Covid-19 news: EU regulator concludes that AstraZeneca vaccine is safe

AstraZeneca vaccine

Vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is pictured in a pharmacy in Boulogne Billancourt, outside Paris.

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Latest coronavirus news as of 5pm on 18 March

European Medicines Agency concludes AstraZeneca vaccine benefits outweigh risks

The safety committee of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which regulates drugs for the European Union, has concluded that the benefits of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risk of side effects. Following an investigation into reports of blood clots in some people who received the vaccine, the committee has concluded that the shot is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots in those who receive it, and it is a safe and effective way to prevent covid-19, which is itself associated with an increased risk of blood clots. But the committee is still investigating whether the vaccine may be linked to very rare cases of blood clots associated with low levels of platelets in the blood, including cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) – a blood clot in a major brain vessel. The EMA said the overall number of blood clots reported after vaccination was lower than that expected in the wider population.

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The EMA said about 20 million people in the UK and Europe had received the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine as of 16 March, and its committee had reviewed 18 cases of CVST and seven cases of disseminated intravascular coagulation – blood clots in multiple blood vessels. It is not yet clear if the vaccine caused these rare events but the committee said this is a possibility, which it will be investigating further. Most of the rare events occurred in people under the age of 55 and the majority were women. The committee said it is investigating whether there may have been a link with the oral contraceptive pill in these cases.

A number of European countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Sweden, suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine earlier this week as a precautionary measure. It is up to individual countries to decide whether to resume administering of the vaccine. “The pandemic is costing lives,” said Emer Cooke, director of the EMA, during a press briefing on 18 March. “We have vaccines that are safe and effective, that can help prevent death and hospitalization. We need to use those vaccines,” she said.

Other coronavirus news

A delay in a delivery of 5 million Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine doses to the UK from India could result in a reduction in the UK’s covid-19 vaccine supply in April. The shipment, produced by the Serum Institute of India, has been delayed by four weeks, the BBC reported. The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care has said the UK remains on track to offer a first dose of covid-19 vaccine to all adults by the end of July. More than 25.2 million people in the UK have received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine so far and more than 1.7 million have received a second shot. But Adam Finn at the University of Bristol, who is a member of the UK Department of Health Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told BBC Radio 4 that the delivery issue was likely to result in a slight delay in vaccinations for people in their 40s and younger, which could result in a rise in infections. 

The UK has warned that there will be consequences if the EU breaks the law on covid-19 vaccine contracts. “We fully expect those contracts to be delivered on, because there are very significant consequences to breaking contract law,” UK health minister Matt Hancock told parliament. On 17 March, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the commission may restrict exports of covid-19 vaccines to the UK unless the UK shows more “reciprocity” in vaccine exports. She said the EU is still waiting for Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses from the UK, while 10 million vaccine doses, including from Pfizer/BioNTech, had been delivered to the UK from EU plants.

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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 of different vaccine candidates and 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 on-going coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.

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.

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.

Ursula von der Leyen

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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17 March

UK foreign minister says EU threats “cut across previous assurances”

The European Commission may restrict exports of covid-19 vaccines to the UK to secure more doses for its own citizens unless the UK shows more “reciprocity” in vaccine exports, the commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen said on 17 March. “With the US reciprocity is given […] there is a seamless flow back and forth of pre-products and raw materials and drug substance,” von der Leyen told a press conference. But she said the EU is still waiting for Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses from the UK, despite the fact that 10 million vaccine doses had been delivered to the UK from EU plants. “We are still waiting for doses to come from the UK, so this is an invitation to show us that there are also doses from the UK coming to the European Union so that we have reciprocity,” she said. UK foreign minister Dominic Raab told Reuters the threat to ban exports “cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the commission”, adding: “We expect those assurances and legal contracted supply to be respected.”

More than 25 million people in the UK have now received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine, according to the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care. “This latest milestone is an incredible achievement,” UK prime minister Boris Johnson said in a statement. “We’re ahead of schedule to offer a first dose to all in these groups by the 15 April and I urge everybody eligible to come forward,” said UK health minister Matt Hancock.

