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Covid-19 news archive: February 2021

Soldiers of German Bundeswehr armed forces prepare vaccinations with AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine at Berlin’s former Tegel TXL airport.

25 February

More than a million vaccine doses going unused in Germany

The perception that the AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine is inferior to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has led to poor take-up in Germany, says the chair of the committee advising the German government on vaccines. “We have about 1.4 million doses of [the] AstraZeneca vaccine in store and only about 240,000 have been given to the people,” Thomas Mertens told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

An initial study in Scotland suggests that, while both are highly effective, one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is slightly more effective at reducing the risk of hospitalisation than one dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

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Vaccination in the EU has got off to a slow start, with only around 6 per cent of the population given a first dose compared with 27 per cent in the UK.

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Intellectual property rules are hindering vaccine rollout in poor countries and should be waived for coronavirus vaccines and drugs, says John Nkengasong, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. It took ten years for HIV drugs to reach Africa in quantity, by which time 12 million people had died, he told a press conference.”I just use those numbers to say: any IP transfer will be beneficial to everybody, because nobody wants to sit back and be proud of that sad event.”

China has approved two more coronavirus vaccines, taking the total to four. The newly approved vaccines are made by CanSino Biologics and Sinopharm. A vaccine made by Sinovac was approved earlier this month, and another from Sinopharm approved last year. The approvals may help speed up vaccine rollout. According to NPR, only 24 million people in China – 1.6 per cent of the population – had at least one vaccine dose by the end of January.

Moderna has produced the first batches of a version of its mRNA vaccine tweaked to better protect against the B.1.351 variant from South Africa. Doses have been sent to the US National Institutes of Health for testing, the company announced yesterday. Previous trials have shown some existing coronavirus vaccines are less effective against B.1.351.

The UK has rapidly increased the volumes of testing and genomic sequencing in Ealing in London after cases of the B.1.351 variant were identified there. The UK has been carrying out additional testing in some areas to try to control the spread of this and other variants

The national medical director for NHS England, Stephen Powis, has urged social media influencers and celebrities to stop spreading misinformation about techniques to manage covid-19 symptoms. “I see Gwyneth Paltrow is unfortunately suffering from the effects of covid,” he said. “We wish her well, but some of the solutions she’s recommending are really not the solutions we’d recommend in the NHS.”

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.5 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 113 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A lab technician works on blood samples taken from people taking part in a Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine test at the Ndlovu clinic’s lab in Groblersdal, South Africa.

Jerome Delay/AP/Shutterstock

24 February

Single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine likely to get go-ahead in US

The one-shot coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson is safe and effective, according to an analysis by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released today. The vaccine is already being used in South Africa, and the FDA is due to meet on Friday to make a decision for the US, where the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are currently being used. The Johnson & Johnson shot can be kept in ordinary fridges, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which needs to be stored at -70 degrees C for most of the time.

The FDA review found that in trials of one dose in about 40,000 people, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66 per cent effective at preventing moderate to severe illness from covid-19, and there were no safety concerns. A verdict is expected in March from both the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority and the European Medicines Agency. The firm also has large trials ongoing of a two-shot regime, including at 16 sites in the UK. The EU, US and the UK have ordered 400 million, 100 million and 30 million doses of the vaccine, respectively. 

Other coronavirus news

Ghana in western Africa has become the first country to receive a shipment of covid-19 vaccines as part of the Covax scheme for distributing the jabs to poorer countries. Ghana received 600,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine at its capital Accra today.

People with learning disabilities will be prioritised to get the coronavirus vaccine in the UK. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has said anyone on their family doctor’s register of people with learning disabilities should be put into priority group 6 in the vaccination roll-out, which comes after 65-year-olds. Previously only those with severe learning disabilities were in group 6. But a study commissioned by the JCVI found that people on the learning disabilities register, including those less severely affected, had a higher risk of illness and death from covid-19.

A recent fall in the daily number of people being vaccinated against covid-19 in the UK is due to fluctuations in supply, England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam has told Sky News. But he said the immunisation rate would pick up again. “You do get batch size variations and it’s going to take a few months before manufacturers get into this very steady routine.”

Hungary has started using China’s Sinopharm vaccine against the coronavirus, the first European Union nation to do so. The jab has had emergency approval in Hungary but has not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency. “Today we are starting vaccinations with the Chinese batches,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Facebook. Hungary has bought five million doses from Sinopharm, enough to give two doses to a quarter of its population.

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Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.49 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 112 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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An airliner taking off into the sunset

23 February

Review into “vaccine passports” launched in UK

The UK government has begun a review of whether to introduce certificates showing someone has had a covid-19 vaccine. So-called vaccine passports could be used for international travel and for allowing people to enter places like theatres or pubs, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today. 

“There are deep and complex issues that we need to explore, about what the role is for government in mandating people to have such a thing or, indeed, banning people from doing such a thing,” Johnson said. “We can’t be discriminatory against people who, for whatever reason, can’t have the vaccine.” Led by cabinet office minister Michael Gove, the review’s findings are due before England’s fourth stage of lockdown easing, on 21 June.

Iceland has said they will, in future, let people with a certificate of covid-19 vaccination enter without quarantining or taking a coronavirus test, and Greece, whose economy is dependent on tourism, is also pushing the European Union to press ahead with organising vaccine passports for this summer. 

Within the UK, some firms have said they plan to insist on new employees having been vaccinated. But there are still many unknowns about the effects of vaccination, including how much it cuts transmission, and how long immunity lasts for. 

Vaccine passports “are feasible, but not all the pieces are in place yet,” says Melinda Mills at the University of Oxford, co-author of a Royal Society report that sets out 12 criteria that need to be satisfied before they can be used.

Other coronavirus news

Japan had slightly fewer deaths in 2020 than the previous year, the first time the annual death toll has fallen in 11 years. It was down by 0.7 per cent, according to preliminary data from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. The fall was probably due to a sharp decline in influenza cases thanks to infection control measures against covid-19, such as wearing face masks and handwashing. Japan has recorded only 7529 deaths from the coronavirus so far. In England, no cases of flu have been detected in the first seven weeks of 2021, according to Public Health England.

