Latest coronavirus news as of 2pm 24 May
During the recent surge of the milder omicron variant in England and Wales, covid-19 caused a similar number of deaths as flu and pneumonia in the years before the pandemic emerged
Covid-19 caused a similar number of deaths in England and Wales over the past winter as flu and pneumonia in previous years, according to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
In January 2022, for instance, covid-19 was the underlying cause of 4100 deaths, while flu and pneumonia caused an average of 4328 deaths every January from 2016 to 2020, before the pandemic took hold.
“In the latest winter, the number of deaths with covid-19 as the underlying cause has fallen more in line with those due to flu and pneumonia in pre-coronavirus pandemic years,” says the ONS report.
Flu and pneumonia deaths are generally classed together as flu often causes lung damage that leads to bacterial pneumonia. In the past two years, flu and pneumonia caused far fewer deaths than normal, probably because of lockdowns and less social mixing between lockdowns, says the ONS.
Flu is less easily passed on than the coronavirus, so social distancing reduced flu transmission even while covid-19 was spreading fast.
Before the recent omicron surge, covid-19 caused more deaths than flu and pneumonia. Covid-19 was the leading cause of death in England and Wales in 2020 and provisional figures suggest that will also be the case in 2021.
One difference between covid-19 and flu is that a higher proportion of covid-19 deaths affect middle-aged people. In the first two years of the pandemic, about 1 in 12 covid-19 deaths were in those aged under 60, compared with 1 in 20 deaths from flu and pneumonia.
“That covid-19 deaths were both greater in number and affected a broader range of ages highlights just how much more lethal covid had been,” Rowland Kao at the University of Edinburgh said in a statement to the Science Media Centre.
“It is, however, difficult to tell what this means for the future. The absence of physical distancing measures and the likely reduction in covid-19 vaccine booster coverage, and likely lower flu vaccine coverage, will mean that future mortality is difficult to predict.”
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Being vaccinated against covid-19 does reduce the severity of infection in people with cancer or a past cancer diagnosis, despite their immune systems being weakened from their disease or treatments, an analysis has found.
People with cancer do experience a faster waning of immunity within 3 to 6 months, however, showing how important it is for them to get booster jabs, say the researchers, who looked at a cancer registry from England.
More than half of people admitted to hospital with covid-19 have probable heart inflammation, known medically as myocarditis, two months after being discharged, a study has found.
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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.
The UK vaccine advisory group has recommended that over-65s, people in care homes, frontline health and social care workers, and clinically vulnerable people aged 16 to 64 be offered a booster jab this autumn
“Last year’s autumn booster vaccination programme provided excellent protection against severe covid-19, including against the omicron variant,” Wei Shen Lim at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said in a statement, adding the recommendation will allow the NHS and care homes to “start the necessary operational planning” to deliver the jabs.
Across the UK, a spring booster is already available to over-75s, care home residents and people aged 12 and over with suppressed immune systems.
The Scottish, English and Welsh governments have confirmed they will follow this advice, while Northern Ireland is yet to announce its plans, according to a BBC report.
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Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death in England in April, accounting for 6.1 per cent of all fatalities, according to the Office for National Statistics. One month earlier, covid-19 was the sixth leading cause of death.
As of 19 May, North Korea had reported 2.24 million cases of “fever” since late April. Officials have not specified this is due to covid-19, however, fever is a key symptom of the infection.
The country imposed a national lockdown earlier this month after reporting its first covid-19 case on 12 May. Covid-19 testing is limited and there is no official record of any of North Korea’s 25-million-strong-population being vaccinated.
An economic downturn and lack of reforms has left the world in no better position to fight a new pandemic than before covid-19 emerged, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)
The world’s pandemic preparedness is the same or worse than it was before covid-19, according to a WHO report.
The report, led by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberia president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, accepted that some progress had been made, like moves to create a global health security fund inside the WHO and increased WHO funding.
But progress on reforms such as international health regulations are moving too slowly, it added.
