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Omicron is ‘not the same disease’ as earlier Covid waves, says UK scientist | Omicron variant

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Omicron is “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago” and high Covid death rates in the UK are “now history”, a leading immunologist has said.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, said that although hospitalisations had increased in recent weeks as Omicron spreads through the population, the disease “appears to be less severe and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital”. Fewer patients were needing high-flow oxygen and the average length of stay was down to three days, he said.

A number of scientists have criticised the government’s decision not to introduce further Covid restrictions in England ahead of New Year’s Eve, with some describing it as “the greatest divergence between scientific advice and legislation” since the start of the pandemic.

They have expressed concern that while the Omicron variant appears to be milder, it is highly transmissible, meaning hospital numbers and deaths could rise rapidly without intervention.

The NHS Providers chief executive, Chris Hopson, said it was still unclear what would happen when infection rates in older people started to rise. “We’ve had a lot of intergenerational mixing over Christmas, so we all are still waiting to see, are we going to see a significant number of increases in terms of the number of patients coming into hospital with serious Omicron-related disease,” he told BBC Breakfast.

NHS staff absences caused by having to isolate over Omicron are also causing strain on the health service, with experts predicting up to 40% of staff in London could be off in a “worst case scenario”.

“We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid,” said Hopson.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, said the government was keeping the level of Covid hospital admissions under “very close review”.

He acknowledged that infection rates from the new Omicron variant were rising but said there was evidence it was not resulting in the same level of hospital admissions as previous waves.

“There is early encouragement from what we know in South Africa that you have fewer hospitalisations and that the number of days that they stay in hospital if they do go into hospital is also lower than in previous variants,” he told the BBC.

“At the moment we don’t think that the evidence supports any more interventions beyond what we have done. But obviously we have got to keep it under very close review, because if it is the case that we started to see a big increase in hospitalisations then we would need to act further.”

John Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago of intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely, that is now history, in my view, and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue.”

He said that over the course of multiple waves of Covid, including Delta and Omicron, “the incidence of severe disease and death from this disease has basically not changed since we all got vaccinated”.

He added that quiet streets over the past couple of weeks showed people had been “pretty responsible” with regard to protecting themselves from the virus.

Speaking after the government’s announcement on Monday that they would not be introducing any more Covid restrictions this year, Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, warned that the latest data was incomplete.

He cautioned that the latest case figures did not include data for samples taken between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and that it would become clear how the virus had moved through the population over the Christmas period in the coming week or so.

“While nobody wants to live under tighter controls, the public need to realise that if we end up with a significant problem of hospitalisations and mass sickness, it will be worse than if authorities had acted earlier,” he said.

Speaking on Tuesday, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said people with Covid should eventually be allowed to “go about their normal lives” as they would with a common cold.

“This is a disease that’s not going away. Ultimately, we’re going to have to let people who are positive with Covid go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold,” he told BBC Breakfast. “If the self-isolation rules are what’s making the pain associated with Covid, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later. Maybe not quite just yet.”

Hunter said Covid would one day be regarded as a cause of the common cold and would not warrant the reporting of daily case numbers. “Once we’re past Easter, perhaps, then maybe we should start to look at scaling back, depending on, of course, what the disease is at that time,” he said.

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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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