Scotland’s roadmap for exiting lockdown was announced today. From the 15 March, all primary and more secondary pupils will return to school, and four people from two households will be allowed to meet outside. In the last week of April, non-essential shops, bars, restaurants, gyms and hairdressers can reopen. The plan is similar to timings in England, where all pupils will be allowed back to schools on 8 March, two households or up to six people can meet outside from 29 March, and non-essential shops will reopen no earlier than 12 April.

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Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.47 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 111.8 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Lila Blanks holds the casket of her husband, Gregory Blanks, 50, who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), ahead of his funeral in San Felipe, Texas.

REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

22 February

Official US death toll passes 500,000 and true figure could be 720,000

The official death toll from covid-19 in the US has passed the 500,000 mark. However, there is substantial undercounting and the true death toll could be around 720,000, Andrew Stokes at Boston University in Massachusetts told New Scientist

The US death toll is the highest of any country in the world. “It’s terrible. It is historic. We haven’t seen anything even close to this for well over a hundred years, since the 1918 pandemic of influenza,” the US president’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci told NBC. Brazil is second with nearly 250,000 deaths, followed by Mexico with 180,000, India with 156,000 and the UK with 121,000. Per capita, the UK also has the fourth highest covid-19 death rate in the world.

Case numbers in the US are now declining fast. However, the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the UK is now spreading, and there are fears it could lead to yet another wave of infections.

Other coronavirus news

Schools in England will reopen on 8 March in the first of a series of steps towards easing a lockdown imposed on 5 January. From 29 March outdoor sports and outdoor meetings of up to six people, or two households, are due to be allowed. If all goes to plan, all limits on social contact could end by 21 June. The UK’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance said the easing should proceed slowly to avoid the risk of a resurgence. “We are not starting all this as of today from a good position. We are not now in a sort of ‘let’s release everything’ [position]. We are in a not very good position that is getting better,” he said at a press briefing today. 

While vaccines are expected to make a big difference on curbing cases, Vallance said it was important to remember that as restrictions are relaxed, many people would still be unprotected. He pointed out that not all of the population will be vaccinated, and the vaccines do not offer a 100 per cent protection against infection.

Vallance said it was important to drive cases down low and space out relaxations so the effect could be monitored. “The message that comes out of all the modelling is: start from a low baseline, so try and get numbers down before you start releasing. Go slowly. Go in blocks [of relaxation] that you can measure the effect of after 4 or 5 weeks,” he said. 

Even a single vaccine dose greatly reduces the risk of being hospitalised with covid-19, according to a preliminary study done in Scotland. By the fifth week after receiving their first dose, those who had received the Oxford/AstraZeneac jab had reduced their risk of hospitalisation by up to 94 per cent, and those who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by up to 85 per cent, the study estimates.

A second “real world” study by Public Health England shows that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine prevented 70 per cent of asymptomatic and symptomatic infections in health workers in England under 65, just 14 days after vaccination.

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Coronavirus deaths

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The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.47 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 111.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Geoff Holland, 90, and Jenny Holland, 86, receive their injections of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a former Wickes store in Mansfield, UK.

Joe Giddens/Pool via REUTERS

19 February

95 per cent of people over 70 in Great Britain have had a vaccine dose

In Great Britain, 95 per cent of people aged over 70 have had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to a survey of 6000 people by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Most of the remainder have been offered a vaccine and are waiting to receive it. Less than 1 per cent of people aged over 70 years said they declined the offer of a vaccine. Overall, 91 per cent of all adults surveyed said they had either been vaccinated already or would get vaccinated when offered it. These numbers are better than expected. For instance, in one UK survey done in December before vaccination began, just 72 per cent said they were willing to get vaccinated. However, the ONS survey did not include adults living in care homes or other establishments, and because of small sample sizes, the ONS says the percentage of people saying they have declined vaccination should be treated with caution.

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The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine does not need to be kept ultracold as was previously thought when the vaccine was approved for use. The companies say it is stable at between -25ºC and -15ºC, and have asked regulators to change the terms on which it was approved. New Scientist reported in November that other mRNA vaccines using the same technology were stable at fridge temperatures, and that the same should be true of the Pfizer vaccine.

Japan has reported 91 cases of people infected with a new coronavirus variant called B.1.1.316. It has the E484K mutation also found in the South African and Brazilian variants, which allows the virus to partially evade immunity from past infection or vaccination. However, Japan has had lower levels of infection than South Africa or Brazil, and just 7000 deaths.

Brazil is vaccinating an entire town as an experiment to see what effect it has on coronavirus transmission. The entire adult population of Serrana in the state of São Paulo, estimated to be 30,000, will be offered the CoronaVac vaccine made by China-based company Sinovac.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.44 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 110.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A woman walks by a digital memorial to MTA workers called “Travels Far: A Memorial Honoring Our Colleagues Lost To Covid-19” in the subway station at Union Square in New York City.

Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

18 February

Life expectancy fell by one year in 2020, helped by the coronavirus

Life expectancy in the US fell by one year on average in the first half of 2020, according to figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The covid-19 pandemic is likely to be a significant contributor, experts told CNN. US life expectancy is now the lowest it has been since 2006. “Covid is on track to cause more deaths than cancer or heart disease,” Eileen Crimmins at the University of Southern California told CNN.

The fall was seen across ethnic groups but was most pronounced in minorities. Black Americans lost 2.7 years off their life expectancy, and Hispanics lost 1.9 years, while white Americans lost 0.8 years. Life expectancy disparities between Black and white people in the US had been shrinking in recent years but the pandemic has reversed some of that progress. Over the past 40 years, life expectancy had been gradually rising in the US, apart from between 2014 and 2017, when it fell by one third of a year. This has been attributed to the epidemic of opioid misuse in the country, as well as stagnating decline in deaths from heart disease.