Other coronavirus news

UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings has called for an investigation into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking to MPs, Cummings described the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care as a “smoking ruin” at the time the coronavirus crisis hit, highlighting issues with the procurement of personal protective equipment during the early stages of the UK’s epidemic in 2020. In response to growing calls for an inquiry, UK business minister Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News it would be “premature” to launch one “when the pandemic is still all around us”.

Poland is set to enter a new nationwide lockdown from 20 March, the country’s health minister said. Poland reported 25,052 new coronavirus cases on 17 March in its highest daily toll in 2021 so far. Several European countries are seeing rising cases, including Germany, France and Italy.

China is resuming processing of visas for foreigners from several countries, but only for those who have been vaccinated with a Chinese-made covid-19 vaccine, the Guardian has reported.

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The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.67 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 120.9 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons.

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16 March

Growing pressure for UK to launch inquiry into handling of pandemic

There is growing pressure for UK prime minister Boris Johnson to launch an inquiry into the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including from government scientific advisers and health leaders, the Guardian has reported. Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told the Guardian in a personal capacity that the government’s decision-making processes “need to be scrutinised”, with an emphasis on “learning from the future rather than culpability”. Others calling for an inquiry include Donna Kinnair, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, and Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association council. A government spokesperson said: “We are focused on protecting the NHS and saving lives and now is not the right time to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry.”

Other coronavirus news

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has reiterated that there is “no indication” that the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine has caused blood clot incidents. “The number of thromboembolic events overall in vaccinated people seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population,” EMA chief, Emer Cooke, told a virtual press conference on 16 March. Cooke added that there were similar reports about blood clots related to other coronavirus vaccines approved for use in Europe, including the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. On 16 March, Sweden followed Germany, France, Italy and other European countries in suspending use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Both the EMA and the World Health Organization (WHO) are investigating reports of blood clots in a small number of people who had the vaccine. The EMA is expected to release results from its investigation on 18 March.

A member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the covid-19 pandemic has said wildlife farms in southern China are the most likely source. An earlier hypothesis proposed by the team was that the virus was first transmitted via frozen food. But Peter Daszak, a member of the investigative team, told NPR that the decision by China to shut down wildlife farms in February 2020 is a strong signal that the Chinese government thought the farms were the most probable pathway for a coronavirus in bats in southern China to spillover into people. The WHO is expected to release official findings from the team’s investigation in two weeks. 

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would set out dates for the easing of restrictions in Scotland. She said things were set to “get a fair bit better in the weeks and months ahead”. Some measures have already been eased in Scotland, with people allowed to meet in larger groups outdoors and pupils able to return to school.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.66 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 120.3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

AstraZeneca vaccine: The number of blood clotting incidents in vaccinated people “seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population”, the European Medicines Agency says. 

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A military doctor holds an Astrazeneca Vaccine vial at a mass coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination drive-through clinic.

Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

15 March

Germany, France and Italy among latest countries to pause AstraZeneca vaccine

Germany, France and Italy are among the latest countries to pause their rollouts of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine, following reports of blood clots in a small number of people who received the vaccine. The World Health Organization, the European Medicines Agency and the UK’s medicines regulator have all said there is no indication that the vaccine causes blood clots. “We are closely reviewing reports but given the large number of doses administered, and the frequency at which blood clots can occur naturally, the evidence available does not suggest the vaccine is the cause,” said Phil Bryan, vaccines safety lead at the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in a statement. “People should still go and get their covid-19 vaccine when asked to do so,” he said. Approximately 17 million people in the EU and UK have received a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine so far, with just 37 cases of blood clots reported as of last week, AstraZeneca said.

“It is most regrettable that countries have stopped vaccination,” said Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association public health medicine committee, in a statement. “It risks doing real harm to the goal of vaccinating enough people to slow the spread of the virus, and to end the pandemic,” said English.

The UK will not follow other nations in suspending use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine, a spokesperson for UK prime minister Boris Johnson said on 15 March. Johnson is confident that both the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines against covid-19 are “safe and effective”, said the spokesperson, adding: “There is no evidence of any causal link between blood clots, and the [Oxford/AstraZeneca] vaccine.”

Thailand delayed its planned rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine last week but today announced that rollout of the shots will resume.

Other coronavirus news

The White House is expected to unveil a public relations campaign aimed at boosting covid-19 vaccine confidence and uptake across the US. Separately, US health adviser Anthony Fauci has urged former US president Donald Trump to encourage his supporters to get vaccinated against covid-19. “It would make all the difference in the world,” Fauci told Fox News on 14 March.

