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Covid-19 news: Arthritis drug shows promise to treat severe cases

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Baricitinib

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Latest coronavirus news as of 12pm on 4 March

Immune-suppressing treatment reduces deaths even in people already taking existing covid-19 medicines

Another treatment has been shown to help people hospitalised with severe covid-19: an arthritis medicine called baricitinib, which works by dampening the immune response. In the later stages of covid-19, overactivity of the immune system contributes to damage to the lungs and the blood clotting system, which causes tiny blood clots to form throughout the body.

Baricitinib was already being used in some countries, but a large UK trial has now shown that adding it to the other treatments used against covid-19 further reduces the death rate by 13 per cent. Most people in the study were already being given the steroid treatment dexamethasone, the first medicine shown to reduce deaths in covid-19, which also suppresses the inflammatory immune reaction. When this result is combined with other trials, it suggests baricitinib could reduce deaths by one fifth.

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Baricitinib works by blocking the actions of an immune system compound called interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is raised in severe covid-19. It comes in tablet form, making it easier to give than another IL-6-blocking medicine called tocilizumab, given through a drip. Nearly a third of people in the trial also received tocilizumab and they still had the additional reduction in deaths from baricitinib.

“As an oral agent with a short half-life and potentially less expensive, this makes baricitinib a more attractive agent after steroids in low/middle-income country settings,” said Athimalaipet Ramanan, at the University of Bristol, UK, in a statement.

Other coronavirus news

Panic buying has begun in Hong Kong amid fears of an impending lockdown, as cases of covid-19 and deaths due to the virus are soaring. The city, which is in the middle of an omicron surge, has relatively low vaccination rates among its elderly. Two of Hong Kong’s largest retail chains have started rationing some food and medicines.

Measuring fourteen proteins in the blood can help predict if people will get severe covid-19, according to a study that used a genetic technique called Mendelian randomisation to link people’s genes with their risk of illness. The study found six proteins that cause higher rates of hospitalisation or death and eight that protect against such outcomes. One of the risky proteins determines a person’s blood group, supporting previous studies that have suggested people with blood group A are more likely to be admitted to hospital with covid-19.

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.

Stopping the Next Pandemic: How Covid-19 Can Help Us Save Humanity 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.

Previous updates

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A woman waters plants in her house

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3 March

Pandemic linked to increase in depression and anxiety worldwide

A World Health Organization (WHO) briefing suggests that depression and anxiety have risen substantially during the coronavirus pandemic, with women and young people among the worst affected.

Based on a review of existing evidence into covid-19’s impact on mental health, the briefing largely attributes the rise to the unprecedented stress of social isolation, as well as grieving loved ones, financial worries and fear of infection.

Most of the countries surveyed (90 per cent) have included mental health support in their covid-19 recovery plans, however, the WHO has stressed there are still gaps in care.

“The information we have now about the impact of covid-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a statement. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”

Other coronavirus news

The WHO has conditionally recommended molnupiravir as the first oral antiviral drug for people with non-severe covid who are most at risk of hospitalisation, such as older age groups or people who are immunocompromised. The recommendation is based on six studies with a total of 4796 participants between them. The review found that, when given within five days of the onset of mild symptoms, administering four molnupiravir tablets twice a day for five days can reduce the risk of hospitalisation by 30 per cent.

Covid restrictions are thought to have resulted in there being 720,000 fewer dengue fever infections in 2020 than would normally be expected. The team behind the work were surprised by their findings, having anticipated that rates of the mosquito-transmitted infection would have risen when people were forced to spend more time at home. The latest results, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, contradict previous research by a different team,  who warned that an additional 2008 dengue cases may have occurred a month in Thailand amid its 2020 restrictions.

The pandemic may be intensifying pre-existing inequalities between the sexes. US researchers reviewed datasets on issues like healthcare access, economic concerns and safety for 193 countries between March 2020 and September 2021. They found girls were 1.21 times more likely to have dropped out of school than boys, while women were 1.23 times more likely to report an increase in gender-based violence than their male counterparts.

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In vitro fertilisation

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2 March

A study of 43 countries suggests the coronavirus pandemic has substantially pushed back fertility treatments, with Scotland facing some of the biggest delays.

A team involving researchers at Monash University, Australia, sent surveys to fertility clinics across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America from October 2020 to September 2021.

Treatment delays were reported in 34 countries, with people waiting an average of 59 days for IVF or an intracytoplasmic sperm injection, when a single sperm is inserted into an egg in a laboratory. Frozen embryo transfers were delayed by an average of 60 days. These occur when embryos from a previous IVF cycle are thawed and inserted into the womb.

The study, which is due to be published in Reproductive Medicine, found that the largest delay in fertility treatments was 228 days, reported by a clinic in Scotland. Austria, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Norway and Portugal were the only countries where the clinics surveyed reported no delays.

On 19 March 2020, the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology advised people to avoid procedures like IVF due to uncertainty around how the coronavirus affected pregnancies. Two days earlier, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine announced a “delay (to) any but the most important care cases”.

