By Michael Le Page, Clare Wilson, Jessica Hamzelou, Sam Wong, Graham Lawton, Adam Vaughan, Conrad Quilty-Harper, Jason Arunn Murugesu and Layal Liverpool
Latest coronavirus news as of 1pm on 14 January
Wales joins Scotland and Northern Ireland in planning exit strategy from omicron restrictions
Wales is reversing some of its restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of covid-19 over the next few weeks, as cases there have started to fall. From Saturday, the number of people who can attend an outdoor event will rise from 50 to 500. That will rise to unlimited numbers on 21 January, although covid passes will still be required. From 28 January, nightclubs can reopen and pubs and restaurants can return to operating normally, although covid passes will still be needed for cinemas and theatres.
Tighter restrictions were introduced in Wales in late December as the country experienced a surge of omicron cases. But these peaked on 30 December and have since been falling equally rapidly. Scotland and Northern Ireland also set tighter rules in December, although in England, omicron restrictions were limited to advising people to work from home where possible and making face masks mandatory again in shops, cinemas and theatres. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford denied the move was a U-turn and said he was following the science. Scotland will also remove any restrictions on numbers at large sporting events from next week. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Paul Givan has said restrictions could start to be eased next week.
Other coronavirus news
Panic buying has started in some shops in China, when citizens were told on the Ministry of Commerce website to stockpile food and other daily necessities. They were told “to store a certain amount of daily necessities as needed to meet daily life and emergencies”. State newspaper, The Economic Daily, said the move was to ensure people were prepared in the event of a covid-19 lockdown. Covid-19 cases are very low in China, but there are local lockdowns and mass testing to try to stamp out local outbreaks.
Israel has now administered half a million fourth doses of coronavirus vaccines, in an effort to blunt its surge of omicron cases. But the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said last week they would not be recommending fourth jabs, as three doses were continuing to provide good protection after three months.
The Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson tested positive for covid-19, her spokesperson announced today. Andersson was reported to be “feeling fine”.
Essential information about coronavirus
Where did coronavirus come from? And other covid-19 questions answered
What is covid-19?
Covid-19 vaccines: Everything you need to know about the leading shots
Long covid: Do I have it, how long will it last and can we treat it?
What’s the fairest way to share covid-19 vaccines around the world?
Covid-19: The story of a pandemic
What to read, watch and listen to about coronavirus
New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.
The Jump is a BBC Radio 4 series exploring how viruses can cross from animals into humans to cause pandemics. The first episode examines the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.
Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? is a BBC documentary, which investigates what the high covid-19 death rates in ethnic minority patients reveal about health inequality in the UK.
Panorama: The Race for a Vaccine is a BBC documentary about the inside story of the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against covid-19.
Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.
The New York Times is assessing the progress in development of potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.
Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.
Belly Mujinga: Searching for the Truth is a BBC Panorama investigation of the death of transport worker Belly Mujinga from covid-19, following reports she had been coughed and spat on by a customer at London’s Victoria Station.
Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.
COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.
The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.
Isolation period shortened for people with covid-19 in England
People who test positive for covid-19 in England will be able to stop self-isolating after five days if they have two negative lateral flow test results, the UK health minister has announced.
Sajid Javid told MPs in the House of Commons that UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed “that around two-thirds of positive cases are no longer infectious by the end of day five”.
From Monday, people will be able to finish isolation at the start of day six if they record two negative results on lateral flow tests on days five and six. The change is intended to maximise activity in the economy and education while minimising the risk of people passing on the virus, he said..
Previously, people with covid-19 had to self-isolate for a minimum of seven days. The move follows a similar policy change in the US.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “This is a pragmatic move which leaders will welcome if it can mean more health and care workers who are well enough can return to the frontline, providing it does not significantly add to the risk of the virus spreading.”
Other coronavirus news
England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam is to leave his role at the end of March. Van-Tam, whose appearances in televised covid-19 briefings have been widely praised, has been on secondment to the Department of Health from the University of Nottingham since 2017. He will return to the university to take up a new role as pro-vice chancellor for the faculty of medicine and health sciences. UK prime minister Boris Johnson thanked Van-Tam “for his extraordinary contribution to our country and his invaluable advice throughout the pandemic”.