Germany’s association of intensive care doctors is calling for a return to stricter lockdown restrictions, following a rise in coronavirus cases. 

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.65 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 120 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Medical worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to a patient in the capital Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Kemal Softic/AP/Shutterstock

12 March

Countries should continue using Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine, says WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said there is no evidence that the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine causes blood clots and is urging countries to continue using it. “It’s very important to understand that, yes, we should continue to be using the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson, at a briefing on 12 March. The WHO’s global advisory committee on vaccine safety is reviewing reports of blood clots in some people who received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. A number of countries, including Denmark, Norway and Iceland, have suspended its use as a precautionary measure, while Thailand has delayed its rollout of the vaccine, originally scheduled to begin on 12 March. There have been 30 cases of blood clots among the 5 million people in the European Union who have received the vaccine as of 11 March, according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA). 

More than 11 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine have been administered in the UK so far, said Phil Bryan, MHRA vaccines safety lead, in a statement, adding: “Reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in then population.” The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said people in the UK should still go and get their covid-19 vaccine when asked to do so. “There is currently no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions,” the EMA said.

Harris said WHO data shows that more than 268 million doses of covid-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide and no deaths have been found to have been caused by them. 

Other coronavirus news

Preliminary results from a survey of people who had covid-19 in the UK found 93 per cent of respondents reported on-going symptoms, with fatigue being the most common symptom, reported by 77 per cent of those people. The next most commonly reported symptom was shortness of breath, experienced by 54 per cent of people with on-going symptoms. The survey also found that in people under the age of 50 outcomes were worse for women than men, with the women surveyed more than five times more likely to report lingering symptoms compared to the men. The preliminary results are based on 325 participants who had been admitted to one of 31 UK hospitals with covid-19 between 5 February and 4 October 2020. The study is being conducted by ISARIC4C, a UK-wide consortium of doctors and researchers studying covid-19.

A covid-19 vaccine developed by Novavax has been found to be 89 per cent effective at preventing covid-19 cases in a trial involving more than 15,000 participants in the UK. The effectiveness of the vaccine was 96 per cent for prevention of cases caused by the original coronavirus variant and 86 per cent for cases caused by the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK. In a smaller trial conducted in South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant is highly prevalent, the vaccine was found to be 60 per cent effective among the 94 per cent of trial participants who were HIV-negative, and 49 per cent effective overall.

The UK’s R number – the average number of people each coronavirus case infects – has fallen to between 0.6 and 0.8, it’s lowest level since September, according to the latest official estimate.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.63 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 118.6 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Company logo of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline is seen at their Stevenage facility.

REUTERS/Matthew Childs/Alamy

11 March

GSK antibody therapy reduced hospitalisation or death by 85 per cent in initial trial

An antibody therapy developed by UK firm GlaxoSmithKline and US-based Vir Biotechnology reduced hospitalisation or death by 85 per cent compared with a placebo, according to interim data from 583 trial participants. The companies said they plan to apply for emergency use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration after an independent monitoring committee recommended shortening a trial of the experimental treatment early due to evidence of “profound efficacy”. The people included in the trial will continue to be followed for another six months. GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnologies also said that a new laboratory study indicated that the therapy, called VIR-7831, was similarly effective against coronavirus variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and in travellers from Brazil. Other antibody therapies, including those developed by Eli Lilly and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, received recommendations from US and European medicines regulators earlier this year. 

“This class of drug could be especially important for those people who are less protected by vaccines, for example if their immune system is weakened,” said Alexander Edwards at the University of Reading in a statement. But Edwards said it will be important to wait for a complete set of results from the trial to understand how well VIR-7831 works and unpick the findings. “For example, who can it treat, when must they be given the drug, how does it prevent the worst outcomes?” 

Other coronavirus news

Denmark is pausing its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine for at least two weeks after reports of blood clots in an undisclosed number of people who had the vaccine, including one person who has reportedly died. “This is a super-cautious approach,” said Stephen Evans at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in a statement. “The problem with spontaneous reports of suspected adverse reactions to a vaccine are the enormous difficulty of distinguishing a causal effect from a coincidence,” he added. Separately, Austria suspended use of a batch of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on 7 March to investigate a death from blood clotting disorders and a case of pulmonary embolism. Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg have reportedly also halted use of the batch. The European Medicines Agency said there was no evidence so far linking the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the two Austrian cases, adding that the number of people reporting blood clots after receiving the vaccine was no higher than among the general population, with just 22 cases among the 3 million people who had received it as of 9 March.

