Month: April 2021

PHE Figures Show Cases Down in Every Region and Fewer Over-80s Catching Virus Than Ever – So Why Seven More Weeks of Restrictions?

Cases are down in every region of England and fewer over-80s are catching the virus than ever before, according to the latest figures from PHE. So why are restrictions not being lifted for another seven weeks? What happened to data not dates? MailOnline has more.

Public Health England’s weekly Covid report found just 6.3 per 100,000 people in the most vulnerable age group caught the disease in the week ending April 25th, the lowest since surveillance data began last June. The infection rate among over-80s peaked at 623 in mid-January.

For over-60s, the rate was 9.1, down from 9.9 the week before and a high of 454 at the peak of the second wave. Both lockdown restrictions and vaccines — which were given to the elderly first — have helped turn the tide on the crisis.

Every English region also saw falls in cases in the past week — despite millions more tests being deployed — with the lowest rates recorded in the South West (14.2), South East (17.2) and the East of England (20.5).

Meanwhile, the Department of Health’s daily update revealed there were 2,445 cases in the past 24 hours and 22 deaths, with infections down 10% from a week ago and deaths up slightly on the 18th last Thursday.

Latest figures show another 462,000 second and 134,000 first vaccine doses were dished out on Tuesday. It means more than 34 million Britons have had at least one dose and 14 million have been fully vaccinated.

Experts said the UK was moving out of the Covid pandemic and into a situation that was much more manageable after separate figures showed the number of people falling ill across Britain is also at a record low.

But despite a plethora of evidence showing the virus is firmly in retreat, England faces at least seven more weeks of restrictions. June 21st has been earmarked as the earliest possible date that most curbs can be lifted.

Worth reading in full.

More False Positives Than True Positives in the First Two Weeks of School Testing

A member of SAGE warned back in February that the return of unvaccinated children to the classroom would create a “significant risk of a resurgence” of Covid infections. This was not the case – only 0.06% of rapid Covid tests of students produced positive results in the week that schools reopened. But how many of these results were actually positive? Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician from the University of Birmingham, said in March: “We would expect far more false positives than true positives amongst those testing positive in schools.” New data from the Department of Health and Social Care has now confirmed that more false positive results were produced than true positives in the first two weeks of school testing.

Department of Health and Social Care

This data, as Professor Deeks points out, is a damning indictment of the use of rapid Covid testing in schools and has resulted in many children having to isolate at home unnecessarily – with their classmates often being sent home too. (At one stage, more than 200,000 schoolchildren were having to self-isolate, forcing them to miss out on much-needed catch-up work in classes.)

[The] proportion[s] false were 62% and 55% in these two weeks.

Of 2,304 positive tests, 1,353 were likely false, with one positive per 6,900 tests done.

The use of PCR tests to confirm or (in more cases) deny lateral flow test results is itself a strange choice, as Lockdown Sceptics’ Will Jones points out, and could mean that the true impact of rapid testing in schools is even worse than this data suggests.

It is interesting that they assume confirmation from a PCR test defines true and false positives, even though PCR tests are more sensitive than LFTs so are no less likely to give a positive from fragments or contamination. What if in some cases the PCR tests are just confirming the false positive of the lateral flow tests?

The British Medical Journal has been warning against the use of PCR tests for “case finding, mass screening, and disease surveillance” since last September (if not before):

PCR is not a test of infectiousness. Rather, the test detects trace amounts of viral genome sequence, which may be either live transmissible virus or irrelevant RNA fragments from previous infection. When people with symptoms or who have been recently exposed receive a positive PCR result they will probably be infectious. But a positive result in someone without symptoms or known recent exposure may be from live or dead virus, and so does not determine whether the person is infectious and able to transmit the virus to others.

Clearly, testing requirements for schools must now change. But the problem is not limited to the classroom. Professor Deeks says that false positive data should now be released for all forms of lateral flow testing.