“The need to stop or delay treatment was guided by the uncertainty of the virus, and the [need] to reduce the burden of non-essential medical treatments in hospitals to allow resources to be allocated to dealing with people with COVID-19”, said Elizabeth Cutting, at Monash University, in a statement.

“While there was advice regarding virus exposure and transmission, there was a uniform lack of advice regarding the provision of psychological support and how to prioritise patients”.

Other coronavirus news

Compulsory coronavirus vaccines for care home staff are being scrapped in England from 15 March. The policy previously required anyone working in a Care Quality Commission-registered care home to have two vaccine doses, unless medically exempt. Amid fears of a staffing crisis, the government has said public immunity to the coronavirus is now high due to widespread vaccine uptake and many people recovering from the omicron variant.

Nerve damage may play a role in some cases of long covid. A small study of 17 people experiencing long-term symptoms found that 59 per cent had signs of nerve damage, possibly caused by an overactive immune response. “I think what’s going on here is that the nerves that control things like our breathing, blood vessels and our digestion in some cases are damaged in these long COVID patients,” said neurologist Anne Louise Oaklander, reported by Reuters.

Preliminary laboratory studies suggest that modified T-cells could help treat covid in people on immune-suppressing drugs. Researchers in Germany genetically modified the T-cells of people who had recovered from covid-19 to make them resistant to the drug tacrolimus, which is commonly given to people who have had an organ transplant to prevent rejection. The modified cells then attacked the coronavirus while exposed to tacrolimus in a laboratory experiment.

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A child receives a dose of Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine

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1 March

Study suggests that protection from two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine quickly wanes in children between five and 11

Protection against infection and hospitalisation from the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine falls relatively rapidly in children aged 5 to 11, according to a preliminary study.

Researchers analysed covid-19 cases and hospitalisations among 365,502 fully vaccinated children aged between five to 11, and 852,384 aged between 12 and 17, all of whom lived in New York. They looked at data from 13 December 2021 to 30 January 2022, during a surge of covid-19 infections from the omicron variant.

The team found that, for the older children, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine’s protection against hospitalisation fell from 85 per cent in mid-December to 73 per cent by the end of January. But the drop was steeper for children aged five to 11, with protection against hospitalisation declining from 100 per cent to just 48 per cent.

For protection against infection, effectiveness dropped from 66 per cent to 51 per cent among the 12 to 17 age group, and from 68 per cent to 12 per cent in the younger age group.

Florian Krammer, at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, told the New York Times: “The difference between the two age groups is striking,”

Those in the younger age group receive a 10 microgram dose of the vaccine, compared with 12 to 17-year-olds who receive a 30 microgram dose, which could explain some of the discrepancy in the vaccine’s effectiveness over time.

Other coronavirus news

Researchers may have found a case of deer-to-human covid-19 transmission in Canada. In a preliminary study published on 25 February, the team traced at least one case of covid-19 in humans back to a strain of the virus found in white-tailed deer.

White-tailed deer had previously been found to be infected with covid-19 in the US and Canada. For the study, the researchers took samples from hunted deers in Ontario, Canada and found 17 were infected with a previously unknown strain of covid-19.

They then found that one person, who had been in contact with deer, had tested positive for similar strain.

Hong Kong today reported 32,597 new infections and 117 deaths – the city’s highest figure since the pandemic began. The city has seen a huge surge in covid-19 cases, with only 739 new cases on 1 February. Hong Kong’s fatality rate is currently one of the highest in the world, which may partly be due to lower vaccination rates in older age groups. To tackle the current surge, the city plans to begin mass testing its 7.4 million residents in mid-March.

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Covid-19 seen under the microscope

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28 February

Data suggests that people who’ve had the BA.1 omicron variant are protected against BA.2, at least in the short term

A preliminary study of coronavirus infection rates suggests that people who have recently been infected by the  BA.1 omicron variant are 95 per cent protected against infection with the fast-spreading BA.2 omicron variant.

The omicron wave, which began in November, has primarily been driven by the BA.1 variant, but now another variant of omicron, BA.2, seems to be rising to dominance. BA.2 has 32 of the same mutations as BA.1 but it also has 28 that are different. Rapidly rising numbers of BA.2 infections suggest that this variant is even more transmissible than the BA.1 omicron variant.

A key problem with the omicron variants is their ability to escape immunity, but data from around 20,000 people in Qatar suggests that people who have recently been infected with BA.1 are 95 per cent protected against catching BA.2 35 to 50 days after infection.

The team who did this research also analysed data from around 100,000 people who had been infected with BA.2 and found that this variant offers roughly 85 per cent protection against BA.1 infection 35 to 40 days later.

The findings suggest that immunity resulting from BA.1 could help reduce the spread of BA.2, which is expected to become the dominant coronavirus variant in the UK in the next few weeks.