Moderna has begun trialling a coronavirus vaccine booster shot targeted at the B.1.351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. Earlier findings indicated the company’s existing two-dose regimen generates a weaker antibody response against the B.1.351 variant, compared to the original virus. The first participants have now received the modified vaccine in an amendment to an on-going clinical trial, Moderna announced on 10 March. The study involves 60 participants previously vaccinated with the company’s original shots, who will receive a third shot of either another dose of the original vaccine or the booster shot at a low or high dose.

People experiencing homelessness, including those sleeping rough, will be prioritised for covid-19 vaccines in England in accordance with advice from the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). “People experiencing homelessness are likely to have health conditions that put them at higher risk of death from covid-19,” Wei Shen Lim, covid-19 chair for the JCVI, said in a statement. “The advice will help us to protect more people who are at greater risk, ensuring that fewer people become seriously ill or die from the virus.”

Coronavirus deaths
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.62 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 118.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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A man wearing a protective suit works at a cemetery in Chislehurst, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

10 March

Study indicates B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant identified in the UK is more deadly

The B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first identified in the UK is between 32 and 104 per cent more deadly than previous dominant variants, according to a study published in the BMJ. The study compared death rates among people in the UK infected with B.1.1.7 or other variants of the coronavirus. Earlier research has indicated the variant is also more transmissible. “The precise mechanisms responsible for increased mortality associated with the variant remain uncertain but could be related to higher levels of virus replication as well as increased transmissibility,” said Lawrence Young at the University of Warwick in a statement.

Other coronavirus news

The UK hasn’t imposed a ban on the export of covid-19 vaccines, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told parliament on 10 March. Johnson’s comments come in response to claims made by European Council president Charles Michel a day earlier that the UK and US have imposed “an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory”. Johnson told MPs: “Let me be clear, we have not blocked the export of a single covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components.” Michel has since tweeted that there are “different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines”. European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer declined to comment specifically on Michel’s statements during a press briefing in Brussels. The EU has faced supply issues with several covid-19 vaccines and in January introduced a system of controls on exports of vaccines manufactured in the bloc.

Health systems in most of Brazil’s largest cities are approaching collapse due to covid-19 cases, its leading health institute, Fiocruz, has warned. More than 80 per cent of intensive care unit (ICU) beds are occupied in the capitals of 25 of Brazil’s 27 states and 15 state capitals have ICUs that are at more than 90 per cent capacity, Fiocruz has said. The cities of Porto Alegre and Campo Grande have exceeded their ICU capacity. Last week, Fiocruz said that the P.1 coronavirus variant was one of several “variants of concern” that have become dominant in six of eight states it had studied.

Doctors and public health researchers have warned that “the UK’s colour-blind vaccination model disregards the unequal impact of the pandemic on minority ethnic groups”. In an article, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, they argue “the invisibility of these vulnerable groups from the priority list and the worsening healthcare inequities and inequalities are putting ethnic minorities at a significantly higher risk of covid-19 illness and death”. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told Sky News: “The independent JCVI’s [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] advice on covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible, with older age being the single greatest risk of death. We are following the JCVI recommendations so that we save lives.”

UK chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak has defended his role in the UK’s covid-19 response after extracts from Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s new book Failures of State were published in the Times. The extracts include mention of a government science adviser blaming Sunak for his “one-eyed approach in putting the nation’s finances first”. When asked about the issue in parliament on 9 March, Sunak said: “At all steps in this crisis we have indeed taken the advice of our scientific advisers.” 

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.61 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 117.7 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Chris Whitty

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street, London.

