Covid-19 news: UK to offer antibody testing to those who test positive

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By Michael Le Page , Clare Wilson , Jessica Hamzelou , Sam Wong , Graham Lawton , Adam Vaughan , Conrad Quilty-Harper and Layal Liverpool

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A man uses a lancet to prick the tip of his finger.

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Latest coronavirus news as of 12pm on 23 August

Antibody testing programme to collect data on immune responses and vaccine effectiveness

The UK is launching an antibody testing programme for people who have contracted the coronavirus. The programme, which plans to offer tests to thousands of adults per day, aims to improve our understanding of how much protection antibodies give us following covid-19 infection and vaccination.

Antibodies are proteins produced by the body to defend against viruses and other invading microbes. Antibody testing can give an indication of how strong someone’s immune response is, but they do not definitively show whether someone is protected against infection.

From Tuesday, anyone over 18 from any of the four UK nations can opt in to the programme when taking a PCR test. Of those who go on to test positive for coronavirus, up to 8000 will be sent two finger prick antibody tests to complete at home and send back for analysis. The first must be taken as soon as possible after the positive result, and the second must be taken 28 days later.

The UK Health Security Agency, which is running the programme, will use the results to monitor levels of antibodies in positive cases across the UK. The Department of Health and Social Care says it will be the first time antibody tests have been made available to the general public, and the scheme could also provide insights into whether some people do not develop an immune response. The data will be used to inform the government’s ongoing approach to the pandemic and give further insight into the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants.

Other coronavirus news

UK health minister Sajid Javid has promised to crack down on “cowboy” behaviour by companies who take advantage of holidaymakers with misleading prices for coronavirus testing kits. Javid highlighted 82 private travel testing firms, who make up around 18 per cent of those on the government website, who will be issued with a two-strike warning and could be struck off the official gov.uk list. A recent Department of Health and Social Care review discovered they were displaying lower prices on the gov.uk site than people would have to pay in reality once they get to the checkout. 

Taiwan has begun rolling out a homegrown vaccine with clinical trials yet to be completed and no data available on the vaccine’s efficacy. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen was among the first to receive the vaccine developed by Medigen. The government has ordered an initial 5 million doses. So far around 40 per cent of Taiwan’s population has received at least one dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

New Zealand has extended its lockdown, with restrictions set to remain across the country until Friday and in Auckland until at least 31 August. Thirty-five new cases were recorded today, bringing the number of current infections to 107. 

Essential information about coronavirus

Where did coronavirus come from? And other covid-19 questions answered

What is covid-19?

Long covid: Do I have it, how long will it last and can we treat it?

What’s the fairest way to share covid-19 vaccines around the world?

Covid-19: The story of a pandemic

What to read, watch and listen to about coronavirus

New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.

The Jump is a BBC radio 4 series exploring how viruses can cross from animals into humans to cause pandemics. The first episode examines the origins of the covid-19 pandemic.

Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? is a BBC documentary, which investigates what the high covid-19 death rates in ethnic minority patients reveal about health inequality in the UK.

Panorama: The Race for a Vaccine is a BBC documentary about the inside story of the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against covid-19.

Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.

The New York Times is assessing the progress in development of potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.

Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.

Belly Mujinga: Searching for the Truth is a BBC Panorama investigation of the death of transport worker Belly Mujinga from covid-19, following reports she had been coughed and spat on by a customer at London’s Victoria Station.

Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.

COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.

The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.

Previous updates

illustration of monoclonal antibodies

A monoclonal antibody (mAb or moAb) is an antibody made by cloning a unique white blood cell.

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20 August

Ronapreve, the first drug designed specifically to tackle covid-19, gets approval

The UK has approved the first treatment to use artificial antibodies to prevent and fight the coronavirus. According to The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the drug may be used to prevent covid-19 infection, treat acute symptoms of the disease and reduce the likelihood of being admitted to hospital due to the virus. Sajid Javid, UK Health Secretary, said that he hoped it would be rolled out to patients soon.

Trials of the drug, called Ronapreve, took place before widespread vaccination and before the emergence of virus variants. The drug, previously known as REGN-Cov2, was given to former US president Donald Trump when he was admitted to hospital with covid-19 last year.

Ronapreve, developed by pharmaceutical firms Regeneron and Roche, is given either by injection or infusion and acts at the lining of the respiratory system, where it binds tightly to the virus and prevents it from gaining access to the cells, the MHRA said. It consists of monoclonal antibodies, proteins produced in the lab that mimic antibodies found in the immune system.

