Tag Archives: Britain

Britain says to ease lockdown next week, will test vaccine passports

Britain’s slow but steady march out of a three-month lockdown remains on track even as coronavirus cases surge elsewhere in Europe, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday, as he confirmed that businesses from barbers to bookstores will be allowed to reopen next week

Johnson said it’s too soon to decide, however, whether U.K. residents will be able to have summer trips abroad. He confirmed that the government will test out a “vaccine passport” system — a way for people to offer proof they have protection from COVID-19 — as a tool to help travel and large events return safely.

Four weeks after England took its first step out of lockdown by reopening schools, Johnson said Britain’s vaccination program was proceeding well and infections were falling. He said the next step would come as planned on April 12, with the reopening of hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, non-essential shops and bar and restaurant patios. 

“We set out our road map and we’re sticking to it,” Johnson said during a news conference.

But, he added: “We can’t be complacent. We can see the waves of sickness afflicting other countries, and we’ve seen how this story goes.”

A ban on overnight stays away from home in England will also be lifted April 12, and outdoor venues such as zoos and drive-in cinemas can operate again.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following similar but slightly different paths out of lockdown.

Highest death toll in Europe

Britain has recorded almost 127,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe. But infections and deaths both have fallen sharply during the current lockdown and since the start of a vaccination campaign that has given a first dose to more than 31 million people, or six in 10 adults.

People paint red hearts onto the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, on the Embankment in London on April 5, 2021. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

The government aims to give all adults at least one shot of vaccine by July, and hopes that a combination of vaccination and mass testing will allow indoor socializing and large-scale events to return.

It says all adults and children in England will be encouraged to have routine coronavirus tests twice a week as a way to stamp out new outbreaks. The government said free lateral flow tests will be available free starting Friday by mail, from pharmacies and in workplaces. 

Lateral flow tests give results in minutes but are less accurate than the PCR swab tests used to officially confirm cases of COVID-19. But the government insists they are reliable and will help find people who contract the virus but don’t have symptoms.

Britons are currently banned by law from going on holiday abroad under the extraordinary powers Parliament has given the government to fight the pandemic. The government said Monday it won’t lift the travel ban before May 17 — and maybe later.

“The government hopes people will be able to travel to and from the U.K. to take a summer holiday this year, but it is still too soon to know what is possible,” it said in an official update.

Once travel resumes, Britain will rank countries on a traffic-light system as green, yellow or red based on their level of vaccinations, infections and worrying new virus variants. People arriving from “green” countries will have to be tested but won’t face quarantine.

The government also is testing a system of “COVID-status certification” — often dubbed “vaccine passports” — that would allow people seeking to travel or attend events to show they either have received a coronavirus vaccine, tested negative for the virus, or recently had COVID-19 and therefore have some immunity. 

The return of football

A series of events will start this month, including soccer matches, comedy shows and marathon races. The government said the first events will rely only on testing, “but in later pilots vaccination and acquired immunity are expected to be alternative ways to demonstrate status.”

A vial of of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is seen at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh temple, on the day the first Vaisakhi Vaccine Clinic is launched, in Luton, England, on March 21, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

The issue of vaccine passports has been hotly debated around the world, raising questions about how much governments, employers and venues have a right to know about a person’s virus status. The idea is opposed by a wide swath of British lawmakers, from left-of-center opposition politicians to members of Johnson’s Conservative Party, and the policy could face stiff opposition when it is put before Parliament later this month.

Conservative legislator Graham Brady said vaccine passports would be “intrusive, costly and unnecessary.” The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, called the idea “un-British.”

The government said vaccine passports were all but unavoidable, since many countries were certain to demand proof of COVID-19 status for entry.

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Britain to test mixing and matching of COVID-19 vaccines

British scientists are starting a study Thursday to find out if it’s OK to mix and match COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccines being rolled out now require two doses, and people are supposed to get two shots of the same kind, weeks apart.

Guidelines in Britain and the U.S. say the vaccines aren’t interchangeable, but can be mixed if the same kind isn’t available for the second dose or if it’s not known what was given for the first shot.

Participants in the government-funded study will get one shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine followed by a dose from Pfizer, or vice versa.

“This study will give us greater insight into how we can use vaccines to stay on top of this nasty disease,” said Jonathan Van Tam, the U.K.’s deputy chief medical officer.

He said that given the challenges of immunizing millions of people amid a global vaccine shortage, there would be advantages to having data that could support more “flexible” immunization campaigns.

COVID-19 vaccines all train the body to recognize the coronavirus, mostly the spike protein that coats it. The ones from AstraZeneca and Pfizer use different technologies. AstraZeneca’s uses a common cold virus to carry the spike gene into the body. Pfizer’s is made by putting a piece of genetic code called mRNA — the instructions for that spike protein — inside a little ball of fat.

The British research is scheduled to run 13 months and will also test different intervals between doses, four weeks and 12 weeks apart.

‘Hard to know’ if plan will work

A study published this week on the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine showed it was about 91 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19. Some immunologists credit the fact that the vaccine uses two slightly different shots, made with similar technology to AstraZeneca’s.