Other coronavirus news

New coronavirus infections in England fell by two-thirds between mid-January and the first two weeks of February. The fall shows “lockdown measures are effectively bringing infections down”, said Paul Elliott at Imperial College London in a statement. The figures come from one of the largest and most authoritative surveys of infections called REACT. Currently about one in 200 people are infected in England, a similar level to September. The national R number – the average number of people one person will infect – is estimated to be between 0.69 and 0.76, meaning that infections are falling. The findings are based on more than 85,000 swab tests from randomly selected people. While all areas of England showed declining infections, they fell most steeply in London, the South East and West Midlands, and less steeply in the North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber. This could be linked to tougher lockdown rules being introduced earlier in London and the South East, the BBC reported.

Greece has agreed to a trial of allowing tourists to enter the country if they have been vaccinated against covid-19, once flights resume. The initial trial will be with visitors from Israel, which has given the coronavirus vaccine to a higher proportion of its population than any other country. Greece’s tourism minister, Haris Theoharis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the country is in talks with British officials about how a similar scheme might work with the UK.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.41 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 110 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A coronavirus lateral flow device showing a positive test result.

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17 February

UK government plans to send 400,000 tests a day to homes and workplaces

Rapid coronavirus tests will start being sent out by post next month to allow twice-weekly testing of people without covid-19 symptoms for up to two-thirds of England’s population. The pregnancy-test-style lateral flow assays, which look for viral proteins in a swab from the nose or throat, produce results within half an hour, but they are not as accurate as the slower PCR tests used in labs and clinics. The lateral flow tests are already being used for screening people without covid-19 symptoms in settings such as healthcare, care homes and in certain schools and universities. The number of these tests carried out has increased massively in the past month. The latest planned expansion would involve carrying out more than 400,000 tests a day in homes and workplaces, according to documents seen by The Times. The roll-out would begin before schools open up face-to-face teaching – currently slated for 8 March in England – and the tests would be sent to schoolchildren, their families and teachers, as well as anyone who cannot work at home. It would be accompanied by a campaign to encourage uptake provisionally called “Are you ready? Get testing. Go.”

Using lateral flow tests for mass screening is controversial, because they have a higher false-negative rate than PCR tests. Proponents say lateral flow tests find people who are most infectious. Critics say they miss people who are still capable of transmitting the virus and who are then falsely reassured they are free of the virus, so may behave more riskily. A spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care said their plans for expanding testing have not yet been finalised.

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Four more symptoms should be added to the list of signs that people need a coronavirus test, researchers say. The new symptoms are fatigue, headache, sore throat and diarrhoea. The existing symptoms that indicate the need for a test are cough, fever or loss of taste or smell. The findings come from an analysis of users of an app called the Zoe Covid Symptom Study, which tracks covid-19 symptoms and cases. Using these extra signs as a trigger for testing would lead to many more people being tested who don’t have the virus, but it would also pick up 40 per cent more coronavirus cases, the researchers have calculated. 

The world’s first study that will deliberately infect healthy volunteers with the coronavirus will begin next month. Initially, 90 people aged 18-30 will have a small dose of the virus squirted up their nose and will then be carefully monitored to see how their immune system reacts and to find the smallest dose needed for a mild infection. In future the experimenters will study how effective vaccines are against current and novel variants of the virus, said Chris Chiu at Imperial College London.

South Africa will this week become the first country in the world to start giving people the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine. This one-shot jab is effective at preventing severe disease from the coronavirus variant prevalent in that country.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.43 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 109.6 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A woman wearing a face mask stands on a balcony in a retirement home

A woman in a retirement home looks out at the view from her balcony

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16 February

Nearly two million more people will be added to England’s shielding list

About 1.7 million people in England will be told to shield and take extra precautions from covid-19 after they were found to be at serious risk of disease or death. They will also be prioritised for covid-19 vaccination. The addition will bring the total number on the UK government’s shielding list to almost 4 million, all of whom are being advised to shield until 31 March. 

The people being added to the list have been identified using an algorithm to predict whether a person is at risk of severe disease or death from covid-19. The algorithm incorporates information on age, ethnicity, body mass index, other health conditions and postcode (which is indicative of the level of deprivation). “As we learn more about covid-19, we’re continuously reviewing the evidence,” Jenny Harries, one of England’s deputy chief medical officers, told a briefing on 16 February. “It was very clear that not all of those individuals who were at risk were identified by the binary approach,” she said. Harries said it will be up to the individuals to decide whether to follow the shielding advice or not.

Other coronavirus news

An estimated one in five people in England had antibodies against the coronavirus in the 28 days up to 1 February, suggesting they had previously been infected or had received a covid-19 vaccine, according to the Office for National Statistics. In Wales and Northern Ireland the equivalent estimate was one in 7 and for Scotland it was one in 9 people. People were tested for antibodies as part of the COVID-19 Infection Survey in the UK. In England, people aged 80 and over were most likely to test positive for antibodies with 40.9 per cent testing positive, which is probably due to the high vaccination rate in this group. “It could be tempting to assume that quantifying antibody levels like this tells us the level and distribution of immunity to covid-19 in the population, but we do not know what components of the immune system are required for immunity or how long protection will last,” said Simon Clarke at the University of Reading in a statement.

Early data from vaccinations in Israel indicate that the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine prevents 94 per cent of symptomatic coronavirus infections. The study looked at 600,000 fully vaccinated people and the same number of unvaccinated people. This is a very similar level of effectiveness to that recorded in clinical trials of the vaccine. Israel’s health fund, Clalit, used coronavirus test results extracted from people’s health records to compare numbers of infections between those who had received two doses of the vaccine and those who hadn’t received any doses. There were 94 per cent fewer infections among those who had been vaccinated. Nearly half of Israel’s resident adult population have received at least one dose of covid-19 vaccine so far.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.41 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 109 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A laboratory technician handles vials in a laboratory

Genome sequencing of the coronavirus and its variants at the Centre National de Reference in France

CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images

15 February

Coronavirus variants carrying similar mutations detected in the US 

Seven coronavirus variants carrying similar mutations have been detected in the US. All the variants, reported in a preliminary study, have gained a mutation at the same location in their genome and appear to belong to the same lineage as a virus first sequenced on 1 December, which subsequently became more common. “There’s clearly something going on with this mutation,” Jeremy Kamil at Louisiana State University and co-author of the study, told the New York Times. It isn’t clear if the mutation makes the variants more transmissible, like the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first sequenced in the UK, but its location in a gene that influences how the virus enters human cells is concerning. “I think there’s a clear signature of an evolutionary benefit,” said Kamil. The preliminary study was released on a pre-print server and has not been peer-reviewed.

