South Africa variant can 'break through' Pfizer's vaccine

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Jordan Kelly-Linden
·24 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
A 16-year-old teenager receives a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Clalit Health Services, in Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv  - AFP
A 16-year-old teenager receives a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Clalit Health Services, in Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv - AFP
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

The coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa can "break through" Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine to some extent, a real-world data study in Israel found, though its prevalence in the country is low and the research has not been peer reviewed.

The study, released on Saturday, compared almost 400 people who had tested positive for Covid-19, 14 days or more after they received one or two doses of the vaccine, against the same number of unvaccinated patients with the disease. It matched age and gender, among other characteristics.

The South African variant, B.1.351, was found to make up about 1 per cent of all the Covid-19 cases across all the people studied, according to the study by Tel Aviv University and Israel's largest healthcare provider, Clalit.

The vaccine appeared to be less effective against the South African variant, researchers noted. Crucially, however, the study shows that the variant does not spread effectively, they say.

It is believed that this reduced effectiveness may also only occur in a short window of time. Results from the study showed that there were no reported cases of B.1.351 in fully vaccinated individuals who had received their second dose more than 14-days prior.

04:35 PM

Today's coronavirus news

Here's your Sunday round up...

  • The rules are changing. From Monday people in England will be able to enjoy a drink in a pub garden and book a hair cut. For the latest updates click here..

  • The UK has delivered 40 million vaccines into the arms of 32.12 million Britons.

  • However the chairman of the Government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) has urged caution ahead of a major easing of the lockdown.

  • Meanwhile New York is reportedly bracing for an exodus of its wealthiest residents after officials passed a budget that will see them pay the US’s highest tax rate, as the city desperately seeks to boost their Covid-hit economy.

  • A top Chinese health expert has also revealed that China is exploring the possibility of mixing different Covid-19 vaccines to see if this new strategy can improve relatively low efficacy rates in the country's home-grown jabs.

  • A third wave of coronavirus infections are unlikely to hit this summer, Government scientists have admitted, all eyes are instead on the autumn.

03:52 PM

UK nears 40 million first and second vaccine doses

The United Kingdom distributed a further 586,339 Covid-19 vaccines, taking the total amount to almost 40 million, according to daily data published on Sunday.

The UK has now given 32.12 million people a first dose of the vaccine and 7.47 million a second dose, putting it on track to start reopening its economy.

The data also showed that a further 1,730 people had tested positive for the virus, down from 2,589 the day before, while seven people had died within 28 days of a positive test, down from 40 on Saturday.

03:46 PM

India bans export of Covid-19 treatment drug remdesivir

India on Sunday banned the export of remdesivir as infections soared to a new daily high and hospitals grappled with increasing demand for the coronavirus treatment drug.

The vast nation has experienced a sharp rise in cases in recent weeks, adding 152,000 new cases on Sunday to take the toll to 13.3 million infections.

The health ministry said the surge in cases has led to a "sudden spike in demand" for the antiviral drug.

"There is a potential of further increase in this demand in the coming days," the ministry said in a statement, adding that the export ban would be in place "till the situation improves".

Remdesivir, made by US pharma giant Gilead, was one of the first drugs to show relative promise in shortening the recovery time for some Covid-19 patients.

But a World Health Organisation-backed study has said that the drug had "little or no effect" on Covid-19 mortality.

03:26 PM

Forty per cent of US marines have refused Covid jab

Nearly 40 per cent of US marines offered the coronavirus vaccine have refused it, according to figures released by the Pentagon, our US Correspondent David Millward reports.

The vaccine has been made available to 123,500 marines, of whom 75,500 have been inoculated, but a further 48,000 have declined the Covid-19 jab - representing a refusal rate of 38.9 per cent.

Another 100,000 marines have yet to be offered the jab.

The figures are the latest manifestation of vaccination hesitancy in the US, triggering alarm among some Democrats.