Leon Neal/PA Wire/PA Images

9 March

UK science and medical advisers urge caution on easing of restrictions in England

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty cautioned MPs against lifting coronavirus restrictions in England earlier than planned, saying this could increase the size and severity of future surges in infections. “It’s very easy to forget quite how quickly things can go bad if you don’t keep a very close eye on them,” said Whitty. “What we don’t want to do is to accelerate into trouble and then have to reverse straight back out again, open things up and immediately close them down,” he said. “All the modelling suggests there is going to be a further surge.” Whitty was giving evidence to MPs on the commons science and technology committee alongside the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. Asked why encouraging data couldn’t lead to an accelerated easing of restrictions, Vallance said that three to four weeks were needed to generate and analyse data, which exceeds the one-week notice that the government wants to give of changes to rules. “I think if you truncate that you are essentially flying blind,” Vallance told the committee. 

Other coronavirus news

Greece’s tourism minister Harry Theocharis has said people who are vaccinated against covid-19, have antibodies or test negative for the coronavirus can travel to Greece during the summer of 2021. “All tourists will be subject to random testing,” Theocharis told the ITB Berlin trade show on 9 March. It has been reported that the UK government is considering the possibility of the NHS coronavirus app featuring a digital health passport, which would carry information on vaccinations and test results. UK prime minister Boris Johnson said on 8 March that vaccine passports for international travel will be “a feature of our life in the future”. 

Johnson & Johnson told the European Union it is facing supply issues that could disrupt plans to deliver 55 million doses of its covid-19 vaccine to the bloc in the second quarter of 2021, Reuters reports. The EU has already faced issues related to the supply of other covid-19 vaccines, including those made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which consists of a single shot, is expected to be approved by the European Medicines Agency on 11 March and the company has committed to deliver 200 million doses to the EU in 2021.

Temporary Nightingale hospitals built in England during the first wave of covid-19 will be closed in April, the NHS announced. From April, the sites will transition back into locations for local NHS services, with some to be used as testing centres or covid-19 vaccination sites.

Coronavirus deaths
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.6 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 117.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Mixing indoors: Vaccination means freedom to mix in private properties without social distancing or wearing masks, US authorities have said, but the guidance is deemed too risky for the UK.

Children return to school

Year 9 students wear protective face masks as they take part in lessons on the first day back at school.

REUTERS/Toby Melville

8 March

Return of pupils is first step in England’s ‘roadmap’ for easing lockdown

Pupils in England began to return to school today for the first time since a national lockdown began in January. Primary schools reopened fully but pupils can return to secondary schools only if they test negative for coronavirus. Most secondary schools are phasing reopening to allow this testing to be done. Since January, most pupils in England have been doing lessons online, with only the children of key workers allowed to physically attend schools. 

The testing of secondary school pupils is being done with the rapid tests known as lateral flow devices. Their use is controversial because they are less accurate than standard PCR tests, and there is a higher risk of false positives and false negatives. Initially, government ministers said pupils who tested positive with a lateral flow test would not be allowed to return to school even if a subsequent PCR test came back negative. Today a spokesperson for the prime minister said pupils could return if a PCR test came back negative. A modelling study released today suggests that the use of lateral flow tests in schools will be beneficial if combined with other measures such as isolating contacts.

The reopening of schools is the first step in the “roadmap” for easing the lockdown in England. On 29 March the government plans to ease restrictions on outdoor meetings and sports, with many businesses being allowed to reopen from 12 April.

Other coronavirus news

New Zealand has increased its order of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to 10 million doses, enough to vaccine the entire population of nearly 5 million people. However, the full order will not arrive until the second half of the year. New Zealand has managed to eliminate the coronavirus but has had occasional outbreaks, including a recent cluster caused by the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant from the UK. No new cases have been reported since a week-long lockdown in Auckland ended. In February, the country began vaccinating border and quarantine workers.

People in the US who have been vaccinated will be allowed to meet others indoors without wearing masks, and will also not be required to isolate if they are exposed to known covid-19 cases, according to new guidance issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky. The guidance applies to people who are two weeks past the end of their vaccine regimen – which means two doses of the Pfizer/Biontech or Moderna vaccines, or one Johsnon & Johnson shot. However, given that we do not yet know how much vaccines prevent people from catching and transmitting the virus, it is still possible that vaccinated people may infect others. Nearly 10 per cent of the US population has now been vaccinated.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.59 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 116.9 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a press conference

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5 March

Covid-19 vaccine patents should be waived, says WHO chief

World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said he supports the temporary waiving of covid-19 vaccine patents to enable countries to manufacture and sell vaccine copies at reduced cost. “I don’t believe that globally we’re exercising our full manufacturing muscle at present. For example, some manufacturers have not been able to produce successful vaccine candidates, which is to be expected, but their production facilities could be repurposed for those vaccines that have been proven to work,” he wrote in the Guardian. “Waiving patents temporarily won’t mean innovators miss out. Like during the HIV crisis or in a war, companies will be paid royalties for the products they manufacture.” 