A previous study from Japan suggested that BA.2 caused more severe disease in hamsters than BA.1, but real world data from the UK, South Africa, and Denmark – where population immunity levels are relatively high – found no difference in severity between the two variants.

“Initial data from population-level reinfection studies suggest that infection with BA.1 provides strong protection against reinfection with BA.2, at least for the limited period for which data are available,” said a WHO statement on 22 February.

Other coronavirus news

Public mortuaries in Hong Kong have reached maximum capacity amid record numbers of deaths due to covid-19, according to the city’s Hospital Authority. Dozens of bodies are waiting in hospitals for transportation to mortuaries. The city saw a record 34,466 new cases and 87 deaths on 28 February.

In Scotland, secondary school students no longer have to wear face masks in the classroom but will still need to wear them in corridors. Meanwhile, people entering large venues are no longer legally required to show vaccine passports.

The Republic of Ireland has ended the legal requirement for people to wear face masks on public transport and in healthcare settings, but advises that people continue to do so.

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White flags that are part of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s temporary art installation, “In America: Remember”

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25 February

Around 3.3 million children worldwide have lost a parent to covid-19, researchers estimate

A study of mortality data suggests that, globally, around 3.3 million children have had a parent die of covid-19.

Researchers analysed data from 21 countries – including England, India and Peru – from March 2020 to October 2021.

The team estimated that at least 5.2 million children had lost a parent, grandparent or caregiver in this period, with about 3.3 million losing a parent.

But researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who led the analysis, say this estimate is likely an underestimate as many countries lack a robust reporting system for deaths. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of coronavirus deaths in Africa is actually 10 times higher than what has been reported.

Three out of four parents lost in the pandemic were fathers, according to the analysis. Those aged between 10 and 17 were the most likely to have lost a parent.

The study was published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Other coronavirus news

Indoor mask guidance will be loosened in the US today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to reports.

The CDC has been recommending the use of indoor masks in public spaces like gyms and cinemas for the majority of the US population.

But the Associated Press have reported that today, the CDC will change its guidelines so that they are based on the number of covid-19 hospitalisations in local areas, rather than local infection rates. This means most people in the US will no longer be in areas where it is advised to wear a mask indoors.

Anti-vaccine mandate protesters yesterday chased a van in which New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s was travelling. The crowd shouted “traitor” as she was leaving a school in Christchurch.

Anti-vaccine and anti-vaccine mandate protesters have been occupying the country’s parliament grounds for over two weeks.

Latest coronavirus articles from New Scientist

Understanding long covid: We’re closing in on the causes of long covid. Treatments could be less than a year away.

Living with long covid: One person’s experience of DIY treatments and participating in clinical trials.

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Britain’s health secretary Sajid Javid, prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak

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24 February

Trust that the UK government does ‘the right thing’ declined during the second year of the pandemic

Mistrust in the UK government grew during the second year of the covid-19 pandemic, according to a study. The study was led by researchers at King’s College London and the University of Sheffield.

The study was based on two online surveys involving over 4000 UK adults in April 2021, and the same number in December 2021.

In the second survey, 45 per cent of the respondents said their overall level of trust in the government had decreased due to their experience of the pandemic, compared to 36 per cent in the first survey eight months earlier.

The survey also found that 58 per cent of respondents in December 2021 disagreed with the statement that the UK government is honest and truthful, an increase of 11 percentage points from April 2021. Similarly, in December only 28 per cent of people agreed that the government usually does the right thing, down from 38 per cent in April. The decline in trust was more pronounced among Conservative voters and people in older age groups.

However, despite the increased mistrust, 48 per cent of people agreed that their experience of the pandemic had made them realise it is best to follow government rules.

Commenting on the study, Bobby Duffy at King’s College London, said: “The pandemic has shown how vital public trust is to navigating these sorts of crises, from following extraordinary restrictions on our lives to taking up a vaccine developed in record time. So it is a concern that trust in the government declined so significantly in the second half of 2021, particularly looking ahead to the possibility of more dangerous variants of covid-19, and likely future pandemics.”

From today, all legal covid-19 rules have been lifted in England, including the requirement to self-isolate for those who test positive for the virus. However, the NHS website advises that if you have covid-19, you should still stay at home and avoid contact with other people.

On Monday, the British Medical Association said the government’s “living with covid plan” neglects the most vulnerable people in society and called for more provisions to protect them.

NHS England have said that patients will still be required to wear face masks in GP practices and hospitals, and staff will maintain isolation and testing measures.

Other coronavirus news

Iceland plans to lift all remaining covid-19 restrictions on Friday, the Ministry of Health announced yesterday. This includes removing curfews on bars and restaurants and all border restrictions.

Italy will end its covid-19 state of emergency on 31 March, Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi has announced. The country has been in a state of emergency since 31 January 2020.

