Latest coronavirus news as of midday 21 March
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is thought to have helped an immunocompromised person clear the covid-19 virus
Two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are thought to have cleared the SARS-CoV-2 virus from a person who first tested positive more than 7 months earlier. This is the first known time a covid-19 vaccine has been used to treat, rather than prevent, the infection.
Ian Lester has the rare genetic disease Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, which weakens the immune system. Lester, 37, first tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in December 2020. His immune system was unable to fight off the infection naturally for at least 218 days.
“Given the persistent positive PCR tests and impact on his health and mental health, we decided on a unique therapeutic approach,” said Stephen Jolles at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine in a statement.
“We administered two doses of the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine, one month apart, and very quickly saw a strong antibody response, much stronger than had been induced by the prolonged natural infection.”
Lester was confirmed to have cleared SARS-CoV-2 72 days after the first vaccine dose and 218 days after his infection was detected.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time mRNA vaccination has been used to clear persistent COVID-19 infection,” said Mark Ponsford, at Cardiff University.
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England has rolled out a booster jab programme for people aged 75 and over, care home residents and people aged 12 and over who have a weakened immune system. The Office for National Statistics estimates one in 20 people in England had covid-19 in the week ending 12 March. It is hoped that the booster programme will protect people amid surging cases of the omicron BA.2 sublineage. Similar boosters are already being administered to some groups in Scotland and Wales.
China reported two covid-19 related deaths on 19 March, its first official covid-19 fatalities since January 2021. Both people died of underlying medical conditions, with mild covid-19 symptoms, according to Jiao Yahui at China’s National Health Commission. The deaths occurred in the province Jilin, where more than two-thirds of the country’s cases have been reported amid its current covid-19 wave. On 19 March, China’s reported new infections hit a rolling seven-day average of 2333 infections.
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What to read, watch and listen to about coronavirus
New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.
The Jump is a BBC Radio 4 series exploring how viruses can cross from animals into humans to cause pandemics. The first episode examines the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.
Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? is a BBC documentary, which investigates what the high covid-19 death rates in ethnic minority patients reveal about health inequality in the UK.
Panorama: The Race for a Vaccine is a BBC documentary about the inside story of the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against covid-19.
Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.
The New York Times is assessing the progress in development of potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.
Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.
Belly Mujinga: Searching for the Truth is a BBC Panorama investigation of the death of transport worker Belly Mujinga from covid-19, following reports she had been coughed and spat on by a customer at London’s Victoria Station.
Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.
Stopping the Next Pandemic: How Covid-19 Can Help Us Save Humanity by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.
The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.
Covid-19 is surging in China, with more than 5000 new cases a day
China yesterday reported 5280 new SARS-CoV-2 cases, more than double the previous day’s count and its highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic. The surge has prompted the introduction of full or partial lockdowns in various cities across the country.
China has been pursuing a strict ‘zero covid’ strategy, which until recently had largely kept outbreaks under control. The omicron variant, however, is more transmissible than previous variants and is probably driving the current surge.
Cities across the country are now in full or partial lockdowns. The north-east province Jilin is the worst affected, accounting for more than 3000 of China’s new reported cases on 15 March. Speaking on 14 March, Jilin’s governor vowed to “achieve community zero-Covid in a week”.
China’s rising cases correspond with a global increase in SARS-CoV-2 transmission. A World Health Organization report reveals the number of new reported infections between 7 and 13 March increased by eight per cent compared to the previous week. The number of new weekly cases had been declining since the end of January.
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Face covering rules in Scotland will remain in place until April. On 15 March, Scotland reported 38,770 new covid cases, up from a daily average of 6,900 three weeks ago. As a result, coverings will continue to be required on public transport and in shops, although other covid restrictions will be lifted on 21 March. The BA.2 omicron sublineage, which is even more transmissible than the initial omicron variant, accounts for 80 per cent of Scotland’s SARS-CoV-2 cases, according to first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who added it is “prudent” to keep mask rules in place. A small study has linked covid-19 with cardiovascular changes among unvaccinated people without any pre-existing medical conditions. Fábio Santos de Lira from São Paulo State University and his colleagues looked at 38 people, aged 20 to 40, less than six months after they were infected with SARS-CoV-2. Even mild or moderate infections were linked to cardiovascular changes that resulted in a raised heart rate, which affected some of the participants’s ability to climb stairs or walk.
Nearly 400,000 people in the UK tested positive for the coronavirus last week
Government statistics show 399,820 people tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the UK between 5 and 11 March, an increase of 143,956 (56.3 per cent) on the previous seven days. Between 1 and 7 March, hospitalisations increased by 16.9 per cent from the previous week. Deaths within 28 days of a positive test are rising more slowly, with a week-on-week increase of 2.8 per cent as of 11 March. Easing restrictions, waning immunity and the more transmissible omicron sublineage BA.2 are thought to be driving the surge in cases.
