Covid-19 news: Further restrictions on AstraZeneca jab in Sweden

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Sweden vaccination

People wait to get their vaccines against Covid-19 in a night club turned mass vaccination center in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Latest coronavirus news as of 5pm on 20 April

Sweden adds another layer of restrictions to the AstraZeneca jab in younger people

Sweden has said people under 65 who have had an initial dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine should get a different jab for their second dose, due to the small chance of blood clots. France also has this rule, although there the upper age limit is 55.

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Many other countries have restricted use of this vaccine to people over a certain age, as a rare syndrome of blood clots coupled with low levels of platelets – particles in the blood that stick together to form clots – has mainly been seen in younger people. The syndrome is called vaccine–induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia or VITT. Most other countries, however, say those who have had one dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine should also get the second, due to the unknown effectiveness and safety of mixing vaccine types. That would be “voyaging into an evidence-free zone,” Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said in a press conference. Several trials where vaccine types are being mixed across the two doses are ongoing. 

Sweden’s move comes as the European Medicines Agency says it has found a possible link between eight cases of a similar blood clot syndrome after people in the US had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The same mechanism may be responsible, as both the J&J and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines work by delivering  the coronavirus spike protein within a DNA-based adenovirus. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use mRNA, a different kind of genetic material.

Other coronavirus news

The UK is to set up a taskforce to develop antiviral drugs against the coronavirus that could be taken at home by people who test positive for covid-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced today. Such medicines could also be taken by people who live with someone who has tested positive to prevent them catching the virus. “There might be a tablet you can take at home that will stop the virus in its tracks and reduce the likelihood of severe disease,” said Johnson. An inhaled asthma medicine called budesonide has already been found to shorten duration of illness with covid-19 if taken by people at higher risk due to age or health conditions. 

Cleaning surfaces to try to reduce coronavirus transmission is often a waste of time and may even be harmful, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s because the virus is spread most often through tiny droplets in the air, rather than by people touching contaminated surfaces. The CDC’s Vincent Hill said in a briefing on Monday that frequent cleaning and disinfecting surfaces is merely “hygiene theatre” and could give people a false sense of security. There has been a long-running debate over the relative importance of airborne and surface transmission of the virus.

UK officials are visiting Israel to study the country’s covid-19 vaccine passport scheme, which is used to determine entry to venues such as gyms, restaurants and theatres. Cabinet office minister Michael Gove and England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam are investigating how coronavirus certification could work in the UK. Israel’s “green pass” scheme allows entry to people who have been vaccinated, have recently been infected with covid-19 or who have had a recent negative test. UK trials of vaccine passports are due to start next month at specific events, including the FA cup final.

Coronavirus deaths

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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.

Previous updates

Covid-19

Coronavirus COVID-19 computer generated image.

Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

18 April

Volunteers will be exposed to the coronavirus to learn which immune components confer protection

Young adults who have recovered from covid-19 will have live coronavirus sprayed into their noses to see whether they can be reinfected as part of a new trial. The study, which is being run by  the University of Oxford, is one of two “challenge” trials in the UK. It is designed to reveal, among other things, the elusive “correlates of protection” against SARS-CoV-2– which means the levels of antibodies, T-cells and other immune system components that are required to protect people against infection. This is currently a significant gap in our understanding of the virus, and knowing the correlates of protection could lead to even more rapid vaccine development. That’s because some vaccines are approved based on whether they elicit these measures of protection, bypassing lengthy clinical trials. The other study, using volunteers who have not had covid-19, is already under way at Imperial College London.

Other coronavirus news

More people were diagnosed with covid-19 during the past seven days than any other week since the start of the pandemic, totalling more than 5.2 million globally for the week. The infection count was 12 per cent higher than the previous week. 

The Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine has shown efficacy of 97.6 per cent in real-world data from 3.8 million people who have received two doses, according to the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow. The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

A week-long lockdown has been imposed in Delhi, India. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the measures were necessary to “prevent a collapse of the health system”. India’s rate of new infections is continuing to climb, with over 270,000 cases and 1619 deaths reported today. The UK will add India to the “red list” for travel from Friday, and prime minister Boris Johnson has cancelled a planned trip to India next week because of the country’s coronavirus situation.

