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Does the omicron variant mean you shouldn’t go to Christmas parties?

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Omicron may spread much more easily at social functions than other variants

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Should you go to that festive party this year if you want to avoid being infected by the coronavirus? Probably not. In addition to the risk posed by the high levels of the delta variant in many countries, the omicron variant is now spreading too – and it appears capable of infecting an astonishingly high proportion of people at social events.

There are already at least four reports of superspreader events at parties across Europe where a third or more of the people attending have been infected. Omicron hasn’t yet been confirmed in all cases but is likely to blame.

“The very high proportion of people infected at these events, taken together with the very rapid increase in cases in South Africa, point to a variant with possibly considerably stronger abilities to infect,” says epidemiologist Gunhild Alvik Nyborg of the Covid Action Group, an international thinktank on eliminating covid.

One of the events was a party at a restaurant in Oslo, Norway. Around 70 of the 120 people who attended the party were infected, as were another 50 people at the restaurant. Omicron has been confirmed by sequencing in 13 cases so far.

In Denmark, 53 of 150 people who went to a Christmas lunch in Viborg have been confirmed to be infected with omicron.

In Spain, 68 medics at the University Regional Hospital in Malaga have tested positive after going to a Christmas party at which 173 people were present altogether. It isn’t yet clear if any of the 68 have omicron.

Evading immunity

In the UK, Tim Spector at King’s College London says he has been told of a 60th birthday party at which 14 of 18 people were infected with omicron according to PCR tests. All the guests were vaccinated and are said to have tested negative on lateral flow tests in the 24 hours beforehand.

“It definitely demonstrates a very high secondary attack rate,” says Tom Wenseleers at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium.

Delta is more infectious than the original virus identified in Wuhan, but its spread is limited by the fact that most people now have immunity to it either from prior infection or vaccination. Omicron appears to be both more infectious than delta and much better at evading prior immunity, says Wenseleers.

We have seen superspreader events with other variants. In May 2020, for instance, at least half of the 61 people who attended a choir practice in Skagit County, Washington, became infected.

But to have so many events of this kind so soon after omicron reached Europe suggests the risk is higher. “This looks like it is in a different league,” says Nyborg.

She speculates that people can be infected by a smaller dose of omicron, increasing the likelihood of airborne spread. “Only a few viral particles lingering in the air likely now poses a larger threat than for earlier variants,” says Nyborg.

People should be avoiding these kinds of events as omicron spreads, says Spector. However, the risk of being infected by omicron also depends on the odds of someone with omicron being at a party, and that is low in most countries, for now.

“Hopefully this week the risks are still low,” says Spector. The risk might also be lower in theatres or concerts if people wear masks and there is good ventilation, says Nyborg.

Fear of oxygen shortages

However, delta variant infections are currently at high levels in many countries, including the UK, where 469 people in every 100,000 have had a positive PCR test in the past seven days.

The big unknown remains whether omicron is more or less likely than delta to cause severe disease. So far, all those infected at the parties are said to have mild cases, but it is too soon to be sure this will remain true.

People who become severely ill with covid-19 generally do so only around a week after symptoms first develop. In addition, most of those infected were young and therefore at lower risk.

However, attending parties isn’t just about the risk to you as an individual. If you become infected and infect others, you could contribute to a massive surge in cases that could overwhelm hospitals even if omicron is less severe than delta.

“We risk seeing a very large proportion of the world’s population infected at the same time, leading to shortages of oxygen,” says Nyborg.

“I want such events to be allowed as much as anyone else,” she says. “But from a scientific point of view, this is really high risk.”

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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

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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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