UK COVID-19 Update: Infections Fall, and Regulator Plans Fast-track Approval for Updated Vaccines

Peter Russell

March 04, 2021

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

Fall in Infections 'Levelling Off'

Infection prevalence in England with the SARS-CoV-2 virus fell by over two-thirds in February, but the speed of decline has slowed, a study preprint suggested.

Results from round 9 of the REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission Study

(REACT-1) found that around 1 in 204 people were infected, or 0.49% of the population. That compared to 1 in 64 (1.57%) in the previous study.

The R number was 0.86 at the national level, researchers from Imperial College London found.

However, regional results were patchy.

Infection rates declined in the North East, North West, East of England, and South West. However, an apparent rise in infections was noted in London, the South East, East Midlands, and West Midlands. The rate of infections remained unchanged in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Prevalence fell by 50% or more across all age groups, ranging from 0.21% in those aged 65 and over to 0.71% in those aged 13 to 17.

Prevalence was highest among Pakistani participants at 2.1% compared to white participants at 0.45%, and Black participants at 0.83%.

Healthcare workers and care home workers had a 40% to 50% higher risk of infection compared with other workers.

The latest REACT-1 study included 165,456 people with a valid swab result, of whom 689 tested positive.

England's Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said there was "some cause for concern that our hard-won progress may be slowing down, and even reversing in some regions so it is important we remain vigilant".

Commenting to the Science Media Centre, Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: "As encouraging as it has been to see coronavirus infection rates falling for England as a whole, we still see high levels of infection across the country. 

"The large drops in infection numbers seen in January and February have begun to slow, despite the increasing number of people who’ve been vaccinated. 

"Worryingly, despite the vaccination programme, the numbers of infections have begun to go back up again in pockets of most English regions and the prevalence of infection in London and the South East is increasing."

Swift Approval of Updated Vaccines for New Variants

Approved COVID-19 vaccines that are modified to deal with new SARS-CoV-2 variants will be fast-tracked without compromising on safety, quality, or effectiveness, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said.

Time-consuming clinical studies would not be needed, but vaccine manufacturers would need to provide "robust evidence" that a modified vaccine produced an immune response, regulators said.

The approach would be based on the regulatory process currently used for updating annual influenza vaccines.

The decision was based on guidance from the ACCESS Consortium – a coalition of regulatory authorities from the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and Switzerland.

Dr Christian Schneider, the MHRA's chief scientific officer, said: "Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety. Should any modifications to authorised COVID-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that. 

"The announcement today also demonstrates the strength of our international partnerships with other regulators and how our global work can help ensure faster access to life-saving vaccines in the UK and around the world.  

"The public should be confident that no vaccine would be approved unless the expected high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness are met."

Vaccine Side-effects

The overall safety profile of both the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines continue to reflect the positive results from initial clinical trials, the MHRA reported.

The overwhelming majority of side effects from both vaccines relate to injection-site reactions, and generalised symptoms including 'flu-like' illness, headache, chills, fatigue, nausea, fever, dizziness, weakness, aching muscles, and rapid heartbeat.

These types of reactions reflected the normal immune response triggered by the body to the vaccines, the MHRA said.

The overall reporting rate for both vaccines was around 3 to 5 yellow cards per 1000 doses administered.

As of February 21, for the UK:

  • 29,715 yellow cards had been reported for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine

  • 42,917 had been reported for the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine

  • 177 had been reported where the brand of the vaccine was not specified

By that date, an estimated 9.4 million first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and 8.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine had been administered, and around 0.6 million second doses, mostly the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, had been administered.

Obesity and COVID-19

Hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 could have been avoided if obesity rates had been lower, a report said.

An analysis by the World Obesity Federation found that of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February 2021, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population was classified as overweight.

The report said that 2016 adult obesity prevalence of 27.8% in the UK was expected to rise to more than 35% by 2025.

The report, released to coincide with World Obesity Day, called for obesity to recognised as a disease in its own right and for people with obesity to be included in priority lists for COVID-19 testing and vaccination.

Prof Rachel Batterham, lead adviser on obesity at the Royal College of Physicians, commented: "The link between high levels of obesity and deaths from COVID-19 in the UK is indisputable, as is the urgent need to address the factors that lead so many people to be living with obesity.

"With 30% of COVID-19 hospitalisations in the UK directly attributed to overweight and obesity, and three quarters of all critically ill patients having overweight or obesity, the human and financial costs are high."

Prof Batterham urged the Government to "address health inequalities, including providing access to weight management services for those who are struggling to manage their weight".

Vaccinated Over-80s 'Breaking Lockdown Rules'

A significant number of over-80s in England who received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine appeared to have flouted lockdown restrictions, latest figures suggested.

The Office for National Statistics said that an estimated 41% in this age category who had been vaccinated less than 3 weeks previously said they had met someone other than a household member, care worker, or member of their support bubble indoors.

The statistical bulletin revealed that 25% of over 80s who had received one dose of vaccine said they would be more likely to attend a hospital for medical reasons since being vaccinated, increasing to 33% for those who had received two doses.

Almost half of over 80s considered COVID-19 to be a major or significant risk to them personally without vaccination. That decreased to 5% if they were to receive both doses of the vaccine.

Daily Data

As of yesterday, 20,982,571 people in the UK had received their first dose of vaccine, and 963,862 people a second dose.

There were 6573 positive tests and 242 deaths reported today.

The R number, last updated on February 26, was 0.6 to 0.9 with a daily infection growth rate range of -6% to -2%.

Germany Approves AstraZeneca/Oxford Vaccine for Older People

Germany has followed France in allowing the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine to be offered to over 65s.

The country had originally cited lack of data for its decision to limit approval to younger age groups. That led to scepticism about the Anglo-Swedish vaccine, with reports of people declining it.

Germany has since accepted data showing the vaccine to be effective for all age groups.

Health minister Jens Spahn said the updated guidance was "good news for older people who are waiting for a vaccination".

France lifted its objection earlier this week to the Oxford vaccine being used in the over 65s.


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


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