Seven members of Congress have urged Joe Biden to take steps to compel members of the armed forces to accept the vaccine, even though it has only been mandated for emergency use.

According to the letter, which was obtained by CNN, "disinformation and vaccine scepticism" was leading some members of the military to opt out.

Defence department spokesman Andrew Woods suggested a variety of possible reasons for marines turning down the vaccine including wanting others to have priority or because they could have received the jab elsewhere.

"We fully understand that widespread acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccine provides us with the best means to defeat this pandemic. The key to addressing this pandemic is building vaccine confidence," he told USA Today.

03:11 PM

Pope celebrates mass of 'mercy' with prisoners and refugees

Pope Francis made a rare Sunday outing from Vatican grounds to celebrate a mass on "divine mercy" with prisoners, refugees and health workers.

The service was held in a church just off St Peter's Square, in front of a reduced congregation of about 80 people, due to coronavirus restrictions.

Among them, there were inmates of two Roman prisons and one youth detention centre; refugees from Syria, Nigeria and Egypt; and nursing staff from a nearby hospital.

Pope Francis puts on a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, as he leaves after a mass in the Santo Spirito in Sassia Church in Rome - Alessandra Tarantino / AP
Pope Francis puts on a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, as he leaves after a mass in the Santo Spirito in Sassia Church in Rome - Alessandra Tarantino / AP

02:25 PM

Risk of two vaccinated people catching Covid from meeting indoors is 'tiny'

The risk of two vaccinated people catching Covid from meeting up indoors is “tiny”, scientists have calculated, with just a one in 400,000 chance of picking up an infection.

Last week, Boris Johnson warned that people should not be allowing others into their homes, even if they had both had the vaccine.

“The vaccines are not giving 100 per cent protection, that’s why we need to be cautious,” said the Prime Minister.

But Professor Tim Spector, at King’s College London, has calculated that the risk of catching a symptomatic infection is around one in 400,000 for two people who have been vaccinated – which is far less than the risk of developing a blood clot from the AstraZeneca jab.

Prof Spector, who is lead scientist on the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app and professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s, said there was currently just a one in 1,400 risk of “bumping into someone” with symptomatic Covid, and people should feel more “relaxed” if they had been vaccinated.

Sarah Knapton reports.

02:01 PM

Thai introduces new restrictions to Bangkok ahead of holidays

Almost 40 Thai provinces have brought in entry restrictions and quarantine requirements for people travelling from Bangkok and other coronavirus hotspots ahead of a holiday travel period, as the capital grapples with soaring infections.

On Sunday the government announced 967 new infections, bringing the overall tally to more than 32,000.

Separately, health officials in the northern city of Chiang Mai flagged a further 281 cases that were likely to be included in Monday's national figures.

Bangkok appears to be the epicentre of Thailand's third wave, with more than 1,000 cases reported this month.

More than 4,000 people are in hospital with coronavirus across the country.

Bangkok has set up 10 field hospitals to accommodate up to 3,000 patients for Thailand's "most severe outbreak", according to Suksan Kittisupakorn, director-general of the Medical Service Department.

Thai authorities have detected a highly infectious variant of the virus originally found in Britain.

01:17 PM

Covid third wave no longer expected in the summer, government advisers admit

A third wave is unlikely this summer, Government scientists have admitted, despite modelling suggesting Britain would see a surge of infections.

Senior experts close to the Government have said that any new wave would be more likely to arrive in the autumn, following the pattern of other seasonal respiratory infections.

Last week, a summary of modelling from the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) warned cases would begin to rise significantly soon after the full release of restrictions in June unless some interventions, such as mask wearing, were kept in place.

Some models even suggested the summer third wave could be as big as the January peak.

But the models have been criticised for failing to take into account that most respiratory viruses decline in the summer months, or adequately reflect the success of the vaccination programme.

A senior Government scientist said there were ‘some big caveats’ on the modelling.

Sarah Knapton reports.