Other coronavirus news

UK health minister Matt Hancock revealed that a third of social care workers in England haven’t had a covid-19 vaccine yet, despite being among the first priority groups. “We’ll keep offering and keep contacting people who work in social care,” Hancock told the BBC’s Breakfast show. “Obviously the uptake there is very important,” he said. Separately, a preliminary study found lower covid-19 vaccine uptake among Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust in England. “These findings give significant cause for concern, as ethnic minority groups (especially those working in healthcare) are at higher risk of infection with [the coronavirus] and adverse outcome from covid-19,” said the report, which has not been peer-reviewed. More than 15 million people have received a dose of covid-19 vaccine in the UK so far, in keeping with the government’s target of offering a first dose of vaccine to four priority groups by mid-February.

“We’ll do everything we can” to reopen schools in England by 8 March, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said, adding: “But we’ve got to keep looking at the data, we’ve got to keep looking at the rates of infection, don’t forget they’re still very high.” The UK government is expected to set out plans for ending restrictions at a briefing on 22 February. Johnson said the government’s plans will be “cautious but irreversible”.

The first travellers required to stay at quarantine hotels in England arrived at London’s Heathrow airport on 15 February. People arriving in the UK from 33 “red list” countries are now required to go into mandatory hotel quarantine for 10 days on arrival, at their own expense.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.4 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 108 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A woman receives the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid19 vaccine at an NHS vaccination center in Ealing, west London

NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

12 February

Vaccinations of people under 70 begin in England next week

Vaccinators in England can now start giving covid-19 vaccines to people aged between 65 and 69, as long as they have already offered jabs to older and clinically vulnerable people in the top priority groups. “We have been told by NHS England that, in exceptional circumstances, where we have reached other groups, we can move on to cohort five [people aged 65 to 69],” an anonymous doctor told the Guardian. Across the UK, 14 million people had received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine as of 12 February – equivalent to about 20 per cent of the total population.

Infections fall across the UK

Coronavirus infections appear to be falling across the UK. The Office for National Statistics estimates that about one in 80 people in England had covid-19 in the week up to 6 February, down from one in 65 people the previous week. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland the equivalent figures for the most recent week are approximately one in 85, one in 75 and one in 150 people respectively, all down from the previous week’s figures. The latest official estimate of the R number – the average number of people each person with coronavirus infects – puts it between 0.7 and 0.9  for the UK as a whole, indicating the country’s epidemic is shrinking. 

Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London, who advises the UK government as part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said lockdowns have helped drive down cases. “They’re basically halving about every 17 days at the moment,” he told Politico’s Westminster Insider podcast. Ferguson said it might be possible to reopen at least primary schools in a month’s time. “And if we continue to see then a continued decline without large outbreaks, then perhaps starting to relax other aspects of society the following month,” he added. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said discussions on reopening schools will happen in the week starting 22 February, with schools potentially able to reopen from 8 March.

Other coronavirus news

Germany is imposing strict new border controls due to concern over coronavirus variants, with a ban on travel into the country from the Czech Republic and Austria where the B.1351 and B.1.1.7 variants of the virus were found to be prevalent. Returning residents and certain essential workers will be exempt. 

French health authority Haute Autorite de Sante recommended that people who have already had covid-19 and recovered should only be offered a single shot of covid-19 vaccine. “The single dose of vaccine will act as a reminder,” it said in a statement.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.37 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 107 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Photo of a person's hand holding a box of medication labelled tocilizumab

A pharmacist in France displays a box of tocilizumab, which is used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

11 February

Roche’s arthritis drug tocilizumab found to cut risk of death among patients with severe covid-19

The arthritis drug tocilizumab reduces the risk of death among severely ill covid-19 patients, according to findings from the RECOVERY trial, which has been testing a range of potential treatments for the disease since March last year. The study found that 29 per cent of covid-19 patients who received tocilizumab died within 28 days, compared to 33 per cent of those who did not receive the drug. Treatment with tocilizumab – sold under the brand name Actemra by Swiss company Roche – also shortened the time to recovery and reduced the requirement for mechanical ventilation. The trial included 2022 covid-19 patients randomly allocated to receive tocilizumab in addition to their standard care and 2094 patients allocated to standard care only, which for 82 per cent of all patients in the study included treatment with a steroid, such as dexamethasone. Last year, dexamethasone became the first drug found to reduce death rates in covid-19 patients. The most recent results indicate that tocilizumab provides additional benefits when used with steroids, like dexamethasone. “Used in combination, the impact is substantial,” said Martin Landray at the University of Oxford, one of the lead investigators on the trial. “After dexamethasone (steroids), this is the most significant advance in the treatment of covid,” said Athimalaipet Ramanan at the University of Bristol in a statement.

Other coronavirus news

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated guidance saying people who have been “fully vaccinated” against covid-19 are no longer advised to quarantine if they are exposed to someone who tests positive for coronavirus. This applies to people who have had both doses of a covid-19 vaccine at least two weeks ago. However, the CDC said this does not mean that fully vaccinated individuals should stop taking precautions and added that people who had their shots three months ago or more should still quarantine if they are exposed, since it isn’t known how long protection against covid-19 lasts.

US health officials are advising people in the country to consider wearing two masks on top of each other to better protect themselves against coronavirus infection. A CDC report suggested wearing a cloth mask over a disposable surgical mask or improving the fit of a single surgical mask as ways to boost protection.