But the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are “so different that it’s really hard to know if that would work,” said Alexander Edwards, an associate professor in biomedical technology at Britain’s University of Reading.

Matthew Snape, the new study’s leader at Oxford University, which helped develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, called for British volunteers over age 50 to sign up; scientists are hoping to enroll more than 800 people.

If the vaccines can be used interchangeably, “this will greatly increase the flexibility of vaccine delivery,” he said in a statement. “(It) could provide clues as to how to increase the breadth of protection against new virus strains.”

Public Health England’s head of immunization, Mary Ramsay, said there was a precedent for such work, as vaccines against Hepatitis A and B were interchangeable from two different manufacturers, and similar work has been undertaken for human papillomavirus (HPV).

In recent weeks, Britain, the European Union and numerous other countries including Canada have been hit with vaccine supply issues: AstraZeneca said it would dramatically reduce the expected number of doses it could deliver due to manufacturing delays and Pfizer also slowed deliveries while it upgraded its Belgian factory.

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Britain approves use of AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine

Britain on Wednesday became the first country to authorize an easy-to-handle COVID-19 vaccine whose developers hope it will become the “vaccine for the world.” The approval and a shift in policy that will speed up rollout of the vaccine in the United Kingdom comes as a surge in infections threatens to swamp British hospitals.

The Department of Health said it had accepted a recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to authorize emergency use of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca.

“The rollout will start on Jan. 4 and will really accelerate into the first few weeks of next year,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News. Britain has bought 100 million doses of the vaccine.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told BBC Radio 4 the company could start shipping the first doses of the vaccine Wednesday or Thursday “and the vaccination will start next week, and we will get to one million — and beyond that — a week, very rapidly.”

Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.K. have already received a different vaccine, made by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and German firm BioNTech.

Soriot said it was “an important day for millions of people in the U.K. who will get access to this new vaccine. It has been shown to be effective, well-tolerated, simple to administer and is supplied by AstraZeneca at no profit.”

A paramedic opens the doors of an ambulance parked outside Guy’s Hospital in London on Tuesday as rising COVID-19 case numbers put further pressure on the state-run National Health Service during its busiest winter period. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Coronavirus vaccines have typically been given in two doses, with an initial shot followed by a booster about three weeks later.

But in a change of approach, the British government said that with the AstraZeneca vaccine it would prioritize giving as many people as possible a single dose, which is believed to give a large measure of protection against the virus. It said people at the highest risk would get priority, and everyone would get a second jab within 12 weeks of the first.

Canada, which has signed agreements to procure a range of vaccine candidates, has a deal with AstraZeneca for 20 million doses.

In a statement released Wednesday after the authorization in the U.K., Health Canada said it has been reviewing AstraZeneca’s vaccine since Oct. 1 and is assessing data “as it becomes available from the manufacturer.”

“There is still information and data to be provided by AstraZeneca for review,” the statement said, adding that the department is “working closely” with international regulators.

Health Canada reiterated that it is working to give Canadians access to vaccines “as quickly as possible without compromising … safety, efficacy and quality standards” but said it can’t provide a timeline for the completion of its review of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

Health Canada has so far authorized two vaccines, the messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc.

Climbing case numbers

The new strategy comes against a backdrop of soaring infections in the U.K. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has surpassed the first peak of the outbreak in the spring, with authorities blaming a new, more transmissible variant of the virus, first identified in southeast England, for the spike.

Oxford University’s Dr. Andrew Pollard, one of the leaders of the development team, offered hope the newly approved vaccine will help.

“At the moment, there’s no evidence that the vaccines won’t work against the new variant,” Pollard told Radio 4. “But that is something which we have to look at. We can’t be complacent about this variant or perhaps future variants.”

Partial results from studies in almost 24,000 people in Britain, Brazil and South Africa suggest the shots are safe and about 70 per cent effective for preventing illness from coronavirus infection. That’s not as good as some other vaccine candidates, but Soriot recently told the Sunday Times newspaper that he was confident the vaccine would prove as effective as its rivals.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is expected to be relied on in many countries because of its low cost, availability and ease of use. It can be kept in refrigerators rather than the ultra-cold storage some other vaccines require. The company has said it will sell it for $ 2.50 a dose and plans to make up to three billion doses by the end of 2021.

“We have a vaccine for the world,” said Pollard.

Questions remain

Researchers claim the vaccine protected against disease in 62 per cent of those given two full doses and in 90 per cent of those initially given a half dose because of a manufacturing error. However, the second group included only 2,741 people — too few to be conclusive.

Questions also remain about how well the vaccine protects older people. Only 12 per cent of study participants were over 55 and they were enrolled later, so there hasn’t been enough time to see whether they develop infections at a lower rate than those not given the vaccine.

Researchers also were criticized for lack of information in September, when studies were suspended because a participant suffered a serious illness. AstraZeneca initially declined to provide further details due to patient confidentiality.

Ultimately, the trials resumed after regulators reviewed safety data and decided it was safe to continue. Published partial results show no hospitalizations or severe disease among those who received the vaccine. A separate study testing the AstraZeneca vaccine in the United States also is underway.