12:40 PM

The lockdown rules from April 12: what you can and can't do

A number of coronavirus restrictions are due to ease from Monday as England enters Stage Two of the lifting of lockdown. But what is changing?

  • Restaurants and pubs allowed to serve food and alcohol to customers sitting outdoors

  • Gyms and spas can reopen, as can zoos, theme parks, libraries and community centres

  • All shops will be allowed to open

  • As will hairdressers, beauty salons and other services

  • Members of the same household can take a holiday in England in self-contained accommodation

  • Non-essential journeys between England and Wales are allowed

  • Weddings - with up to 15 people - will be allowed as will Funerals - with up to 30 people at the ceremony and 15 at wakes

  • Children will be able to attend any indoor children's activity

  • Care home visitors will increase to two per resident

  • And driving lessons can resume, with driving tests restarting on 22 April

Here is what you can and can't do from Monday, April 12

12:01 PM

'Up to 80 per cent' in Sicily refuse AZ vaccine

Up to 80 per cent of people offered the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Sicily refuse it out of fears over its safety, according to the southern Italian region's president Nello Musumeci.

Public confidence in the Anglo-Swedish jab has been badly shaken by reports linking it to rare, but potentially fatal, blood clots, and by conflicting recommendations on its use.

"In Sicily, there is an 80-percent refusal rate of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Every 100 people, 80 say no," Musumeci said late Saturday in Catania, according to multiple media reports.

Musumeci added: "It is natural" for people to be particularly concerned, "but we have a duty to believe scientists when they say it is more dangerous not to get vaccinated than to get vaccinated."

The president actually meant to say "up to 80 per cent," his spokeswoman Michela Giuffrida told AFP on Sunday, adding, as an example, that in the town of Syracuse the refusal rate was "30 percent."

A large-scale boycott of the AstraZeneca jab would put Italy's vaccination plan - already struggling with supply shortages and botched priorities - under further stress.

11:45 AM

Enjoy Monday's freedoms but recognise there is still risk, warns Nervtag chairman

The chairman of the Government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) has urged caution ahead of a major easing of the lockdown.

Professor Peter Horby told Times Radio: "The watchword has got to be caution, really.

"The modelling which is now pretty good does show that we can expect some kind of rebound. It's not clear exactly when or how big it will be but there is, I think, inevitably going to be a bit of a rebound in the number of cases when things are relaxed.

"Hopefully it won't translate too much into hospitalisations and deaths because of the vaccine programme, but there will be some of that. Now the extent of it really depends on how well we comply with the ongoing restrictions, so we really have to take this step by step.

"I think we can be joyful and enjoy the freedoms, but we've still got to realise there's still a large number of people who've not been infected or vaccinated and so they will be at risk."

11:22 AM

Royal household lays flowers inside Winsor Castle

A member of the royal household staff started laying flowers inside a courtyard at Windsor Castle.

The woman placed several bouquets at the centre of the lawn within the castle grounds, which is just beyond the entrance, guarded by four armed police officers, and can be seen from Castle Hill road.

Members of the public also continued laying flowers at a separate entrance near the Long Walk, for a third day, although this has been discouraged due to coronavirus restrictions, and bouquets have been cleared away each night.

Staff place flowers on the ground outside St George's Chapel which were left by well-wishers outside Windsor Castle, Berkshire - Gareth Fuller  / PA
Staff place flowers on the ground outside St George's Chapel which were left by well-wishers outside Windsor Castle, Berkshire - Gareth Fuller / PA

10:40 AM

Vaccine shortages hit India as Covid second wave gathers pace

India may be forced to scale back its Covid-19 immunisation programme despite calls for its expansion amid a virulent "second wave" of the virus, after ten states revealed they had fewer than four days of vaccine stocks left.

In the eastern state of Odisha, shortages have already resulted in the authorities closing nearly half of the immunisation sites, while facilities have also been shut in the western state of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital of Mumbai.

The number of daily vaccinations distributed has already fallen from a record of 4.3 million on Monday to 2.9 million on Wednesday.

