UK AstraZeneca vaccine plant partially evacuated over suspect package

LONDON (Reuters) – A factory in Wales that produces AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine was partially evacuated on Wednesday after it received a suspicious package and police said a bomb disposal unit was dealing with the incident.

Operated by Wockhardt UK, the plant provides so-called fill-and-finish capacity for AstraZeneca’s UK supply chain, which is the final manufacturing step of putting vaccines into vials or syringes and packaging them.

AstraZeneca has agreed to supply Britain with 100 million doses of the vaccine, developed by Oxford University.

It is currently engaged in a dispute with the European Union after it cut supplies to the bloc due to production issues at its Belgian factory.

“Wockhardt UK in Wrexham this morning received a suspicious package to site. All relevant authorities were immediately notified and engaged,” the company said, referring to its facility outside the town of Wrexham in north Wales.

“Upon expert advice we have partially evacuated the site pending a full investigation. The safety of our employees and business continuity remain of paramount importance,” it said.

Local police confirmed that a bomb disposal unit was on site and advised the public to avoid the area.

“We are currently dealing with an ongoing incident on the Wrexham Industrial Estate,” they said in a statement.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Estelle Shirbon and David Clarke)

UK plans tough new border measures to combat coronavirus

By William James and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will announce new tougher border measures on Wednesday to stop new variants of COVID-19 getting into the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as he promised to deliver a roadmap out of lockdowns that have shuttered much of the economy.

The government is expected to bring in quarantine hotels for those coming to Britain from high-risk countries where new strains of the coronavirus have emerged – so-called red list nations – such as South Africa and those in South America.

The move comes as Britain’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 100,000, the first European state to reach that figure, leading to further questions about Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

“The Home Secretary (interior minister) will be setting out later today…even tougher measures for those red list countries where we are particularly concerned about new variants,” Johnson told parliament when asked about plans to strengthen Britain’s borders.

Britain saw infections soar at the end of last year after a highly-contagious new variant that emerged in southeast England surged through the population, taking cases and later deaths to record levels.

Since the start of January, all the United Kingdom has faced lockdowns which have closed schools, pubs and restaurants to all bar takeaways with the public told they must stay home as much as possible.

Johnson and his ministers have faced repeated questions, including from many in his own party, on when measures would be eased especially with regard to school closures. He told lawmakers he would address that issue later on Wednesday when he is due to host a media conference.

“Then in the course of the next few weeks, assuming the vaccine rollout continues well, assuming we don’t find new variants of concern…I will be setting out a broader roadmap for the way forward for the whole country,” he said.

With 100,162 recorded deaths, Britain has the world’s fifth highest toll from COVID-19 and the highest deaths per 100,000 people in the world.

Johnson said he felt deep sorrow about the loss of life when the figures were announced on Tuesday, but said the government had done everything it could.

Asked repeatedly by the leader of the Labor opposition Keir Starmer why Britain had fared so badly, he said there would be a time to learn the lessons of what happened but “I don’t think that moment is now” when 37,000 people were still in hospital suffering from the virus.

“There are no easy answers, perpetual lockdown is no answer,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

UK surpasses 100,000 COVID deaths in grim new milestone

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 100,000 Britons have died within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, official data showed on Tuesday, a grim new milestone as the government battles to speed up vaccination delivery and keep variants of the virus at bay.

Britain has the fifth highest toll globally and reported a further 1,631 deaths and 20,089 cases on Tuesday, according to government figures.

The 100,162 deaths are more than the country’s civilian toll in World War Two and twice the number killed in the 1940-41 Blitz bombing campaign, although the total population was lower then.

“My thoughts are with each and every person who has lost a loved one – behind these heart-breaking figures are friends, families and neighbors,” health minister Matt Hancock said.

“I know how hard the last year has been, but I also know how strong the British public’s determination is and how much we have all pulled together to get through this.”

England, by far the most populous of the UK’s four nations, re-entered a national lockdown on Jan. 5, which includes the closure of pubs, restaurants, non-essential shops and schools to most pupils. Further travel restrictions have been introduced.

In December, Britain became the first country in the world to approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and has set itself the task of offering jabs to everyone 70 and over, those who are clinically vulnerable, frontline health and social care workers and older adults in care homes by mid-February.

A total of 6,853,327 people have now received a first dose and 472,446 a second dose.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Michael Holden)

Anger and grief as United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll nears 100,000

By Andrew MacAskill and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – As the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll approaches 100,000, grief-stricken relatives of the dead expressed anger at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the worst public health crisis in a century.

When the novel coronavirus, which first emerged in China in 2019, slid silently across the United Kingdom in March, Johnson initially said he was confident it could be sent packing in weeks.

But 98,531 deaths later, the United Kingdom has the world’s fifth worst official death toll – more than its civilian toll in World War Two and twice the number killed in the 1940-41 Blitz bombing campaign, although the total population was lower then.