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A sign advising customers that a pharmacy is out of stock of lateral flow antigen tests, Cheadle, England

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23 February

Free lateral flow tests can now only be ordered once every three days to reduce stockpiling before charges come in

There has been a scramble for free lateral flow test kits in England after the government announced on Monday they would stop being routinely free from 1 April under the nation’s new “living with covid” plan. To cap demand in the interim period, the number of tests that can be ordered from the government website seems to have been cut to one box of seven every three days, where previously one pack a day could be ordered. But yesterday many people found kits were unavailable from the website.

The UK Health Security Agency (HSA) has not confirmed the new limit, only saying that the number of tests available each day has been capped to manage demand, and it advised users to keep checking the site every few hours. Lateral flow tests and the more accurate PCR tests will remain free for some people, such as those living in care homes, but details of all the groups who will get free tests have not yet been released. Meanwhile, Boots, the UK’s largest chemist chain, has said that from early March, tests will cost £2.50 for one or £12 for a pack of five.

Other coronavirus news

Ireland will drop nearly all legally mandated covid restrictions from Monday, following other nations such as England, Northern Ireland and Denmark. Social distancing measures in schools will end, and mask wearing on public transport and in shops will become voluntary. Scotland has said all legal restrictions will end on 21 March.

A second variant of omicron called BA.2 can re-infect people who have recently caught the first variant of omicron, called BA.1 – but it happens rarely. A study from Denmark identified 47 people who caught BA.2, and had previously had BA.1 in the past three months, while the country had been experiencing a huge omicron surge.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 21: Amanda Moss and Cindy Moss embrace on arrival at Sydney's International Airport on February 21, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. Australia is welcoming fully-vaccinated international travellers for the first time since closing its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Two people embrace on arrival at Sydney’s International Airport on 21 February 2022 in Sydney, Australia.

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21 February

Australia opens borders to vaccinated travellers and New Zealand plans to lift some restrictions after omicron peak

Australia opened its borders to vaccinated international travellers from around the world today. Since November 2021, the country has allowed vaccinated permanent residents and travellers from New Zealand and Singapore to enter the country. In December, this was expanded to include international students and skilled migrant workers.

Tourists from across the world will now be able to visit. Over 50 international flights will arrive in the country today – around half of which will touch down in Sydney.

“It is a very exciting day, one that I have been looking forward to for a long time, from the day that I first shut that border right at the start of the pandemic,” said Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison.

The country seems to have passed its peak of omicron infections, which reached around 75,000 cases on 2 February. Hospital admissions have fallen over the past three weeks.

Today New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern said vaccine mandates and social distancing rules will be lifted after omicron infections peak in the country, which is expected in mid-to-late March. Earlier this month, the country announced plans for a phased reopening of its borders from the 27 Feb.

Other coronavirus news

The UK prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce plans this afternoon to lift all coronavirus restrictions in England. This could include the end of self-isolation rules and reduced free testing for the coronavirus.

The Queen has tested positive for coronavirus. She is reported to have mild cold-like symptoms.

Hong Kong’s government will launch a vaccine passport on 24 February, which will require those aged 12 and over to get a vaccine dose before entering supermarkets and clubhouses. The country’s healthcare facilities are currently overwhelmed, amid a record 7533 new cases today.

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A child receives the covid-19 vaccine

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17 February

Children aged between five and 11 in England will be able to get a covid jab

All five to 11-year-olds in England will be offered a low-dose Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. It follows months of deliberations by the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation (JCVI).

The JCVI reportedly decided that vaccinating children in this age group is beneficial, but of less benefit than for older age groups. This is partly because children are less likely to become severely ill from covid-19 and also because many children have already caught the virus. However, vaccinating children soon should prevent a certain number from developing severe illness in future waves of infection.

The JCVI estimates that vaccinating one million children will prevent 98 hospitalisations if the next covid wave is severe, and about 17 hospitalisations if the next wave is relatively mild like omicron.

The rollout in England is set to begin in April in pharmacies, GP surgeries and vaccination centres. The vaccine – which is a third of an adult dose – has already been used widely worldwide. Health secretary Sajid Javid said the programme will be “non-urgent” and that it will be up to parents to decide if they want their children to be jabbed.

“The NHS will prepare to extend this non-urgent offer to all children during April so parents can, if they want, take up the offer to increase protection against potential future waves of covid-19 as we learn to live with this virus,” he said.

The move follows announcements this week by the Welsh and Scottish governments that they will offer vaccines to 5 to 11 year-olds. Northern Ireland has now said it will do the same also.

Other coronavirus news

Expectant mothers who get vaccinated for coronavirus pass on immune protection to their new-borns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The risk of hospitalisation due to coronavirus for a baby who is six months or younger is 61 per cent lower if the mother received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines while pregnant, said Dana Meaney-Delman at the CDC.

The team analysed data from 20 paediatric hospitals across 17 states from July 2021 to January 2022. They also found that 84 per cent of the babies hospitalised with covid-19 in that period had been born to unvaccinated mothers.

The study did not look at the effects of booster shots during pregnancy.