“We do not have enough vaccine doses at various vaccination centres, and people have to be sent back due to a shortage of doses,” said Rajesh Tope, the health minister in Maharashtra.

It is unclear why India, one of the world’s top producers of Covid-19 jabs, could be experiencing vaccine shortages, although one of the two manufacturers, the Serum Institute of India (SII), has recently expressed concerns over its ability to produce enough doses for India’s 1.38 billion citizens.

Joe Wallen has the lastest here.

10:27 AM

Rhino population in Nepal grows in conservation boost

Nepal's population of endangered one-horned rhinoceros has grown by more than a hundred over the past six years, officials said, with campaigners hailing the increase as a conservation "milestone".

The census - delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic - was carried out using GPS equipment, binoculars and cameras.

According to the latest count, the population rose to 752 across four national parks in the southern plains, up from 645 in 2015, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation said on Saturday.

"The increase of rhinos is exciting news for us," the department's information officer, Haribhadra Acharya, told AFP on Sunday.

"But we have challenges ahead to expand the habitat areas of this animal to maintain the growth."

Thousands of one-horned rhinos once roamed the southern plains, but rampant poaching and human encroachment on their habitat reduced their numbers to around 100 in Nepal in the 1960s.

Since 1994, the Himalayan nation has conducted a rhino census once every five years, as authorities stepped up their efforts to boost population numbers for the species listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation for Nature.

A one-horned rhinoceros walks on the banks of the Rapati River in Sauraha Chitwan, some 150 km southwest of Kathmandu - PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP
A one-horned rhinoceros walks on the banks of the Rapati River in Sauraha Chitwan, some 150 km southwest of Kathmandu - PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP

09:55 AM

Inside secret first camp for Myanmar refugees established in India

Hundreds of worried looking people fill the damp room, some playing folk songs on their phones, while others sit quietly in the dark.

“I crossed the border into India with three other female police officers at night on a riverboat. I was so scared while crossing, that the police would stop me,” said Aung Kyi, a diminutive police officer from Myanmar, who fled after she was instructed to shoot at pro-democracy protesters in her home country, following the military coup. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

The safe house is part of a camp being run in total secret by an Indian NGO that set up the facility after four Myanmar refugees were allegedly deported back to the country in mid-March.

Believed to be the first of its kind, it runs on a threadbare budget, dependent on donations from sympathetic local residents who belong to the same ethnic group as those on the Myanmar side of the border, known as Mizo in India and Chin in Myanmar.

The camp's location is a tightly held secret. But the NGO believes a Covid outbreak in the facility is likely to happen soon and representatives are anxiously awaiting the arrival of promised-aid from the Indian government.

Joe Wallen and Isaac Zoramsanga report

The camp hosts dozens of people who have been forced to flee Myanmar - Isaac Zoramsanga
The camp hosts dozens of people who have been forced to flee Myanmar - Isaac Zoramsanga

09:29 AM

How to get a lateral flow test and do it at home

As of Friday, people in England will be able to request two Covid lateral flow tests per week, for free.

The lateral flow tests – which can provide results in about 30 minutes – will be available regardless of whether people have symptoms.

Boris Johnson said the scheme would help stop fresh outbreaks, enabling authorities to identify and control new variants of the virus.

Tests can be ordered online or collected at a local centre. To find out how to access your free lateral flow tests and how to correctly take them, watch the video below

08:59 AM

China mulls mixing vaccine doses

A top Chinese health expert has revealed that China is exploring whether mixing different Covid-19 vaccines can improve their relatively low efficacy rates, Louise Watt reports.

The comments by Gao Fu, the head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, mark the first time a top Chinese scientist has publicly discussed the relatively low efficacy of the country's vaccines.

China is considering two routes “to solve the problem that the efficacy of its existing vaccines is not high”, Gao told a conference in the southwest city of Chengdu on Saturday, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

The first is to adjust a vaccine’s dosage, the interval between doses or increase the number of doses, he said. The second is to mix vaccines that use different technologies.

