UK COVID-19 Update: Oxford Jab 'Limited Protection' vs South African Variant, Google 'Predicts Peaks'

Tim Locke

February 08, 2021

Editor's note, 8 February 2021: This article was updated to include information from a Downing Street briefing.

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Oxford Jab & South African Variant

Use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is on hold in South Africa after unpublished preprint trial data suggested it gave "minimal protection" against mild-moderate infection with the country's virus variant in around 2000 young, healthy participants.

Trial chief investigator in South Africa, Professor Shabir Madhi, said: "These findings recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic virus and shift the focus from the goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at risk individuals in [the] population against severe disease."

So far 147 cases of the South African variant have been detected in the UK.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford said: "We are working with AstraZeneca to optimise the pipeline required for a strain change should one become necessary."  AstraZeneca said the updated vaccine would "advance rapidly through clinical development so that it is ready for autumn delivery should it be needed".

Professor Anthony Harnden, JCVI deputy chair, commented: "Evidence suggests the Oxford AZ vaccine protects against disease caused by the predominant COVID variants circulating in the UK. It remains highly likely that the vaccine will also protect against severe disease caused by the South African variant."

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC: "We see very much probably an annual or a booster in the autumn and then an annual (vaccination), in the way we do with flu vaccinations where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world."

England's Deputy CMO Professor Jonathan Van-Tam told a Downing Street briefing: "The South African trial was in young adults and reported mild disease, and a reduced level of protection against infection. But that really doesn't change my view that it is still rather likely to have an effect on severe disease."

BAME Vaccine Uptake

The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) is calling for a high-profile campaign to try to boost vaccine uptake in BAME communities.

RCGP analysis of NHS England vaccination data found that 90.6% of all recipients of COVID-19 vaccines so far have been White, with people of Mixed Ethnicity, Asian, and Black people respectively, around 33%, 47%, and 64% as likely to have the jabs as White people.

NHS England’s Martin Griffiths, a surgeon, is among those tackling BAME vaccine hesitancy. "Minority ethnic groups take up a disproportionate amount of beds due to COVID and they are also the most hesitant to get the one thing that could save them," he said. "We need to rally around these groups and give them the support they need so that they choose to have the jab, saving their own lives and those of their loved ones."

Meanwhile, GPs in England will get £10 for each COVID-19 jab delivered to a patient unable to leave their home. NHS England said the payments recognise the extra staff time and complexity of vaccinating housebound people and applies retrospectively to any vaccinations already administered in people's homes.

Undocumented migrants will be offered free COVID vaccination without checks and whether they are registered with a GP or not.

A government spokesperson said: "We are working closely with partners and external organisations to contact those who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are also offered the vaccine."

Surge Testing

Surge testing has been extended to more areas where the South African variant has been detected, including parts of Worcestershire, Sefton, Bristol, and South Gloucestershire.

Rapid workplace testing is being expanded to include smaller companies with more than 50 employees. To highlight the value of workplace testing the Department of Health and Social Care cited Transport for London where 2173 workplace tests identified 28 positive cases.

The Government has ordered 20 million rapid lateral flow test kits from SureScreen Diagnostics in Derby. These are the first British tests to be laboratory validated by Public Health England (PHE).

PHE said sensitivity against high viral loads was 97.1% and specificity was 99.9%, and the kits can detect the UK virus variant.

Daily Data

In today's daily data another 14,104 UK positive tests were reported and 333 deaths.

Another 2107 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospital. The total is now 29,326, and 3505 ventilator beds are in use.

As of yesterday, 12.29m people have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 512,581 a second dose.

England's Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street briefing vaccine uptake among:

  • Over-80s is 91%

  • 75-79 year-olds is 95%

  • 70-74 year-olds is "almost three quarters"

  • Care home residents is 93%

Mr Hancock announced a new message: "If you live in England, and are 70 and over, and have not yet got an appointment to be vaccinated. Then please contact the NHS."

