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Covid-19 Christmas: World faces omicron infection wave this festive season

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The festive season will be dominated by a large wave of covid-19 infections caused by the omicron variant, but few countries appear to have substantially changed their plans



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13 December 2021

A shop window in Tehran, Iran

Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There now seems little doubt that the Christmas period will coincide with another major wave of coronavirus cases around the world, as it becomes clear that the omicron variant can largely evade prior immunity from infection or two vaccine doses, and might be even more transmissible than the delta variant. In England and Scotland, cases have been doubling every two days. The big unknown remains whether there will be as many hospitalisations and deaths as in previous waves.

In South Africa, the country that first detected omicron, the variant has spread far faster than earlier variants, with cases doubling every three to four days.

As New Scientist went to press, there was confusion – due to IT issues – about whether case numbers in South Africa were now slowing or still accelerating. But in Gauteng province, nearly as many cases have already been reported as during the country’s delta wave earlier this year.

Initial reports suggest there have been fewer hospitalisations and deaths in South Africa than during previous waves, but it is too early to be sure. Furthermore, it is estimated that almost everyone in the country had already been infected or vaccinated before omicron began to spread, so prior immunity – although usually insufficient to prevent infection – would be expected to greatly reduce the risk of severe disease.

Outside South Africa, the UK and Denmark have so far reported the most confirmed cases of omicron, prompting Israel to plan to ban travel to these nations on top of other travel restrictions it has already imposed.

Yet the high case numbers may largely reflect the fact that the two countries do far more sequencing than most others. Sequencing the viral genome remains the only way to confirm which variant has infected someone, though PCR tests can sometimes give an indication too. The UK would be expected to have more omicron cases than other nations because of its strong travel links to South Africa, but there is no reason to think Denmark is exceptional.

“Omicron is already everywhere,” Hans Kluge at the World Health Organization said on 7 December. The many travel bans imposed because of the variant – largely on southern African countries – wouldn’t work for this reason, he said.

So far, it appears only a few countries have introduced measures to prevent omicron’s spread within their borders, though some, including Germany and Belgium, already had restrictions in place to tackle high numbers of delta cases.

Home working for those who can has been reintroduced across the UK, but when New Scientist went to press, large events would probably still go ahead in England for those with vaccine passports. This is despite UK data suggesting that being double vaccinated offers little protection from symptomatic infection with omicron.

Denmark has imposed similar measures, limiting opening hours for bars but not closing them altogether.

While most other nations have yet to impose new restrictions due to omicron, some are stepping up efforts to give booster shots to people who have already had two vaccine doses. On 12 December, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the US president, urged those already vaccinated to get a booster shot, citing evidence suggesting it greatly increases protection against omicron.

The same day, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced a mass booster campaign, saying “Do not make the mistake of thinking omicron can’t hurt you, can’t make you and your loved ones seriously ill.”

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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