It could take six to nine months to produce and deploy covid-19 vaccines that work against new variants of the coronavirus, according to AstraZeneca. The UK-Swedish company made this statement after its current vaccine was found to be less effective against the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa.

The Guardian reported that more than 40 per cent of staff at the UK’s largest care home provider have not received any doses of covid-19 vaccine.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.35 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 107 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

New covid-19 vaccines: The world needs new vaccines to beat novel coronavirus variants, overcome delays and solve global inequality over vaccine access – here’s what’s in the works for 2021 and beyond.

A woman is pictured sitting on a chair, holding a coronavirus test kit

A woman takes a coronavirus test at a temporary testing facility in London, UK

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10 February

Chills, loss of appetite, headache and muscle ache linked to covid-19 in new study

New symptoms have been linked to covid-19 in certain age groups, including chills, loss of appetite, headache and muscle ache, in Imperial College London’s REACT study. The four new symptoms were identified by researchers through random swab testing and questioning of more than a million people in England, conducted between June 2020 and January 2021. The researchers found an association between testing positive for the coronavirus and reporting any of these new symptoms or other symptoms previously linked to covid-19, such as a persistent cough, fever or a loss or change in sense of taste or smell. 

The more symptoms people had, the more likely they were to test positive, although there was some variation in symptoms across different age groups. Chills were linked with infection across all age groups, whereas headaches were reported mainly in children aged 5-17, appetite loss in adults over 18 and muscle aches in those aged 18-54. Infected 5-17 year olds were also less likely to report experiencing fever, persistent cough and appetite loss, in comparison with adults.

The REACT study also looked at whether reported symptoms changed before and after the B.1.1.7 variant became the dominant variant in the UK. It found that symptoms were largely similar, despite the increased prevalence of B.1.1.7. However, loss or change of sense of smell was less predictive of having covid-19 in January when B.1.1.7 accounted for about 86 per cent of infections, compared with November to December when it was 16 per cent. “As the epidemic progresses and new variants emerge, it’s essential that we keep monitoring how the virus affects people so that testing programmes meet changing needs,” said Joshua Elliott, one of the researchers behind the study at Imperial College London, in a statement.

Other coronavirus news

People in the UK are going to have to “get used to the idea of vaccinating and revaccinating in the autumn as we face these new variants”, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told parliament on 10 February. Several vaccine manufacturers have confirmed that they are already working on new versions of their covid-19 vaccines to make sure they remain effective. The UK government recently announced a partnership with manufacturer CureVac to rapidly manufacture new vaccines in response to new coronavirus variants if needed. “We believe that they may help us to develop vaccines that can respond at scale to new variants of the virus,” said Johnson.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said he doesn’t think the B.1351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa “is going to be a dominant issue in the next few months”. Speaking on BBC News, Van-Tam said 90 per cent of cases in the UK at the moment are caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in Kent.

South Africa is considering selling or exchanging its doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine, according to the country’s health minister. Plans to start administering the jabs were put on hold this week after a small, preliminary study indicated it may not protect against mild or moderate covid-19 caused by the B.1.351 variant.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.34 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 107 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Boosting vaccines: The coronavirus vaccines won’t work for everyone, but there are plenty of things we know can help with vaccine success, from sleeping well before a jab to avoiding doomscrolling afterwards and getting enough exercise.

Searching for immunity: Not everyone will have side effects such as a sore arm from a coronavirus vaccine, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work. Antibody tests can confirm your immunity, but they must be the right kind.

Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the WHO-China joint study team, gestures with his hand as he answers a question during a press conference

Peter Ben Embarek answers questions at the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, China on 9 February

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9 February

WHO team in China is investigating theory that coronavirus was spread through frozen food

The World Health Organization (WHO) mission in Wuhan, China has ruled out the possibility that the coronavirus originated in a laboratory, but the team is investigating whether the virus came from frozen food, possibly from outside China. The investigation team leader Peter Ben Embarek said the virus seems to have originated in bats, as originally thought, but it was probably transmitted to humans via an unknown intermediate species, possibly a dead or frozen animal food product. Embarek said it is “extremely unlikely” that the virus escaped from a lab. The WHO mission arrived in China in January and spent four weeks researching the origin of the coronavirus with site visits to the Huanan seafood market, originally suspected as the source of the virus, as well as the laboratories at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was also being investigated as a potential source. It announced its initial findings at a press briefing in Wuhan on 9 February. 

Other coronavirus news

People arriving in England who are required to quarantine in hotels will be charged a fee of £1750 to cover the cost of their stay, transport and coronavirus tests, UK health minister Matt Hancock announced. People who fail to quarantine face fines of up to £10,000, while those who lie on their passenger locator forms about visiting any of 33 “red list” countries face up to 10 years in jail. Hancock said similar measures are being looked at for the devolved nations. “People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk,” he told parliament on Tuesday. He also confirmed that an enhanced testing regime for all arrivals would start on 15 February, from which point all arrivals will be required to get tested for the coronavirus on the second and eighth days of their 10-day quarantine period.

Extra covid-19 testing will begin in parts of Greater Manchester in the UK, following the discovery of four people infected with a mutated version of the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in Kent. The four people, from two separate households in Greater Manchester, were found to be infected with a virus carrying the E484K mutation. The mutation is concerning, as there is evidence that some covid-19 vaccines may be less effective against the B.1.351 variant, also known as the “South Africa variant”, which has the same mutation.  

The NHS covid-19 app has told 1.7 million people in England and Wales to self-isolate since its launch in September. A preliminary analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford and the Alan Turing Institute indicates 594,000 coronavirus cases have been prevented by the app. The app has had about 21.7 million downloads, although internal data suggests about 16.5 million people are currently actively using its contact-tracing tool, according to the BBC.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.32 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 106 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

South Africa variant: South Africa paused its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as it might not be effective against the South African B.1.351 coronavirus variant – but it is still likely to limit the severity of covid-19.

