the UK without needing to complete a pre-departure lateral flow test, take a day-eight post-arrival PCR test, or self-isolate at home, with just a single day-two post-arrival test needed. People arriving from a red tier destination will still be required to spend 11 nights at a quarantine hotel costing £2,285 for solo travellers.
Vaccines for flu and covid-19 can safely be given at same appointment
It is safe for people to get coronavirus and flu vaccines at the same time, a clinical trial has found. The reported side effects were mainly mild to moderate and there were no negative impacts on the immune response to either vaccine when both were given on the same day, in different arms.
Researchers say the results reinforce current coronavirus booster vaccine guidance in the UK, which is for both jabs to be given together where it is practically possible.
The study, involving 679 volunteers in England and Wales, looked at two covid-19 and three flu vaccines, in six different combinations. Study participants were over the age of 18 and had already received one dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, and were awaiting their second dose.
One group received their second dose of the covid-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine at their first study visit, then a placebo at their second visit. A second group received their second dose of the covid-19 vaccine and a placebo at their first visit and then the flu vaccine at their second visit.
The immune responses to both the flu and covid-19 vaccine were preserved when given together, the results showed, and 97 per cent of participants said they would be willing to have two vaccines at the same appointment in the future.
The most common side effects were pain around the injection site and fatigue. Some covid-19 and flu vaccine combinations saw an increase in the number of people who reported at least one side effect, but the reactions were mostly mild or moderate, the research found.
“This is a really positive step which could mean fewer appointments for those who require both vaccines, reducing the burden on those who have underlying health conditions and would usually be offered the influenza vaccine,” said study author Rajeka Lazarus at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust. The results have been published as a preprint in The Lancet.
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Scotland’s newly launched vaccine passport app has been hit by technical problems. From today, people attending large events and nightclubs will need to show proof they have had two doses of vaccine using the app before they are allowed in. The NHS Scotland Covid Status app was made available to download on Apple and Android devices on Thursday afternoon. But just hours after the app’s launch, comments circulating on social media suggested many users have been unable to register on it. The Scottish government said the large volume of people accessing the app at once could be a reason for the glitch.
Australia will relax its rules on international travel for citizens and permanent residents in November, having had severe restrictions in place since March 2020. People will be allowed to leave the country once their state’s vaccination rate reaches 80 per cent, prime minister Scott Morrison has said. On returning to Australia, vaccinated residents will be allowed to quarantine at home for seven days instead of having to stay in a hotel for 14 days. No timetable has been announced for opening the border to foreign travellers.
Only 15 out of 54 African countries have met the goal of vaccinating 10 per cent of their population by the end of September, the World Health Organization has said. Just 2 per cent of the more than 6 billion vaccines given globally have been administered on the continent.
Analysis supports vaccinating children aged 12 to 17
The benefits of offering two doses of covid-19 vaccine to all children aged 12 to 17 in England clearly outweigh the risks given the current high case rates, according to a new analysis. Children aged 12 to 15 are currently being offered only one dose of covid-19 vaccine unless they are considered high risk.
Researchers estimated the covid-19 hospital admissions and deaths, plus cases of long covid, that would be prevented over four months by fully vaccinating all children in this age group. On 15 September, the case rate among 10 to 19-year-olds in England stood at 680 cases per 100,000. If the rate rises to 1000 per 100,000, vaccination could avert 4420 hospital admissions and 36 deaths over a 16-week period, the study estimated. At a lower case rate of 50 per 100,000, vaccination could avert 70 admissions and two deaths over the same period.
Vaccination would avert between 8000 and 56,000 cases of long covid, the study suggests, assuming that between 2 and 14 per cent of teenagers with covid-19 go on to experience long covid. The study will be published today in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
“This analysis shows that, on clinical risks alone, vaccination is warranted for 12 to 17-year-olds in England,” said Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University of London, lead author of the study. “While we wait to understand the long-term effects of covid-19 on children, the precautionary principle advocates for protecting all children from exposure to this virus and vaccination is a crucial part of that protection.”
The rate of coronavirus transmission in the UK is currently thought to be highest among secondary school age children, with 2.8 per cent in this group testing positive in the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics on 18 September.
The UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) previously decided that, while the benefits of vaccination of children aged 12 to 15 do outweigh the risks, those benefits aren’t big enough to justify a vaccination programme for this age group. However, it wasn’t in the JCVI’s remit to consider how vaccination of 12-to-15-year-olds would prevent school absences or curb the spread of the virus in communities. Taking factors like these into account, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommended that 12-to-15-year-olds be offered a single dose of the vaccine.
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The UK government’s furlough scheme, which has helped pay the wages of 11.6 million workers since the start of the pandemic, is ending today. Nearly one million workers were expected to be still on the scheme at the end of September, according to the Office for National Statistics. Economists have predicted that the end of the scheme will lead to a rise in the rate of unemployment, which stood at 4.6 per cent last month.
YouTube says it will remove videos that contain misinformation about all vaccines, expanding its policies around health misinformation which had been strengthened during the coronavirus pandemic. The Google-owned video platform said its ban on covid-19 vaccine misinformation, which was introduced last year, has seen 130,000 videos removed so far as a result, but more scope is needed to clamp down on broader false claims about other vaccines appearing online. Under the new rules, any content which falsely alleges that any approved vaccine is dangerous and causes chronic health problems will be removed, as will videos that include misinformation about the content of vaccines.
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Over a third of people recovering from covid-19 have at least one long covid symptom between 3 and 6 months after infection, a study has found. The finding is based on health records from over 270,000 people in the US. The most common reported symptoms were anxiety or depression, in 15 per cent of participants who’d had covid-19, followed by abnormal breathing and abdominal symptoms, both seen in 8 per cent, and fatigue, in 6 per cent.
These symptoms are not necessarily related to covid-19, but the study compared their prevalence in people recovering from covid-19 and in people who’d had influenza, and found that, together, a set of 9 symptoms were 1.5 times more common after covid-19 than after the flu. Long covid symptoms were slightly more common in women than in men, and more common in those who had been hospitalised.
Attempts to estimate the prevalence of long covid have produced widely varying results, depending on how the condition is defined and measured. Recent figures from the UK Office for National Statistics suggested that 11.7 per cent of people who tested positive for covid-19 described themselves as experiencing long covid 12 weeks after infection, but only 3 per cent experienced symptoms continuously for at least 12 weeks.
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People receiving a third dose of coronavirus vaccine experience similar rates of side effects to those receiving their second dose, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of 12,500 people who completed a survey, 79 per cent reported local reactions such as itching or pain at the injection site, while 74 per cent reported systemic reactions, which were mainly fatigue, muscle aches and headaches.
Pfizer and BioNTech have submitted trial data for their covid-19 vaccine in 5-to-11-year-olds to the US medicines regulator, and say they will make a formal request for emergency authorisation in coming weeks.
The Scottish government will delay the enforcement of vaccine passports by two weeks, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said, giving businesses until 18 October to comply with the new law. People over 18 will have to show proof of vaccination to attend a nightclub or large event under the policy.
Survey of children in England finds younger ages more hesitant about vaccination
Younger children appear to be less willing to have a covid-19 vaccination than older teenagers, according to a survey of more than 27,000 students aged between nine and 18 in England. Overall, half the respondents said they were willing to have a coronavirus vaccination, 37 per cent said they were undecided and 13 per cent said they wanted to opt out. However, just over a third of nine-year-olds said they are willing to have a covid-19 jab, compared with 51 per cent of 13-year-olds and 78 per cent of 17-year-olds.
The survey was carried out in schools across Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Merseyside between May and July this year by researchers at the University of Oxford, University College London (UCL) and the University of Cambridge. The findings come after 12-to-15-year-olds in England and Scotland last week started to get vaccinated.
Young people who believe they have had covid-19 already were more likely to say they will opt out of having a vaccine, the survey found. Students who were more hesitant about getting the jab were also more likely to attend schools in deprived areas, report spending longer on social media, and say they feel as though they did not identify with their school community.