He said the programme is on track to vaccinate priority groups by 15 February. 

Google Searches Predict COVID-19 Peaks

Monitoring online search data can help predict peaks in COVID-19 cases an average of 17 days in advance, according to UCL research published in Nature Digital Medicine.

Researchers used COVID-19's symptom profile from existing epidemiological reports to develop models of its prevalence by looking at symptom-related Google searches in the UK, USA, Italy, Australia, and South Africa. Weekly data was shared with Public Health England (PHE).

Lead author Dr Vasileios Lampos said: "We have shown that our approach works on different countries irrespective of cultural, socioeconomic, and climate differences. Our analysis was also among the first to find an association between COVID-19 incidence and searches about the symptoms of loss of sense of smell and skin rash. We are delighted that public health organisations such as PHE have also recognised the utility of these novel and non-traditional approaches to epidemiology."

Telemedical Abortion

The charity BPAS is urging UK governments to make the temporary arrangements for telemedical abortion permanent after the pandemic.

The comments follow a study of 663 women in NHS Lothian published in BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health that concluded: "This model of telemedicine abortion without routine ultrasound is safe, and has high efficacy and high acceptability among women."

There were two cases of haemorrhage and no severe infections and 95% of women rated their care as very or somewhat acceptable.

BPAS Chief Executive, Clare Murphy, said: "We must never return to forcing women into attending unnecessary in-clinic appointments to undergo needless clinical procedures when they can safely access this care from the comfort and privacy of their own homes."

NHS Dentistry

Healthwatch England's report on NHS dentistry under the pandemic suggests private treatments are being prioritised, and some treatments started before lockdown remain on hold, such as broken teeth.

It includes this case study from Bedfordshire: "A lady called for advice in relation to COVID-19 dental access for her friend who had been up all night in agony. Her friend had been advised by her dentist that a root canal and a crown is needed but that 'due to Coronavirus this is not available on the NHS and only available to you privately', at a cost of over £1000." The NHS rate is £282.80.

The group's Chair, Sir Robert Francis QC, said: "Even before the pandemic, people were telling us about problems in accessing NHS dental appointments but since the start of the summer these reports have hugely increased.

"If we don’t improve access to NHS dental care, not only do people risk facing far greater dental problems in the future but it also puts pressure on overstretched hospitals and GPs. Untreated dental problems can lead to pain, infection, and the risk of long-term harm, which is comparable with other medical conditions."

Shawn Charlwood from the British Dental Association commented: "Patients with urgent problems need to be at the front of the queue for care. Sadly, Government is forcing dentists to prioritise volume over need by imposing inappropriate targets.

"This service is yet to return to anything resembling business as usual. We need Ministers to adopt a pragmatic approach, which keeps practices afloat and ensures those who need dental care the most can secure it."

School Ventilation

Imperial experts writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are calling for better guidelines on improving classroom ventilation to help reduce COVID-19 transmission.

"The risk of contracting COVID-19 on a flight is currently lower than from an office building or a classroom," they write.

Until better systems are in place, they say: "keeping doors and windows open – for as much as is reasonably practicable – seems to be the best way forward."

'Valentines for the NHS'

A 'Valentines for the NHS' campaign has been launched to urge non-NHS workers to dump Valentine's Day cards and gifts and donate money to NHS charities instead.

The group wants people to swap pink and red hearts for NHS blue hearts, saying: "Let’s be honest, Valentine’s Day is a big bag of c***. An avalanche of advertiser propaganda nonsense about appreciating the 'special someone' in our lives with overpriced presents, cutesy cards, knackered flowers and a vomit of naff red and pink hearts."

However, its Just Giving page has a disclaimer: "If you have a friend/sibling/parent/partner/Tinder hook up etc who works for the NHS, would highly recommend fully embracing the propaganda and lavishing all the V Day treats on them you can."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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