U.K. Child Abuse Helpline Contacted Almost 85,000 Times during Lockdowns

A U.K. children’s charity says that messages and calls to its helpline have risen to record levels over the past year of lockdowns. The most frequently raised concerns were about neglect, parental mental health and physical and mental abuse. BBC News has the story.

Children’s charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says calls and messages to its helpline have risen to record levels during the pandemic. 

In the year to March 2021 the helpline was contacted almost 85,000 times, up 23% on the previous year.

The figures amplify fears that children who could not go to school during the lockdowns were more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, says the NSPCC. 

Chief Executive Sir Peter Wanless says Government recovery plans must address the harm children may have faced. 

“We’ve been hearing first-hand about the immense pressures families have faced during the pandemic and the heavy toll that has taken on children and young people. 

“For some children this has included experiencing abuse, bereavement and other harm,” said Sir Peter…

Of the 85,000 contacts to the helpline, the NSPCC says almost half, 47%, led to a referral – for example to police or children’s services. 

The most frequently raised concern was about adult or parental behaviour, including: 

~ alcohol or other substance misuse

~ domestic abuse

~ parental mental health

Other issues raised included neglect, physical abuse and emotional abuse.

NSPCC’s Chief Executive said children should be placed at the centre of the Government’s plans for the recovery from lockdown. The findings from this charity echo previous reports on the “pandemic of mental health problems” among children as a result of lockdowns, caused not only by domestic abuse but by the banning of social contact and, for example, the closing of children’s playgrounds.

Worth reading in full.

News Round Up

Vaccines Cut Household Transmission in Half After One Dose

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has described as “terrific” the findings of a new Public Health England study that shows one dose of the vaccines can cut household transmission by up to 50%.

This is indeed good news – and not unexpected, since the vaccines have been shown to reduce symptoms, and symptomatic disease is what drives transmission.

However, it’s worth being aware that this is the relative risk reduction. The absolute risk reduction (as always) does not look quite so impressive.

In fact, one of the remarkable findings of the study is that of 960,765 unvaccinated household contacts of unvaccinated index cases testing positive, just 10.1% of them (96,898) caught the disease. This means around 90% of unvaccinated people living in the same house as someone with COVID-19 didn’t catch it themselves. This low secondary attack rate is an indication of the level of immunity the population already has to the virus, whether from innate, pre-existing or acquired immunity, even before vaccines come into the picture.

The study identified 3,424 unvaccinated household contacts of index cases who tested positive despite receiving their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at least 21 days earlier. Of these, 196 tested positive themselves, giving a secondary attack rate of 5.7%.

For the Pfizer vaccine the same figures were 371 secondary cases testing positive out of 5,939 unvaccinated household contacts, giving a secondary attack rate of 6.3%.

This means in absolute terms the risk for household members of catching Covid from an infected household index case was reduced from around 10% when the index case was an unvaccinated person to around 6% when he or she was vaccinated, a drop of 4%. This is encouraging, if not as big as might be hoped – though it may improve after the second dose.

For unexplained reasons the study does not look at symptoms at all, so we have no idea how many of the vaccinated positive cases were asymptomatic or how severe their symptoms were. Other studies suggest that positive cases are more likely to be asymptomatic or mild in those with immunity (whether from infection or vaccination) and this is likely to explain much of the drop in secondary attack rate for the household contacts of index cases who are vaccinated but test positive.

This cheering news on the effectiveness of the vaccines for cutting transmission gives the Government even less reason to stick to its glacial reopening strategy.

Coronavirus Spike Protein Alone May Cause Lung Damage

Research on mice has found that exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein by itself, without the rest of the virus or any viral replication, is enough to cause COVID-19-like symptoms, including severe inflammation of the lungs. Dr Pavel Solopov, Research Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University in America, who led the research, told the Medical Xpress:

Our findings show that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein causes lung injury even without the presence of intact virus. This previously unknown mechanism could cause symptoms before substantial viral replication occurs.