It is too soon to say the coronavirus is moving into an endemic phase, a World Health Organization official has warned. “Endemicity assumes that there’s stable circulation of the virus, at predictable levels with predictable waves of transmission… that doesn’t rely on external forces being placed in order to maintain that stability,” Catherine Smallwood said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But what we’re seeing at the moment, coming into 2022, is nowhere near that. We can’t just sit back and see a stable rate of transmission.”
Measures to tackle covid-19 also led to a dramatic fall in hospital admissions for common childhood infections in England, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal. There were thousands fewer admissions for meningitis, flu, tonsillitis and pneumonia and other conditions as the nation went into lockdown, schools closed and children’s social contacts significantly reduced. Some children with pre-existing conditions such as asthma were also “substantially protected” from other infections that could have potentially been life-threatening, researchers reported. The study analysed data from 2017 to mid-2021.
Around three-quarters of teachers in France are expected to strike today in protest at the government’s handling of covid-19 measures. Since the start of January, a surge in cases caused by the omicron variant has led to major disruption, with about 10,000 classes closed due to infections among staff and pupils. Teaching unions are demanding better protections against the virus, including high-quality face masks for staff and carbon dioxide monitors.
The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly moving toward becoming endemic, according to the European Medicines Agency
As cases of coronavirus continue to soar around the world, the status of the coronavirus outbreak is rapidly moving from pandemic to endemic, according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
“Nobody knows exactly when we’ll be at the end of the tunnel, but we’ll [get] there,” EMA head of biological health threats and vaccine strategy Marco Cavaleri told journalists at a press briefing on 11 January. “What is important and what we’re seeing is that we are moving towards the virus being more endemic.”
Cavaleri didn’t define what he meant by endemic. The term technically means that infections are stable and predictable.
Cases continue to rise across Europe. Germany and Bulgaria both reported the highest daily rate of new cases since the start of the pandemic in the last 24 hours, for example, Al Jazeera reports.
“We should not forget that we are still in a pandemic,” Cavaleri said. “Nevertheless… with omicron there will be a lot of natural immunity taking place on top of vaccination, we will be [rapidly] moving towards a scenario that will be closer to endemicity.”
Cavaleri also warned that the repeated delivery of booster doses of covid-19 vaccines is not a sustainable strategy for managing outbreaks. “We are rather concerned about a strategy that entangles repeated vaccination within a short term,” he said. While booster doses might be necessary for those who are immunosuppressed or otherwise vulnerable to severe disease, “we cannot really continuously give a booster dose every three or four months”, he said.
However, Ugur Sahin, the head of BioNTech, yesterday told the JP Morgan Health Care Conference: “We do not know how much immunity is associated with an omicron infection.”
He said that the company will start a clinical trial of an omicron-specific Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by the end of this month and that commercial-scale manufacturing of this vaccine has already begun. “We anticipate to be ready for market supply by March 2022, subject to regulatory approval.”
Asked if the vaccine will come too late to have a meaningful effect on the omicron surge, Sahin said “Because most of the infections are mild, it is quite possible that even an infection with omicron requires an additional booster to ensure prolonged protection.”
He also told the conference that three billion doses of the original Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were made in 2021. The companies shipped 2.6 billion doses and more than a billion people in 162 countries or regions have been vaccinated with them, the head of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, told the JP Morgan healthcare conference on 11 January.
“Millions of cases of severe illness or death [were] likely averted,” he said.
More than 50 per cent of people in Europe will be infected by the omicron variant within the next 6 to 8 weeks, warns WHO
Most people in Europe will become infected with the omicron variant in the next 6 to 8 weeks if the trend in case rates continues, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
The region saw 7 million new cases of covid-19 in the first week of 2022 – a figure that had more than doubled over a two-week period, WHO regional director for Europe Hans Kluge told journalists at a press briefing on Tuesday.