Countries in the Americas need to be better prepared for the next wave of covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday.

Too many countries in the Americas responded to the omicron wave with a shrug and did not alter any public health measures to effectively slow down transmission, said Carissa Etienne at the Pan American Health Organization (a regional arm of the WHO).

“Now we’re dealing with the consequences,” she said. “A rise in infections is driving a surge in deaths.”

“This will not be the last variant and the future of the pandemic is still extremely uncertain,” said Etienne. “A new variant could emerge at any time.”

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A woman receives a covid-19 booster jab in London Britain, UK

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16 February

The chance of getting long covid are halved in those who are fully vaccinated, according to a review by the UK Health Security Agency

A review of 15 studies by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has found that people who are fully vaccinated against covid-19 are half as likely to develop long covid symptoms compared with those who are unvaccinated or have just received one dose.

The UKHSA found that individuals who’d received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Janssen vaccine, were half as likely to develop long covid symptoms lasting more than 28 days than people who’d only received one vaccine dose or who were unvaccinated. The review found that the vaccines were most effective against long-term symptoms in people over 60 years-old.

The review also found that unvaccinated individuals who had long covid and then got vaccinated were more likely to report an improvement in their symptoms than unvaccinated people with long covid who didn’t subsequently get vaccinated.

The UKHSA’s Mary Ramsay said in a statement: “These studies add to the potential benefits of receiving a full course of the COVID-19 vaccination. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself from serious symptoms when you get infected and may also help to reduce the longer-term impact.”

A recent estimate suggests that around 2 per cent of the UK population were experiencing long covid symptoms in early December. Typical symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue and muscle or joint pain.

Other coronavirus news

Wales and Scotland have announced that they will offer vaccinations to all children between the ages of five and 11 years. The plans have been informed by unpublished advice from the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, according to the Welsh and Scottish governments. An announcement on vaccinating this age group in England is expected on 21 February, after repeated delays.

The Netherlands will lift almost all its covid-19 restrictions on Friday, Dutch health minister Ernst Kuipers announced yesterday. This includes scrapping social distancing measures, as well as relaxing curfews for bars and restaurants.

Yesterday, Japan reported 236 new covid-19 deaths –  the country’s highest daily toll since the pandemic began. Essential information about coronavirus

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Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann speaks at a press conference, 7 February, 2022

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15 February

Remaining measures will stay in place as guidance, but not legal obligations

Northern Ireland will lift its last legal pandemic restrictions later today, as the nation’s current measures become suggested guidance instead.

These measures include the use of covid certificates in nightclubs, face coverings and a cap of 30 people for gatherings in homes. The restrictions had been due to expire on 24 March, but Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann announced on Monday that he would terminate the legislation with immediate effect.

However Swann added that the threat from the virus hadn’t disappeared and that guidance should be followed: “It is vitally important that we continue to observe the sensible measures we have all learnt to protect ourselves and others.”

Meanwhile, UK government ministers are pushing ahead with plans to wind down covid testing and payments for isolation in an effort to cut costs, despite warnings from health advisers, The Guardian reports.

Other coronavirus news

A wave of infections caused by the omicron variant is moving across Eastern Europe, with case counts doubling in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine over the past two weeks. The World Health Organisation has warned that, as countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic consider lifting restrictions, the threat level remains high.

The Cook Islands, one of the last remaining covid-free nations, has recorded its first case of the coronavirus, after a traveller from New Zealand tested positive on 10 Feb. 

A child waits after receiving a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a high school in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, U.S. Younger children, ages 5 to 11-year-old, across the U.S. are now eligible to receive Pfizer Inc.'s Covid-19 vaccine, after the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention granted the final clearance needed for shots to begin. Photographer: Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A child wears a sticker after getting a covid-19 vaccination in Lansdale, Pennsylvania

Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

14 February

US awaits more data on vaccinating under-5s while UK government delays decision on vaccinating 5-to-11-year-olds

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has delayed a decision on whether to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children between 6 months to 4 years of age in the US. A decision was due to be made tomorrow.

On 11 February, the agency said it had decided to wait for more data from clinical trials involving under-5s before making a decision. 

Earlier this month, Pfizer and BioNTech submitted data on two doses of a three-dose regimen for 6-month-to-five-year-olds to the FDA, but “it makes sense to wait for the safety and efficacy data on all three doses to be available before we make a decision about this vaccine,” said Paul Offit, a member of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. The data on three shots is due to be available in early April.

Meanwhile, the UK government is still deciding whether to approve widespread vaccines for 5-to-11-year-olds, following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) over a week ago, the details of which have not yet been made public. 

A decision had already been rescheduled from 11 February to today, but it has been delayed once again and is now expected to be announced on 21 February, as part of prime minister Boris Johnson’s wider long-term covid plans. 

Although the JCVI recommendation has not been disclosed, it is thought that the group is in favour of offering vaccines to all children in this age group. Vaccination has recently begun to be offered to 5-to-11-year-olds in England who are deemed vulnerable or who live with people who are immunocompromised.