Amid the rise in infections, ministers have been criticised for scrapping England’s React study at the end of March. React randomly tests about 150,000 people across the country for SARS-CoV-2 each month to gauge nationwide infection levels. Talking to The Guardian, one scientist called the move “about as far from ‘following the science’ as you can get”, while another accused ministers of “turning off the headlights at the first sight of dawn”.
Ministers are also being urged to consider offering older people a fourth vaccine dose. In England, people with a suppressed immune system, living in a care home or aged 75 or older are set to be offered an additional jab in April. Some scientists are calling for the age requirement to be set lower. However, a small Israeli study of healthcare workers found a fourth dose increased some antibody levels, but this did not translate into boosted immunity.
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China’s covid-19 cases have doubled in 24 hours amid its worst outbreak in two years. Nearly 3400 new cases were reported on 13 March, double the previous day. This has prompted schools to shut in Shanghai, China’s biggest city, and regional lockdowns to be introduced in several north-eastern hotspots. The surge in cases is thought to be driven by omicron and a rise in asymptomatic infections.
Latest on covid-19 from New Scientist
Many countries have scaled back their coronavirus restrictions, but Iceland is going further with a plan to let infections spread
The monoclonal antibody sotrovimab has been linked to a drug-resistant mutation in SARS-CoV-2.
A study in Australia suggests that sotrovimab, a treatment for covid, may cause the coronavirus to acquire mutations that enable it to resist the drug.
Sotrovimab neutralises SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells. Given through a drip, sotrovimab can be administered to people within five days of their infection to prevent symptoms from becoming severe.
Rebecca Rockett from the University of Sydney and her colleagues reviewed the first 100 people who received sotrovimab at a healthcare facility in New South Wales between August and November 2021, when the delta variant of the virus was dominant. Eight of the people who were treated persistently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and had airway samples collected before and after they received sotrovimab.
In four of these patients, SARS-CoV-2 developed spike mutations between six and 13 days after sotrovimab was administered, with these genetic changes making the drug ‘effectively inactive’, said Rockett, as reported in The Guardian.
The researchers are calling for increased genomic surveillance around sotrovimab’s use. “What we don’t want to see is resistant virus disseminating in the community, because that will mean that a lot of other people can’t use this drug as well,” said Rockett.
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The WHO has warned the pandemic is “far from over”. The number of global recorded deaths between 28 February and 6 March declined by 8 per cent compared to the previous week, with recorded infections also falling by 5 per cent. “Although reported cases and deaths are declining globally, and several countries have lifted restrictions, the pandemic is far from over – and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said on 9 March. “The virus continues to evolve, and we continue to face major obstacles in distributing vaccines, tests and treatments everywhere they are needed.”
A surveillance programme that looks for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater has been rolled out across Northern Ireland, the BBC reported. Wastewater samples from 31 sites are being collected every day and sent to a Queen’s University Belfast laboratory for testing. Gauging infection levels in specific areas may help to prevent large SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks, with the technology also looking for new variants.
Covid deaths and new infections are continuing to decline after the peak of the omicron surge
The number of global recorded covid deaths between 28 February and 6 March declined by 8 per cent compared to the previous week. In its weekly update, the WHO reported the number of recorded new SARS-CoV-2 infections also decreased by 5 per cent week-on-week.
In the week starting 28 February, more than 10 million new covid cases and 52,000 deaths were reported across the WHO’s six regions.
Case numbers only increased in the Western Pacific Region, rising by 46 per cent. Covid deaths rose in the Western Pacific and Eastern Mediterranean regions, by 29 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively, with fatalities falling elsewhere.
The surge in infection caused by the omicron variant appears to have peaked in February. But the WHO has stressed that countries vary in their testing strategies and therefore any trends should be interpreted with caution.
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However, in the UK, reported coronavirus cases have increased by nearly two-fifths week-on-week. According to government data,322,917 people reported a positive test between 2 and 8 March, an increase of 90,944 (39.2 per cent) from the previous week. Hospital covid admissions are also rising, with 8763 people admitted between 26 February and 4 March, an increase of 11.1 per cent from the previous week. Deaths have slightly declined, however. Between 2 and 8 March, 729 people died within 28 days of a positive test, 12 (1.6 per cent) fewer than the previous week.
The number of cancer research studies funded in the UK fell by 32 per cent in the first year of the pandemic, according to figures from the National Cancer Research Institute. The money awarded to these projects plunged by 57 per cent, The Guardian reports. The closing of charity shops and cancelled fundraising events are thought to have contributed to the problem.
Booster jabs substantially increased protection against omicron but efficacy starts to fall after two months
The protection given by vaccine booster shots against the omicron variant starts to decline after two months, a study has found.
