Day: 20 August 2021

U.S. Health Officials Reviewing Reports That Moderna Covid Vaccine Linked to Higher Risk of Heart Condition Than Previously Thought

Days after the U.S. Government announced its plans to begin a Covid booster vaccine roll-out, the Washington Post has revealed that American health officials are reviewing reports that the Moderna vaccine may be linked to a higher risk of a heart condition in younger adults than was previously thought – especially in young men. Reuters has the story.

The review was focused on Canadian data that suggests a higher risk from the shot than the Pfizer vaccine, especially in men below the age of 30, according to paper.

The Washington Post report quoted a source saying it was too early for the regulators to reach a conclusion, and that additional work was needed before any recommendation was made.

“While we won’t comment on internal meetings or discussions, we can say that FDA is absolutely committed to reviewing data as it becomes available to us,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. Moderna did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

The possible review comes just two days after U.S. health officials said that Covid vaccine booster doses will be available to Americans from September 20th, over concerns that initial vaccinations may offer lower protection in the face of rising infections due to the Delta variant.

Health regulators in June had added a warning to the literature that accompanies mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer to flag a rare risk of heart inflammation seen primarily in young males.

Data from a Government agency’s safety monitoring system in that month suggested a rate of 12.6 cases of heart inflammation per million in 12 to 39 year-olds. …

If new information changes the risk-benefit profile of Covid vaccines, the FDA will update the public accordingly, the agency said in an email. …

Roughly 142 million shots of the Moderna vaccine have been administered in arms, according to U.S. Government data as of Thursday.

Worth reading in full.

Can Australia Contain Delta?

Until quite recently, Australia was the poster child for lockdown (along with New Zealand). Capitalising on its favourable geography, the country used a combination of strict border controls and early lockdowns to prevent the virus getting a foothold.

As a result, Australia saw fewer than 30,200 total cases up to June of 2021, and enjoyed negative excess mortality last year. Of course, I doubt that most countries (including the U.K.) could have achieved the same outcomes as Australia, which is not only a sparse island with few points of entry, but also had a head start in responding to COVID-19.

Yet with the recent entry of Delta, Australia’s ability to contain the virus could be reaching its limits. Today, the country posted its largest daily total for the number of new infections since the pandemic began. And as the chart below indicates, the curve for daily infections is now pointing almost straight upward:

The recent outbreak is concentrated in New South Wales, which is home to the country’s largest city, Sydney. (Infections have also shot up in the Australian Capital Territory, an enclave within New South Wales; though absolute numbers there are still low.)

Sydney’s most recent lockdown began on June 25th, after two dozen cases of the Delta variant were unearthed. What initially covered just four local government areas has since been expanded to the entire city. And today authorities announced the lockdown would remain in place until the end of September, including a 9pm to 5am curfew in some districts.

It’s now August 20th, which means that parts of Sydney have been under lockdown for almost two full months. Yet the curve of daily infections shows no signs of slowing. Why this time does the virus seem to have broken through?

The obvious explanation is that the Delta variant is more transmissible. And in fact, the more transmissible a virus, the less effective any given lockdown measures tend to be. As noted in a 2019 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Heath Security, “Quarantine measures will be least effective for pathogens that are highly transmissible.”

Zero-Covid Disaster Continues as New Zealand Extends its Lockdown and Sydney Places Residents Under House Arrest Until October

Advocates of zero-Covid have a lot to answer for. New Zealand PM Jacinda Arden has just announced that the three-day lockdown imposed earlier this week in response to one coronavirus case – you read that correctly – is being extended for a week, following a rise in positive test results to a whopping 31. Meanwhile, Gladys Berejiklian, the Premier of New South Wales, announced that Sydney would remain in lockdown until the end of September. In certain parts of the city, a 9pm to 5am curfew will be imposed and outside exercise restricted to one hour a day. New Zealand has seen only 26 Covid deaths in a population of five million, while Australia has chalked up 974 in a population of over 25 million – yet the insane zero-Covid policy means just one positive case can prompt a lockdown, as we saw in New Zealand earlier this week. MailOnline has more.

Ardern, who is trying to sustain a zero-Covid strategy through strict border controls and lockdowns, initially announced the national shutdown would last three days but on Friday had to succumb to the inevitable and extend it to at least a week.

Vast swathes of Australia are also under zero-Covid lockdowns and residents of Sydney were told they will have to stay home until at least October under strict lockdown rules that will not be lifted until at least 70% of the population are fully vaccinated.

When it hits that vaccination target, the restrictions will be lifted under a “freedom roadmap” similar to the one implemented in the U.K. months ago.

