UK COVID-19 Update: Human Challenge Trials Approved, '10m Waiting List'

Tim Locke

February 17, 2021

Editor's note, 17 February 2021: This article was updated with today's daily data.

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

Human Challenge Trials Approved

The UK is the first country in the world to give ethical approval for COVID-19 human challenge trials.

A study is due to start within weeks with up to 90 healthy 18-30 year old volunteers being exposed to the 'original' virus strain in a "safe and controlled environment".

Interim Chair of the Vaccines Taskforce, Clive Dix, said: "We expect these studies to offer unique insights into how the virus works and help us understand which promising vaccines offer the best chance of preventing the infection."

Chief Investigator, Dr Chris Chiu, from Imperial College London, said: "Our eventual aim is to establish which vaccines and treatments work best in beating this disease, but we need volunteers to support us in this work."

Dr Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at Wellcome Trust, commented via the Science Media Centre said ethics Committee approval "is a very encouraging and important step".

She added: “As with any human infection study, there are clear ethical considerations. The safety of volunteers is paramount and the regulatory approval will have been through the highest level of assessment. Given that current treatment options for COVID-19 are limited, it is important that volunteers are being sourced from the lowest-risk groups and are closely monitored throughout the course of the study." 

'10m Waiting List'

A Reform think-tank and Edge Health report says the official NHS waiting list could grow to more than 10m by April in a "worst-case scenario".

The report said: "A year into this crisis and with the benefit of some hindsight, it is clear that too little consideration was given to the implications of a complete reallocation of resources away from ‘business as usual’."

It highlights the impact of cancelled diagnostic tests with "estimates that there will be an 11-month delay to the diagnosing and treatment of 11,300...lung cancer patients compared to usual 5-6 months wait. It is estimated that this will result in about 1660 premature deaths from lung cancer alone in the next 5 years.”

Today NHS England brought celebrities on board to encourage people to get checked for cancer if they test negative for COVID-19 but have a cough which lasts longer than 3 weeks. Among the famous faces, former England cricket captain Sir Andrew Strauss who lost his wife to lung cancer, and TV presenter Gaby Roslin whose mother died of the disease.

Professor Sir Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director at Public Health England and lung cancer patient, said: "Having been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer in 2017, I am passionate about this campaign. Nothing can prepare you for being told you have cancer. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of going to your GP as soon as you notice any symptoms, such as a cough for 3 weeks or more. The NHS wants to see you."

Shielding

The BMA has been taking stock of yesterday's announcement of a further 1.7 million people joining the shielding list. BMA Council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: "Adding a large swathe of the population to the shielding list at short notice is a process that needs to be very carefully managed."

He added that "the impact of shielding on mental health and wellbeing, at a time when many may have been expecting a relaxation of measures, cannot be underestimated and there must be appropriate access to mental health support for those who need it".

Lockdown Easing Tests

With Boris Johnson due to announce a roadmap for easing England’s lockdown on Monday, NHS Providers issued four tests it said should be passed first:

  • COVID-19 case numbers and the R number must drop significantly to prevent infections surging again as soon as restrictions are eased, as happened last year

  • NHS capacity needs to have returned to levels where the service can treat all the patients it needs to

  • The vaccination campaign needs to be sufficiently advanced to provide adequate levels of protection and avoid unnecessary death and patient harm

  • We must have a robust and effective strategy in place to rapidly identify and control future outbreaks from the variant strains that now pose the greatest threat

Chief Executive, Chris Hopson, said: "The NHS is still at full stretch and trust leaders believe this will continue for at least another 6 to 8 weeks."

He added: "If this is to be the last national lockdown we have to learn the lessons from last year and take a cautious approach."

Surge Testing

Areas of Manchester, Norfolk, Southampton, and Surrey are the latest to be targeted for surge testing for South Africa virus variant cases.

The Department of Health and Social Care said surge testing in parts of Haringey, Merton, and Sefton has been  completed.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News that nationwide surge testing would form a "key part" of plans to ease lockdown in England and help the country come down on outbreaks "like a tonne of bricks".

This could involve deploying thousands of daily rapid lateral flow tests in homes and businesses, reports said.

The Daily Mail said the Government's new slogan would be "Are you ready? Get testing. Go."

In today's daily data another 12,718 UK positive tests were reported and 738 deaths.

Another 1415 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospital. The total is now 20,944 and 2708 ventilator beds are in use.

As of yesterday, 15.9m people have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 558,577 a second dose.

Test and Trace

Test and Trace alone can only curb the spread of COVID-19 by 1.7% to 4.6%, according to official estimates. That would mean a reduction in the R number of  0.3 - 0.6.

A paper called 'The Rùm Model Technical Annex' released by the Department of Health and Social Care says: "The impact of contact tracing is relatively small."

'Science by Press Release'

Politico reported on leaked emails from December suggesting Public Health England's COVID Response Director Susan Hopkins agreed that ministers were pursuing "science by press release" when announcing new virus variant details.

Scientists weren't briefed until 24 hours after an announcement in the House of Commons Politico said.

However, it quotes a PHE spokesperson saying: "Dr Hopkins was absolutely not criticising the Government."

Alcohol

Public Health Scotland released new data on last year’s lockdown and alcohol use. Retail sales didn't completely replace lost pub, club, and restaurant purchases leading to an overall 6% reduction in alcohol sales in Scotland, England, and Wales.

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) commented: "Despite the overall reduction in alcohol sales in this period, the weekly average of 17.5 units in Scotland remains in excess of the UK Chief Medical Officers' guideline of 14 units per week. It is also important to note that the sales figures underestimate the true picture as they will not capture all online sales and some retailers, notably the discount supermarkets, did not provide sales data."

He added that "there is concern that home-drinking contributes to more harmful drinking behaviours".

Prince Philip

The Duke of Edinburgh, 99, has been admitted to the King Edward VII Hospital in London but it is not thought to be COVID-related.

Buckingham Palace said: "The Duke’s admission is a precautionary measure, on the advice of His Royal Highness’s doctor, after feeling unwell."

He and the Queen received their first dose coronavirus vaccinations last month.

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

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