Researchers at the UK Health Security Agency looked at covid-19 infections in the UK between 27 November 2021 and 12 January 2022 – the period in which the omicron variant started to spread widely. The data included over one million people who had been infected with either the delta or omicron variant.
The researchers only looked at whether people developed a mild illness and not whether someone was hospitalised or not.
They found that a booster dose substantially increased protection against developing mild illness from the omicron variant. Two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were only 8.8 per cent effective against the omicron variant after 25 or more weeks. But a third booster dose of this vaccine increased protection to 67.2 per cent. However, this then dropped to 45.7 per cent after 10 or more weeks.
A Moderna booster, given to those who had received two initial doses of the Pfizer jab, was 73.9 per cent effective against mild illness from the omicron variant after two to four weeks. This then dropped to 64.4 per cent after five to nine weeks.
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Mainland China logged its highest daily number of symptomatic coronavirus infections in two years yesterday. China reported 214 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms on Sunday – it is the nation’s highest number of cases recorded in a single day since March 2020.
The global recorded death toll from covid-19 has passed six million. The toll, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, stood at 6,000,394 as of Monday midday.
This number is likely to be a gross underestimate of how many people have actually died from the virus globally. This is due to poor reporting and testing mechanisms in many parts of the world.
Immune-suppressing treatment reduces deaths even in people already taking existing covid-19 medicines
Another treatment has been shown to help people hospitalised with severe covid-19: an arthritis medicine called baricitinib, which works by dampening the immune response. In the later stages of covid-19, overactivity of the immune system contributes to damage to the lungs and the blood clotting system, which causes tiny blood clots to form throughout the body.
Baricitinib was already being used in some countries, but a large UK trial has now shown that adding it to the other treatments used against covid-19 further reduces the death rate by 13 per cent. Most people in the study were already being given the steroid treatment dexamethasone, the first medicine shown to reduce deaths in covid-19, which also suppresses the inflammatory immune reaction. When this result is combined with other trials, it suggests baricitinib could reduce deaths by one fifth.
Baricitinib works by blocking the actions of an immune system compound called interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is raised in severe covid-19. It comes in tablet form, making it easier to give than another IL-6-blocking medicine called tocilizumab, given through a drip. Nearly a third of people in the trial also received tocilizumab and they still had the additional reduction in deaths from baricitinib.
“As an oral agent with a short half-life and potentially less expensive, this makes baricitinib a more attractive agent after steroids in low/middle-income country settings,” said Athimalaipet Ramanan, at the University of Bristol, UK, in a statement.
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Panic buying has begun in Hong Kong amid fears of an impending lockdown, as cases of covid-19 and deaths due to the virus are soaring. The city, which is in the middle of an omicron surge, has relatively low vaccination rates among its elderly. Two of Hong Kong’s largest retail chains have started rationing some food and medicines.
Measuring fourteen proteins in the blood can help predict if people will get severe covid-19, according to a study that used a genetic technique called Mendelian randomisation to link people’s genes with their risk of illness. The study found six proteins that cause higher rates of hospitalisation or death and eight that protect against such outcomes. One of the risky proteins determines a person’s blood group, supporting previous studies that have suggested people with blood group A are more likely to be admitted to hospital with covid-19.
Pandemic linked to increase in depression and anxiety worldwide
A World Health Organization (WHO) briefing suggests that depression and anxiety have risen substantially during the coronavirus pandemic, with women and young people among the worst affected.
Based on a review of existing evidence into covid-19’s impact on mental health, the briefing largely attributes the rise to the unprecedented stress of social isolation, as well as grieving loved ones, financial worries and fear of infection.
Most of the countries surveyed (90 per cent) have included mental health support in their covid-19 recovery plans, however, the WHO has stressed there are still gaps in care.
“The information we have now about the impact of covid-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a statement. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
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The WHO has conditionally recommended molnupiravir as the first oral antiviral drug for people with non-severe covid who are most at risk of hospitalisation, such as older age groups or people who are immunocompromised. The recommendation is based on six studies with a total of 4796 participants between them. The review found that, when given within five days of the onset of mild symptoms, administering four molnupiravir tablets twice a day for five days can reduce the risk of hospitalisation by 30 per cent.
Covid restrictions are thought to have resulted in there being 720,000 fewer dengue fever infections in 2020 than would normally be expected. The team behind the work were surprised by their findings, having anticipated that rates of the mosquito-transmitted infection would have risen when people were forced to spend more time at home. The latest results, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, contradict previous research by a different team, who warned that an additional 2008 dengue cases may have occurred a month in Thailand amid its 2020 restrictions.