The researchers injected genetically modified mice with a segment of the spike protein and compared them after 72 hours with a control group injected with saline. The outcome was unmistakable, according to the Medical Xpress.

The researchers found that the genetically modified mice injected with the spike protein exhibited COVID-19-like symptoms that included severe inflammation, an influx of white blood cells into their lungs and evidence of a cytokine storm – an immune response in which the body starts to attack its own cells and tissues rather than just fighting off the virus. The mice that only received saline remained normal.

The researchers did not, according to this report, indicate whether the finding has any significance for the vaccines and their side effects. The Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all work by delivering genetic material that induces cells around the body to produce the spike protein, which the immune system then becomes primed to recognise. A question arising from this research is whether, if the spike protein is pathogenic in its own right and not just a means of gaining entry to cells, this explains any of the Covid-like side-effects of the vaccines, including some of the rare serious ones.

Other research has suggested that “the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein (without the rest of the viral components) triggers cell signalling events that may promote pulmonary vascular remodelling and pulmonary arterial hypertension as well as possibly other cardiovascular complications”. These matters should continue to be investigated.

Worth reading the Medical Xpress report in full.

(Image: Using a newly developed mouse model, researchers found that exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alone was enough to induce COVID-19-like symptoms including severe inflammation in the lungs. The left images show healthy mouse lung tissue while the right images show tissue from mouse lungs exposed to the spike protein. Credit: Pavel Solopov, Old Dominion University.)

Germany’s Domestic Spy Agency Monitoring Anti-Lockdown Activists for Suspected Sedition

German authorities are not taking criticism of the Government’s handling of Covid lightly. On Tuesday, we covered the raiding of the house, office and car of a Weimar judge who earlier this month ruled against the wearing of face masks in schools. Now, reports have emerged that the country’s domestic spy agency is monitoring anti-lockdown activists for suspected sedition. Reuters has the story.

Germany’s domestic spy agency is monitoring individuals who have joined anti-lockdown protests to decide if their rejection of Government curbs amounts to subversion and incitement to violence.

The surveillance includes some members of the “Querdenker” or “Lateral Thinkers” movement, which has been organising increasingly violent protests against coronavirus lockdowns and includes conspiracy theorists and suspected far-right extremists, a spokeswoman for the BfV spy agency said.

The movement started with small demonstrations in the southern city of Stuttgart last year but has grown in scope and reach, drawing to its protests Germans from all walks of life frustrated with lockdowns in place since November.

Authorities fear that far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who either deny the existence of Covid or downplay its threat to public health are exploiting lockdown frustrations to stir anger against politicians and state institutions five months before a general election…

Domestic spies fear far-right extremists could seek to boost anger against state institutions such as the police after parliament gave temporary powers this month to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Government to enforce lockdowns in areas with high infection rates.

The new powers have drawn fierce criticism from opposition parties, including the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose leaders have joined anti-lockdown protests.

The BKA federal police agency has told parliament that the names of lawmakers who voted for the amendments figured in an online document titled, “Death list of German politicians”, while adding that they were in no imminent danger.

A spokeswoman for the BfV said: “Organisers of demonstrations which are mainly led by protagonists of the Querdenker movement have an agenda that goes beyond protesting against the state’s measures against the coronavirus.” The Interior Minister of the eastern state of Thuringia added that attacks made against the police demonstrate the extent of the radicalisation among anti-lockdown protesters.

Worth reading in full.

Reduced Interaction Caused by Covid Lockdowns Has Left Children Vulnerable to Other Illnesses

A lack of exposure to the natural environment (as well as to a variety of microbes) caused by lockdowns and “social” distancing is likely to have stunted the development of children’s immune systems, making them more prone to allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases. The New Scientist has the story.

It is too early to know for certain, but extended coronavirus lockdowns could have a long-term effect on the development of children’s immune systems, affecting allergic responses.

The majority of the components of the immune system go through a process of maturation between birth and the age of six.