“As of 10 January, 26 countries reported over 1 per cent of their population is catching covid-19 each week,” Kluge said. “At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with omicron in the next 6 to 8 weeks.”
Other coronavirus news
Over 176,000 people in the UK have had covid-19 mentioned on their death certificate since the start of pandemic, according to the nation’s Office for National Statistics, The Guardian reports.
The 176,035 figure is higher than the UK government’s official count, which currently stands at 173,509. The figure for deaths within 28 days of a positive test currently stands at 150,230.
Cases remain high in the UK. Over 1.2 million cases have been recorded in the last seven days, and 142,224 cases were reported yesterday alone.
The US recorded 1.35 million cases of coronavirus infections on Monday – the highest daily total for any country in the world since the pandemic began, according to a tally by news agency Reuters.
The previous record for the US was 1.03 million cases, which was reported on 3 January, Reuters reports.
The entire US is currently experiencing high levels of community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Covid Data Tracker. Over the last seven days, over 4.1 million cases have been recorded in the US, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The figure represents an 86 per cent increase on the previous week.
The number of people hospitalised with a coronavirus infection also continues to rise in the country. As of Sunday, 142,388 people with the virus were hospitalised – a record-breaking figure that surpasses the peak of 142,315 reported on 14 January last year, reports the New York Times.
In the last seven days, 8,720 people in the US have died with a coronavirus infection, according to the HHS. So far, around 838,000 people in the US have lost their lives to the virus.
UK Prime Minister expected to announce plans for ‘living with covid’ in coming weeks
UK government ministers are hinting at plans for the nation to “live with covid”. “I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic,” Nadhim Zahawi, former minister for covid vaccine deployment, told Sky News on Sunday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce details of such a plan within the coming weeks.
“We are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating,” senior minister Michael Gove told Sky News. “But it’s absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet.”
To be considered endemic, a disease outbreak would be consistently present in a region, with predictable spread and infection rates. The spread and rates of the disease would be predictable. This is currently far from the case in the UK, where over 150,000 deaths have been reported so far, and 141,472 new cases were reported on Sunday.
Scientists have expressed concern. Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh points out that no country has learned to live with covid without “crashing health services, social life, the economy or having widespread disruption” in one way or another.
“They say that we have to learn to live with it, but we’re not learning,” Christina Pagel at University College London told Times Radio. “We’re just pretending it’s not happening.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead on covid-19 at the World Health Organization (WHO), previously told New Scientist that she dislikes the phrase “learning to live with the virus”, saying: “I don’t think we should learn to live with it. There are lots of things we can be doing to stop the virus from spreading. No level of death from covid-19 is acceptable to me.”
Other coronavirus news
Tennis player Novak Djokovic has been released from detention in Australia after winning a legal battle with the country’s government over his vaccination status. Djokovic had been granted an exemption from Australia’s visa vaccination requirements, but had been held by border forces. Immigration minister Alex Hawke could still move to cancel Djokovic’s visa.
UK ministers have denied reports that rapid-acting lateral flow tests will cease to be offered on a free-of-charge basis in England, at least for the time being. Zahawi told Sky News on Sunday that there were “absolutely not” any plans to stop such free testing. Gove didn’t deny the reports, and separately told Sky News that it was “impossible to predict” how long free lateral flow testing would be necessary.
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The potentially massive scale of unrecorded covid-19 deaths in India’s second wave means the official world death toll may be a significant underestimate
India’s death toll from covid-19 may be six to seven times greater than that officially recorded. The country’s records say that nearly half a million people have died from coronavirus infections so far, but the latest study estimates the real figure is 3.2 million deaths up to July last year.
If correct, this means the worldwide death toll from the coronavirus would be pushed up from 5.4 to 8.1 million – although other countries may also have underestimated their death rates. “This may require substantial upward revision of the World Health Organization’s estimates of cumulative global covid mortality,” Prabhat Jha at the University of Toronto and colleagues say in their paper.