Behind the numbers there is grief and anger.

Jamie Brown’s 65-year-old father died at the end of March after it was suspected he contracted COVID-19 while travelling on a train into London for work. At the time, the government was mulling a lockdown.

Told by medics to stay at home, he awoke days later with a tight chest, disorientated and nauseous, and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. He died from a cardiac arrest five minutes after arriving.

His son said the virus had damaged his lungs to the point where his heart gave up. He was a month away from retirement. “For me, it has been terrifying and harrowing to see everything that you hope for taken away. He will never be at my wedding; he will never meet any grandkids,” Brown told Reuters.

“Then, you watch the death toll rising whilst ministers pat themselves on the back and tell you what a good job they have done. It changes very quickly from a personal to a collective grief.”

Some scientists and opposition politicians say Johnson acted too slowly to stop the spread of the virus and then bungled both the government’s strategy and execution of its response.

Johnson has resisted calls for an inquiry into the handling of the crisis and ministers say that while they have not got everything right, they were making decisions at speed and have among the best global vaccination programs.

The United Kingdom’s death toll – defined as those who die within 28 days of a positive test – rose to 98,531 on Monday. The toll has risen by an average of over 1,000 per day for the past seven days.

‘JUST UNFORGIVABLE’ RESPONSE

In a series of investigations, Reuters has reported how the British government made several errors: it was slow to spot the infections arriving, it was late with a lockdown and it continued to discharge infected hospital patients into care homes.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in March that 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome. Soon after, a worst-case scenario prepared by government scientific advisers put the possible death toll at 50,000.

Many of the bereaved are angry and want an immediate public inquiry to learn lessons from the government’s response.

Ranjith Chandrapala died in early May at the same hospital where he took passengers to and from on his bus.

His daughter, Leshie, said the 64-year-old was slim, healthy and had not missed a day of work driving buses in the last 10 years.

She said he was not issued with a face mask – she bought him one herself – and the passengers were not told to wear them.

“The government’s handling of the crisis has been negligent, it is just unforgivable,” she said. “People in power just sent these guys over the line unprotected.”

Chandrapala stopped work on April 24 after developing COVID-19 symptoms. He died in intensive care 10 days later, with his family unable to say goodbye in person.

Early in the pandemic in March, one of England’s most senior doctors told the public that wearing a face mask could increase the risk of infection. The government made face coverings mandatory for passengers in England on June 15.

Nearly 11 months after the United Kingdom recorded its first death, some British hospitals look like a “war zone”, Vallance said, as doctors and nurses battle more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that scientists fear could be more deadly.

On the COVID-19 frontline, patients and medics are fighting for life.

Joy Halliday, a consultant in intensive care and acute medicine at Milton Keynes University Hospital, said it was “truly heartbreaking” for staff to see so many patients die.

“(Patients) deteriorate very, very quickly, and they go from talking to you and looking actually very well, to 20 minutes later no longer talking to you, to a further 20 minutes later no longer being alive,” she said.

“That is incredibly difficult for everyone.”

(Writing by Paul Sandle; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)

Moderna plans trial of altered COVID-19 vaccine booster to address South Africa variant

(Reuters) – Moderna said on Monday it plans to start clinical trials of an altered booster version of its COVID-19 vaccine aimed at the South African variant after tests showed its authorized vaccine may produce a diminished antibody response.

It will also test an additional booster shot of its authorized vaccine in trials to see if it boosts antibody reaction against the South Africa variant. The current regimen is for two shots four weeks apart.

The company said in a press release that it was being cautious and that the two-dose regimen of the vaccine was still expected to be protective against the South African and other variants detected to date.

The company said the vaccine did not see any impact from the U.K. variant – which has been shown to be more transmissible – in the tests.

The company said it plans to publish data from its tests against the South African and U.K. variants on the website bioRxiv.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Maju Samuel and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

UK police break up COVID rule-breaching wedding with 150 guests

LONDON (Reuters) – British police said on Friday they had broken up a wedding with about 150 guests in violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules, which only allow six people to attend.

Weddings are currently supposed to take place only under “exceptional circumstances”.

However, officers found a large gathering in Stamford Hill, in north London, with the windows covered to stop people seeing inside. The organizer of the wedding could be fined up to 10,000 pounds ($13,700), and five others were issued 200-pound penalties.

The police had initially reported that some 400 people had attended the wedding. An investigation has been launched to identify further offences.

“This was a completely unacceptable breach of the law,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Marcus Barnett. “People across the country are making sacrifices by cancelling or postponing weddings and other celebrations, and there is no excuse for this type of behavior.”

The wedding took place at the Yesodey Hatorah Girls School, which serves Haredi Jewish families in the area, home to the biggest Orthodox Jewish community in Europe.

