Latest coronavirus news as of 12pm on 1 September
Mu variant identified in Colombia may be more resistant to vaccines
A new coronavirus variant, named mu, has been designated a variant of interest by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Mu, or B.1.621, was first identified in Colombia and cases have been recorded in South America and Europe. The WHO’s weekly bulletin on the pandemic said the variant has mutations indicating “potential properties of immune escape”, meaning current vaccines would be less effective against it, but that more studies would be needed to examine this further.
“Since its first identification in Colombia in January 2021, there have been a few sporadic reports of cases of the mu variant and some larger outbreaks have been reported from other countries in South America and in Europe,” the bulletin said. “Although the global prevalence of the mu variant among sequenced cases has declined and is currently below 0.1%, the prevalence in Colombia (39%) and Ecuador (13%) has consistently increased.”
There are currently four coronavirus variants of concern, as deemed by the WHO, with the alpha variant seen in 193 countries, beta in 141, gamma in 91 and delta in 170 countries, while mu is the fifth variant of interest.
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One in seven children and young people infected with the coronavirus may still have symptoms 15 weeks later, according to preliminary findings from the world’s largest study on long covid in children. Researchers surveyed 3065 people in England aged 11 to 17 who tested positive for the virus between January and March and a matched control group who tested negative. Unusual tiredness and headaches were the most common persistent complaints.
The UK will press on with plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs from the end of September, Downing Street has confirmed. The proposals have previously been met with criticism from politicians on both sides as well as leaders in the night time hospitality industry. The scheme would see members of the public required to show proof of their vaccine status to gain entry to nightclubs and some other settings.
Ireland has announced plans to end almost all coronavirus restrictions on 22 October. Vaccine certificates will no longer be required to enter bars and restaurants and there will be no limits on people attending indoor or outdoor events. Some restrictions will be relaxed earlier, with cinemas and theatres able to open at 60 per cent capacity on 6 September and workers beginning to return to workplaces on 20 September.
Essential information about coronavirus
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.
Covid-19 surge in Scotland “a cautionary tale” as schools reopen in England
Students are being encouraged to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests to help prevent a surge in covid-19 transmission as the new school year begins across the UK.
In England and Wales, rules concerning face masks, social distancing and “bubbles” have been relaxed, although some schools are choosing to keep extra precautions in place.
The UK’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, says it is not just a matter for schools. “Parents too have a responsibility to make sure that their children are tested regularly,” he wrote in a Daily Mail article.
Scotland has seen a sharp rise in covid-19 infections with cases having doubled every week since 9 August, when most restrictions were eased. The surge is thought to be partly fuelled by children returning to school more than two weeks ago. On Sunday, 7113 cases were reported in Scotland, the highest daily figure ever.
“Scotland is proving to be a cautionary tale of what happens when restrictions are dropped & then schools reopened without adequate mitigations when R is already above 1 (which is where we are in England),” Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, wrote on Twitter. “We can expect worse in England in the near future.”
The Welsh government has announced it will pay for 30,000 carbon dioxide sensors and 1800 ozone disinfecting machines to improve safety in schools, colleges and universities.
Other coronavirus news
A new variant of the coronavirus known as C.1.2 has now spread to most provinces in South Africa and seven other countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. The variant is still occurring at a much lower rate than the delta variant in South Africa, researchers say. Scientists have not yet determined how the variant compares with others and it has not been listed as a variant of interest or concern by the World Health Organization. However, researchers say it contains several mutations that have been linked to increased transmissibility and lower sensitivity to antibodies.
A new vaccine developed by South Korean firm SK Bioscience has begun a late-stage clinical trial involving 4000 volunteers worldwide. The vaccine is being combined with an adjuvant – a drug that boosts the immune response – produced by GlaxoSmithKline, and will be compared with AstraZeneca’s vaccine in the trial.
Study compares risk of blood clotting problems after covid-19 infection and vaccination
The risk of blood clotting problems is much higher after covid-19 infection than after receiving a covid-19 vaccine, according to research from the University of Oxford.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at more than 29 million people aged 16 or older who had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in England between December 2020 and April 2021. It focused on the risks of blood clots and thrombocytopenia, a condition involving low levels of platelets – cells that help the blood clot.
Their findings suggest the risk of thrombocytopenia in someone with the coronavirus is almost nine times higher than in someone who has had one dose of the Oxford jab. They estimated that in 10 million people vaccinated with this jab, there would be 107 additional cases of thrombocytopenia in the 28 days post-vaccination, compared with 934 in vaccinated people infected with the virus.