The UK has been relatively slow to vaccinate children – the US and Israel both began offering vaccines to 5-to-11-year-olds in November 2021, for example.  

Other coronavirus news

Sweden’s Health Agency has recommended that people aged 80 and over receive a fourth vaccine dose. The country lifted almost all its covid-19 restrictions last week.

People from the UK travelling to France no longer need to get tested for covid-19 from the 12 February.

Hong Kong saw a record 2071 new cases on 14 February. The recent wave has “overwhelmed the city’s capacity of handling,” said the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.

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Commuters arrive at Waterloo station in London, England

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10 February

UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, has announced his plans to lift all covid-19 regulations in England on 24 February

All covid-19 restrictions in England, including the requirement to self-isolate after testing positive, could end on 24 February, announced Boris Johnson. Regulations were originally due to expire on 24 March, but in parliament on Wednesday, the prime minister Johnson said the date had been brought forward to show “that the hard work of the British people is paying off”.

“It is my intention to return on the first day after the half-term recess to present our strategy for living with covid,” he said to parliament.

If it goes ahead, England will be following in the footsteps of Sweden, who on Wednesday lifted nearly all restrictions. Sweden’s minister of health, Lena Hallengren said in a statement: “As we know this pandemic, I would say it’s over.” 

This came after Denmark became the first European Union country to scrap all of its coronavirus restrictions. As of right now, the country has one of the highest numbers of covid-19 cases per capita in the world, with 43,503 daily cases.

Some scientists are concerned overturning these rules may be too soon however. “We should have a little more patience, wait at least a couple of more weeks. And we are wealthy enough to keep testing,” Fredrik Elgh, professor of virology at Umea University in Sweden told Reuters.

“Frankly I see no justifiable reason for the scrapping of this law, certainly not from the perspective of patients, nor from a business case either as the omicron variant is highly contagious, and thus more likely to spread through a staff group if people feel compelled to come to work with a ‘mild covid-19 infection’,” Dr James Gill at Warwick Medical School in the UK said in a statement.

Read more on “living with covid” and how the actions taken by countries will determine how many more people die from the coronavirus.

Other coronavirus news

Globally, the number of covid-19 cases has officially surpassed 400 million, according to analysis from Reuters. This is amid surges of the virus around the world caused by the omicron variant.

In Hong Kong yesterday, daily infections rose to a record 1161 cases, with outbreaks in 10 care homes. 

South Korea’s government announced today that patients with mild symptoms will have to treat themselves. This is to alleviate the strain on medical resources as omicron sweeps through the country, with daily cases hitting a new high of 54,122 on Wednesday.

The US government will begin to vaccinate children under the age of 5 as soon as 21 February, according to a document from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet authorised the use of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine for the age group. But, the pharmaceutical companies have confirmed that they have submitted data to support the vaccines’ authorisation.

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Nurses help a patient help walk again after recovering from covid-19, King’s College Hospital, London

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9 February

People waiting for medical care in England grew to a record six million during pandemic

The waiting list for NHS care in England could grow by millions over the next two years, after the pandemic deterred many from seeking medical care.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told the commons that there are an estimated 10 million people who avoided care during the pandemic. “Even if half of these people come forward, this is going to place huge demand on the NHS,” Javid told MPs yesterday

The government has now promised to recruit an extra 15,000 NHS healthcare workers by the end of March, made up of 10,000 foreign nurses and 5,000 healthcare support workers.

The announcement forms part of NHS England’s “Elective Recovery Plan”, which was delayed from December after the winter omicron surge.

Other coronavirus news

The European Union is seeking to establish a global treaty that prevents new pandemics, according to Reuters. The agreement could include a ban on global wet markets, a suspected source of the coronavirus pandemic, and reward countries that closely monitor new viruses and variants.

New York, and several other US states, are lifting their mask mandates, as coronavirus cases begin to decline from the omicron-driven peak earlier in the winter. 

Coronavirus continues to surge around the world, with Slovakia, Russia and Hong Kong all recording their highest ever daily case numbers. A senior World Health Organisation advisor, Bruce Aylward, told the BBC’s Today programme: “If we look at the situation today – there’s still 2 million reported cases alone, over 5000 deaths every single day right now. The numbers are absolutely staggering.”

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Pedestrians wearing protective masks cross a street in Hong Kong, China, on Friday 4 February, 2022

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8 February

614 covid-19 cases were reported in Hong Kong yesterday as the city brings in new measures to curb the coronavirus

Hong Kong has restricted public social gatherings to just two people as it faces a mammoth surge in omicron cases. Yesterday 614 new cases were reported in the city – double the previous day’s total, and a record for Hong Kong. The city is in a precarious position as even though 80 per cent of its population is double-jabbed against the coronavirus, fewer than 32 per cent of its over-80s have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.