China has approved four vaccines for public use, including Sinovac, which has said trials in Brazil showed its vaccine had around 50 percent efficacy in preventing infection, and Sinopharm, whose two vaccines have efficiency rates of around 73 percent and 79 percent.

China has administered around 160 million shots within its borders since last year. Many Chinese have been reluctant to get a jab because of safety fears and because the pandemic has been largely controlled in the country.

Beijing has also been sending cheap or free homegrown vaccines to countries that have struggled to source others.

08:42 AM

New York facing exodus after city raises taxes to plug Covid-19 shortfall

New York is bracing for an exodus of its wealthiest residents after officials passed a budget that will see them pay the US’s highest tax rate, as they desperately seek to boost their Covid-hit economy.

Under the new rate, which is expected to soon be rubber-stamped by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the city’s top earners could pay up to 14.8 per cent tax - a combined federal, state, and city tax which could reach 52 per cent.

The move sees the state overtake California, which has the current highest combined tax rate for top earners in the US, and much of Europe.

Business leaders and CEOs this week warned that the increase is likely to backfire by driving away the very people and companies the city relies on for its revenue.

Josie Ensor reports

New York was the number one state for population loss in the US last year, according to Census Bureau data - EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS
New York was the number one state for population loss in the US last year, according to Census Bureau data - EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS

08:29 AM

Large proportion of hospitality unable to open on Monday, says expert

A "large proportion" of hospitality businesses "won't be able to open" on Monday, despite an easing of lockdown restrictions in England, because they do not have access to sufficient outdoor space, Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality has said.

In England, from tomorrow, restaurants and pubs are allowed to serve food and alcohol to customers sitting outdoors.

Ms Nicholls told BBC Breakfast only two in every five venues would reopen.

"The majority of the industry still has to cling on for five weeks," said Ms Nicholls.

She said the easing of lockdown on Monday was a "welcome restart" for those businesses that are able to comply with current coronavirus measures.

She suggested each site had invested up to £10,000 in order to make their venues suitable for outdoor hospitality - adding "they still aren't going to break even... the best they are going to achieve outdoors is 20% of normal revenues".

"We are keen to make sure this is the last lockdown, so we under the government's need for caution," she told the BBC.

"What we need is a clear commitment from the government to stick to those last two dates of the roadmap. Our businesses cannot survive any longer.

"Until we get to 21 June, hospitality won't be able to be viable."

08:15 AM

Russia reports 8,702 new Covid-19 cases

Russia reported on Sunday 8,702 new Covid-19 cases, including 2,090 in Moscow, taking the national infection tally to 4,641,390 since the pandemic began.

The government coronavirus taskforce reported 337 deaths in the last 24 hours, pushing the total death toll to 102,986.

The statistics agency has kept a separate count and reported a much higher toll of 225,000 from April 2020 to February.

Coronavirus Russia Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Russia Spotlight Chart - Cases default

07:38 AM

Why Europe's approach to the AstraZeneca jab differs from ours

Different circumstances and regulatory judgments about risk explain more than politics and a clash of nations, writes Paul Nuki:

We humans like nothing better than storytelling - and the more familiar the book the better. It’s why the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has been told a thousand times. Explaining things via common narrative is one of our many tricks for making sense of the world quickly.

The oldest story of them all is the clash of nations and it’s through this prism the story of the AstraZeneca jab in Europe is oft told. How else to explain why the European Union began by limiting the vaccine's use in the old only to reverse ferret, prioritise the elderly and then restrict its use in the young?

The truth, of course, is more complicated. The bumpy ride the AstraZeneca vaccine has had in Europe (and North America) has much more to do with the different ways in which regulators approach evidence and judge risk than politics. Differing circumstances have also played an important role.

Read more.