“We are absolutely horrified about last night’s event and condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” the school said in a statement. An outside organization was responsible for letting out its hall and it had no knowledge of the wedding, the school added.

Coronavirus cases have soared in Britain since the end of last year following the outbreak of a new, more contagious variant of the virus, which has led to the imposition of lockdowns across the United Kingdom.

The number of daily cases has fallen from a high of almost 70,000 on Jan. 8 to around 40,000 in recent days, but authorities are concerned that too many people are breaking the rules, meaning the virus keeps spreading.

On Thursday, British interior minister Priti Patel said those who broke lockdown restrictions faced punishment by police and announced a new 800-pound fine for those who attended house parties.

($1 = 0.7320 pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Holden; additional reporting by James Davey, editing by William James and Gareth Jones)

PM Johnson says UK in ‘race against time’ as it faces worst weeks of pandemic

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday Britain was in “a race against time” to roll out COVID-19 vaccines as deaths hit record highs and hospitals ran out of oxygen, and his top medical adviser said the pandemic’s worst weeks were imminent.

A new, more transmissible variant of the disease is now surging through the population, with one in 20 people in parts of London now infected, threatening to overwhelm the National Health Service (NHS) as hospitals fill up with patients.

The death toll in the United Kingdom has been soaring and now stands in excess of 81,000 – the world’s fifth-highest official toll – while more than three million people have tested positive.

In a bid to get on top of the pandemic and to try to restore some degree of normality by the spring, Britain is rushing out its largest ever vaccination program, with shots to be offered to about 15 million people by the middle of next month.

“It’s a race against time because we can all see the threat that our NHS faces, the pressure it’s under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places,” Johnson said on a visit to a vaccination center in Bristol, in southwest England.

“This is a very perilous moment. The worst thing now for us is to allow success in rolling out a vaccine program to breed any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic.”

The government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty earlier said the situation was set to deteriorate.

“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS,” he told BBC TV.

“Anybody who is not shocked by the number of people in hospital who are seriously ill at the moment and who are dying over the course of this pandemic, I think, has not understood this at all. This is an appalling situation,” he told BBC TV.

VACCINATION TARGET

Health minister Matt Hancock said there were now more than 32,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital, far more than the roughly 18,000 hospitalized during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April.

Johnson’s government is pinning its hopes on a mass vaccination program after Britain became the first country to approve vaccines developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and by Pfizer/BioNTech. It also approved Moderna’s shot last Friday.

Its plan, announced on Monday, envisages two million shots being delivered to around 2,700 centers a week in England by the end of January, with the aim of immunizing tens of millions of people by the spring and all adults offered a vaccine by the autumn.

The first daily vaccination statistics showed that nearly 2.3 million people had so far received their first doses of a COVID vaccine and nearly 400,000 had received a second dose.

Johnson said more had received the vaccine in Britain than in any other European country but admitted that inoculating 15 million people in the four highest risk levels, including those over 70 and frontline health workers, by a Feb. 15 target was “a huge ask”.

“We believe it’s achievable, we’re going throw absolutely everything at it, to get it done,” he said.

Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, said the prime minister’s indecision had cost lives and worsened the economic impact

Ministers and health chiefs have pleaded with Britons to stay at home, amid fears that some people are not adhering to the rules strictly enough, along with concern that the virus is being spread in supermarkets.

Hancock said that support bubbles, where households can “bubble” with another if they are single-person or fit other criteria, would be maintained, but that rules on exercising with someone else could be restricted.

“Where we have to tighten them, we will,” Johnson said of the rules.

(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, Paul Sandle, Alistair Smout and James Davey; writing by Michael Holden; editing by Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones)

“The deal is done”: EU and UK clinch narrow Brexit accord

By Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper and John Chalmers

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain clinched a narrow Brexit trade deal with the European Union on Thursday, just seven days before it exits one of the world’s biggest trading blocs in its most significant global shift since the loss of empire.

The deal means it has swerved away from a chaotic finale to a tortuous divorce that has shaken the 70-year project to forge European unity from the ruins of World War Two.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters: “It was a long and winding road. But we have got a good deal to show for it. It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a picture of himself inside Downing Street, raising both arms in a thumbs-up gesture of triumph, with the words “The deal is done”.

“We have taken back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters,” a Downing Street source said.

“We have delivered this great deal for the entire United Kingdom in record time, and under extremely challenging conditions … all of our key red lines about returning sovereignty have been achieved.”

While the last-minute deal prevents the most acrimonious ending to the saga on Jan. 1, the United Kingdom is set for a much more distant relationship with its biggest trade partner than almost anyone expected at the time of the 2016 referendum.

A deal had seemed imminent for almost a day, until haggling over just how much fish EU boats should be able to catch in British waters delayed the announcement of one of the most important trade deals in recent European history.