World Trade Organization member states are set to discuss a proposal by India and South Africa next week to waive rules on intellectual property for covid-19 drugs and vaccines. Worldwide, 265 million doses of covid-19 vaccines have been administered, with 80 per cent in just 10 countries, said Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, during a social media Q&A on 3 March.

Other coronavirus news

Australia has asked the European Commission to review its decision to approve Italy’s blocking of a shipment of covid-19 vaccine doses to the country. In January, the European Commission launched a mechanism to allow monitoring the export of covid-19 vaccines produced in the European Union, and on 4 March Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine being sent to Australia. “Australia has raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels,” Greg Hunt, Australia’s health minister, told journalists on 5 March. Japan is also concerned about the export ban. The country’s vaccine minister told Reuters: “We want to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure the vaccines bound for Japan.” Germany’s health minister expressed concern about the export ban, saying it could disrupt global covid-19 vaccine supply chains.

Willingness to receive a covid-19 vaccine has risen in the UK and globally in recent months, according to a survey on attitudes towards vaccination in 15 countries, conducted by researchers at Imperial College London. In February, 77 per cent of people surveyed in the UK said they would accept a covid-19 vaccine if one was available to them, up from 55 per cent in November. Other countries included in the poll were Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Sweden. Scepticism about the vaccine was highest in France, with only 40 per cent of respondents in February saying they would accept a covid-19 vaccine, although this still represents an increase from 25 per cent in November. 

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.57 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 115.7 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Long covid vaccine: People with lasting symptoms after a covid-19 infection, known as long covid, are more likely to recover than get worse after receiving a vaccine, according to an online survey

Zero-covid countries: As plans are made for international travel to resume, covid-free countries may have to achieve herd immunity through vaccination before letting the rest of the world in.

Vaccine fast track

LICHFIELD, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 26: A nurse draws up a vaccine as members of the public receive their Covid-19 vaccinations.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

4 March

Approval of covid-19 vaccines modified to work against virus variants could be accelerated in the UK

Covid-19 vaccines that have been modified to improve their effectiveness against new coronavirus variants could be fast-tracked for approval in a similar way to annual flu vaccines, according to new guidance from the UK’s medicines regulator. Vaccine manufacturers would need to provide robust evidence that the modified vaccine produces a sufficient immune response, for example release of antibodies into the blood, but wouldn’t need to conduct lengthy clinical trials that don’t add to understanding of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. “Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety,” said Christian Schneider, chief scientific officer at the UK agency overseeing medicine, in a statement. “The public should be confident that no vaccine would be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met,” he added. Several manufacturers of covid-19 vaccines are already working on tweaking them to tackle coronavirus variants.

The B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first identified in the UK is between 43 and 90 per cent more transmissible than the original virus, a study published in the scientific journal Science has estimated. “Without stringent control measures, including limited closure of educational institutions and a greatly accelerated vaccine roll-out, covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths across England in 2021 will exceed those in 2020,” the authors of the study write in their paper, adding that the spread of the variant at similar rates in other countries, including Denmark, Switzerland and the US, is “concerning”.

Other coronavirus news

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has announced a rolling review of the Sputnik V covid-19 vaccine developed in Russia. The Sputnik V vaccine prompted concern among immunologists last year after it was approved in Russia in August before any detailed results from advanced clinical trials were released. But in early February, interim results from a phase III trial indicated the vaccine is 91.6 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic covid-19. World Health Organization Europe director Hans Kluge told a press briefing on 4 March that the EMA’s announcement was a “welcome development”, adding that: “[in Europe] we desperately need to enlarge our portfolio of vaccines”. 

Italy has blocked a shipment of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine doses to Australia. In January, the European Commission launched a mechanism to enable monitoring of covid-19 vaccines produced in Europe and being exported out of the European Union. 