New Zealand initially brought in its lockdown over one case but Ardern said that officials were still trying to assess the scale of the outbreak, which emerged in Auckland this week and has now spread to Wellington.

“We just don’t quite know the full scale of this Delta outbreak. All in all, this tells us we need to continue to be cautious,” she said.

Worth reading in full.

Daily Sceptic contributor Ramesh Thakur, Emeritus Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, has an excellent piece about Australia’s descent into an authoritarian dystopia in the Japan Times. Here’s an extract:

Australia has morphed from being the envy of the world last year for its incredible pandemic management to international incredulity at the brutality of its authoritarian measures to “crush and kill the virus”.

In America, popular conservative TV host Tucker Carlson calls Australia a “COVID dictatorship”. With unconscious irony, the video clip was removed from YouTube. His colleague Laura Ingraham was incredulous at learning that soldiers and police helicopters were patrolling Sydney’s streets and skies to enforce the lockdown.

The premier of Australia’s largest state said on Aug. 14th, at a time when the Taliban were making lightning advances across Afghanistan, that this current pandemic is “literally a war”. The U.K. Telegraph said in an editorial, “How has it come to the point that Australia needs to call up the military to eradicate a virus that is now endemic in the world?”

Beijing is enjoying a moment of schadenfreude. In an article in Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Lu Xue recalled comments from Foreign Minister Marise Payne that were critical of China’s aggressive pandemic management. “Some countries,” she said in June 2020, “are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models.” Lu added, “Now, quite ironically, it turns out that Canberra plans to send its military personnel to help enforce social lockdown.”

The authoritarian streak has seen various instances of what some people would call inhumane treatment. At a time of zero active cases in Canberra, a woman was denied permission to fly to Queensland to see her dying father. A mother from across the border in New South Wales lost her baby last year after being unable to get timely treatment in Brisbane because of the time it would have taken to fill out the paperwork to cross the state line and enter the hospital to receive emergency care.

A fully vaccinated Sydney grandmother was also recently denied a permit to go to Melbourne to help care for her grandchildren while her daughter battles advanced breast cancer. And in a country town in February, a pregnant woman posting on Facebook to support a peaceful protest against Victoria’s lockdown was handcuffed and arrested in her house in the early morning hours, still in her pajamas.

Worth reading in full.

Apple Staff Told They Won’t Return to the Office Unil 2022

Apple has scrapped its plans for corporate staff around the world to return to the office later this year, having decided not to welcome them back until January 2022 – at the earliest – instead. As seems to be the case with most recent news stories, this change comes because of fears over the Delta variant. The Guardian has the story.

The iPhone maker, which will still keep its network of retail stores open, had previously told staff there would be a phased return to work from October. The delayed office return applies to its international workforce, including those based in the U.K.

The company told staff in a memo that it would confirm the reopening plans one month before employees were required to return to the office, according to Bloomberg News.

The memo, sent by the Human Resources and Retail Head, Deirdre O’Brien, added that the company did not currently expect to close its offices or retail stores, but she strongly encouraged staff to get vaccinated. …

Apple, which last month reinstated the mask-wearing policy for in-store staff that it had only decided to scrap in June, had previously planned to ask staff to return to its offices on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays by early September, before delaying that to October. Employees would be able to work remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays.

In the U.K., the company employs 7,000 staff and operates 38 retail stores, the most in any country in Europe. …

Apple is the latest major corporation to decide conditions are not yet safe enough to expect staff to return to offices.

Earlier this month, Microsoft said it would push back the reopening of its corporate offices from September until at least October 4th.

Amazon staff will remain working remotely until at least January 3rd, while Google has extended its voluntary work from home period until October 18th, having previously outlined plans for a September return.

Worth reading in full.

Government Borrowing in July the Second Highest for That Month on Record

“Government borrowing shrinks in July,” reads today’s headlines – but the figure is still the second-highest for July since records began. Borrowing over the past year of lockdowns has pushed the national debt up to more than £2.2 trillion (about 98.8% of GDP).

BBC News has the story.

Borrowing – the difference between spending and tax income – was £10.4 billion, official figures show, which was £10.1 billion lower than July last year.

However, the figure was the second-highest for July since records began.

Borrowing has been hitting record levels, with billions being spent on measures such as furlough payments. …

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) now estimates that the Government borrowed a total of £298 billion in the financial year to March.

That amounted to 14.2% of GDP, the highest level since the end of World War Two.

The ONS said the cost of measures to support individuals and businesses during the pandemic meant that day-to-day spending by the Government rose by £204.3 billion to £942.7 billion last year.

Interest payments on central Government debt were £3.4 billion in July.

That was £1.1 billion more than in July 2020, but far lower than the monthly record of £8.7 billion in June 2021.

Worth reading in full.