A person wearing a face mask leans out of a car window to get vaccinated

A person receives a covid-19 vaccine at a drive-through vaccination centre in St Albans, UK

REUTERS/Paul Childs

8 February

Researchers are investigating ways to modify covid-19 vaccines to tackle the South Africa variant and others that emerge

UK ministers say work is underway to tweak existing covid-19 vaccines to tackle new variants of the coronavirus including the B.1.351 coronavirus variant, commonly referred to as the “South Africa variant”. On 6 February, a small, preliminary study was reported to show that the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine may not protect against mild or moderate covid-19 caused by B.1.351. At least 147 cases of this variant have now been detected in the UK. “Our brilliant scientists and medical advisers are now working on the potential for new versions of existing vaccines to offer further protections against covid variants,” Nadhim Zahawi, minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment, wrote in the Telegraph. As a precaution, South Africa – where the variant accounts for about 90 per cent of new coronavirus cases – has put its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on hold. However, the study, which has not yet been published or peer-reviewed, was relatively small and did not look at the impact of the vaccine on severe disease or death.

Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford, one of the lead vaccine researchers on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said a modified version that is effective against the South Africa variant could be ready to deploy in the autumn. “What we’re seeing from other vaccine developers is that they have a reduction in efficacy against some of the variant viruses,” Gilbert told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 7 February, adding that although vaccines may be less effective at reducing cases with new variants, they still appear to be protective against death, hospitalisation and severe disease. Other covid-19 vaccine producers are also working on new versions of their vaccines to make sure they remain effective. “We’re very confident in all the vaccines that we are using, and I think it’s important for people to bear in mind that all of them, we think, are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death, which is the most important thing,” said UK prime minister Boris Johnson, in an interview with Sky News on 8 February. “We will be continuing to study the results, the effectiveness, of the vaccine rollout.”

Other coronavirus news

All people living in the UK will be eligible to receive a covid-19 vaccine regardless of whether they have the legal right to work and live in the country, the UK government said on 8 February. “Coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of immigration status,” a government spokesperson told Reuters. The government said getting the vaccine would not trigger immigration checks.

Ireland said it will crack down on travellers returning to the UK from the Middle East via Ireland to avoid recently introduced quarantine rules. The number of people travelling to Dublin from Dubai has risen since the UK added the United Arab Emirates to its travel ban list in January.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.31 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 106 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Pandemic burnout: The pressure of the pandemic risks building to burnout, but news that vaccines help stop people catching and spreading the coronavirus offers hope of release.

Three people wearing face coverings sit on chairs in a waiting area

People wait to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine at Copes pharmacy in Streatham, England

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

5 February

Early results suggest the Oxford covid-19 vaccine works against B.1.1.7 virus variant

Preliminary results indicate that the covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca is effective against the highly transmissible coronavirus variant B.1.1.7, which was first detected in the UK. Researchers at the University of Oxford analysed swabs from vaccine trial participants who had tested positive for the coronavirus between 1 October 2020 and 14 January 2021, to determine the variant of the virus with which they had been infected. They found similar efficacy rates of the vaccine against the B.1.1.7 variant (74.6 per cent effective) and the original virus (84 per cent effective). This is despite the fact that those infected with the B.1.1.7 variant produced fewer antibodies that could neutralise the virus. The results were released online as a pre-print and have not been peer-reviewed.

Vaccine researchers are investigating ways to modify existing covid-19 vaccines rapidly to ensure continued protection against other new variants as well. “We are working with AstraZeneca to optimise the pipeline required for a strain change should one become necessary,” said Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford in a statement. “This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change,” she said. “All viruses accumulate mutations over time, and for influenza vaccines there is a well-known process of global viral surveillance, and selection of strains for an annual update of the vaccines.”

Other coronavirus news

Coronavirus cases appear to be falling in most of the UK. The most recent results from a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics indicate positive tests were falling in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the week up to 30 January. New infections across the UK as a whole are estimated to be falling by between 2 and 5 per cent each day, and the latest official estimate for the UK’s R number – the average number of people each coronavirus case infects – puts it between 0.7 and 1.0. This is most likely to represent the situation two to three weeks ago, due to a time lag in the data. The UK government said it aims for all people aged 50 and above to have been offered a covid-19 vaccine by May, clarifying earlier comments by a spokesperson for UK prime minister Boris Johnson who on 4 February said the government’s target was “spring”.

Johnson & Johnson applied for an emergency use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration for its covid-19 vaccine. The company announced last week that the single-dose vaccine had an efficacy of about 66 per cent in phase III trials. If approved, it would become the third covid-19 vaccine authorised for emergency use in the US, after those developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech and by Moderna.

Israel announced it will ease lockdown restrictions from 7 am local time on 7 February but will keep its borders closed, after a slight reduction in coronavirus cases. Almost 80 per cent of people over 50 in Israel have received a covid-19 vaccine so far. The country is vaccinating its 9 million citizens at a higher rate than any other nation.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.28 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 105 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

A person wearing personal protective equipment holds a vaccine vial and syringe between their fingers

A doctor prepares to administer the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, UK

NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

4 February

UK plans to test effect of giving one dose each of the Pfizer and Astrazeneca covid-19 vaccines

A UK trial is aiming to investigate the impact of giving people two different covid-19 vaccines for their first and second doses. Being able to use either vaccine will create more flexibility in the delivery of doses, and help deal with disruption in supplies, said England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam. He said combining two different vaccines in this way could also boost immune responses, potentially leading to better protection against covid-19. The trial, which is being led by researchers at the University of Oxford and funded by the UK government’s vaccine taskforce, will recruit 820 volunteers over the age of 50 who haven’t yet received a covid-19 vaccine. Participants will then receive a first dose of either the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca or the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Some of them will get the same vaccine again for their second dose four or 12 weeks later and others will get a second dose of the other vaccine, to test the effect of combining the two shots and of different time intervals between doses. 