The analysis found an association between vaccination with the Pfizer jab and an increased risk of stroke, but the risk was more than 10 times greater after infection with the virus. There were an estimated 143 extra cases of ischaemic stroke per 10 million people within 28 days of the Pfizer vaccine, compared with 1699 cases within 28 days of a positive covid-19 test.
For cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a type of blood clot in the brain, as well as other types of blood clot, the risks were also much higher after covid-19 than after either jab.
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Around half of all people hospitalised with covid-19 still have at least one persistent symptom after one year, according to a study of 1276 patients from Wuhan, China. Around a third of participants experienced shortness of breath after one year. Fatigue and muscle weakness affected about half of participants after 6 months, but fell to one in five after 12 months.
Seven destinations have been added to the UK’s green list for travel, meaning people arriving from those places will not have to quarantine. The Azores, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Switzerland will be redesignated from 30 August. Thailand and Montenegro will be moved to the red list, meaning returning UK residents must quarantine in a hotel for 11 nights on arrival.
Lockdown will be relaxed in most of New Zealand from 1 September, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced, but stringent restrictions will remain in Auckland and Northland. The changes in most of the country mean businesses can operate for online orders and contactless services, but public venues remain closed. Nearly 350 people have been infected in the latest outbreak. “We may be seeing the beginning of a plateau of cases, but caution is still required,” Ardern said.
English health providers planning for possible vaccine rollout as pupils return to schools
The National Health Service in England is preparing for the possible rollout of vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds from 6 September, according to media reports. NHS trusts are being told they must have plans ready by 4pm on Friday, The Daily Telegraph reported.
The Department of Health has said no decisions have yet been made to extend the vaccine programme to younger people, but said they “continue to plan for a range of scenarios”. So far, vaccines have been offered to people aged 16 and above and children aged 12 to 15 with a high-risk condition or a vulnerable family member. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is still deliberating on broadening the rollout further. Children aged 12 and over are already being vaccinated in the US, Canada, France and the Netherlands.
“Either you’re going to be exposed to covid without any protection or you can be exposed and have a vaccine. And we should be offering teens that vaccine so they have that protection before going back into schools,” Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
While younger people are more likely to experience myocarditis, a rare heart side effect, after receiving some of the covid-19 vaccines, a study in the US released earlier this month found that myocarditis is more common after coronavirus infection than vaccination.
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Japan has suspended the use of 1.63 million doses of Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine after reports that some vials had been contaminated with “particulate matter”. Japan and Moderna say the move is a precaution and that no safety or efficacy issues have been identified. According to a health ministry official, Takeda, the pharmaceutical company that is distributing the Moderna shots in Japan, first learned of the issue on 16 August, but did not notify the government until 25 August, because it needed time to find out which vials were affected and where they had been distributed.
Trials have shown that a booster shot of Johnson & Johnson’s covid-19 vaccine produces a big increase in antibody levels, the company has announced. The J&J vaccine has been administered as a single dose since it was approved for emergency use in the US in February. Trial volunteers who received a second dose six to eight months after the first saw antibody levels rise nine times higher than 28 days after the first shot, the company said.
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Origin of the virus: Scientists tasked by the World Health Organization to discover how the virus emerged are calling for a second phase of origin studies to start urgently.
Covid passes: How are they used, are they ethical and do they work?Previous updates
More UK data suggest efficacy of two vaccines wanes over time
The protection provided by two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines starts to wane within six months, new research suggests. The Pfizer jab was 88 per cent effective at preventing covid-19 infection a month after the second dose, but after five to six months the protection decreased to 74 per cent, according to analysis from the Zoe Covid study involving more than 1.2 million participants in the UK. With the AstraZeneca vaccine, protection dropped from 77 per cent one month after the second dose to 67 per cent after four to five months. “In my opinion, a reasonable worst-case scenario could see protection below 50 per cent for the elderly and healthcare workers by winter,” said Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study.
The study’s findings are in line with another recent analysis, which found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine wanes in effectiveness by around a fifth every month after the second dose, and that both vaccines are less effective in older age groups.
Another study, published as a preprint this week by The Lancet, found that two in five people who have impaired immune systems have a “low or undetectable” antibody response after being double vaccinated. The researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham said their results support giving a third dose of coronavirus vaccine to people who had no or lower level antibody responses.
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A US intelligence report ordered by president Joe Biden has been unable to determine whether the SARS-CoV2 virus arose naturally or escaped from a lab, according to The Washington Post. Intelligence agencies will seek to make parts of the report public within days, officials familiar with the matter told the newspaper.