“We have right now the very same tools and the same system that existed in December 2019 to respond to a pandemic threat,” Clark said at a press conference. “And those tools just weren’t good enough.”
The report also suggests some measures that should be taken as soon as possible, including an independent health threats council led by heads of state, a worldwide pandemic treaty and an international agreement to improve pandemic preparedness.
The WHO’s annual World Health Assembly will meet in Geneva next week to address issues raised in the report.
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Unvaccinated people who recover from the omicron variant may not have immunity against other covid-19 variants, such as delta, according to mouse models and a small human study.
Researchers at Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, US, collected blood serum from mice seven days after they were infected with different covid-19 variants.
In laboratory experiments, the serum collected after overcoming omicron only protected against the omicron variant. By contrast, the serum collected after infection with delta effectively protected against the alpha, beta and delta variants, as well as offering some protection against omicron.
These findings were then supported in a study of 10 unvaccinated people who had recovered from omicron. By contrast, vaccinated people who catch omicron develop some level of immunity against all covid-19 variants of concern, the researchers found in a separate experiment.
North Korea has suggested people use traditional medicines, such as gargling salt water or drinking herbal tea, to reduce the fever and pain that can come with covid-19. A state news agency said the unverified treatments are “effective in prevention and cure of the malicious disease,” a claim that is not supported by scientific research.
Six weeks into the vaccine roll-out for this age group, fewer than one in 10 children aged 5 to 11 have received their first dose
The 7 per cent figure compares with the 24 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds in England who received a first dose in the six weeks after they became eligible for the vaccine in September 2021.
Children rarely become seriously ill with SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, testing positive can disrupt their schooling or put them at risk of long covid.
Speaking of 5 to 11 year olds, Russell Viner at University College London told The Guardian: “It’s a vaccination that probably isn’t particularly beneficial for this age group.
“However, it has a very, very good safety profile. And given that we remain in a pandemic, there’s an argument that for individual parents, the balance of risks would appear to be towards vaccination.”
Across England, Oxfordshire has the highest vaccine take-up among 5 to 11-year-olds at 12 per cent, while Knowsley in Merseyside has the lowest uptake at 3 per cent, according to the latest NHS statistics up to 8 May.
Two covid-19 vaccines are being offered to children from 5 years old across the UK. On 15 March 2022, Wales became the first UK nation to offer 5 to 11-year-olds a covid-19 vaccine, with 9.5 per cent of children in this age group receiving their first dose by 4 May.
In Scotland, 17 per cent of 5 to 11 year olds had received their first dose as of 3 May. In Northern Ireland, just 2 per cent of children in this age group had received their first vaccine dose as of 5 May, according to National World.
“Getting vaccinated is a personal choice between families and their children, and we have now sent invites to everyone eligible, providing parents with information to allow them to make an informed decision, while they can also talk to their doctor or a local healthcare professional if they have questions,” an NHS spokesperson said.
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Shanghai will aim to return to normal life from 1 June after being in lockdown for more than seven weeks.
“From June 1 to mid- and late June, as long as risks of a rebound in infections are controlled, we will fully implement epidemic prevention and control, normalise management and fully restore normal production and life in the city,” said its deputy mayor Zong Ming.
More than 1 million people in North Korea are suffering from what its state media is calling a “fever”, a key covid-19 symptom. This comes less than one week after North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un confirmed the country’s first covid-19 cases and deaths.
Of the 1 million fever cases, at least 187,000 people have been isolated and treated. It is unclear whether these cases have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 virus. North Korea, which is in lockdown, is thought to have limited capacity for covid-19 testing. There is also no official record of any of its 25-million-strong-population being vaccinated. Kim instead prioritised keeping covid-19 out of the country via strict border controls.
The US has officially passed the ‘tragic milestone’, however, many more deaths are expected to have occurred than have been recorded
The US has officially recorded more than 1 million covid-19 deaths, President Joe Biden said on 12 May, calling the fatalities a “tragic milestone”.