UK vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the country is on track to meet its target of vaccinating all people in the four priority groups against covid-19 by 15 February. He told parliament it has been “an incredible effort” that has “drawn on the hard work of so many”. Last month, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK government aims to have given a first dose of covid-19 vaccine to all those over 70, the most clinically vulnerable people and frontline health and social care workers by 15 February – equivalent to about 15 million people. Across the UK, more than 10.4 million people had received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine as of 4 February.

Other coronavirus news

International travel was associated with increased death rates in the worst-affected countries during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study published in the scientific journal BMJ Open. Tiberiu Pana at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and colleagues analysed the relationship between country-level factors – such as international arrivals, population density and health indicators – and the average increase in daily deaths recorded in early 2020 across the 37 countries with the highest death rates from covid-19. They found that the biggest increase in death rates was associated with international arrivals. An increase of a million international arrivals was associated with a 3.4 per cent rise in the average daily increase in covid-19 deaths.

A World Health Organization scientist has said society is unlikely to return to “normal” until 2022. “I think we are going to be well into next year before we see a change – that change is likely to be caused by high coverage of the vaccines,” said Helen Rees, who sits on the WHO’s committee for covid-19. “I think this new normal we all talk about is with us for a very long time,” Rees told BBC Wales Live.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.27 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 104 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Tweaking vaccines: The coronavirus is evolving to evade the protection from vaccines and natural immunity – what can we do to fight back?

Vaccine nationalism: The fastest way to end the covid-19 crisis is for countries to put the interests of the world ahead of their own, says Seth Berkley.

Royal Navy medics prepare syringes of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre

Royal Navy medics prepare syringes of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Bath, UK

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

3 February

Covid-19 vaccine against new variants could be deployed rapidly, says Oxford vaccine researcher

A version of the covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca that can tackle the new, highly transmissible coronavirus variants could be ready to deploy in about 7 months in the UK, according to a researcher on the Oxford vaccine team. “The actual work on designing a new vaccine is very, very quick because it’s essentially just switching out the genetic sequence for the spike protein,” Andrew Pollard at the University of Oxford told the BBC. “And then there’s manufacturing to do and then a small scale study. So all of that can be completed in a very short period of time, and the autumn is really the timing for having new vaccines available for use,” he said. Pollard said work is already underway to update the vaccine and increase its efficacy against recently identified coronavirus mutations, such as those in the variants first sequenced in the UK and South Africa.

Preliminary results suggest that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce coronavirus transmission, in addition to reducing symptomatic covid-19 and severe illness. UK health minister Matt Hancock praised the findings of the study led by researchers at the University of Oxford. The results indicate that two doses of the jab reduce coronavirus infection with or without symptoms by 67 per cent. They also suggest that a single dose of the vaccine is 76 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic covid-19 for three months, with this figure increasing to 82 per cent after two doses. Hancock described the results as “absolutely superb” and said they show that “vaccines are the way out of this pandemic”.

Other coronavirus news

A mobile coronavirus testing unit has been set up in the town of Southport in England to test residents for the coronavirus and identify if they have the variant first identified in South Africa. Firefighters and council staff are also delivering 10,000 home testing kits to people living in the area.

Denmark announced plans to introduce a digital “Corona-Pass”, which would allow Danish citizens to prove they have been vaccinated against covid-19 for the purposes of business and leisure travel, according to the country’s finance ministry.

Israel will start expanding its covid-19 vaccination programme to everyone over the age of 16, according to its health ministry.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.25 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 104 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Pandemic burnout: As the coronavirus crisis goes on, an increasing number of us are feeling worn out and unable to cope. Here’s how you can tell if this is burnout, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Vaccine during pregnancy: With little safety data available on covid-19 vaccines during pregnancy, individuals who are pregnant must weigh up the risks and benefits for themselves, while evidence for those who are breastfeeding is more clear.

Passengers push luggage on trolleys through a terminal at London's Heathrow airport

Travellers arrive at London’s Heathrow airport

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2 February

UK science advisers recommended introduction of travel restrictions two weeks ago

The UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised the government to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers arriving into the UK two weeks ago, according to minutes from a meeting on 21 January that were leaked to the Times. On Thursday 21 January, SAGE reportedly warned that “reactive, geographically targeted” travel bans couldn’t be relied on to prevent faster-spreading coronavirus variants, such as those identified in South Africa and Brazil, from reaching the UK, adding that: “no intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully preventing the importation of new cases or new variants.” 

A Downing Street spokesperson said SAGE did not directly advise UK prime minister Boris Johnson to close borders. Universities minister Michelle Donelan told Sky News that the government “always based our decisions on the best medical and scientific advice” and said “the SAGE advice actually said it would probably be ineffective, in fact, to close the borders, which was the same advice that we got at the time from the World Health Organization”. Johnson announced geographically targeted hotel quarantine measures for travellers returning from 30 countries, including Brazil and South Africa, last week.

UK health minister Matt Hancock urged people living in postcodes in England singled out for enhanced coronavirus testing for the so-called South Africa variant to stay at home unless “absolutely essential”. Urgent door-to-door testing for the faster-spreading variant has been deployed after 11 cases with no link to foreign travel were identified in parts of England.

Other coronavirus news

Interim results from phase III trials suggest Russia’s covid-19 vaccine is 91.6 per cent effective, and data on the vaccine is being submitted to the European Medicines Agency, according to Kirill Dmitriev, director of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The results, based on a phase III trial including 21,977 adults, three-quarters of whom received the Sputnik V vaccine, are published in scientific journal the Lancet. Other participants received a placebo. 

Sweden announced it would not recommend the covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca for people aged over 65, hours after Poland said it would not offer the vaccine to over 60s. Last week, medical experts in Germany and Austria made similar recommendations, citing a lack of data in this age group. The European Medicines Agency authorised the vaccine for use in all adult age groups across the European Union and June Raine, chief executive of the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, last week said: “Current evidence does not suggest any lack of protection against covid-19 in people aged 65 or over. The data we have shows that the vaccine produces a strong immune response in the over-65s.”