In addition to the limits for social gatherings, vaccine passes will be required in supermarkets and department stores. Religious venues and hair salons will close on Thursday until 24 February. Bans on restaurant dining after 6pm and gym closures have been in place since early January.

All covid cases are hospitalised in Hong Kong whether they are symptomatic or not.

Almost 4000 people are also quarantined in isolation centres across the city currently. The policy, following China’s lead, is aimed at eliminating coronavirus completely. 

Other coronavirus news

Using trucks and campervans, hundreds of people blocked the streets surrounding New Zealand’s parliament building today calling for the government to drop its pandemic measures. The protest comes as New Zealand faces a rise in coronavirus cases.

 New Zealand reported 202 cases of coronavirus today, while on Saturday it reported a record 243 positive results. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern told RNZ, the national radio broadcaster, that she expected the country’s cases to peak at between 10,000 and 30,000 in late March. 

The protesters, in a move similar to the ongoing trucker blockade in the Canadian capital Ottawa, have vowed to camp outside parliament until the country’s remaining restrictions are lifted. They are calling for an end to mask mandates and requirements that certain workers get vaccinated against coronavirus.

With a population of five million, New Zealand has had just 18,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 53 deaths to date.

The UK’s opposition leader, Labour’s Keir Starmer, was yesterday surrounded by a mob that was protesting, among other things, covid-19 restrictions and mandatory vaccinations.

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People register to undergo PCR testing in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong, China, 5 February, 2022

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7 February

Even with a high vaccination rate, abandoning zero covid policies could lead to millions of deaths, a study suggests

Researchers in China have estimated that lifting coronavirus restrictions in zero covid countries would cause around 2 million deaths in the next year, reports Reuters.

Zero covid countries that aim to eliminate the spread of coronavirus rather than “live with it” include China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

China continues to place strict lockdowns on cities with coronavirus cases. Masks must be worn in public and travellers entering the country must isolate in designated hotels for at least 2 weeks. The Winter Olympics are currently taking place in Beijing, and people have been advised not to travel into the capital.

According to Reuters, the researchers first calculated the efficacy of current vaccines using data on the CoronaVac vaccine in Chile and the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines in the UK. They estimated that current vaccines provide around 68 per cent protection against symptomatic disease, and that vaccines are currently 86 per cent effective at preventing death.

The team then calculated that, even with a 95 per cent vaccination rate in zero covid regions, lifting pandemic restrictions would lead to more than 234 million infections, 64 million symptomatic cases and 2 million deaths within a year.

Other coronavirus news

Australia has announced plans to reopen its borders to vaccinated visa holders from 21 February. Over 90 per cent of people aged over 16 in Australia are fully vaccinated and the country saw its lowest daily cases this year of around 23,000 on 7 February. The move follows that of New Zealand last week, which announced a phased reopening of its borders from the 27 Feb.

Hong Kong has reported a record 614 new cases on 7 February. The country’s health secretary Sophia Chan said cases were expected to rise exponentially. Around 80 per cent of the city have had at least one coronavirus vaccine, although older people remain mostly unvaccinated.

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Members of the National Guard, outside the U.S. Capitol Building, 14 January 2021

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3 February

US army discharges soldiers who refuse covid-19 vaccine

US soldiers who refuse to get the covid-19 vaccine are to be discharged from service immediately. Soldiers who are unvaccinated pose a risk to the force and jeopardise readiness, according to a statement from the army secretary Christine Wormuth, yesterday.

The new order applies to regular army soldiers, reservists on active duty and cadets. It follows a mandate from the Pentagon last August that all US military service members get fully vaccinated. Around 90 members of the US military have died from the coronavirus so far.

Soldiers can seek a temporary exemption to the vaccination order for medical or religious reasons. If the request is denied, they are given seven days to get vaccinated or submit an appeal. 

Other parts of the US military have already discharged unvaccinated members. The US air force discharged 27 personnel last December and the Navy discharged 45 sailors last week.

Other coronavirus news

New Zealand has announced a phased reopening of its borders, which will allow some of its vaccinated citizens and visa holders to return to the country without staying in state-managed isolation facilities from the 27 Feb. Foreign vaccinated travellers and some skilled workers will be allowed to enter from 13 March and up to 5000 international students can enter from 12 April. People entering the country will have to self-isolate for 10 days.

Sweden plans to lift all coronavirus restrictions next week, despite reporting around 36,000 daily cases, on average. Current restrictions include early closure for bars and restaurants and a cap of 500 people in larger indoor venues. The move follows that of Denmark, which this week became the first European Union country to lift all of its coronavirus restrictions, amid daily new infections of between 40,000 to 50,000.

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A student takes a lateral flow test in London

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2 February

Study that infected young adults with the coronavirus finds virus may largely be shed from nose

A small trial that involved deliberately infecting volunteers with the virus that causes covid-19 has revealed new details on how it can cause mild to moderate symptoms. 

This type of research is known as a human challenge trial, and while similar studies have been conducted for various viruses over the years, this is the first to report findings on the coronavirus. 