“One million covid deaths, one million empty chairs around the family dinner table, each irreplaceable losses,” said Biden. “We must remain vigilant against this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible, as we have with more testing, vaccines, and treatments than ever before.”
The scale of the death toll is far larger than originally anticipated, with Anthony Fauci at the US National Institutes of Health saying in March 2020 that between 100,000 and 200,000 people could die from covid-19.
The US has a higher official covid-19 death toll than anywhere else in the world, but many fatalities are expected to go unrecorded in some countries.
A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report looked at “excess deaths”, defined as the number of fatalities from any cause in 2020 and 2021 compared with previous years. This included covid-19 deaths that were not recorded as such, as well as people who died from other causes because hospitals were full amid the pandemic.
The report found that India had the highest number of overall excess deaths, while Peru and Russia had the highest number of excess deaths for their population size.
Separately, 2 million covid-19 deaths have been recorded across the European region, which includes the UK, the WHO said on 12 May.
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Six covid-19 deaths have been officially reported in North Korea, where the pandemic is spreading “explosively”, according to the country’s state media. North Korea imposed a national lockdown on 12 May, after acknowledging its first covid-19 cases.
Since late April, 350,000 people in North Korea have been treated for fever, but the country is thought to have little capacity for covid-19 testing. It has not reported carrying out any covid-19 vaccinations.
Shanghai has said it is aiming to achieve zero cases of covid-19 outside of tightly regulated quarantine zones by mid-May. Cases outside the quarantine zones are an indicator of whether the outbreak is spreading. This comes after the WHO called China’s zero-covid policy unsustainable, because the omicron variant is so transmissible.
North Korea has introduced a national lockdown after reporting its first covid-19 outbreak in the capital Pyongyang
The country had never reported a covid-19 case before 12 May 2022. But many expect infections would have arisen in early 2020, before North Korea closed its borders, given its travel and trade relationships with China.
According to the North Korean news outlet KCNA, people with fevers in Pyongyang recently tested positive for the omicron sublineage BA.2, but state media has not confirmed the number of cases or where the infections may have originated.
There is no official record of any of North Korea’s 25-million-strong-population being vaccinated.
According to KCNA, state authorities, including North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, recognise that a “most serious emergency case” has occurred, and Jong-un hopes to “quickly cure the infections in order to eradicate the source of the virus”.
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More than half of people who were hospitalised with covid-19 have at least one symptom two years later, according to a study that followed 1192 people living in Wuhan, China, after they were infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus in early 2020. The findings provide the longest known follow-up of covid-19 symptoms so far, with previous studies spanning around one year.
The participants – who had an average age of 57 – were assessed via a six-minute walking test, questionnaires and lung tests at six months, 12 months and two years post-discharge.
More than two thirds (68 per cent) reported at least one long covid symptom six months after leaving hospital, decreasing to 55 per cent after two years. The most commonly reported symptom was fatigue or muscle weakness.
“Our findings indicate that for a certain proportion of hospitalised covid-19 survivors, while they may have cleared the initial infection, more than two years is needed to recover fully from covid-19,” Bin Cao at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in China said in a statement.
The number of reported covid-19 deaths that occurred in the African region between 2 and 8 March was up 84 per cent on the previous week, according to the World Health Organization. The African region also saw cases rise 12 per cent week-on-week.
Globally, the number of reported covid-19 cases and deaths have been declining since the end of March.
Lifting China’s zero-covid policy could trigger a large omicron wave, but the World Health Organization (WHO) says maintaining the strategy is “unsustainable”
Scrapping China’s zero-covid policy could lead to 1.55 million deaths and increase intensive care numbers by a factor of 15, according to a modelling study from Fudan University in China.
China introduced the strategy, which aims to quickly cut off transmission to end outbreaks, in August 2021 in response to the faster-spreading delta variant. Officials are now said to be evaluating the sustainability of their policy.