“Immune systems learn to regulate themselves during these early years,” says Byram Bridle at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Regular exposure to the natural environment and a variety of microbes enables immune systems to learn to differentiate between things that are foreign but not dangerous and foreign things that are pathogenic. A failure to properly differentiate between the two may result in hypersensitivities including allergies and asthma.

Bridle suspects that for “Covid kids” – children who have spent a significant proportion of their life under lockdown – there may be a higher eventual incidence of such allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases.

Dr Bridle, a viral immunologist, said parents should hug their children regularly to help boost their immune systems.

“Sharing your microbes with your very young child is going to help with this development of their immune system.”

Even though the most beneficial interactions are with other human microbiomes, the presence of household pets is also a boon.

“When people have an opportunity, try and get out in the natural environment,” adds Bridle.

In its report, the New Scientist examines the impact of reduced interactions (caused by lockdowns) on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections in Australia.

In Australia, which has largely been Covid-free for the past six months, there has been a delayed surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common, flu-like illness that causes a lung infection called bronchiolitis and often has the most serious effects in children under the age of two.

RSV infections typically peak in winter, but in 2020, the RSV season in Australia was curtailed by Covid stay-at-home orders and public health measures.

The number of RSV cases in Western Australia fell by 98% during the winter months of 2020 compared to the same period in previous years. They then surged in spring. A study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal found that RSV activity started to increase in September, and soon exceeded the median seasonal peak from 2012 to 2019. There was even a change in the median patient age.

American Universities Order Students to Take Covid Vaccine before Returning to Classes

A number of American universities have announced that they will require their staff and students to be vaccinated against Covid before being permitted to return to campuses this autumn. MailOnline has the story.

Several state university systems will require all students returning to classes and campuses this fall to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

A number of state and public institutions have made the announcement in the past week as they hope to get back to normal campus life after months of online learning.

Similar measures have been announced by some private institutions, but with the policy of requiring Covid vaccinations expanding into state and public school systems, the number of universities with the requirement has risen significantly.

Some private universities – including Brown, Cornell and Stanford – have announced similar requirements, and will be joined by California’s two state university systems, as well as several universities in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey.

Thursday’s joint announcement from the 10-campus University of California and the 23-campus California State University represented the largest of its kind in American higher education…

Including private universities, at least 80 have announced their intention to make vaccines mandatory to their students in order for them to return to campus, according to a count by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But others have said outright that they will not require their students to be vaccinated. Republican Governors in Utah, Texas, Florida and Montana have signed orders banning institutions from requiring vaccines. 

According to Forbes, it is currently unclear how state executive orders banning Covid vaccine passports – such as that recently signed in Texas – will affect universities wishing to force their students to get vaccinated. Should the bans on unvaccinated students go ahead, it is expected that some exemptions “based on sincerely held religious views and medical conditions” will apply. Forbes has published a list of institutions that have said they will require staff and students to be vaccinated before they reopen.

MailOnline‘s report is worth reading in full.

Why Has the NHS COVID-19 App Not Been Withdrawn?

What follows is a guest post by our technology correspondent.

Grant Schapps has been doing the media rounds today announcing that the NHS App is going to be the vehicle for vaccine passports, as I predicted on this site last month. That is going to cause huge problems. What we did not hear in those media interviews were any questions asking when its sister app, the NHS Test and Trace app, is going to be withdrawn. Why would they ask that? Well, because Matt Hancock said that is what he would do.

He could not have been clearer about it. In a letter to Harriet Harman’s Joint Committee on Human Rights on May 4th 2020 he wrote: “We intend to withdraw the app once the epidemic is over and it is no longer required.”

Is the pandemic over? Sarah Walker, Chief Investigator on the Office for National Statistics COVID-19 Infection Survey and Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford, says so. The Telegraph reported her saying: “Britain has moved from a pandemic to an endemic situation.” That was on April 23rd so plenty of time for Matt Hancock to have gone onto the app store and withdrawn his app.

Why the delay, Matt?