06:58 AM

Cases continue to surge in India's second wave

India reported a record 152,879 new Covid-19 cases, health ministry data showed on Sunday, as a second-wave of infections continued to surge and overwhelm hospitals in parts of the country.

The number of new fatalities stood at 839, the most deaths in more than five months, taking the toll to 169,275.

India's tally of more than 13.35 million cases is the third-highest globally, behind only Brazil and the United States.

06:15 AM

Customers may be too scared to return to shopping centres

Shoppers may be too scared to return to enclosed shopping centres when lockdown restrictions ease to allow non-essential retail to open, according to a new study.

Researchers from the universities of Portsmouth and Edinburgh have found that people have been "conditioned" to avoid crowded spaces during the past year.

And they say this leads to shoppers experiencing higher levels of stress, lower levels of excitement and greater difficulty focusing on a shopping task when in the presence of large crowds of other shoppers.

The team of researchers, who have worked with colleagues at Saint Xavier University in the United States and the Universidad Externado de Colombia in Bogota, say that the "new normal" behaviours will make enclosed shopping centres less attractive but may be a boost for smaller, independent shops.

05:44 AM

Chinese vaccines' effectiveness low, says top disease control official

In a rare admission of the weakness of Chinese coronavirus vaccines, the country's top disease control official says their effectiveness is low and the government is considering mixing them to give them a boost.

Chinese vaccines "don't have very high protection rates," said the director of the China Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, at a conferenceon Saturday in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

Beijing has distributed hundreds of millions of doses in other countries while also trying to promote doubt about the effectiveness of Western vaccines.

"It's now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunisation process," Gao said.

The effectiveness rate of a coronavirus vaccine from Sinovac, a Chinese developer, at preventing symptomatic infections has been found to be as low as 50.4 per cent by researchers in Brazil. By comparison, the vaccine made by Pfizer has been found to be 97 per cent effective.

Pedestrian walk past a billboard promoting a television show on China's fight against Covid-19 in Shanghai - Bloomberg
Pedestrian walk past a billboard promoting a television show on China's fight against Covid-19 in Shanghai - Bloomberg

05:25 AM

S.Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca vaccine

South Korean authorities said on Sunday they will move ahead with a second-quarter coronavirus vaccination drive starting on Monday as planned after deciding to continue using AstraZeneca's vaccine for all eligible people 30 years old or over.

South Korea had said on Wednesday it would temporarily suspend providing AstraZeneca's vaccine to people below 60 amid a European review over cases of blood clotting in adults.

02:37 AM

Mexico reports 2,192 new deaths after data review

Mexico's government on Saturday reported 2,192 new confirmed coronavirus deaths, one of its biggest one-day tolls during the pandemic, after consolidating data from last year to include deaths that were not confirmed at the time.

The figure was far above the daily averages reported by the health ministry in recent weeks.

Mexico's health ministry said two-thirds of the 2,192 deaths reported on Saturday occurred in 2020 and at the time were not marked down as coronavirus fatalities. They were subsequently reviewed by experts.

A woman places a message dedicated to people who died with Covid-19, on a wall at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City - Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A woman places a message dedicated to people who died with Covid-19, on a wall at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City - Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

01:45 AM

The day before elections, Peru marks record Covid deaths

One day before it holds presidential and congressional elections, Peru on Saturday marked a second daily record death rate from the pandemic that is engulfing the country anew.

The health ministry said 384 deaths had been recorded, taking the total death toll to 54,669, as healthcare workers battle a shortage of medical oxygen and saturated hospitals, and the government struggles to secure sufficient vaccination supplies.

On Sunday millions of Peruvians are expected to go out to vote at polling stations around the country to pick their next president and congressional representatives. Voting is obligatory, on threat of a $25 fine, polling station numbers have been increased to facilitate social distancing and voters have been urged to bring their own pens and wear masks.

Workers sanitise a polling station, the day ahead of the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections - Reuters
Workers sanitise a polling station, the day ahead of the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections - Reuters

01:31 AM

Today's top stories