The vaccine will become the second COVID-19 vaccine in use in Britain. On Dec. 2, regulators gave emergency authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Having another vaccine available means that more people can get protection, said Sarah Gilbert, an Oxford scientist involved in the AstraZeneca project. It takes a different approach than the Pfizer-BioNTech one or another developed in the U.S. from Moderna Inc.

The ultra-cold storage those other vaccines need is “very impractical” in developing countries, said Dr. Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, chair of policy and communications for Britain’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine. It means the AstraZeneca one “may reach more parts of the world than the Pfizer one,” he said.

Britain’s action likely means the World Health Organization will soon clear the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in a global effort to help poor countries called COVAX. The initiative, led by WHO and the vaccines alliance, GAVI, has secured access to at least 100 million doses of the vaccine, with options and other deals to buy more. But none can be distributed until green-lighted by WHO.

The UN health agency does not licence or regulate vaccines itself but typically evaluates vaccines once they have been approved by an agency, such as the U.K. regulator or the European Medicines Agency. WHO experts conduct their own evaluation of whether or not the risks of a vaccine outweigh its benefits and then make a recommendation for the shots to be “pre-qualified” so they can be bought by donors for developing countries.

Most coronavirus vaccines to be used in poorer countries likely will be made by the Serum Institute of India, which has been contracted by AstraZeneca to make one billion doses. In June, the pharmaceutical company announced that the Serum Institute would produce 400 million doses by the end of 2020, but as of early December, only about 50 million doses had been manufactured after production was halted several times.

In addition to the Serum Institute, AstraZeneca also has deals with vaccine makers in Brazil, South Africa and China to make the Oxford-developed vaccine for use in developing countries.

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Britain halts flights from South Africa after finding another new coronavirus strain

The latest:

Britain’s transport minister has ordered flights and arrivals from South Africa to be halted after a potentially more infectious variant of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spread to Britain.

“I’ve taken the decision to temporarily stop flights and arrivals entering England from South Africa from 9 a.m. tomorrow following an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

Earlier on Wednesday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock says scientists have identified another new variant of the coronavirus in two people, both of whom are contacts of recent arrivals from South Africa.

Hancock said the evidence gathered so far suggests that the new variant has “mutated further” than the one that recently prompted the British government to tighten restrictions across large parts of England and led to many countries imposing travel bans on the U.K.

WATCH | Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be modified to tackle variants, says expert:

According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla, vaccines that use mRNA technology can be reverse engineered quite quickly to take on variants — such as the recent U.K. variant of the coronavirus. 1:42

The health secretary also announced that more areas in England would be placed into the highest tier of coronavirus restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of a more transmissible variant of COVID-19.

Hancock said beginning Dec. 26, large regions across southern England would join London and neighbouring areas in Tier 4 with restrictions similar to that of a lockdown.

What’s happening in Canada

On Wednesday, Health Canada approved Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in this country, clearing the way for thousands of doses to arrive by month’s end. Moderna’s is the second COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by Health Canada.

Also on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is committing another $ 70 million to the Canadian Red Cross as it faces growing demand for help from long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec that have been overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Trudeau also announced Canada was extending a ban on flights from Britain for another two weeks until Jan. 6 as the United Kingdom struggles with a new strain of COVID-19 that experts suggest is more contagious than other variants.

As of 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 527,837, with 75,665 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 14,578.

In British Columbia, a group of 11 teenagers who allegedly refused to follow COVID-19 protocols and gathered at a high school parking lot were fined $ 230 over the weekend, according to RCMP in Nanaimo.

Alberta announced 1,301 new cases of COVID-19 and 19 more deaths on Wednesday. 

In Calgary, police have issued 47 tickets under the Public Health Act since its second state of local emergency due to COVID-19 was declared on Nov. 25, the city said on Wednesday.

WATCH | Scene from weekend rallies held in Calgary:

Calgarians took to the streets on Dec. 19 and 20 to protest COVID-19 restrictions. 0:50

Saskatchewan announced 159 new COVID-19 infections and five new deaths on Wednesday.

Manitoba health officials reported 155 new COVID-19 cases and 18 more deaths. The number of new cases continues to trend downward following restrictions that were imposed last month on public gatherings and business openings. Health officials say intensive care units, however, are still running well above their normal capacity.

Ontario on Wednesday registered 2,408 new cases, its second-highest single-day tally, and 41 new deaths. There were 1,002 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, including a record 275 in intensive care. The entire province will be moving into lockdown after midnight on Dec. 26.

Paramedics take away an elderly patient at the Tendercare Living Centre in Toronto amid an outbreak at the long-term care home. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Hard-hit Quebec recorded 2,247 new cases of COVID-19, another daily high. Hospitalizations stood at 1,067, with 142 patients in Quebec’s intensive care units, according to provincial data.

New Brunswick saw five new cases. Meanwhile, vaccinations for health-care workers began in Moncton.

Newfoundland and Labrador added one new caseNova Scotia added four.