India experienced a huge second wave of coronavirus infections in the first half of 2021, leaving hospitals overwhelmed and a national shortage of oxygen supplies. In common with many other low and middle-income countries, India does not have good systemic methods for recording causes of death, especially those that occur in rural areas. For instance, Jha’s team say that in 2020, an estimated eight in ten deaths did not involve medical certification, which is standard procedure in richer countries.
Jha’s team reached the figure of 3.2 million by using government data on all-cause mortality and an ongoing telephone survey of 140,000 adults across the country, which asked people about covid-19 symptoms and deaths in their households.
Other coronavirus news
The military is being deployed to help in London hospitals due to staff shortages caused by covid-19 infections and people self-isolating. The two hundred members of the armed forces will include doctors, nurses and other personnel for general assistance. London was the first part of England to experience the latest covid-19 surge caused by the omicron variant.
People may need a fourth dose of a covid-19 vaccine by autumn in the northern hemisphere, Stephane Bancel of vaccine manufacturer Moderna has said. Israel has approved giving fourth shots to healthcare workers and people over the age of 60.
Omicron continues to surge in the UK and other European countries
More than 24 NHS trusts have declared critical incidents in England after being overwhelmed by omicron patients. It means priority services may currently be under threat at one in six trusts in England.
In the UK there are currently 17,276 patients in hospital with the virus, according to the latest daily figures – the highest figure since last February. Yesterday close to 200,000 people tested positive for coronavirus.
“The sheer volume of covid cases, rising hospital admissions that have increased to over 15,000 and widespread staff absences that are as high as 10 per cent in some trusts are all combining to place front-line NHS services under enormous strain,” said Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation.
Other countries in Europe are also facing unprecedented numbers of daily coronavirus cases. In France, 332,252 coronavirus cases were recorded yesterday. There were also over 20,000 covid-19 patients in hospital yesterday – the country’s highest figure since late May.
Italy also reported a record number of new coronavirus cases for the second day in a row. The latest total was 189,109. Meanwhile, Turkey hit a record high of 66,467 cases yesterday.
Other coronavirus news
Booster jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds have been approved in the US by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children will be offered a Pfizer/BioNTech booster jab. It follows the approval of boosters in the US for 16 to 17-year-olds in December.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic is being detained in a hotel in Australia after he failed to provide adequate evidence of his vaccination status on entry to the country.
SARS-CoV-2 variant found in France was identified in November
A coronavirus variant first discovered in France in late 2021 has had a lot of chances to spread but did not, according to an official from the World Health Organization (WHO).
The variant has been on the intergovernmental body’s radar since November, Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager said at a press briefing yesterday according to Bloomberg.
The variant was discovered around the same time as omicron.
Known as the B.1.640.2 variant, it caused at least 12 people to fall ill in Marseilles in November. “[It is] too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this… variant based on these 12 cases,” say researchers in a preliminary analysis of the variant’s genome. The variant has 46 mutations and 13 deletions in its genome, say the team.
“This virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised as far as we can tell”, tweeted Tom Peacock, at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the analysis.
Multiple variants of the virus have evolved since the pandemic began but only a handful have gone on to spread widely. The highly-infectious omicron variant is currently sweeping through Europe, and France yesterday recorded 271,686 covid-19 infections, a national record.
Normal life will be made harder for unvaccinated people in France, French president Emmanuel Macron told Le Parisien yesterday.
“We need to tell them, from 15 January, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema.”
Other coronavirus news
The tennis player Novak Djokovic has faced backlash after yesterday saying on Instagram that he had received a medical exemption to take part in the Australian Open. Only people who are fully vaccinated can currently visit Australia. Djokovic has not spoken about his vaccination status, but has previously expressed anti-vaccination sentiments.
The organisers of the tournament, which starts on 17 January, say the athlete has not been given special treatment. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison said the Serbian player would need to show a genuine medical exemption to enter the country unvaccinated.
Delhi will impose a weekend curfew to curb soaring omicron cases in the Indian city. All non-essential activity will be banned from Friday night (7 January) to Monday morning (10 January). The curbs are in addition to a nighttime curfew that has been in place since late December from 11pm and 5am. Cinemas and gyms have also been closed since last week.