The rate of covid-19 Infections in England is shrinking less quickly than it was earlier in 2021, according to recent results from the REACT study by researchers at Imperial College London. The study indicates one in 204 people were infected between 4 and 23 February, down only slightly from one in 196 during the period between 4 and 13 February, suggesting the fall in infections seen since January has slowed.

Germany is expected to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine for use in people over the age of 65.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.56 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 115.3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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Naming variants: The names given to new coronavirus variants and bacteria can be difficult to use or understand. Using a pre-generated list of names would be better, says Mark Pallen.

Children in lockdown: The covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions have impacted children’s mental health – which has already been declining for years in the UK and US.

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Susan Walls of Martinsburg receives her boost dose at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) community vaccination event.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

3 March

US to have enough covid-19 vaccines for all adults by end of May

US president Joe Biden announced the US is on track to have enough covid-19 vaccine doses to vaccinate its entire adult population by the end of May. “Great news, but stay vigilant,” said Biden. “It’s not over yet,” he added. More than 76 million people in the US have received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine so far equivalent to about 23 per cent of the population. Not all adults will be vaccinated by the end of May, as the vaccines will take time to administer, but the country is on track to meet Biden’s target of delivering 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. 

The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, announced that the state will lift its requirement for people to wear face coverings and will allow businesses to reopen at full capacity next week. This is in contrast to advice from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which on 1 March warned of a potential fourth surge of cases before the majority of people in the country are vaccinated.

Other coronavirus news

A preliminary study led by researchers at the University of Bristol, UK, indicates that a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalisation with covid-19 by about 80 per cent among people aged 80 and over. The results add to earlier findings from an analysis by Public Health England, which found that a single dose of either vaccine is 80 per cent effective at preventing hospitalisation among people over 80. “This adds to growing evidence showing that the vaccines are working to reduce infections and save lives,” Mary Ramsay, Public Health England’s head of immunisation, told the BMJ

Austria will receive an additional 100,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine to administer to all adults in the Schwaz district of the Tyrol province, where there are currently 66 active cases of people infected with the B.1351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa.

UK chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak announced an additional £1.65 billion to support the UK’s covid-19 vaccine rollout in the latest budget.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.55 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 114.8 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Fighting Ebola alongside covid-19: Guinea has vaccinated over 1000 people in the two weeks since its latest Ebola outbreak was declared, including close contacts of those infected.

Vaccinations cut death rate in over 80s

An elderly patient receiving the COVID-19 vaccination

Andrew Aitchison / In Pictures v

2 March

Deaths from covid-19 in England and Wales are falling quickest among people over 80

Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales are falling fastest among people aged 80 and over, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest, indicating that the vaccination programme has had an impact on deaths from the disease. People aged 80 and over were included in the top four priority groups for covid-19 vaccination. According to analysis of ONS data by the Guardian, 1622 people aged 80 and above were reported to have died from covid-19 in the week up to 19 February, down from 5300 four weeks earlier and equivalent to a reduction of 69 per cent. Among people aged between 70 and 79, there was a reduction in covid-19 deaths of 65 per cent over the same period, and the equivalent figure was 55 per cent for people aged 0 to 69. 

“Together with the evidence for reduction of hospitalisations after both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, the message is clear: vaccines work for those 80+ and 70+ and they are saving lives,” said Zania Stamataki at the University of Birmingham in a statement

More than 20.2 million people in the UK as a whole had received a first dose of covid-19 vaccine as of 1 March.

Other coronavirus news

The search for a person who tested positive for the P.1 variant of coronavirus in England has been narrowed down to 379 households in the south-east of the country, UK health minister Matt Hancock told parliament on 2 March. Six cases of the P.1 coronavirus variant, first detected in people travelling from Brazil to Japan, have been identified in the UK. “We’re grateful that a number of potential cases have come forward,” said Hancock.

Germany is expected to start easing some coronavirus restrictions from 8 March. Under new draft rules, a maximum of five people from two households would be allowed to meet. Currently, meetings are restricted to a maximum of two people. Some shops and salons would also be allowed to reopen. The draft plans for easing measures will be discussed by national and state government leaders on 3 March.

A World Health Organization (WHO) panel is advising against the use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 patients. In a statement, the panel said hydroxychloroquine is “no longer a research priority” and that “resources should be used to evaluate other more promising drugs to prevent covid-19”.