WATCH | N.S. business supports charities through mask sales:

Sherrie Kearney of Maritime Tartan has made more than 18,000 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and donated thousands to charity. Their latest fundraiser includes a tie signed by Dr. Robert Strang, who just gave them a big shout-out. 4:30

Prince Edward Island announced it is making a new mental health and addictions resource available to Islanders online. Demand for access to mental health services has been a pressing topic on P.E.I. throughout the pandemic, with the number of Islanders consulting mental health professionals doublingthe closure of the psychiatric unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and challenges faced by those struggling with addictions. 

In the North, officials welcomed news of the Moderna vaccine’s approval. Both Yukon and the Northwest Territories are expected to receive shipments by the end of the month, and plan to start rolling out vaccinations in early January.

Meanwhile, Nunavut reported two new cases on Wednesday.

What’s happening around the world

As of early Wednesday, more than 78.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 44.1 million of those cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracking tool. The global death toll stood at more than 1.7 million.

In Europe, Italy recorded another 14,522 new positive coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the last day before more severe restrictions take effect for the Christmas holidays.

Despite measures that have been in place since late October, Italy has yet to successfully flatten the curve of the fall resurgence.

Starting Thursday, Italians will have to fill out declarations of their reasons for leaving home, just like during the strict 10-week lockdown in the spring. The holiday restrictions, running through Jan. 6, give some leeway for visiting friends and relatives in the same region.

People wearing face masks are seen in Rome on Wednesday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

In Asia, South Korea has added 1,092 new coronavirus cases in a resurgence that is erasing hard-won epidemiological gains and eroding public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak.

The national caseload has jumped by a quarter in the last two weeks alone, the death toll is rising and the number of sick patients is raising concerns of a shortage in intensive care beds.

South Korea had been seen as a success story against COVID-19 after health workers managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in the spring. But critics say the country gambled on its own success by easing physical-distancing restrictions to help the economy.

People are seen at a COVID-19 testing site in Seoul on Wednesday. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)

In Africa, South Africa’s health minister says the country has seen more than 14,000 confirmed new coronavirus cases in the past day, with a positivity rate of 26 per cent, as overall cases edge toward 1 million.

Heath Minister Zwelini Mkhize says the “alarming rate of spread” of infections is much faster than during the first wave in midyear. His daily report doesn’t say how many of the new infections are attributed to the new variant of the virus in South Africa.

The country has more than 950,000 confirmed cases, including more than 25,000 deaths. More than 400 people have died in the past day.

In the Americas, Peru has passed one million confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. It is the fifth nation in Latin America to report that number as the region struggles with the pandemic’s economic and health effects.

Peru’s government was quick to declare lockdown measures for its 32 million people last March as the pandemic spread in Europe. But in spite of closing its airports for almost six months and ordering most of its residents to stay at home, it has struggled to contain the virus. Officials said they had recorded 1,000,153 cases as of Tuesday evening.

More than 37,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Peru. That gives the Andean nation the world’s second-highest per-capita death toll from the pandemic, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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What’s known, unknown about the coronavirus variant in Britain

A new variant of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading in Britain and prompting high levels of concern, especially among the country’s European neighbours, some of which have cut transport links.

The variant, referred to by some experts as the B.1.1.7 lineage, is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to emerge, but is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the United Kingdom, based on modelling.

Virus mutations seen so far

In April, researchers in Sweden found a virus with two genetic changes that seemed to make it roughly two times more infectious, said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge in England. About 6,000 cases worldwide have been reported, mostly in Denmark and England.

Several variations of that strain now have turned up. Some were reported in people who got them from mink farms in Denmark. A new South African strain has the two changes seen before, plus some others.

Britain’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on Saturday he thought the new variant might have started in the U.K.

Britain’s European neighbours began closing their doors to travellers from the United Kingdom on various modes of transportation, including rail travel, amid concern about a rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

The cause for concern

Jason Kindrachuk, Canada Research Chair in molecular pathogenesis of emerging and re-emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, said a variant is a variation in a circulating strain of the virus that’s broadly spread over large communities rather than localized.

In this case, the new variant has rapidly become the dominant one in cases of COVID-19 in parts of southern England, and has been linked to an increase in hospitalization rates, especially in London and in the adjacent county of Kent.

While it was first seen in Britain in September, by the week of Dec. 9 in London, 62 per cent of COVID-19 cases were a result of the new variant. That compared to 28 per cent of cases three weeks earlier.

The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands said they had detected cases of the new variant. It was identified in the Netherlands in early December.

WATCH l WHO addresses new variants detected in U.K.:

World Health Organization technical lead Dr. Maria Van Kherkove says U.K. researchers studying the coronavirus variant are focusing on transmissibilty, severity and antibody response. She said they’re trying to determine if the apparent higher transmissibility rate is from the virus or people’s behaviour. 1:51

Iceland and Denmark have also reported a few cases of COVID-19 with the new variant to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Europe’s disease monitoring agency. Media reports in Belgium say cases have also been detected there.