Fudan’s mathematical model, based on a fully vaccinated population with no mass testing or movement restrictions in place, predicts that lifting the zero-covid strategy could lead to as many as 5.1 million hospitalisations, 2.7 million intensive care unit admissions and 1.55 million deaths by September 2022.
People over 60 who are unvaccinated would make up 74 per cent of these deaths, the model predicts.
But the WHO doubts whether keeping zero-covid policies in place is sustainable, as the highly-transmissible omicron variant continues to drive cases in China.
“When we talk about the zero-covid strategy, we don’t think that it’s sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference.
“We have discussed about this issue with Chinese experts and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable.
“Transiting into another strategy will be very important.”
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Pregnant people who are vaccinated against covid-19 are 15 per cent less likely to have a stillbirth than their unvaccinated counterparts, according to a meta-analysis of 23 studies covering more than 117,000 vaccinated pregnant people.
Vaccination in pregnancy is also 90 per cent effective at preventing covid-19 infection, with no evidence of an increased risk of complications, such as a lower birthweight or postpartum haemorrhage, the study found.
New Zealand has recorded more than 1 million covid-19 cases, according to its ministry of health. Over 986,000 of these cases occurred in early 2022, with the government loosening its zero-covid strategy in March.
More than 20 per cent of New Zealand’s 5-million-strong population is therefore known to have been infected, however, modelling suggests the true number could be three times larger.
Study suggests a fourth dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine generally provides increased protection from covid-19
A fourth dose of an mRNA covid-19 vaccine could provide a “substantial boost in antibody levels and cellular immunity”, according to a study conducted as part of the University of Southampton’s Cov-Boost vaccine trial and published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
A fourth vaccine has been rolled out across the UK for people aged 75 and over, and those who are immunocompromised. Off the back of the Cov-Boost study, a larger group of people in the UK may be offered a second booster jab later this year.
In the trial, 166 participants who had received a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, following two initial Pfizer/BioNTech or University of Oxford/AstraZeneca doses in June 2021, were either given a full dose of Pfizer/BioNTech or a half dose of Moderna as a fourth jab, about seven months after their third vaccination.
Results reveal the fourth jab generally offered higher antibody levels than a third dose and provided particularly strong protection for those aged 70 and over.
However, the study also found that some participants maintained higher levels of immunity after a third dose and only received a limited boost from a fourth jab, suggesting there could be a ceiling to the immune response.
If this ceiling effect is seen in further studies, it could suggest that a fourth booster shot is less effective in those who have recently been infected with covid-19 or with a window shorter than seven months between their third and fourth vaccine doses.
“These results underline the benefits of the most vulnerable people receiving current spring boosters and gives confidence for any prospective autumn booster programme in the UK,” lead author Saul Faust said in a statement.
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Lockdowns and social distancing caused by the pandemic led to a “small but significant increase” in loneliness worldwide, according to a meta-analysis of 34 studies, covering 200,000 participants across four continents.
Speaking to The Independent, Mareike Ernst, of Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz in Germany, said: “Given the small effect sizes, dire warnings about a ‘loneliness pandemic’ may be overblown. However, as loneliness constitutes a risk for premature mortality and mental and physical health, it should be closely monitored.”
Just 51 per cent of people who have tested positive for covid-19 are following isolation guidelines in England, according to figures for 28 March to 2 April 2022 issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The legal requirement to self-isolate after testing positive for covid-19 was removed in England at the end of February 2022. In April, new isolation guidance was issued for those who tested positive, urging them to avoid contact with other people until they no longer had symptoms or felt unwell. Similar guidance is in place in the rest of the UK.
“Only half of those who tested positive for covid-19 adhered fully to self-isolation guidance,” Tim Gibb at ONS said in a statement. “While this is a similar proportion to what we reported in mid-March 2022, it however represents a significant decrease to levels of adherence seen earlier this year.”