Researchers are calling for more resources and information to be provided to communities and students to ensure young people know the covid-19 vaccine is safe. They say health messaging about vaccine safety and its effects on children should be shared by trusted sources on social media.
The survey found that the majority of youngsters who said they were hesitant about getting the vaccine were still undecided. “That is a huge opportunity for us, but it also suggests that there is risk,” said Russell Viner, a study author from UCL. “Young people are potentially vulnerable to those pushing views that are very strongly opposed to vaccination.”
Some headteachers have reportedly been targeted by hoax letters with misinformation about the vaccine programme, which include a fake NHS logo and a “consent checklist” to share with students. A school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, has apologised for passing the letter on to parents in error.
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Smokers are 80 per cent more likely to be admitted to hospital and significantly more likely to die from covid-19 than non-smokers, new research shows. The study, published in the journal Thorax, is the first of its kind to look at both observational and genetic data on smoking and coronavirus. It included 421,469 participants in the UK Biobank study, with outcome data up to 18 August 2020. The results showed that, compared with never-smokers, current smokers were twice as likely to die with covid-19 if they smoked one to nine cigarettes a day, while those smoking 10 to 19 cigarettes a day were almost six times more likely to die. People who smoked more than 20 a day were over six times more likely to die compared to people who had never smoked.
Vaccine passports would be required for those attending nightclubs, music venues, festivals and sports grounds in England under the government’s autumn and winter contingency Plan B. The proposed plan, published today, will only be introduced if the country faces a difficult winter with rising covid-19 cases in the colder months, the government said. The government is asking for views from businesses, event organisers, and venue operators on its proposals by 12 October.
Neutralising antibodies in breast milk may protect infants from covid-19 infection
Breastfeeding women who have had covid-19 secrete neutralising antibodies against the virus into their breast milk for up to 10 months after infection, according to research presented at a conference. Rebecca Powell at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and her colleagues analysed breast milk samples from 75 women who had recovered from a covid-19 infection. They found that 88 per cent of the samples contained antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and in most cases they were capable of neutralising the virus.
The findings, presented at the Global Breastfeeding and Lactation Symposium on 21 September, suggest that breastfeeding could help to protect babies from getting infected with covid-19. This is known to be the case for other respiratory diseases such as influenza and pertussis. While young children are at lower risk from severe covid-19 than adults, around one in 10 infants below the age of one require hospital care if they are infected. Antibodies extracted from breast milk could also be used as a therapy for adults with covid-19, Powell told The Guardian.
The study also found that the majority of women who had the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines also had coronavirus-specific antibodies in their breast milk, but lower levels of antibodies were seen in milk from women who had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This supports previous research suggesting that vaccinations for breastfeeding mothers can help to protect their babies from covid-19 infection, although this has not yet been demonstrated conclusively.
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The covid-19 pandemic has led to the biggest fall in life expectancy in western Europe since the second world war, researchers have found. The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, included data from 29 countries, 22 of which saw a drop in life expectancy that was greater than half a year in 2020. The effects were larger for men than women in most countries. Men in the US saw the biggest fall, with 2.2 years taken off their life expectancy in 2020 compared with 2019.
Australian authorities have announced plans to lift restrictions gradually in Sydney, which has been in lockdown since June. Restaurants, retail stores and gyms can begin to reopen on 11 October, but only people who are fully vaccinated will be allowed to resume shopping, eating out, and some other activities. Around 60 per cent of people aged 16 and over are currently fully vaccinated in the state of New South Wales.
Deaths from covid-19 lead to drop in life expectancy for boys born in UK
Life expectancy for men in the UK has fallen for the first time in four decades, due to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that a boy born between 2018 and 2020 is expected to live for 79 years, compared with 79.2 years for births between 2015 and 2017. For women, life expectancy remains unchanged at 82.9 years. The estimates are calculated based on current mortality rates, which were unusually high in 2020, especially for men.
The figures do not mean a baby born in 2018-2020 will live a shorter life, says Pamela Cobb from the ONS Centre for Ageing and Demography. “To get a better estimate of this we need to consider how mortality and therefore life expectancy will improve into the future. It will be several years before we understand the impact, if any, of coronavirus on this,” she says.