The pandemic may be intensifying pre-existing inequalities between the sexes. US researchers reviewed datasets on issues like healthcare access, economic concerns and safety for 193 countries between March 2020 and September 2021. They found girls were 1.21 times more likely to have dropped out of school than boys, while women were 1.23 times more likely to report an increase in gender-based violence than their male counterparts.
A study of 43 countries suggests the coronavirus pandemic has substantially pushed back fertility treatments, with Scotland facing some of the biggest delays.
A team involving researchers at Monash University, Australia, sent surveys to fertility clinics across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America from October 2020 to September 2021.
Treatment delays were reported in 34 countries, with people waiting an average of 59 days for IVF or an intracytoplasmic sperm injection, when a single sperm is inserted into an egg in a laboratory. Frozen embryo transfers were delayed by an average of 60 days. These occur when embryos from a previous IVF cycle are thawed and inserted into the womb.
The study, which is due to be published in Reproductive Medicine, found that the largest delay in fertility treatments was 228 days, reported by a clinic in Scotland. Austria, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Norway and Portugal were the only countries where the clinics surveyed reported no delays.
On 19 March 2020, the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology advised people to avoid procedures like IVF due to uncertainty around how the coronavirus affected pregnancies. Two days earlier, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine announced a “delay (to) any but the most important care cases”.
“The need to stop or delay treatment was guided by the uncertainty of the virus, and the [need] to reduce the burden of non-essential medical treatments in hospitals to allow resources to be allocated to dealing with people with COVID-19”, said Elizabeth Cutting, at Monash University, in a statement.
“While there was advice regarding virus exposure and transmission, there was a uniform lack of advice regarding the provision of psychological support and how to prioritise patients”.
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Compulsory coronavirus vaccines for care home staff are being scrapped in England from 15 March. The policy previously required anyone working in a Care Quality Commission-registered care home to have two vaccine doses, unless medically exempt. Amid fears of a staffing crisis, the government has said public immunity to the coronavirus is now high due to widespread vaccine uptake and many people recovering from the omicron variant.
Nerve damage may play a role in some cases of long covid. A small study of 17 people experiencing long-term symptoms found that 59 per cent had signs of nerve damage, possibly caused by an overactive immune response. “I think what’s going on here is that the nerves that control things like our breathing, blood vessels and our digestion in some cases are damaged in these long COVID patients,” said neurologist Anne Louise Oaklander, reported by Reuters.
Preliminary laboratory studies suggest that modified T-cells could help treat covid in people on immune-suppressing drugs. Researchers in Germany genetically modified the T-cells of people who had recovered from covid-19 to make them resistant to the drug tacrolimus, which is commonly given to people who have had an organ transplant to prevent rejection. The modified cells then attacked the coronavirus while exposed to tacrolimus in a laboratory experiment.
Study suggests that protection from two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine quickly wanes in children between five and 11
Protection against infection and hospitalisation from the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine falls relatively rapidly in children aged 5 to 11, according to a preliminary study.
Researchers analysed covid-19 cases and hospitalisations among 365,502 fully vaccinated children aged between five to 11, and 852,384 aged between 12 and 17, all of whom lived in New York. They looked at data from 13 December 2021 to 30 January 2022, during a surge of covid-19 infections from the omicron variant.
The team found that, for the older children, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine’s protection against hospitalisation fell from 85 per cent in mid-December to 73 per cent by the end of January. But the drop was steeper for children aged five to 11, with protection against hospitalisation declining from 100 per cent to just 48 per cent.
For protection against infection, effectiveness dropped from 66 per cent to 51 per cent among the 12 to 17 age group, and from 68 per cent to 12 per cent in the younger age group.
Florian Krammer, at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, told the New York Times: “The difference between the two age groups is striking,”
Those in the younger age group receive a 10 microgram dose of the vaccine, compared with 12 to 17-year-olds who receive a 30 microgram dose, which could explain some of the discrepancy in the vaccine’s effectiveness over time.
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Researchers may have found a case of deer-to-human covid-19 transmission in Canada. In a preliminary study published on 25 February, the team traced at least one case of covid-19 in humans back to a strain of the virus found in white-tailed deer.
White-tailed deer had previously been found to be infected with covid-19 in the US and Canada. For the study, the researchers took samples from hunted deers in Ontario, Canada and found 17 were infected with a previously unknown strain of covid-19.
They then found that one person, who had been in contact with deer, had tested positive for similar strain.
Hong Kong today reported 32,597 new infections and 117 deaths – the city’s highest figure since the pandemic began. The city has seen a huge surge in covid-19 cases, with only 739 new cases on 1 February. Hong Kong’s fatality rate is currently one of the highest in the world, which may partly be due to lower vaccination rates in older age groups. To tackle the current surge, the city plans to begin mass testing its 7.4 million residents in mid-March.
See previous updates from February 2022, January 2022, 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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