The covid-19 pandemic directly or indirectly caused 14.9 million deaths as of the end of 2021, according to a WHO report
In a major analysis, officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) calculated the number of pandemic-related deaths that occurred globally between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2022.
The researchers combined national death data for each country with statistics from scientific studies carried out in the same country. They also used a statistical model to account for deaths that may have been otherwise overlooked.
The team then estimated the number of fatalities that would have been expected had the pandemic not occurred, comparing the two figures to give an “excess” of 14.9 million.
This excess includes deaths directly caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as those that were indirectly caused by the pandemic, such as people who died prematurely because healthcare systems were overwhelmed.
According to John Hopkins University data, just over 6.2 million people have died of covid-19 worldwide, not taking into account the pandemic’s indirect deaths.
“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
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More than one in 10 people hospitalised with covid-19 could have severe neurological symptoms, a study suggests.
Researchers at Boston University studied more than 16,000 people who were hospitalised with covid-19 in 24 countries between March 2020 and March 2021. Nearly 13 per cent of the participants developed a serious neurological condition – like a stroke, seizure or encephalopathy, an umbrella term for disease that alters the brain’s function or structure – at admission or during their hospitalisation.
Fighting off SARS-CoV-2 virus may temporarily boost your protection against other coronavirus strains, including those that cause common cold-like symptoms.
In a small study, scientists at Scripps Research in the US found serum samples from people who had recently fought off SARS-CoV-2 virus reacted more strongly to the spike proteins of other coronavirus strains than samples taken from people pre-covid-19.
People hospitalised with covid-19 may lose 10 IQ points, equivalent to the natural cognitive decline that occurs between 50 and 70 years old
Covid-19 can cause lasting cognitive and mental health issues, including brain fog, fatigue and even post-traumatic stress disorder. To better understand the scale of the problem, researchers at the University of Cambridge analysed 46 people who were hospitalised due to the infection between March and July 2020.
The participants underwent cognitive tests on average six months after their initial illness. These results were compared against those of more than 66,000 people from the general population.
Those hospitalised with covid-19 scored worse on verbal analogical reasoning tests, which assess an individual’s ability to recognise relationships between ideas and think methodically.
They also recorded slower processing speeds. Previous studies suggest glucose is less efficiently used by the part of the brain responsible for attention, complex problem-solving and working memory after covid-19.
Scores and reaction speeds improved over time, however, any recovery was gradual at best, according to the researchers.
This cognitive impairment probably has multiple causes, including inadequate blood supply to the brain, blood vessel blockage and microscopic bleeds caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as damage triggered by an overactive immune system, they added.
“Around 40,000 people have been through intensive care with covid-19 in England alone and many more will have been very sick, but not admitted to hospital,” Adam Hampshire at Imperial College London said in a statement.
“This means there is a large number of people out there still experiencing problems with cognition many months later.”
Other coronavirus news
The biological mechanism behind a rare and severe covid-19 response seen in some children may have been uncovered by researchers at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
Doctors have so far been unable to identify why some children develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS) in response to covid-19, which can cause symptoms such as fever, abdominal pain and heart disease.
After analysing the blood of 33 children with MIS, the researchers identified 85 proteins specific to the condition, potentially aiding diagnosis and opening the door to new treatments.
Covid-19 may worsen asthma in children, according to a study of more than 61,000 people aged two to 17 with the respiratory condition in the US. The 7700 participants who tested positive for covid-19 went on to have more asthma-related hospitalisations, emergency inhaler use and steroid treatments in the six months post-infection, compared with the participants without a confirmed covid-19 infection.
How covid-19 affects people with asthma is somewhat muddled. In November 2020, a study found people with asthma may be less likely to develop covid-19 complications, potentially due to their steroid use or reduced exposure via shielding.
See previous updates from April 2022, March 2022, February 2022, January 2022, November to December 2021, September to October 2021, July to September 2021, June to July 2021, May 2021, April to March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November to December 2020, and March to November 2020.
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