Other coronavirus news

Another antibody drug developed by AstraZeneca reduced the risk of developing symptomatic covid-19 by 77 per cent in clinical trials, the company has announced.

Javid has said he is confident a coronavirus booster campaign can start next month across the UK, however the government is waiting on final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, before giving further details. The JCVI met on Thursday and had been expected to discuss the potential for boosters for the most vulnerable. But officials told the PA news agency that boosters had not been discussed at the meeting, although they would not confirm what was spoken about.

Lockdown has been extended in Sydney, Australia, until the end of September and a nightly curfew will be introduced from 23 August in the 12 worst-affected council areas, covering 2 million residents.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

View of the virus: Researchers have managed to capture 3D images of human airway cells infected by SARS-CoV-2 using an extraordinary microscopic technique.

man receiving covid vaccination

A man receives a covid-19 vaccination in Los Angeles, California.

Christina House/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock

19 August

Third doses of covid-19 vaccines will be rolled out to combat delta variant surge in US

The US will start making booster vaccines available on 20 September, health officials have announced. The shots will be offered to people who had their second dose eight months earlier, initially focusing on healthcare workers, nursing home residents and older people, who were among the first to be vaccinated.

“It’s the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that may arise,” president Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “It will make you safer and for longer. It will help end this pandemic faster.” 

However, the World Health Organization has urged rich countries and vaccine manufacturers to prioritise distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries before pushing ahead with third doses at home. 

Biden also announced that his administration would make vaccination of employees a condition for nursing homes to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Other coronavirus news

The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is meeting today to discuss a potential booster campaign and which people might “really need” a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine, a government scientific adviser said.

Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think there’s enough evidence, and I think we’ll be imminently deciding, that there will be some people who will need a third dose, particularly people who we know are very unlikely to be well protected by those first two doses. But I think we do need more evidence before we can make a firm decision on a much broader booster programme.”

Finn also told BBC Breakfast: “I think it’s less clear really whether a third dose in a more general way, for sort of all people above a certain age, is really going to make very much difference.”

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Vaccine evidence: A UK study has found that protection from the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines wanes over time. Both vaccines provide good protection against symptomatic infections by the delta coronavirus variant, but are around 15 per cent less effective against delta than against the alpha variant. The findings also imply that vaccinated people who do get infected might be just as infectious as unvaccinated people.

The ventilation problem: Maximising airflow in public spaces is crucial to cut covid-19 transmission, but questions remain about what technology to use and how effective it needs to be. 

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Taranaki Street in Wellington, New Zealand, during the first day of a national lockdown.

Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

18 August

Ten cases confirmed in outbreak of delta variant in Auckland

New Zealand has begun a nationwide lockdown in a bid to contain the delta variant of the coronavirus. So far 10 cases have been confirmed in the outbreak, but modelling suggests the numbers could rise to between 50 and 100. “From the experience of what we’ve seen overseas, we are absolutely anticipating more cases,” prime minister Jacinda Ardern said. The level 4 alert, the highest level, means people other than essential workers can only leave home for groceries, healthcare, covid-19 tests and exercise. The lockdown will cover the entire country for at least three days, and remain in place in Auckland for a week. New Zealand had been free of local covid-19 infections since February, and only 21 per cent of the total population has been fully vaccinated.

Other coronavirus news

The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has tested positive for covid-19, his office has announced. Abbott is fully vaccinated and not showing any symptoms, and he is receiving a monoclonal antibody treatment, according to a statement. Abbott has restricted the extent to which local authorities in Texas can mandate covid-19 vaccination and the wearing of face masks. On Monday, he attended a Republican party event with a crowd of hundreds. Texas is currently a hotspot in a covid-19 surge taking place in the southern US, driven by the delta variant. Yesterday the US recorded more than 1000 covid-19 deaths for the first time since March, according to a Reuters tally.

Vaccine supplies are urgently needed in southeast Asia, the Red Cross has warned. The region has recorded 38,522 deaths in the past two weeks, nearly twice as many as North America. Indonesia is one of the worst-affected countries, with an average of 1466 deaths a day during the last week. “We fear that as the virus spreads from cities to regional and rural areas that many more lives will be lost among the unvaccinated,” said Alexander Matheou, Asia Pacific Director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in a statement.

See previous updates from June to July 2021May 2021, April-March 2021, February 2021, January 2021, November/December 2020, and March to November 2020.

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