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Covid-19 vaccines have prevented 123,100 deaths in England, according to new estimates. The figures, which have been calculated by Public Health England and the University of Cambridge, cover the period up to 17 September. Previous estimates had put the number at 112,300 deaths. Around 23.9 million infections have also been prevented by the vaccine rollout, along with 230,800 hospital admissions among people aged 45 and over. More than 89 per cent of all people aged 16 and over in England have now received at least one dose of vaccine, while nearly 82 per cent are fully vaccinated.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has endorsed booster vaccines for people aged 65 and over and those with underlying health conditions, following the authorisation from the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday. The CDC’s panel of advisers declined to support booster vaccines for people in jobs with a high risk of exposure to the virus, such as healthcare workers, but CDC director Rochelle Walensky decided to include this category in the agency’s recommendation. The advice applies to people who have already had two doses of Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine at least six months ago.
US regulator authorises boosters for older people, but rejects broader rollout
The US medicines regulator has authorised coronavirus booster vaccines for people aged 65 and over, people at high risk of severe disease and those who are regularly exposed to the virus, such as healthcare workers. The decision means that these groups can start to receive a third dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine 6 months after their second dose. Those who have had other vaccines will have to wait for further approvals.
Pfizer had asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow extra doses for all people aged 16 and over, but the FDA panel concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support boosters for the wider population beyond high-risk groups. A separate advisory committee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which determines US vaccine policy, is expected to issue guidance today which may include recommendations on which groups should qualify as high risk. The US has already given extra vaccines to over 2 million people with compromised immune systems.
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The US will donate 500 million more covid-19 vaccines to other countries, president Joe Biden has announced at a virtual summit on the pandemic, bringing the country’s total donations to over 1 billion doses. Delivery of the new tranche will begin in January. At a United Nations General Assembly meeting yesterday, leaders from developing nations including the Philippines, Peru and Ghana condemned wealthier nations for failing to share vaccines equitably.
New travel rules for England that require travellers from some countries to quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated have sparked outrage and bewilderment, The Guardian reports. Under the rules, travellers to England who have been fully vaccinated with Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna or Janssen vaccines in the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea or a European Union country are exempt from quarantine, but people who received the same vaccines in other countries must quarantine for 10 days after arrival. Doctors and politicians from India, Brazil and Nigeria are among those who have expressed anger about the rules.
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More than one in a hundred school children in England have covid-19, but absences are lower than in July because whole classes no longer isolate
About 1.2 per cent of school children in England were absent due to confirmed or suspected covid-19 on 16 September, according to new figures from the UK’s Department for Education. This compares with 1.0 per cent in July before schools closed for the summer holidays. Most schools reopened in September having removed some social distancing restrictions, including mask-wearing and keeping children within “bubbles” – small groups usually consisting of one or a few classes. Under this system the whole bubble would bel sent home to isolate if one member tested positive. Now, under-18s do not have to stay at home and isolate if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive – only if they themselves develop symptoms or have a positive test result.
The new rules mean that while there is currently a higher rate of covid-19 infections among under-18s, fewer children have to miss school because of isolation rules. The total rate of covid-19-related absences was 1.5 per cent on 16 September, compared with 14.3 per cent in July. “These national figures mask some significant issues arising at a local level, and we already know of schools that are struggling to keep classes open due to outbreaks occurring,” Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers told The Guardian.
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Australia will reopen its borders for international travel by Christmas at the latest, the country’s Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said today. Meanwhile in the state of Victoria, teachers and childcare workers have been told that they must be fully vaccinated against covid-19 before they return to work next month.
The Johnson & Johnson “single-dose” covid-19 vaccine is more effective after two doses, the firm said yesterday. A second dose of the jab given eight weeks after the first led to people being 94 per cent less likely to get a symptomatic infection compared with those who were unvaccinated, in a US trial. Just one dose was 66 per cent effective in the first month after vaccination. Giving the second dose six months after the first led to an even higher rise in antibodies.
See previous updates from July to September 2021, June to July 2021, May 2021, April-March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November/December 2020, and March to November 2020.
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