The prime minister of Vietnam, Pham Minh Chinh, has written to the head of the World Health Organization to urge its vaccine sharing programme COVAX to prioritise Vietnam “in the fastest manner and with the largest volume possible.” After successfully containing the virus for most of last year, the country is now facing a crisis driven by the delta variant. Only 2 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated. In the past two days, China and the US have announced they will donate 2 million and 1 million vaccine doses to Vietnam, respectively.
Thousands of people test positive after attending music and surfing festival
Almost 5000 coronavirus cases are suspected to be linked to Boardmasters, a music and surfing festival that took place earlier this month in Cornwall, UK. Health officials said 4700 people who tested positive for the virus confirmed they had attended the festival or had connections to it. The cases are spread across the country but around 800 are living in Cornwall, a Cornwall Council official said.
Boardmasters was held between 11 and 15 August in the Newquay area. The covid-19 policy on its website said all ticket-holders aged 11 and over would be asked to demonstrate their covid-19 status through the NHS Covid Pass app before entering. This meant attendees had to provide proof of a negative lateral flow test taken within 24 hours of arrival at the festival gates, proof of being vaccinated with both doses (with the second received at least 14 days before the festival), or proof of a prior infection confirmed by a PCR test at least 10 days and up to 180 days earlier.
People who camped at the festival had to take a second lateral flow test during the event on 13 August and log their results in the NHS Covid Pass app. Face masks were not compulsory but were encouraged.
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The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has become the first covid-19 jab to get full approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The vaccine has been in use since December 2020, when the FDA granted it emergency use authorisation for people aged 16 and over. It has already been administered to more than 204 million people in the US. President Joe Biden said he hoped the decision would encourage those who have not been vaccinated to come forward for their shots. Several major employers, including the Pentagon, responded by announcing new requirements for their workers to be vaccinated.
The number of patients with covid-19 in hospital in England has hit 6000 for the first time in more than five months. The figure, which is a snapshot of patients as of 8am on 23 August, is up 11 per cent on the previous week. Patient levels have not been this high since 14 March, according to data published by NHS England. An average of 100 deaths per day from covid-19 have been recorded in the UK over the past week, another figure last seen in March.
Antibody testing programme to collect data on immune responses and vaccine effectiveness
The UK is launching an antibody testing programme for people who have contracted the coronavirus. The programme, which plans to offer tests to thousands of adults per day, aims to improve our understanding of how much protection antibodies give us following covid-19 infection and vaccination.
Antibodies are proteins produced by the body to defend against viruses and other invading microbes. Antibody testing can give an indication of how strong someone’s immune response is, but they do not definitively show whether someone is protected against infection.
From Tuesday, anyone over 18 from any of the four UK nations can opt in to the programme when taking a PCR test. Of those who go on to test positive for coronavirus, up to 8000 will be sent two finger prick antibody tests to complete at home and send back for analysis. The first must be taken as soon as possible after the positive result, and the second must be taken 28 days later.
The UK Health Security Agency, which is running the programme, will use the results to monitor levels of antibodies in positive cases across the UK. The Department of Health and Social Care says it will be the first time antibody tests have been made available to the general public, and the scheme could also provide insights into whether some people do not develop an immune response. The data will be used to inform the government’s ongoing approach to the pandemic and give further insight into the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants.
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UK health minister Sajid Javid has promised to crack down on “cowboy” behaviour by companies who take advantage of holidaymakers with misleading prices for coronavirus testing kits. Javid highlighted 82 private travel testing firms, who make up around 18 per cent of those on the government website, who will be issued with a two-strike warning and could be struck off the official gov.uk list. A recent Department of Health and Social Care review discovered they were displaying lower prices on the gov.uk site than people would have to pay in reality once they get to the checkout.
Taiwan has begun rolling out a homegrown vaccine with clinical trials yet to be completed and no data available on the vaccine’s efficacy. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen was among the first to receive the vaccine developed by Medigen. The government has ordered an initial 5 million doses. So far around 40 per cent of Taiwan’s population has received at least one dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
New Zealand has extended its lockdown, with restrictions set to remain across the country until Friday and in Auckland until at least 31 August. Thirty-five new cases were recorded today, bringing the number of current infections to 107.
Ronapreve, the first drug designed specifically to tackle covid-19, gets approval
The UK has approved the first treatment to use artificial antibodies to prevent and fight the coronavirus. According to The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the drug may be used to prevent covid-19 infection, treat acute symptoms of the disease and reduce the likelihood of being admitted to hospital due to the virus. Sajid Javid, UK Health Secretary, said that he hoped it would be rolled out to patients soon.