Health officials in the UK are investigating whether a covid-19 variant first found in India spreads more easily and evades vaccines, after more than 70 cases were identified in England and Scotland.

The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee has recommended that proof of vaccination should not be required as a condition of international travel. The panel cited limited evidence on whether vaccination against covid-19 reduces people’s ability to transmit the virus and “the persistent inequity in global vaccine distribution”.

Everyone aged 16 and over is now eligible for a vaccine in the US, president Joe Biden announced on Twitter. Almost 130 million people – just over half of adults in the US – have now had at least one covid-19 vaccine dose. The nationwide suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is likely to end by Friday, White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci told ABC News.

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg says her foundation will donate 100,000 euros to COVAX, the global initiative aiming to ensure vaccines are shared fairly between rich and poor nations.

Coronavirus deaths
As of 16 April, the worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.98 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 139.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher. According to Our World In Data, more than 478.1 million people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.

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People sit in a restaurant on the roof of the Selfridges department store on Oxford street, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions ease

REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

16 April

An estimated one in 480 people in England had covid-19 in the week up to 10 April

Coronavirus infections in England have fallen to their lowest level since September, according to the latest results of a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics. An estimated one in 480 people in communities in England had covid-19 in the week up to 10 April, down from about one in 340 the previous week. It is the lowest prevalence rate recorded since the week up to 24 September, during which an estimated one in 500 people had covid-19. Equivalent prevalence estimates for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were one in 500, one in 710 and one in 920 people, respectively, during the week up to 10 April. 

These numbers for England are “encouraging”, said James Naismith at the University of Oxford in a statement. “The lockdown has worked as expected as has the vaccination campaign,” he said, adding that robust testing and sequencing to identify coronavirus variant cases remain vital.

A total of 77 cases of a new coronavirus variant first detected in India were recorded in the UK as of 14 April, according to Public Health England. The new variant, called B.1.617, contains two types of mutation, each of which have been found separately in other coronavirus variants. These mutations may make the variant more infectious and boost its ability to escape the body’s immune responses.

Other coronavirus news

The world is seeing a “worrying” rise in coronavirus infections, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on 16 April. “Globally, the number of new cases per week has nearly doubled over the past two months. This is approaching the highest rate of infection that we have seen so far during the pandemic,” he said at a briefing. More than 139.2 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed worldwide since the start of the pandemic, with the global covid-19 death toll approaching 3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, has said it is likely that people will need a third covid-19 vaccine dose within six to 12 months after they are first vaccinated, with a requirement for annual jabs also a possibility. “Variants will play a key role,” he said.

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel urged lawmakers on 16 April to approve new powers that would enable her to impose coronavirus lockdowns and curfews on areas with high infection rates. Daily new case numbers in Germany are rapidly approaching those seen during the peak of its second wave in January.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.98 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 139.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher. According to Our World In Data, more than 478.1 million people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.

Virus Outbreak Tokyo Olympics, Suita, Japan - 14 Apr 2021 The last Olympic torch relay runner for the Osaka leg concludes the event in Suita, north of Osaka, western Japan

Virus Outbreak Tokyo Olympics, Suita, Japan – 14 Apr 2021 The last Olympic torch relay runner for the Osaka leg concludes the event in Suita, north of Osaka, western Japan

Hiro Komae/AP/Shutterstock

15 April

As Japan battles fourth wave of infections, official says cancelling the Olympics is still an option

An official from Japan’s ruling party has said that cancelling the Olympics, scheduled to take place in Tokyo at the end of July, remains an option and will depend on the coronavirus situation. “If it seems impossible [to host the Olympics] anymore, then we have to stop it, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, a member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, told broadcaster TBS. He added: “If the Olympics were to spread infection, then what are the Olympics for?” Government and organising officials have previously said the postponed event would go ahead, but without international spectators.

The fresh doubts about hosting the Olympics come as Japan is grappling with a fourth wave of coronavirus infections. Japan’s western region of Osaka reported a record daily increase of 1099 infections on 13 April, with the surge thought to be driven largely by the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first identified in the UK. “The situation, with pressure on hospital beds, is severe. I have a strong sense of crisis about it,” Japan’s economy minister, Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is overseeing the country’s pandemic response, told Reuters.