Researchers in the UK gave 36 volunteers aged between 18 and 29 a low dose of the virus via droplets placed in the nose. The virus was taken from a person who became ill with covid-19 very early in the pandemic, before any notable variants had emerged. 

Eighteen of the volunteers became infected with the virus, and 16 of them developed cold-like symptoms, such as a runny rose, sore throat, cough, fever or headache. Many of these symptoms were not included on symptom lists published by health authorities early in the pandemic. Thirteen of the volunteers also temporarily lost their sense of taste and smell. 

Among those who became infected, the virus could be detected, and symptoms began to develop, within 42 hours. This incubation period is significantly shorter than estimates at the time, which put the incubation period between two and 14 days.

The virus could be detected in the throat at 40 hours, before it could be detected in the nose at around 58 hours. Peak levels of the virus were found to be higher in the nose, suggesting that more virus may spread this way – and highlighting the importance of ensuring face coverings shield the nose as well as the mouth.

Other findings from the study support the use of lateral flow tests in picking up infectious cases of the disease. “We found that overall, lateral flow tests correlate very well with the presence of infectious virus,” Christopher Chiu at Imperial College London, the trial’s chief investigator, said in a statement. “Even though in the first day or two they may be less sensitive, if you use them correctly and repeatedly, and act on them if they read positive, this will have a major impact on interrupting viral spread.”

None of the volunteers developed any serious symptoms and no damage was seen in their lungs. 

Other coronavirus news

Pfizer and BioNTech have begun a process that may eventually allow for the vaccination of children against covid-19 in the US aged between six months and four years. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was first rolled out in the US under an Emergency Use Authorisation or EUA. The US Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for adults over the age of 16 in August last year.

The vaccine is currently available for children aged five and older in the US under an EUA, but those under five are not eligible for vaccination. Pfizer and BioNTech expect to complete an EUA submission for six-month to four-year-olds within days.

Tonga is set to enter lockdown following the confirmation of five cases of covid-19 in the country. The cases were identified among two port workers and their relatives. 

The cases represent the first instance of community transmission in the country. Until now, only one case had ever been reported – in a quarantined traveller arriving in the country in October 2021. 

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NHS staff join protesters in London, England

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1 February

Vaccinations will not be a condition of employment for NHS workers in England

NHS staff in England will not be required to have coronavirus vaccinations, health secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday. The move will be subject to a government consultation.

Regulations for mandatory vaccines were due to come into effect for NHS staff on 1 April which would have made 3 Feb the last day an unvaccinated worker could start a course of vaccinations.

Javid says mandatory vaccines are now less important because omicron, which is currently the dominant variant, appears to be more transmissible and less severe than the earlier delta variant. “It’s only right that our policy on vaccination as a condition of deployment is reviewed,” Javid said. 

Austria has moved in the opposite direction, as its policy of mandatory jabs for all over-18s comes into effect today. It is the first European Union country to impose such a mandate.

Other coronavirus news

Denmark today became the first EU country to lift all of its coronavirus restrictions, despite daily cases of between 40,000 to 50,000, or 1 per cent of its population. Denmark’s health authorities hope that its high vaccination rates of about 81 per cent will prevent a spike in hospitalisations.

Russia has seen its highest daily total for new coronavirus cases, reporting 125,836 on 1 Feb. Unlike Denmark, Russia has relatively low vaccination coverage, estimated at around 50 per cent.

World leaders continue to contract the virus: Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau yesterday announced he has tested positive for coronavirus, while UK foreign secretary Liz Truss also said she had tested positive, hours after speaking to a packed House of Commons without a mask.

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A police officer stands guard inside the closed-loop bubble to protect against the spread of covid-19 at the Beijing Winter Olympics

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31 January

Athletes and staff are testing positive for covid ahead of February’s games

About 119 people at the Winter Olympics – including both athletes and staff – have tested positive in Beijing, China, in the last four days. 

The games will run from 4 February to 20 February and about 3000 people, such as athletes and officials, are expected to take part. 

Unlike many countries, China is trying to eradicate covid-19 completely within its borders. It has cancelled nearly all international flights.

Olympic staff and athletes cannot move freely in public during the games. Instead they are living in a “closed-loop” bubble set up by the government which will allow them to train, travel and work without interacting with anyone from outside the event. 

Other coronavirus news

Spotify will add advisory labels to podcasts on its platform that discuss the coronavirus, its chief said yesterday in a statement. Daniel Ek said the new warnings would redirect listeners to a data hub of coronavirus facts. 

Thousands in the UK are set to gain access to Pfizer’s covid-19 antiviral pill from 10 February. The pill, Paxlovid, will be given to high-risk patients – such as those who have cancer or are immunocompromised – if they test positive for coronavirus. 

Trials suggest that the drug can cut the risk of hospitalisation and death by about 88 per cent in high-risk patients  – if administered within five days of symptoms appearing. 

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