Covid-19 news: New variant found in France doesn’t seem to have spread

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People wearing masks in the streets of Lyon, France.

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Latest coronavirus news as of 1pm on 5 January

SARS-CoV-2 variant found in France was identified in November 

A coronavirus variant first discovered in France in late 2021 has had a lot of chances to spread but did not, according to an official from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The variant has been on the intergovernmental body’s radar since November, Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager said at a press briefing yesterday according to Bloomberg.

The variant was discovered around the same time as omicron.

Known as the B.1.640.2 variant, it caused at least 12 people to fall ill in Marseilles in November. “[It is] too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this… variant based on these 12 cases,” say researchers in a preliminary analysis of the variant’s genome. The variant has 46 mutations and 13 deletions in its genome, say the team.

“This virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised as far as we can tell”, tweeted Tom Peacock, at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the analysis.

Multiple variants of the virus have evolved since the pandemic began but only a handful have gone on to spread widely. The highly-infectious omicron variant is currently sweeping through Europe, and France yesterday recorded 271,686 covid-19 infections, a national record.

Normal life will be made harder for unvaccinated people in France, French president Emmanuel Macron told Le Parisien yesterday.

“We need to tell them, from 15 January, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema.”

Other coronavirus news

The tennis player Novak Djokovic has faced backlash after yesterday saying on Instagram that he had received a medical exemption to take part in the Australian Open. Only people who are fully vaccinated can currently visit Australia. Djokovic has not spoken about his vaccination status, but has previously expressed anti-vaccination sentiments.

The organisers of the tournament, which starts on 17 January, say the athlete has not been given special treatment. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison said the Serbian player would need to show a genuine medical exemption to enter the country unvaccinated.

Delhi will impose a weekend curfew to curb soaring omicron cases in the Indian city. All non-essential activity will be banned from Friday night (7 January) to Monday morning (10 January). The curbs are in addition to a nighttime curfew that has been in place since late December from 11pm and 5am. Cinemas and gyms have also been closed since last week. 

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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.

COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.

The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.

Previous updates


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A man passes a temporary ‘Nightingale’ field hospital constructed in south London, England, 3 January 2022.

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4 January

Staff shortages force health service providers to enact emergency measures

At least six National Health Service trusts in England have declared critical incidents as a result of staff shortages caused by covid-19.

A critical incident means that the healthcare providers believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services, and the status enables them to call for help from staff and other organisations. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay and United Lincolnshire Hospitals are among the trusts implementing emergency measures.

The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, wrote in a blogpost that many parts of the health service are currently in “a state of crisis”, while community and social care services are at “breaking point”. 

On a visit to a vaccination centre in Buckinghamshire yesterday, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said: “I think we’ve got to recognise that the pressure on our NHS, on our hospitals, is going to be considerable in the course of the next couple of weeks, and maybe more.”

Meanwhile, as children return to schools today, the government has recommended the wearing of face masks in secondary classrooms in England, as is already advised in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Head teachers have warned that high levels of staff absences could lead to children being sent home to learn remotely.

Other coronavirus news

Covid-19 cases may have plateaued in London and could start to fall in other parts of the UK within 3 weeks, an epidemiologist and government adviser has said. Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that infection rates in the capital appear to be stabilising in the 18 to 50 age group, which has been driving the omicron epidemic. 

“With an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week; [they] may be already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to 3 weeks,” he said.

“Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen. It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.”

In the US, thousands of schools have delayed the start of term or switched to remote learning amid surging cases caused by the omicron variant. New York City’s mayor has vowed to keep schools open despite soaring infection rates, in contrast to cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. Nationwide, the number of patients in hospital with covid-19 increased by 40 per cent in the past week, according to Reuters.

The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be given to children aged 12 to 15. A panel advising the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will now decide whether to recommend booster shots in this age group.

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A soldier administers a vaccination at the Army Reserve Centre in Poole, England.

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24 December

Our daily covid-19 update will resume on 4 January

Immunity offered by vaccines wanes more quickly with omicron, finds UK study

The protection conferred by booster vaccines against the omicron variant begins to wane within 10 weeks, according to a briefing released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Based on an analysis of 147,597 delta and 68,489 omicron cases, the agency found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are less effective against omicron than delta. For people who had two initial doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the UKHSA estimates that Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna boosters are around 60 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections from omicron 2 to 4 weeks after the third dose, but this falls to 35 to 45 per cent by 10 weeks. For those who had two initial doses of Pfizer/BioNTech, protection falls from 70 per cent at 2 to 4 weeks to 45 per cent at 10 weeks after a Pfizer booster, but stays around 70 to 75 per cent up to 9 weeks after a Moderna booster.

The UKHSA report also estimates that someone infected with omicron is 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital, compared with delta. This is based on a preliminary analysis of 114,144 omicron cases and 461,772 delta cases occurring between 22 November and 19 December. The difference is somewhat larger than suggested by a study published by Imperial College London on Wednesday, which reported a 15 to 20 per cent lower risk.

However, modelling suggests that the severity of omicron would need to be around 90 per cent lower to avoid similar levels of hospital admissions to previous waves, according to minutes from a meeting of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Monday.

“What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences, so it is a very balanced position,” Jenny Harris, chief executive of UKHSA, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

The UK recorded 119,789 new cases of covid-19 yesterday, setting another record. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1.4 million people in the UK had the virus in the week ending 16 December, the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020.

Other coronavirus news

Healthcare workers in the US who have tested positive for covid-19 but do not have symptoms can stop isolating after seven days instead of 10, if they test negative for the virus, under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Italy has banned public new year’s eve celebrations as well as all concerts and open air events until 31 January, aiming to curb a rise in infections driven by the omicron variant. Mask wearing will also be compulsory in outdoor public places under new rules.

Australia will cut the interval between second doses and booster shots from 5 months to 4 from 4 January, and then to 3 months on 31 January.

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See previous updates from November to December 2021, September to October 2021, July to September 2021, June to July 2021May 2021, April-March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November/December 2020, and March to November 2020.

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