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Staff shortages force health service providers to enact emergency measures
At least six National Health Service trusts in England have declared critical incidents as a result of staff shortages caused by covid-19.
A critical incident means that the healthcare providers believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services, and the status enables them to call for help from staff and other organisations. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay and United Lincolnshire Hospitals are among the trusts implementing emergency measures.
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, wrote in a blogpost that many parts of the health service are currently in “a state of crisis”, while community and social care services are at “breaking point”.
On a visit to a vaccination centre in Buckinghamshire yesterday, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said: “I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.”
Meanwhile, as children return to schools today, the government has recommended the wearing of face masks in secondary classrooms in England, as is already advised in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Head teachers have warned that high levels of staff absences could lead to children being sent home to learn remotely.
Other coronavirus news
Covid-19 cases may have plateaued in London and could start to fall in other parts of the UK within 3 weeks, an epidemiologist and government adviser has said. Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that infection rates in the capital appear to be stabilising in the 18 to 50 age group, which has been driving the omicron epidemic.
“With an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week; [they] may be already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to 3 weeks,” he said.
“Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen. It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.”
In the US, thousands of schools have delayed the start of term or switched to remote learning amid surging cases caused by the omicron variant. New York City’s mayor has vowed to keep schools open despite soaring infection rates, in contrast to cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. Nationwide, the number of patients in hospital with covid-19 increased by 40 per cent in the past week, according to Reuters.
The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be given to children aged 12 to 15. A panel advising the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will now decide whether to recommend booster shots in this age group.
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Immunity offered by vaccines wanes more quickly with omicron, finds UK study
The protection conferred by booster vaccines against the omicron variant begins to wane within 10 weeks, according to a briefing released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Based on an analysis of 147,597 delta and 68,489 omicron cases, the agency found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are less effective against omicron than delta. For people who had two initial doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the UKHSA estimates that Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna boosters are around 60 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections from omicron 2 to 4 weeks after the third dose, but this falls to 35 to 45 per cent by 10 weeks. For those who had two initial doses of Pfizer/BioNTech, protection falls from 70 per cent at 2 to 4 weeks to 45 per cent at 10 weeks after a Pfizer booster, but stays around 70 to 75 per cent up to 9 weeks after a Moderna booster.
The UKHSA report also estimates that someone infected with omicron is 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital, compared with delta. This is based on a preliminary analysis of 114,144 omicron cases and 461,772 delta cases occurring between 22 November and 19 December. The difference is somewhat larger than suggested by a study published by Imperial College London on Wednesday, which reported a 15 to 20 per cent lower risk.
However, modelling suggests that the severity of omicron would need to be around 90 per cent lower to avoid similar levels of hospital admissions to previous waves, according to minutes from a meeting of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Monday.
“What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences, so it is a very balanced position,” Jenny Harris, chief executive of UKHSA, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.
The UK recorded 119,789 new cases of covid-19 yesterday, setting another record. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1.4 million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending 16 December, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.
Other coronavirus news
Healthcare workers in the US who have tested positive for covid-19 but do not have symptoms can stop isolating after seven days instead of 10, if they test negative for the virus, under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Italy has banned public new year’s eve celebrations as well as all concerts and open air events until 31 January, aiming to curb a rise in infections driven by the omicron variant. Mask wearing will also be compulsory in outdoor public places under new rules.
Australia will cut the interval between second doses and booster shots from 5 months to 4 from 4 January, and then to 3 months on 31 January.
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The year of coronavirus variants: How alpha, delta and omicron brought new waves of disease across the world in 2021.
Cuba’s homegrown vaccines: Four months ago, hospitals in Cuba collapsed because of skyrocketing covid-19, but locally made vaccines have succeeded in bringing the outbreak under control.
Vaccine hesitancy: It is more important than ever for the UK to reach out to communities where concerns over vaccination are more common, such as pregnant women and some ethnic groups, reports Jason Arunn Murugesu.
See previous updates from November to December 2021, September to October 2021, July to September 2021, June to July 2021, May 2021, April-March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November/December 2020, and March to November 2020.
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