The WHO has said it is “unrealistic” to expect the coronavirus pandemic will be over by the end of 2021. “I think it will be very premature, and I think unrealistic, to think that we’re going to finish with this virus by the end of the year,” Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, told a press conference on 1 March.

Coronavirus deaths

Covid deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.54 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 114.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Brazil coronavirus variant

BRISTOL, ENGLAND – MARCH 1: A worker takes a coronavirus test through the window of a car.

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

1 March

Health officials in England attempt to trace person infected with P.1 virus variant

Efforts are underway in England to trace a person infected with the P.1 coronavirus variant, after they used a home testing kit but didn’t complete a registration form. The P.1 variant was first identified in people who were travelling from Brazil to Japan on 10 January, and the infected person is one of six cases of the P.1 variant detected in the UK in February. Three of the six cases were detected in England and the remaining three in Scotland. Public health officials are appealing for anyone who hasn’t yet received a result from a test on 12 or 13 February to come forward by calling 119. Since 15 February, travellers arriving in England from 33 countries – including Brazil – have been required to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days. In Scotland, the hotel quarantine rule applies to all international arrivals.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the government has no intention to reverse its plans to ease coronavirus restrictions in England. “Our whole strategy is to go forward in a way that is cautious but irreversible. And we don’t think that there’s any reason on this basis to change that now,” he told journalists on 1 March. Under the government’s current plans, schools in England are expected to reopen on 8 March. To support this planned reopening of schools, the government has said that families with children in school will be able to test themselves for coronavirus twice a week from home, free of charge.

Across the UK, more than 20 million people have received a first dose of a covid-19 vaccine.

Other coronavirus news

The first covid-19 vaccinations through the World Health Organization’s COVAX scheme were administered in Ghana and Ivory Coast on 1 March. “This is a day many of us have been dreaming of,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement. “I am sure that through COVAX and international solidarity we will be able to reach the most at-risk everywhere. Global equitable access to life-saving vaccines is the surest way to save lives and rebuild economies,” he said. Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire received 600,000 and 504,000 doses respectively of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine licensed and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

The European Commission plans to present a proposal on creating an EU-wide digital covid-19 passport, which could allow EU citizens to travel more freely within the bloc during the summer. The “digital green pass” would provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against covid-19 or coronavirus test results for those who haven’t been vaccinated. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad – for work or tourism,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. 

The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot covid-19 vaccine for emergency use. The first doses of the vaccine will be transported to US states on 1 March.

Coronavirus deaths

Covid deaths

The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 2.53 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 114.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Coronavirus vaccine

A healthcare professional draws up a dose of Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

26 February

One dose of Pfizer vaccine shows 75 per cent reduction in asymptomatic infections

There is yet more good news on vaccine effectiveness. A study based on nearly 9000 coronavirus tests done on healthcare workers in Cambridge, UK, has found that asymptomatic infections fell by 75 per cent 12 days after they got one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. There was a similar reduction in symptomatic infections.

The finding is significant because it shows the vaccine will greatly reduce the spread of the virus. It was already clear from clinical trials and previous studies that the Pfizer vaccine is highly effective at preventing symptomatic infections but we did not know how many vaccinated people might still get infected without symptoms and potentially pass the disease on to others.

“This will mean a substantial reduction in transmission of the virus as more and more people are vaccinated, which is really great news,” study leader Mike Weekes at the University of Cambridge, told the Guardian.

Other coronavirus news

Fifty million Covid-19 vaccine doses have been given to people in the US since President Joe Biden took office 37 days ago, taking the total to around 67 million. Biden had promised to deliver 100 million doses in his first 100 days, so his administration is on course to comfortably beat this target. But he warned that things will not return to normal soon. “This is not a victory lap. Everything is not fixed. We have a long way to go. And that day when everything is back to normal depends on all of us,” Biden said.

New Zealand has reported one more locally acquired case of coronavirus. The infected person went to work at a fast food restaurant on Monday despite being told to isolate at home. But officials say the small cluster of cases in Auckland is under control, and have not imposed another lockdown on the city. “This is a situation where we know the source of the cases [and] we know where there may have been contact with others,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Coronavirus deaths

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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.

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

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