“It is right to take it seriously,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

What scientists are watching

The main worry is that the variant seems to be more transmissible than the original. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code — a relatively high number of changes — and some of these could be affecting its ability to spread.

“We’re trying to figure out what the consequences are in real time,” Kindrachuk said

He said the potential consequences scientists are looking for include:

  • What are the biological consequences?
  • What does this mean for vaccine efficacy?
  • What does this mean for immune responses?
  • What does this mean for transmission?

Some of the mutations are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. That spike is what current vaccines target.

“I’m worried about this, for sure,” said Gupta, adding it’s too soon to know how important it ultimately will prove to be.

Scientists estimate the variant is about 40 to 70 per cent more transmissible. The U.K. government said on Saturday it could increase the reproduction R rate by 0.4, from 1.1 to 1.5 and the epidemic will grow without measures such as physical distancing and vaccination.

This means it is spreading faster in Britain, making the pandemic there even harder to control and increasing the risk that it will also spread swiftly in other countries.

“The new B.1.1.7 … still appears to have all the human lethality that the original had, but with an increased ability to transmit,” said Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Kindrachuk suggested waiting for the “full slate of the data” to see if it points in the direction of increased transmission or not. 

There is cause for concern when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface because those changes might help it escape from vaccines, drugs or the immune system.

“Emerging evidence” suggests that may be starting to happen with the new coronavirus, Trevor Bedford, a biologist and genetics expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, wrote on Twitter.

“We’ve now seen the emergence and spread of several variants” that suggest this, he said, noting that some show resistance to antibody treatments.

There is no evidence the mutated variant of the virus increases the severity of the disease, although it is more transmissible, officials with the World Health Organization said on Monday, citing U.K. analysis.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for COVID-19, said scientists are looking at the body’s antibody response to the virus and she expects results in the coming days and weeks.

Will the current vaccines offer protection?

Scientists say there’s no evidence that the vaccines being deployed in the U.K. — made by Pfizer-BioNTech — or other COVID-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant.

“It’s unlikely that this will have anything more than a minor, if any, effect on the vaccine’s effectiveness,” said Adam Finn, a vaccine specialist and professor of pediatrics at Bristol University.

“We are not seeing … any gross changes in the spike protein that will reduce vaccine effectiveness so far,” said Julian Tang, professor and clinical virologist at Leicester University.

U.S president-elect Joe Biden’s surgeon general nominee, Vivek Murthy, said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that there’s “no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus as well.”

Vaccines produce wide-ranging responses by the immune system beyond just those to the spike protein, several experts noted. The possibility that new strains will be resistant to existing vaccines are low, but not “inexistent,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s vaccine distribution effort, said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union.

“Up to now, I don’t think there has been a single variant that would be resistant,” said Slaoui. “This particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity.”

Will current COVID-19 tests detect the new variant?

One of the mutations in the new variant affects one of three genomic targets used by some PCR tests. This means that in those tests, that target area, or “channel,” would come up negative.

“This has affected the ability of some tests to detect the virus,” said Robert Shorten, an expert in microbiology at the Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine.

Since PCR tests generally detect more than one gene target, however, a mutation in the spike protein only partly affects the test, reducing that risk of false negative results.

Are Canadian scientists on the lookout for the new variant?

Researchers are doing genome sequencing work on the coronavirus in Canada.

“We haven’t seen anything that’s overtaken the current circulating strain here in Canada,” Kindrachuk said.

To be cautious, he said scientists are checking for the variant in people who’ve recently travelled from the U.K.

What should people do differently?

Health officials say the best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules: wash your hands, wear a face covering and keep physically distant from others.

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told journalists that the virus, including this variant, can be suppressed by following public health measures done with more intensity and more completeness. 

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New, faster-spreading strain of coronavirus confirmed in Britain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discussing with his senior ministers on Saturday what urgent action to take after it was confirmed that a new strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could spread more quickly and lead to a surge in cases.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that while there was no current evidence the variant of the novel coronavirus caused a higher mortality rate or impacted vaccines, urgent work was underway to confirm this.

“We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data to improve our understanding,” Whitty said in a statement.

The government said on Monday that a rise in infections across London and southeast England might be linked to a new, more transmissible variant of the virus.

WATCH | No need to worry about new coronavirus strain, says virologist:

British virologist Julian Tang says the new strain of coronavirus detected in Britain will likely still be vulnerable to the vaccines developed to combat COVID-19. 0:49

Johnson will hold a news conference with Whitty and the government’s chief scientific adviser Saturday amid suggestions that he will announce new urgent measures to try to address the rise in cases caused by the variant strain.

Britain reported 28,507 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 489 deaths, with the reproduction “R” number estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2, meaning the number of cases is rapidly increasing.

Johnson hopes to ease restrictions over Christmas

Johnson said on Friday he hoped England would not need to go into a third lockdown after Christmas and has so far resisted calls to change plans to ease restrictions for five days over the festive period, allowing three separate households to meet indoors.

Much of the country, including London, is currently in the highest of a three-tier system of restrictions to curb the spread. The Daily Telegraph newspaper said ministers could now announce curbs on travel between southeast England, including the capital, and the rest of the country.