Other coronavirus news

Approximately 4.7 million people were waiting for routine operations and procedures in England in February, which is the highest number since 2007, according to NHS England figures. Almost 388,000 people had been waiting for more than a year for a non-urgent surgery compared with just 1600 people before the pandemic. “We’re going to make sure that we give the NHS all the funding that it needs – as we’ve done throughout the pandemic to beat the backlog,” said UK prime minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth on 15 April. NHS England recently announced a £1 billion fund to go towards helping trusts to restore operations and other services.

The number of positive coronavirus tests in England fell by 34 per cent in the week up to 7 April, according to the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace. 19,196 people tested positive for the virus, continuing a downward trend in positive tests observed since the week up to 6 January, NHS Test and Trace said in its report. 

Mass testing for the B.1.351 coronavirus variant, first identified in South Africa, is being carried out in six London boroughs as well as in parts of Smethwick in the West Midlands in England, after a new case was detected there.

More than 200,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in India on 15 April, the highest daily case rate in the country since the pandemic began. Some hospitals, including those in the state of Maharashtra, have reported shortages of beds and oxygen supplies. India’s second wave of infections appears to be driven mainly by the more transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.97 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 138.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher. According to Our World In Data, more than 468 million people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.

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People rest in the waiting area after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a vaccination centre in Salisbury Cathedral

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14 April

A single dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine produced strong immune responses among over-80s in a preliminary study

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccines produced a strong immune response after a single dose in people aged over 80 in a preliminary study. It showed that 93 per cent of people had produced coronavirus-specific antibodies after receiving the Pfizer vaccine and 87 per cent of people after receiving the AstraZeneca jab. This was the first study to compare the performance of the two vaccines.

Those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine showed a greater T-cell response, which forms another important arm of the body’s immune response to viruses. Just 12 per cent of people who had the Pfizer vaccine developed T-cells against the coronavirus spike protein compared with 31 per cent of those who had received the AstraZeneca jab. 

Overall immune responses were much higher in people who had previously had covid-19, compared with those who hadn’t. The study was carried out by Helen Parry at the University of Birmingham, UK, and her colleagues who analysed immune responses in a group of 165 volunteers aged 80 and over, each of whom had received a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine five to six weeks earlier. 

Other coronavirus news

The US, the European Union and South Africa are pausing rollouts of the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine, following a small number of reports of rare blood clots in people who had received it. In the US, six cases of rare blood clots had been reported among 6.8 million people who had received the vaccine as of 13 April. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it is working closely with the US Food and Drug Administration and other international regulators to investigate all the cases reported and it expects to issue a recommendation next week. “While its review is ongoing, EMA remains of the view that the benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects,” it said in a statement on 14 April. 

Denmark has become the first country to completely stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine, after the EMA concluded on 7 April that unusual blood clotting events should be listed as very rare side effects of the vaccine. However, the country’s health agency has not ruled out the possibility of resuming use of the vaccine in future if another wave of infections hits. Several European countries suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in March over blood clot concerns, but many have since resumed use of the vaccine for certain age groups.

About half of people in the UK may have antibodies against the coronavirus. An estimated 54.9 per cent of people in England had antibodies against the coronavirus in the week up to 28 March, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The equivalent proportions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were 46 per cent, 49.1 per cent and 54.5 per cent, respectively. “There is a clear pattern between vaccination and testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies but the detection of antibodies alone is not a precise measure of the immunity protection given by vaccination,” the ONS said in its report.

Coronavirus deaths
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.96 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 137.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher. According to Our World In Data, more than 459.7 million people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Back to the office: Returning to work in offices brings concerns over office socialising and using public transport, but working together brings mental health benefits too.

Staying safe indoors: Good ventilation is one of the most effective measures offices can take to stop the spread of coronavirus, while relying on people to change their behaviour should be a last resort.

Rare clot concerns: Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccines have been paused in the US after rare reports of blood clots, similar to those linked with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in other countries. Could the cause of the clots be the same?

India’s second wave: India’s daily coronavirus cases are currently the highest in the world, with modelling suggesting the country’s total tally could be close to 450 million.

See previous updates from March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November/December 2020, and March to November 2020.

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