The Implausible Findings of the Latest Oxford Vaccine Effectiveness Study

Oxford University released a new study on vaccine effectiveness this week based on the ONS Infection Survey. Its headline finding was that, for the period dominated by the Delta variant, the AstraZeneca jab declined from 97% vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection to 71% and Pfizer’s declined from 97% to 84%. The researchers note that vaccine effectiveness (VE) appears to wane with time, putting this at 7% per month in the case of AstraZeneca and 22% per month in the case of Pfizer.

One odd thing about these results is that the 97% initial VE for AstraZeneca is very high compared to other estimates, including the vaccine trial which found it to be just 70.4%.

Here are their vaccine effectiveness results in full.

A second oddity is that for the all-infection (positive test) findings, the researchers found Pfizer VE was just 78% in the Alpha period, well below the usual figure – such as that from a major Israeli study, which put it at 92%. But then the researchers found it rose to 80% in the Delta period. A third oddity is that AstraZeneca VE was 71% in the 13 days after the second dose, up from 46% after the first dose even though that’s before the second dose is supposed to kick in. Yet once it is supposed to kick in, after 14 days, VE drops to 67%. These are strange results indeed.

Another perplexing aspect is that the VE estimates against Delta in this study, while (mostly) lower than against Alpha, are much higher than those indicated by recent data from Israel and the U.K., which have included 39% and 17%.

These various oddities piqued my suspicions, so I had a look at the raw data (shown below).

Postcard From Romania

We’re publishing a new addition to our ongoing series ‘Around the World in 80 Lockdowns’ today – a “Postcard From Romania”. Romania isn’t in lockdown at the moment – but the Government’s attempts to vaccinate the population has stalled and Romania currently sits second from bottom in the European vaccination league, just above Bulgaria. Here is an extract:

On the face of it, Romania’s much the same as elsewhere in Europe. Masks are compulsory inside, but not out. Vaccination clinics have popped up like mushrooms in a dark Transylvanian forest. Just yesterday we passed the famous clinic at Dracula’s Castle, promoted across the region with banners (which must’ve cost a pretty penny) bearing the provocative message: “Who’s afraid of a vaccine? Come get it; one sting and you’re immune!”

Even in the middle of a mountainous nowhere, right after the needle-shaped curve of a narrow road crossing the mountain-face from east to west: VACCINATION CLINIC 100m. And lo, there it was! A lonely little wooden cabin, apparently thrown together one night in a desperate hurry, lying between the road and the ravine. What if a traveller from Moldavia to Transylvania (some panjandrum must have fretted) were to feel a sudden urge for a sting right at that improbable chicane? Good preventive thinking. One never knows.

And yet one does, because the bigger urban vaccination sites are every bit as empty. Big banners hung across the boulevards beckon to the population. ‘There is one just across the street… 100m… No need to move far from the safety of your apartment…’ etc., yet people are shunning them. According to reports last month, the country has stopped importing vaccines and even sold a million unused doses to Denmark.

Worth reading in full.

U.K. Drug Regulator Approves First Drug to Treat Coronavirus

The first drug which effectively treats coronavirus has been approved by the U.K.’s medicines regulator and is being introduced “as soon as possible” on the NHS. No, it’s not ivermectin. It’s Ronapreve, the same drug, or combination of drugs, used to treat Donald Trump last year. The Times has more.

Ronapreve uses man-made antibodies and prevents the worst symptoms of the virus. The drug is either injected or given through a drip and acts at the lining of the respiratory system where it binds tightly to the virus and prevents it from gaining access to cells.

In June, a large U.K. trial involving nearly 10,000 people found the drug cut the risk of death by about 20% in hospital patients whose bodies were not making antibodies to fight coronavirus.

Donald Trump hailed the treatment as a “cure” and a “blessing from God” after he received an experimental drug cocktail in October last year. It was given emergency authorisation in the US the following month and is thought to cost between £1,000 and £2,000 per person.

Martin Landray, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, at Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, said: “It combines two antibodies that bind to different places on the coronavirus spike protein, preventing uptake by cells and accelerating clearance of the virus. The rationale for combining two different antibodies is that if a viral variant prevented one drug from binding to the spike protein, the other would still be effective – a ‘belt and braces’ approach.

“This licensing decision is an important step forward. There have been a number of trials in the out-of-hospital setting, each with positive results – reducing viral clearance and reducing the risk of hospitalisation. There have been no major safety concerns.

“The challenge going forward will be in determining which patients should be prioritised for this treatment.”

The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said Ronapreve may be used to prevent infection, promote resolution of symptoms of acute COVID-19 infection and reduce the chances of being admitted to hospital.

Worth reading in full.

News Round-Up