WATCH | COVID-19 vaccine may need to be tweaked regularly:

British virologist Julian Tang says, just like the annual flu shot, mutations of the virus which causes COVID-19 may mean the vaccine needs to be tweaked or changed regularly to maintain its effectiveness. 0:38

“Failing to act decisively now will mean further suffering. We must keep asking ourselves ‘are we doing enough, are we acting quickly enough,'” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said on Twitter.

The opposition Labour Party said the tiered system had failed to curb the virus’s spread.

“It has been apparent for some days that the virus is again out of control in parts of the country,” said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesperson.

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EU trade talks with Britain at ‘difficult’ point, expected to resume later Friday

British and EU trade talks are expected to resume later on Friday after negotiators took a break, a British government source said, following reports they had broken up for the day.

Earlier Friday, Britain’s business minister said the talks are at a “difficult” point, as British officials poured cold water on hopes of an imminent breakthrough — and France said it could veto any agreement it didn’t like.

U.K. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said Britain was “committed to reaching an agreement.”

“But, of course, time is short and we are in a difficult phase. There’s no denying that,” he told the BBC. “There are a number of tricky issues that still have to be resolved.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, his British counterpart David Frost and their teams remained locked in talks in a London conference centre Friday after a week of late-night sessions fuelled by deliveries of sandwiches and pizza. 

U.K. officials sought to dampen hopes of an imminent deal, briefing media outlets that the EU had set back negotiations by making last-minute demands — an allegation the bloc denies.

Seeking deal for new year

The U.K. left the EU early this year, but remains part of the 27-nation bloc’s economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides try to negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect Jan. 1. Any deal must be approved by lawmakers in Britain and the EU before year’s end.

An electronic billboard in London displays a British government information message on Friday advising businesses to prepare for Brexit. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Talks have dragged on as one deadline after another has slipped by. First, the goal was a deal by October, then by mid-November. On Sunday, Britain said the negotiations were in their final week.

European Council President Charles Michel noted that it wasn’t the first time that deadlines had slipped.

“We will see what will happen in the next days,” he said in Brussels. “But the end of December is the end of December and we know that after the 31st of December we have the 1st of January, and we know that we need to have clarity as soon as possible.”

A trade deal will allow goods to move between Britain and the EU without tariffs or quotas after the end of this year, though there would still be new costs and red tape for businesses on both sides of the English Channel.

If there is no deal, New Year’s Day will bring huge disruption, with the overnight imposition of tariffs and other barriers to U.K.-EU trade. That will hurt both sides, but the burden will fall most heavily on Britain, which does almost half its trade with the EU.

Months of tense negotiations have produced agreement on a swath of issues, but serious differences remain over the “level playing field” — the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the bloc — and how future disputes are resolved. That’s key for the EU, which fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.

Fish factor

But the U.K. government, which sees Brexit as all about “taking back control” from Brussels, is resisting curbs on its freedom to set future economic policies.

Another sticking point is fish, a small part of the economy with an outsized symbolic importance for Europe’s maritime nations. EU countries want their boats to be able to keep fishing in British waters, while the U.K. insists it must control access and quotas.

Fishing is especially important to France, which is seen by many on the U.K. side as the EU nation most resistant to compromise.

“If there was to be an agreement and it was not good … we would oppose it,” Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister in charge of European Affairs, told Europe 1 radio. “France, like all its (EU) partners, has a veto right.”

If there is no weekend breakthrough, next week will bring more complications. On Monday, Britain’s House of Commons will vote on a bill that gives Britain the power to breach parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement it struck with the EU last year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government acknowledges that the Internal Market Bill breaches international law, and the legislation has been condemned by the EU, U.S. president-elect Joe Biden and scores of British lawmakers, including many from Johnson’s own Conservative Party.

The House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber, removed the law-breaking clauses from the legislation last month, but Johnson’s government says it will ask lawmakers to reinsert them.

That would further sour the talks, demolishing any goodwill that remains between the two sides.

German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert stressed that EU nations wanted a deal, “but not at any cost.”

“And of course we must also prepare for all scenarios, including for the possibility that there won’t be an agreement,” he said.

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Vaccine chief in Britain hopes for positive data on 2 coronavirus candidates in early December

The chair of Britain’s coronavirus vaccine task force says data evaluating the efficacy and safety of its two most advanced candidates should be available in early December.

Kate Bingham told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that data on the two vaccine candidates — developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and Pfizer and BioNTech — should be available by then.

After that, the vaccine candidates will need regulatory approval, Bingham said. 

“If we get that, we have the possibility of deploying by year end,” she said.

Bingham acknowledged despite the government’s earlier estimate there would be 30 million doses of the Oxford vaccine available by September, there only will be about four million doses available by the end of the year, due to some manufacturing “hiccups” that have since been resolved.

She said there will be about 10 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine.

Dr. Robin Shattock, one of the scientists behind another vaccine developed by Imperial College London, said it’s possible several vaccines will be needed to stop the pandemic.

“The first vaccines may reach the bar of preventing severe disease, but they may not necessarily block transmission,” he said.

