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One year of covid-19 vaccinations: UK celebrates 12 months of its public vaccination campaign, but vaccine inequality persists worldwide

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On 8 December 2020, Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial. 12 months and billions of shots later, several countries are already on a third round of coronavirus vaccinations



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8 December 2021

Margaret Keenan was vaccinated at University Hospital, Coventry, on 8 December, 2020

Jacob King – Pool/Getty Images

The phenomenal covid-19 vaccine roll-out in 2021 demonstrates some of the best and worst aspects of modern medicine. It is now estimated that nearly 8 billion doses have been put into people’s arms in the past 12 months – an incredible effort by health services around the world. But the vaccines haven’t been distributed equally. While many people in high-income countries will have received three jabs by Christmas, only about 5 per cent of people in low-income countries are expected to have had at least one by the end of the year.

On 8 December 2020, Margaret Keenan in the UK became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine outside of a clinical trial. But it was in January 2021 that immunisation started taking off in the UK and other wealthy nations, with limited initial supplies meaning shots had to be prioritised for the most vulnerable.

Figures on the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines are encouraging. In the UK, two shots of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech versions reduced infections by the delta variant by 67 and 80 per cent respectively, hospitalisations by 92 and 96 per cent, and deaths by 91 and 90 per cent. If vaccinated people do get infected, they are 63 per cent less likely to pass the virus on to others. We do not know yet how different these figures might be for the omicron variant.

There have been serious, but rare, side effects from vaccination. In March, it became clear that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can cause a blood-clotting syndrome called vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT, which it turned out is also associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and is more likely in younger people.

In June, it emerged that the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines occasionally trigger a form of heart inflammation called myocarditis. This is more often seen in younger people, particularly males, although the incidence of myocarditis after covid-19 itself is six times greater.

The last few months of 2021 saw wealthy nations offering vaccine doses to under-16s, and in some countries, such as the US, to children as young as 5 years. Alongside this, a push for third or booster shots has formed the cornerstone of Israel’s efforts to tackle the delta variant and the UK’s plans to get through a difficult winter and prepare for the omicron variant.

Vaccines have also enabled countries that initially took tougher approaches to managing the pandemic to begin to reopen after lengthy lockdowns. New South Wales in Australia, for instance, kept its promise of easing restrictions, including in Sydney, once 70 per cent of people over 16 were fully vaccinated.

But the plan for wealthy countries to help low‑income ones through a vaccine delivery coalition called COVAX has made slow progress, hindered partly by high-income nations buying so much stock for themselves and by an export ban in India that stopped expected supplies from a large manufacturer there. “We hit many problems,” says Seth Berkley of the health body Gavi, one of the organisations leading COVAX.

Meanwhile, in high-income countries where supply is plentiful, a minority of people are still resisting vaccination, mainly due to mistaken beliefs about side effects. This helps drive circulation of the virus in the community, risking the lives of people who are vaccinated but still vulnerable due to age or ill health.

2021 in review

This was a year of tackling great challenges, from the covid-19 pandemic to climate change. But 2021 was also rich in scientific discoveries and major advances.

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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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