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Omicron coronavirus variant may cause a global wave of covid-19 cases



It remains unclear whether the omicron coronavirus variant causes less severe disease, but even if this is true, hospitals could still be overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases


6 December 2021

A health worker at a covid-19 testing site in Cape Town, South Africa

Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is growing evidence that the new omicron variant of the coronavirus is capable of spreading rapidly in populations with immunity against other coronavirus variants. It has already reached many countries and appears poised to cause a huge wave of infections around the world.

The big unknown is whether omicron is more or less likely to cause severe disease and deaths. Aris Katzourakis at the University of Oxford says he very much doubts the variant’s mutations will result in decreased severity, but that it is too early to tell.

“We are all worried,” says Katzourakis. “We are waiting with bated breath.”

In South Africa, where the variant was first detected, cases are rising even faster than during previous waves, with case numbers doubling every three to four days.

The rapid spread in South Africa doesn’t necessarily reflect what will happen elsewhere. The beta variant that was first spotted in South Africa and caused its second wave didn’t result in similar spikes in cases in other nations. However, there are signs that omicron is already taking off in different countries too.

For instance, the UK is seeing a rapid rise in so-called S-gene dropouts in PCR covid-19 tests, a phenomenon that happens when a variant has certain mutations in the gene for its spike protein. This is likely to be due to omicron. Denmark, which does a lot of sequencing, has already detected nearly 200 cases of covid-19 caused by this variant.

The main reason omicron is spreading so fast appears to be that it is excellent at evading prior immunity. Researchers in South Africa have found that the risk of reinfection is much higher with omicron. This suggests that the risk of vaccinated people getting infected is also much greater than it is with delta. Initial case reports back this up. For instance, of 11 omicron cases in Israel so far, six are in people who had had three doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Besides potentially being able to evade immunity, omicron might also be inherently even more transmissible than delta. This remains uncertain, but there are already three reports of superspreading events where an extraordinarily high proportion of people were infected at parties in Norway, Denmark and the UK.

The good news is that the expectation is that people infected despite vaccination or prior infection will still be less likely to become severely ill than those with no prior immunity, as with delta. This is because while omicron may be able to evade antibodies, it is much harder for it to escape immune cells called T-cells that help clear viral infections. We also have much better treatments now, though they are mainly available in high-income countries.

Because of the lag between people getting infected, becoming seriously ill and recovering or dying, it could be many weeks still before it becomes clear just how well vaccination or prior infection will protect against severe disease, and how severe omicron will be in those with no prior immunity.

During a press conference on 3 December, Waasila Jassat at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa said the country has already seen a sharp increase in hospitalisations in all age groups. Notably, children under 5 were the second biggest group after people aged over 60.

We will have to wait to see how those being hospitalised fare. One hospital in South Africa said that fewer covid-19 patients than normal were requiring oxygen as of 2 December, but cautioned that it is too early to draw conclusions.

Even if a smaller proportion of those infected with omicron become severely ill than was the case with previous variants, if it infects huge numbers of people, hospitals could still be overwhelmed.

“I’m hoping that prior immunity protects against severe outcomes, but I’m very concerned about the size of the epidemic wave in the US and across the world,” tweeted Trevor Bedford at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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



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


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



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



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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