Shattock said later vaccines likely will be more potent, but it’s still unclear how long immunity lasts and vaccines “most likely will need to be boosted.”

Canadian experts advise on priority groups for vaccine

On Tuesday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said in a statement that although there is no approved COVID-19 vaccine at this time, “we remain cautiously optimistic that safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines will be available in the first quarter of 2021.”

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), a long-standing expert advisory group that provides independent guidance and recommendation on use of vaccines in Canada, published preliminary recommendations on key populations for early COVID-19 vaccination.

The four broad populations recommended  for early immunization were:

  • Individuals at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 (including advanced age and other high-risk conditions).
  • Those most likely to transmit COVID-19 to people at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, such as health-care and long-term care workers. 
  • Workers contributing to the maintenance of other essential services for the functioning of society.
  • Anyone at elevated risk of infection because of living or working conditions and where infection could have disproportionate consequences, including Indigenous communities.

The key populations were not mutually exclusive, may overlap and are not listed in priority order, the authors said.

Vaccines that work could eventually allow the world to return to some measure of normality after the pandemic has killed more than 1.2 million worldwide, upended lives and shuttered swaths of the global economy.

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Britain to purge Huawei from 5G network by 2027, risking China’s anger while pleasing Trump

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered Huawei equipment to be purged completely from Britain’s 5G network by 2027, risking the ire of China by signalling that the world’s biggest telecommunications equipment maker is no longer welcome in the West.

The seven-year lag will please telecoms operators such as BT, Vodafone and Three, which feared they would be forced to spend billions of pounds to rip out Huawei equipment much faster. But it will delay the rollout of 5G in the country.

The United States has pushed Johnson to reverse his January decision to grant Huawei a limited role in 5G, while London has been dismayed by a crackdown in Hong Kong and the perception China did not tell the whole truth over the novel coronavirus.

Britain’s National Security Council (NSC), chaired by Johnson, decided on Tuesday to ban the purchase of 5G components from the end of this year and to order the removal of all existing Huawei gear from the 5G network by 2027.

The cyber arm of Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency, the National Cyber Security Centre, told ministers it could no longer guarantee the stable supply of Huawei gear after the United States imposed new sanctions on chip technology.

Telecoms will also be told to stop using Huawei in fixed-line fibre broadband within the next two years.

Not an ‘easy decision’

“This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the U.K. telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run,” Oliver Dowden, the U.K.’s digital, culture, media and sport secretary, told Parliament.

“By the time of the next election, we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks.”

WATCH | Minister explains Britain’s decision on Huawei:

New U.S. sanctions against Huawei have created uncertainty over a stable supply of Huawei technology, says Oliver Dowden, the U.K.’s digital, culture, media and sport secretary. (Fowles/AP/Reuters) 1:25

A spokesperson for Huawei called the decision “disappointing” and “bad news for anyone in the U.K. with a mobile phone.” The company urged the British government to reconsider.

“We remain confident that the new U.S. restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the U.K.,” the spokesperson said.

Dowden said that Canada had a similar type of analysis to that done by Britain. “Each country is looking at how best to protect its telecoms networks but also crucially how they develop their own domestic alternatives,” he said.

“The U.S. and Australia have already taken decisions in this respect. I think the Canadians have a similar sort of analysis to us and are yet to take a decision, and New Zealand has a slightly different process.”

WATCH | Canada should also ban Huawei from 5G network, security expert says:

Michel Juneau-Katsuya says there is clear evidence that Huawei is assisting the Chinese government with its worldwide spy network.  6:11

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said Britain’s decision was the right one. “I have long been concerned about the national security risks posed by allowing high-risk vendors such as Huawei, and with them, the Chinese Communist Party, into any of our allies’ telecommunications infrastructure,” Risch, a Republican from Idaho, said in a statement.

“As China continues to make clear its malign international intentions, I am heartened by the determination of Western allies to face these new challenges in a clear-eyed, unified manner.”

In what some have compared to the Cold War antagonism with the Soviet Union, the United States is worried that 5G dominance is a milestone toward Chinese technological supremacy that could define the geopolitics of the 21st century.

With faster data and increased capacity, 5G will become the nervous system of the future economy — carrying data on everything from global financial flows to critical infrastructure such as energy, defence and transport.

Steadily growing concerns over Huawei

After Australia first recognized the destructive power of 5G if hijacked by a hostile state, the West has become steadily more worried about Huawei.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien is meeting representatives of France, Britain, Germany and Italy in Paris this week to discuss security, including 5G.

U.K. telecoms firms already had to cap Huawei’s role in 5G at 35 per cent by 2023. Reducing it to zero over another two to four years is now being discussed, though going too fast could disrupt services and prove costly.

The West is trying to create a group of rivals to Huawei to build 5G networks. Other large-scale telecoms equipment suppliers are Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia.

Hanging up on Huawei, founded by a former People’s Liberation Army engineer in 1987, marks the end of what former British Prime Minister David Cameron cast as a “golden era” in ties, with Britain as Europe’s top destination for Chinese capital.

