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Omicron: bleak New Year or beginning of the end for the pandemic? | Coronavirus

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Once again, Britain is experiencing a festive season hit by waves of Covid-19 infections. Last year, Christmas and New Year were spoiled by the appearance of the Alpha variant. This time, it is Omicron that has sent case numbers soaring. Christmas cancellations have swept through Britain’s restaurants, pubs and clubs and left the country on the brink of another bleak New Year as the NHS warns once more that it is facing the threat of being overwhelmed by spiralling numbers of seriously ill patients.

The scenario has raised fears that this now represents the shape of Christmases to come. Social restrictions and lockdown threats could become our normal festive fare.

It is a dispiriting prospect. But is it realistic? Are we justified in drawing close parallels between this Christmas and last year’s? These are key questions because, in trying to answer them, we may also find clues to the likely path of the entire pandemic.

How close does this year’s outbreak parallel that of last winter?

At first glance, the two years look striking similar, with case numbers rocketing in only a few weeks in the UK. However, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 remain very low so far this year, with latest research suggesting that the new variant appears to trigger fewer cases of severe illness than its viral predecessors.

Scientists have generally treated these results studies as good news but have also counselled caution. Daily Covid-19 case numbers are still rising – they reached a record 122,000 on Friday – and it was estimated that 1.7m people had Covid-19 in the UK last week.

Are there noticeable differences in the ages of those affected by Omicron?

Crucially, most of the new cases have occurred in young adults, which has led some researchers to warn that if Omicron starts to affect older – more vulnerable – people in greater numbers, hospitalisations could still jump. On the other hand, a huge number of people – especially the elderly – have now been give vaccines and boosters and will have gained considerable protection against Omicron. It remains to be seen how these different factors affect figures. At present, data is still being gathered and it is too early to be sure. At the same time, policy decisions to protect public health still have to be taken.

The problem is highlighted by infectious disease epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University. “There is inevitably a lag between infection and hospitalisation,” he told the journal Nature last week. “But in the meantime, policy decisions have to be made, and that is not straightforward.”

Is the virus likely to lose its power to cause severe illness?

Many scientists believe evidence is now suggesting that this idea may be correct. Recent studies in Scotland, England and South Africa all point in this direction. “My gut feeling is that this variant is the first step in a process by which the virus adapts to the human population to produce more benign symptoms,” says Dr Julian Tang, Professor of Respiratory Sciences at Leicester University. “In a sense, it is to the virus’s advantage if it affects people in a way that that they don’t get too sick – because then they can walk around and mingle in society and spread the virus even more.”

So will Covid-19 end up behaving like flu?

Some health officials have predicted that Covid-19 could end up behaving like influenza, which requires a new vaccine to deal with new strains that appear every year. However, Professor Martin Hibberd, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argues that coronaviruses – like those that already cause common colds – do not behave this way: “They do not appear as new strains every year. The reason we get colds in winter is because our immunity to coronaviruses does not last very long. And this virus seems to be more similar to those that cause common colds. In other words, we may still need to think about giving vaccines to protect against Covid-19 every year because immunity will always slip.”

That does not mean we face “doom and gloom” for the next five years, adds Tang. “I think the virus will evolve itself out of the pandemic strain very soon and become milder, more transmissible to the point where you may only need to think about vaccinating the more vulnerable members of the population.”

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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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