Trials of the drug, called Ronapreve, took place before widespread vaccination and before the emergence of virus variants. The drug, previously known as REGN-Cov2, was given to former US president Donald Trump when he was admitted to hospital with covid-19 last year.
Ronapreve, developed by pharmaceutical firms Regeneron and Roche, is given either by injection or infusion and acts at the lining of the respiratory system, where it binds tightly to the virus and prevents it from gaining access to the cells, the MHRA said. It consists of monoclonal antibodies, proteins produced in the lab that mimic antibodies found in the immune system.
Other coronavirus news
Another antibody drug developed by AstraZeneca reduced the risk of developing symptomatic covid-19 by 77 per cent in clinical trials, the company has announced.
Javid has said he is confident a coronavirus booster campaign can start next month across the UK, however the government is waiting on final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, before giving further details. The JCVI met on Thursday and had been expected to discuss the potential for boosters for the most vulnerable. But officials told the PA news agency that boosters had not been discussed at the meeting, although they would not confirm what was spoken about.
Lockdown has been extended in Sydney, Australia, until the end of September and a nightly curfew will be introduced from 23 August in the 12 worst-affected council areas, covering 2 million residents.
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Third doses of covid-19 vaccines will be rolled out to combat delta variant surge in US
The US will start making booster vaccines available on 20 September, health officials have announced. The shots will be offered to people who had their second dose eight months earlier, initially focusing on healthcare workers, nursing home residents and older people, who were among the first to be vaccinated.
“It’s the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that may arise,” president Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “It will make you safer and for longer. It will help end this pandemic faster.”
However, the World Health Organization has urged rich countries and vaccine manufacturers to prioritise distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries before pushing ahead with third doses at home.
Biden also announced that his administration would make vaccination of employees a condition for nursing homes to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Other coronavirus news
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is meeting today to discuss a potential booster campaign and which people might “really need” a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine, a government scientific adviser said.
Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think there’s enough evidence, and I think we’ll be imminently deciding, that there will be some people who will need a third dose, particularly people who we know are very unlikely to be well protected by those first two doses. But I think we do need more evidence before we can make a firm decision on a much broader booster programme.”
Finn also told BBC Breakfast: “I think it’s less clear really whether a third dose in a more general way, for sort of all people above a certain age, is really going to make very much difference.”
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Vaccine evidence: A UK study has found that protection from the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines wanes over time. Both vaccines provide good protection against symptomatic infections by the delta coronavirus variant, but are around 15 per cent less effective against delta than against the alpha variant. The findings also imply that vaccinated people who do get infected might be just as infectious as unvaccinated people.
The ventilation problem: Maximising airflow in public spaces is crucial to cut covid-19 transmission, but questions remain about what technology to use and how effective it needs to be.
Ten cases confirmed in outbreak of delta variant in Auckland
New Zealand has begun a nationwide lockdown in a bid to contain the delta variant of the coronavirus. So far 10 cases have been confirmed in the outbreak, but modelling suggests the numbers could rise to between 50 and 100. “From the experience of what we’ve seen overseas, we are absolutely anticipating more cases,” prime minister Jacinda Ardern said. The level 4 alert, the highest level, means people other than essential workers can only leave home for groceries, healthcare, covid-19 tests and exercise. The lockdown will cover the entire country for at least three days, and remain in place in Auckland for a week. New Zealand had been free of local covid-19 infections since February, and only 21 per cent of the total population has been fully vaccinated.
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The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has tested positive for covid-19, his office has announced. Abbott is fully vaccinated and not showing any symptoms, and he is receiving a monoclonal antibody treatment, according to a statement. Abbott has restricted the extent to which local authorities in Texas can mandate covid-19 vaccination and the wearing of face masks. On Monday, he attended a Republican party event with a crowd of hundreds. Texas is currently a hotspot in a covid-19 surge taking place in the southern US, driven by the delta variant. Yesterday the US recorded more than 1000 covid-19 deaths for the first time since March, according to a Reuters tally.
Vaccine supplies are urgently needed in southeast Asia, the Red Cross has warned. The region has recorded 38,522 deaths in the past two weeks, nearly twice as many as North America. Indonesia is one of the worst-affected countries, with an average of 1466 deaths a day during the last week. “We fear that as the virus spreads from cities to regional and rural areas that many more lives will be lost among the unvaccinated,” said Alexander Matheou, Asia Pacific Director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in a statement.
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