Cameron toasted the relationship over a beer with President Xi Jinping in an English pub, which was later bought by a Chinese firm.

Trump, though, has repeatedly asked London to ban Huawei, which Washington calls an agent of the Chinese Communist state — an argument that has support in Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Huawei denies it spies for China and has said the United States wants to frustrate its growth because no U.S. company could offer the same range of technology at a competitive price. China says banning one of its flagship global technology companies would have far-reaching ramifications.

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Activist Nathan Law arrives in Britain after fleeing Hong Kong

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law said he has arrived in London after fleeing the former British colony where China has imposed a security law.

“With my backpack and small luggage in hand, I boarded my night flight. I had no idea what future awaited me. Only one thing seemed certain. My destination: London,” Law said on Twitter.

“There’s always one message I have: Hong Kongers will never give up. We aren’t fractured. On the contrary, we’re well-equipped to face the next difficult battle.”

Law spoke to CBC News from an undisclosed location in a Front Burner episode that aired last week. He said the decision to leave family and friends was difficult, but with the risk of prison under the new legal framework for protesting, he believed his advocacy would be more effective elsewhere.

“For me, leaving Hong Kong is actually more than a personal choice. It’s a strategic move for the movement,” he said.

Law, 26, and fellow activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow announced on June 29 they were disbanding their Demosisto group just hours after Beijing passed the national security bill. They were among the student leaders of the so-called Umbrella Movement of widespread protest in 2014 in response to planned changes to Hong Kong electoral laws.

Law then was elected as Hong Kong’s youngest-ever legislator at age 23, but was among a small number disqualified from serving after offering words of protest during their swearing-in ceremony.

“You can chain me. You can torture me. You can even destroy this body but you will never imprison my mind,” Law said, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, instead of the traditional oath.

He also participated as protests roiled Hong Kong last year in response to a bill that would have expanded extradition to China for those charged with offences in Hong Kong.

The new legislative package grants mainland China more powers to insert itself in the affairs of Hong Kong, and includes penalties of up to life in prison for offences deemed to consist of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces. 

Critics have said those four areas are so ill-defined that it could lead to overreach and a stifling of all dissent.

“You never know when you will break the law, you never know where is the red line,” Law told CBC News.

“That is the power of the politics of fear. It will lead you to self-censorship to a degree that you can never express what you genuinely mean.”

EU still determining specific response

Law told Reuters earlier this month that the rest of the world should stand up to Chinese President Xi Jinping and start to put human rights above financial gain.

So far, there has been international condemnation over the legislation as breaching the “one country, two systems” framework agreed to when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but little in the way yet of specific reprisals.

The European Union said Monday it is preparing countermeasures on China in response to Beijing’s new security law, but envoys stressed the likely steps will not amount to economic sanctions.

Diplomats said there was broad support among EU member states for some action, but tough measures were not being discussed in detail because of resistance from China’s closest trade partners in Europe, such as Hungary and Greece.

The broad and ambiguous offences under China’s new national security law have Hong Kongers censoring themselves, fearing a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Pro-democracy protesters are holding up blank sheets. Cafes are stripping their messages of support. One of Hong Kong’s most prominent and outspoken activists, too, has left the territory altogether. Today on Front Burner, pro-democracy activist Nathan Law joins us from an undisclosed location. He’ll take us through the years of unrest leading up to China’s crackdown, and how these measures threaten the unique freedoms that came with living in Hong Kong. 22:30

While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last month warned of “very negative consequences” for Beijing, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell detailed lighter measures after a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels.

“We have agreed today to develop a co-ordinated European Union response to show support for Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil society,” Borrell told a news conference after the meeting.

“This will comprise measures both at the European Union level and also measures falling on the member states’ national competencies in a co-ordinated approach.”

He said nothing specific had been decided, but that EU foreign ministers had discussed extending the EU’s export ban on “sensitive technology” to Hong Kong.

Borrell was referring to any equipment or software that could be used for suppressing protests aimed at preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy granted under terms of its handover back to China by Britain in 1997.

EU governments could also review their extradition agreements with Hong Kong authorities, review travel advice, increase scholarships for Hong Kong students and offer more visas to Hong Kongers, Borrell said.

Borrell said EU governments could announce national steps separately, but the 27-nation bloc viewed its response as a package to be defined and made reality “in the coming days.”

In 1997, China promised to maintain Hong Kong’s democratic system and civil liberties for 50 years. But many believe a new security law imposed upon Hong Kong by Beijing effectively means the end of democracy there. Diana Fu — a China expert at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy — discusses the potential fallout over the law and the decisions Hong Kongers have to make now about whether to stay and whether to keep pushing for democracy or censor themselves. 20:31

Finland said it supported the idea of suspending extradition treaties with Hong Kong since the new security law meant detainees could be transferred to mainland China — where courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

In Geneva, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression said on Monday that it will be important to see whether authorities use their discretion in interpreting the new law to impose restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

“I am extremely concerned about the future of Hong Kong particularly with the adoption of the national security law,” David Kaye told the news briefing.

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