UK COVID-19 Update: Antivirals Taskforce, Pandemic Suicide Rates, Stretched Primary Care Services 

Peter Russell

April 20, 2021

Editor's note, 20 April 2021: This article was updated with information from a Downing Street briefing.

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

Antivirals Taskforce 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the formation of an antivirals taskforce to create "a further line of medical defence".

He told a Downing Street briefing: "This means, for example, that if you test positive, there might be a tablet you could take at home to stop the virus in its tracks and significantly reduce the chance of infection turning into more severe disease. Or if you're living with someone who has tested positive, there might be a pill you could take for a few days to stop you getting the disease yourself."

The taskforce will support clinical trials for new drugs and will explore manufacturing opportunities.

The PM also said he saw nothing in the data that makes him think he'll have to deviate from his "cautious but irreversible" roadmap to ease lockdown in England.

Suicide Rates Under Lockdown

The first pandemic lockdown led to higher levels of distress in England but was not associated with a rise in suicide rates, according to new research.

The study, published in the Lancet Regional Health – Europe,  found that the number of suicides in April to October last year, after the first lockdown, was 121·3 per month, compared to 125·7 per month in January to March.

A comparison of the suicide rates after lockdown began in 2020 for the same months in selected areas in 2019 showed no difference.

Researchers at the University of Manchester used real time surveillance data of suspected suicides in areas of England, covering a total population of around 13 million.

First author Louis Appleby, professor of psychiatry, and director of the university's National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health, said: "We didn’t find an increase in suicide rates in England in the months post-lockdown, although we know from surveys and calls to charities that the pandemic has made our mental health worse.

"To be clear, no suicide rate – whether high or low, rising or falling – is acceptable, and our conclusions at this stage need to be cautious as these early findings may change.

"There may still be variations between demographic groups or geographical areas. After all, the impact of COVID-19 itself has not been uniform across communities."

The authors stressed the need to continue monitoring figures and to maintain suicide prevention measures.

GP Services 'Drowning' Under Work Pressure

The Doctors' Association UK (DAUK) expressed concern that many patients in England may be heading to A&E because they are struggling to see their GP due to the pandemic.

It followed a report in The Times that said NHS England data showed there were 1.7 million visits to emergency departments last month, up from 1.3 million in February.

In a letter to the heads of NHS England, England's Health Secretary, and the chair of
Healthwatch England, DAUK said demand for GP care was "going through the roof" and services were "drowning".

It said general practice was "working flat out", carrying out 7 million appointments each week, while delivering three-quarters of all COVID-19 vaccines.

The letter called for extra funding for infrastructure, improvements in IT, and staff recruitment.
 

Latest Mortality Figures

There were 9098 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending April 9, an increase of 897 more deaths than the previous week, official figures showed.

Of the deaths registered in week 14, 379 mentioned COVID-19 – a decrease of 21 deaths compared with week 13, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

Only around three-quarters of the deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate were recorded as having COVID-19 as the underlying cause of death.

The latest figures showed that COVID-19 accounted for 4.2% of all deaths in England and Wales, compared with 4.9% in the previous week.

The ONS cautioned that overall death registrations had been affected by the Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

Immune Response in Vaccinated Myeloma Patients

A single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine triggered an immune response in around 70% of patients with multiple myeloma, according to a new study.

The research, led by The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said the results showed that both the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines provided protection against SARS-CoV-2 for those vulnerable patients.

The study, published in The Lancet Haematology,  involved testing for antibodies in 93 people with myeloma. They found that 52 of the myeloma patients tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibodies.

A further analysis of those who tested negative found an additional 13 patients had some SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.

All of the patients had been given a first dose of one of the vaccines at least 3 weeks before their antibody blood test.

There was no significant difference in the percentage of patients with a positive antibody result between those who received the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine. Positive tests were found in 54% of those given the Pfizer, and 58% in those who received the AstraZeneca.

The researchers said the results supported current guidance for people with myeloma to accept whichever vaccine was offered to them.

Dr Kevin Boyd, a consultant haematologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, and co-author of the study, said: "This study is not reassuring for every patient, as we do see reduced vaccine response rates compared with the general population. However, overall, the results are encouraging, showing that the majority of patients do respond to their first vaccine dose, and I expect this to improve following the second dose.

Supplements and Protection Against COVID

Multivitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and vitamin D supplements were associated with a "modest" reduced risk for women testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, research suggested.

The observational study, published in the BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health journal, found no clear benefits for men from supplement use.

No effects were found from vitamin C, garlic, or zinc.

The study used data from over 400,000 subscribers to the COVID-19 Symptom Study app in the UK, US, and Sweden.

Cristina Menni, from King's College London, who co-authored the study, told Medscape News UK : "We can’t make a recommendation based on this alone, but it does however lay the foundations for a larger randomised controlled trial."

Commenting for the Science Media Centre, Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at The Open University, said setting up such a trial would be expensive as well as difficult, as infection rates fall due to vaccine rollout. "I wouldn't expect to see clear results from randomised controlled trials of these or other supplements any time soon, if ever," he said.

Scotland and Wales to Ease Lockdown Restrictions

The Scottish Government announced a further easing of pandemic restrictions.

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told a briefing earlier: "I am pleased to be able to confirm today that from Monday 26 April, those parts of the country that are currently in Level 4...will move down to Level 3."

Non-essential shops would be allowed to reopen from Monday.

She said, provided the data continued to improve, all of Scotland would move to level 2 on May 17, with the intention of moving to level 1 on June 7, prior to "normality" in July.

Meanwhile, 6 people will be able to meet outdoors in Wales from Saturday April, 24 in response to falling cases of COVID-19, the Welsh Government confirmed.

First Minister, Mark Drakeford, said outdoor hospitality would be allowed to reopen from Monday April 26.

"The public health context in Wales remains favourable, with cases falling, and our vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength," he said. 
 

Other News

  • The European Medicines Agency says a warning about unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be added to the product information for the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine but the overall benefits of the jab outweighed the risks of side effects.

  • Michael Gove is holding talks with Israeli ministers about introducing a UK version of the country's COVID passport scheme. The Cabinet Office minister arrived in the country accompanied by England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam for 3 days of talks, it was reported.

  • Police officers sometimes struggled to enforce lockdown restrictions because of a lack of clarity from ministers, a report by Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services said. Inspectors said the speed of announcements "sometimes led to confusion over the difference between legislation and Government guidance,"

  • This year's town crier championships will be held in silence for the first time in history because of the pandemic. Contestants would be judged solely on their written cries, the BBC reported.

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

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