The UK formally left the EU on Jan. 31 but has since been in a transition period under which rules on trade, travel and business remained unchanged until the end of this year.

The details of the accord have yet to be made public, but if the sides have struck a zero-tariff and zero-quota deal, it will help to smooth trade in goods that makes up half their $900 billion in annual commerce.

Even with an accord, some disruption is certain from Jan. 1 when Britain ends its often fraught 48-year relationship with a Franco-German-led project that sought to bind the ruined nations of post-World War Two Europe together into a global power.

Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, gave the deal a grudging welcome:

“Coming so late in the day, it is vital that both sides take instant steps to keep trade moving and services flowing.”

After months of talks that were at times undermined by both COVID-19 and rhetoric from London and Paris, leaders across the EU’s 27 member states have cast an agreement as a way to avoid the nightmare of a “no-deal” exit.

But Europe’s second-largest economy will still be quitting both the EU’s single market of 450 million consumers, which late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher helped to create, and its customs union.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper, Conor Humphries, Kate Holton, John Chalmers, William Schomberg, Paul Sandle and Michael Holden; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and John Chalmers; Editing by Alison Williams)

The new coronavirus variant in Britain: How worrying is it?

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A new variant of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Britain and prompting high levels of concern among its European neighbors, some of which have cut transport links.

The strain, 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% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the United Kingdom.

ARE THE CONCERNS JUSTIFIED?

Most scientists say yes. The new variant has rapidly become the dominant strain 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% of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. That compared to 28% of cases three weeks earlier.

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

A few cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have also been reported to the ECDC, Europe’s disease monitoring agency, by Iceland and Denmark. 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. Shaun Fitzgerald, a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, said the situation was “extremely concerning.”

WHY?

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

Scientists say it is about 40%-70% more transmissible. The UK government said on Saturday it could increase the reproduction “R” rate by 0.4.

This means it is spreading faster in Britain, making the pandemic there yet harder to control and increasing the risk 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, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

WILL COVID-19 VACCINES PROTECT AGAINST THIS VARIANT?

Scientists say there’s no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in the UK – made by Pfizer and 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.

Britain’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance also said COVID-19 vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.

“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.

DOES THE NEW VARIANT AFFECT TESTING?

To some extent, yes.

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 THERE OTHER SIGNIFICANT SARS-CoV-2 VARIANTS ABOUT?

Yes. Strains of the COVID-19-causing virus have emerged in recent months in South Africa, Spain, Denmark and other countries that have also raised concern.

However none, so far, has been found to contain mutations that make it more deadly, or more likely to be able to evade vaccines or treatments.

DID THIS NEW VARIANT ORIGINATE IN BRITAIN?

Vallance said on Saturday he thought the new variant might have started in the UK. Some scientists in Europe have credited British expertise in genomic surveillance for identifying the mutation.

“The UK has one of the most comprehensive genetic surveillance programs in the world – 5% to 10% all virus samples are genetically tested. Few countries do better,” Steven Van Gucht, head of viral diseases at the Belgian Institute of Health, told a news conference on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, editing by Josephine Mason and Mark Heinrich)

New coronavirus strain spreading in UK has key mutations, scientists say

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – British scientists are trying to establish whether the rapid spread in southern England of a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is linked to key mutations they have detected in the strain, they said on Tuesday.

The mutations include changes to the important “spike” protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells, a group of scientists tracking the genetics of the virus said, but it is not yet clear whether these are making it more infectious.

“Efforts are under way to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission,” the scientists, from the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, said in a statement.

The new variant, which UK scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01” includes a mutation in the viral genome region encoding the spike protein, which – in theory – could result in COVID-19 spreading more easily between people.

The British government on Monday cited a rise in new infections, which it said may be partly linked to the new variant, as it moved its capital city and many other areas into the highest tier of COVID-19 restrictions.

As of Dec. 13, 1,108 COVID-19 cases with the new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England, Public Health England said in a statement.

But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe COVID-19 infections, the scientists said, or that it would render vaccines less effective.

“Both questions require further studies performed at pace,” the COG-UK scientists said.

Mutations, or genetic changes, arise naturally in all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, as they replicate and circulate in human populations.

In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these mutations are accumulating at a rate of around one to two mutations per month globally, according to the COG-UK genetics specialists.

“As a result of this on-going process, many thousands of mutations have already arisen in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus emerged in 2019,” they said.

The majority of the mutations seen so far have had no apparent effect on the virus, and only a minority are likely to change the virus in any significant way – for example, making it more able to infect people, more likely to cause severe illness, or less sensitive to natural or vaccine-induced immune defenses.

Susan Hopkins, a PHE medical advisor, said it is “not unexpected that the virus should evolve and it’s important that we spot any changes quickly to understand the potential risk.”

She said the new variant “is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected.”