UK COVID-19 Update: WHO Wuhan Report, Extending Novavax Dose Gap 'Probably' OK, Sir Lenny's Jab Message

Tim Locke

March 30, 2021

Editor's note, 30 March 2021: This article was updated with information from the World Health Organisation.

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

WHO Wuhan Report

The World Health Organisation published its joint report with China on the origin of SARS-CoV-2. As previously leaked, zoonotic sources were said to be more likely than a laboratory leak.

However, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for further studies: "As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do."

He added: "Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers."

Extending Novavax Dose Gap 'Probably' OK

The chief investigator of the Novavax trial in the UK, Professor Paul Heath, St George’s, University of London, told Sky News that extending the gap between first and second doses beyond the 3 weeks in his trial would "probably" still be effective.

Currently the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech jabs are given 12 weeks apart. Would that work for Novavax? "The answer is we don’t know because we haven’t looked at studies where the two doses have been separated by more than 3 to 4 weeks," he said, adding "From basic immunological principles I think it probably would be."

He said: "If we needed to for this vaccine, I'm sure extending that interval would be fine from the point of view of its effectiveness."

Oxford Jab

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunisation is recommending stopping use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab in under-55s while investigations continue into blood clotting events.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s state hospital groups Charite and Vivantes have stopped using the vaccine in women under-55 as a precautionary measure.

Sir Lenny's Jab Message

Sir Lenny Henry has written an open letter to Black Britons urging increased uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, saying: "Trust science, take the jab."

The letter, backed by celebrities including Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, says: "You have legitimate worries and concerns, we hear that. We know change needs to happen and that it's hard to trust some institutions and authorities.

"But we're asking you to trust the facts about the vaccine from our own professors, doctors, scientists involved in the vaccine's development, GPs, not just in the UK but across the world, including the Caribbean and Africa."

Yesterday, Office for National Statistics data showed 58.8% vaccine uptake among people with Black African backgrounds compared to 91.3% for those who are White British.

At yesterday's Downing Street briefing, Chief Medical Adviser Professor Chris Whitty, was asked to respond to data from Lambeth in London with the lowest care staff vaccine update at 45%.

For care staff, and medical or nursing staff, he said: "I’ve said before and I will say very unambiguously, I do consider people who are looking after other people who are very vulnerable, do have a professional responsibility to get vaccinated and to do other things that help protect the people who they’re looking after."

Deaths Falling

Registered deaths in England and Wales in the week to 19 March were 8% below the 5-year average. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said deaths were below 1000 for the first time since mid-October, and the second consecutive week that deaths were below the 5-year average.

COVID-19 accounted for 9.3% of all deaths in England and Wales, compared with 13.7% the previous week.

Meanwhile, volunteers are painting 150,000 red hearts on the National COVID Memorial Wall in London to mark each pandemic death.


Confirmatory PCR Tests

Confirmatory PCR testing is being reintroduced after positive rapid lateral flow test (LFD) results.

The NHS COVID-19 app in use in England and Wales will be updated to show overturned positive LFD results if these change after a confirmatory PCR test.

Genotype assay testing is also being used with PCR tests to help identify virus variants of concern more quickly.

Muscle Pain

Unusual muscle aches and pains, particularly in the shoulders or legs, are COVID-19 symptoms for around 1 in 3 people, according to King's College London's ZOE app COVID Symptom Study.

Only 2% of people reported muscle pains as their only COVID-19 symptom.

1 in 2 Has Antibodies

The ONS infection survey is being updated to categorise antibodies as being from natural infection or vaccination using the N (nucleocapsid) and S (spike) proteins.

Professor Sarah Walker from the University of Oxford Nuffield Department of Medicine said:

"Extending the survey will help us answer critical questions over the coming months, including whether some groups of people respond better to vaccination, how long vaccination protects people against getting infected for and whether new variants affect this."

The latest data for the week ending 14 March show 54.7% of people in England would have tested positive for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. In Wales the figure was 50.5%, in Scotland it was 42.6%, and 49.3% in Northern Ireland.

Sarah Crofts from ONS said: "For the first time, we are presenting data on the number of people who have received at least one dose of a vaccine against COVID-19.

"We can already see the pattern between vaccination and testing positive for antibodies which is now very clear in the over-65s who are most likely to have received at least one dose.  As we increase the collection of blood samples over coming months, we will see with greater clarity how antibody levels are changing in the UK population and, crucially, learn more about the impact of second doses."

Asthma Attacks 

Fewer people sought primary care medical help for asthma attacks during the first wave, according to papers published in Thorax.

After lockdown began last year, there were almost 20 fewer asthma exacerbation episodes for every 100 patients in England, according to the first paper from the University of Edinburgh.

"We believe that a combination of factors led to a reduction in asthma exacerbations,” the authors write. "These factors include changing behaviour due to lockdown measures leading to reduction in air pollution, reduced circulation of respiratory viruses, improved self-management driven by patient concerns during the pandemic and shielding by a subset of patients."

Another study with data from Scotland and Wales showed the number of asthma exacerbations resulting in emergency hospital admission fell by 36% during lockdown. There was no significant change in asthma deaths. In Wales, patients appeared to stock up on asthma medication just before lockdown with 121% more inhaled corticosteroids and 133% more oral corticosteroid prescriptions compared with the 5-year average.

Pandemic Treaty

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is among more than 20 world leaders, along with the Director General of the WHO, calling for an international treaty on pandemics, the "biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s".

"There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies. No single government or multilateral agency can address this threat alone. The question is not if, but when," they write in selected newspapers around the world.

This morning Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng said the UK would focus on vaccinating the adult population here before sharing surplus doses with other countries, such as Ireland.

A University of Oxford survey of more than 8000 people across seven high-income countries including the UK, found widespread support for donating some vaccine supplies to low-income countries. Fifty-one percent in the UK supported any level of donation, 26% were not willing to donate, with the rest not knowing, or unwilling to say. The data were published in Nature Medicine.

Last night, Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing it isn't known "exactly how strong" the UK's defences against another wave would be despite the vaccine rollout.

The US CDC Director, Dr Rochelle Walensky, said the country was facing  "impending doom" as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise and more states loosen restrictions.

Pandemic Concerns Easing

Ipsos Mori phone polling of 1009 British adults suggests a 23% drop in the number of people seeing COVID-19 as one of the biggest issues we're facing. Older and younger people are significantly less concerned about COVID-19 than those in the middle age brackets.

At 49%, COVID-19 is still ahead of other issues, including Brexit (26%), and the NHS (24%).

Mike Clemence from the pollsters said: "This month’s issues index suggests the public may feel the end of the pandemic is in sight."

He added: "Yet as concern about COVID falls we also see other worries begin to rise. We have recorded significant increases this month in worries about the NHS, poverty, education, and housing."

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


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