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.24 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 103 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Faster-spreading variants: The faster-spreading UK coronavirus variant has acquired a mutation that will help it evade immune protection – the same mutation already found in the South African variant.

Article amended on 4 February 2021

We corrected June Raine’s name.

A health worker talks with a man taking a swab test in a park

A health worker talks with a man taking a swab test in Goldsworth Park, as the South African variant of the novel coronavirus is reported in parts of Surrey, in Woking, UK, 1 February 2021

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

1 February

All adults in parts of England to be tested for South Africa variant after 11 new cases identified

Door-to-door testing for the so-called South Africa coronavirus variant will begin in parts of England this week, after 11 cases with no known links to travel or to previous cases were identified in eight areas of the country. Urgent testing of adults, regardless of symptoms, will take place in some postcodes in Hertfordshire, Surrey, Kent, Walsall, Sefton and in the London boroughs of Merton, Haringey and Ealing. “We are trying to contain this so it does not spread,” Susan Hopkins, senior medical adviser at Public Health England told the BBC. Any newly identified infections will be analysed to see if they are caused by the highly transmissible coronavirus variant first sequenced in South Africa. 

UK health minister Matt Hancock “has ordered an attempt at eradication of the new variant if at all possible”, with public health officials starting to go door-to-door in affected areas this week, according to a briefing seen by the Guardian. “This is a precautionary measure,” said Ruth Hutchinson, director of public health for Surrey, in a statement. “The more cases of the variant we find, the better chance we have at stopping it from spreading further,” said Hutchinson, adding: “It’s really important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, so you don’t need to worry.”

Other coronavirus news

A covid-19 vaccine has now been offered to older residents at every eligible care home in England, the NHS announced, but vaccination rates of care home staff are lagging behind residents. Fiona Carragher, director of research and influencing at Alzheimer’s Society told the BBC she remained concerned that the vaccination rollout for care home staff “has not been nearly so effective”. In January, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK government aims to vaccinate all those over 70, the most clinically vulnerable people and frontline health and social care workers by 15 February – equivalent to about 15 million vaccinations. Across the UK, more than 8.9 million people had received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine as of 30 January.

The European Union said AstraZeneca has agreed to supply it with 9 million additional doses of its covid-19 vaccine, developed in partnership with the University of Oxford. This brings the total number of expected doses for the first quarter of this year to 40 million, which is about half of what the EU was originally expecting. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted saying the company would expand its manufacturing capacity in Europe, and start delivering doses a week earlier than scheduled.

Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn hinted that covid-19 vaccines from China and Russia could be used in Europe to compensate for the shortfall of doses supplied by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, and by Oxford/AstraZeneca. “Regardless of the country in which a vaccine is manufactured, if they are safe and effective, they can help cope with the pandemic,” Spahn told German media on Sunday, adding that any vaccine will first need to be approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.23 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 103 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Can vaccines stop transmission?: Several studies suggest that coronavirus vaccines can significantly reduce transmission of the virus, but not halt it completely – so social distancing is still necessary.

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A lab technician working at Janssen Pharmaceutical in Beerse, Belgium

Virginia Mayo/AP/Shutterstock

29 January

Vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax report positive trial results

A coronavirus vaccine developed by the US firm Novavax has been shown to be 89 per cent effective in preventing covid-19 in clinical trials. The trials included participants in the UK and South Africa, and found the vaccine to be 86 per cent effective against the UK variant of the virus, but only 60 per cent effective against the variant in South Africa. Novavax said it will immediately begin development on a vaccine specifically targeted to the South African variant.

Janssen, a subsidiary of US firm Johnson & Johnson, announced that its covid-19 vaccine showed 66 per cent efficacy in an international trial. These results are based on a single dose of the vaccine, which makes it easier to administer than the two-shot vaccines that have already been approved. The company has said it will sell its vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.

The UK has already ordered 30 million doses of the Janssen vaccine and the European Union has ordered 400 million. The UK has also ordered 60 million doses of the Novavax jab.

Other coronavirus news

The European Medicines Agency has recommended the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for all adults, which will allow mass use of the vaccine in the European Union. Yesterday, a German committee recommended against approving the vaccine for people over 65 because of insufficient data in the trials, but the EMA’s experts said protection could be expected in this group and there is reliable information on safety. The vaccine is already the subject of a dispute between AstraZeneca and the EU over the firm’s decision to supply fewer doses to the EU this year than initially agreed. Today, the European Commission published parts of its contract with AstraZeneca, which it says obliges the company to supply the agreed volumes. The drug-maker says the contract only obliges it to make its “best effort” to meet the EU demand, not to stick to a specific timetable. The EU also announced export restrictions on vaccines made within the bloc in response to the planned cut in deliveries. 

The coronavirus variant from South Africa – which is more infectiousness  than the original variant has been detected in the US for the first time, with two cases confirmed in South Carolina

The New York state government has released new figures showing that it undercounted deaths from covid-19 in nursing home residents by more than 3800. The state’s overall death toll has not increased, but the higher tally in nursing homes has fuelled criticism that governor Andrew Cuomo did not do enough to protect those residents.

In the UK, covid-19 hospital admissions fell to 33.51 per 100,000 people from a rate of 35.64 in the week ending 24 January, figures from the Office for National Statistics show. One in 55 people in private households in England tested positive for covid-19 between 17 and 23 January, which is similar to the previous week. The infection rate was roughly one in 70 in Wales, one in 50 in Northern Ireland and one in 110 in Scotland. The R number for the UK is between 0.7 and 1.1, according to the latest estimate by the government’s scientific advisory group. The R number is the number of people each person with covid-19 will go on to infect.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Global vaccine distribution: While mass immunisation programmes are making rapid progress in rich nations, many middle-income countries have only just begun roll-outs and most low-income ones will take months to get started. These delays increase the risk of mutations leading to variants that are more transmissible,and may render vaccines less effective in future.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.19 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 101 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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