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Here in the United Kingdom we are — we hope — in the midst of the worst stages of the coronavirus outbreak. For some countries, the worst may be beginning to pass; for others, things may be about to darken further. The uncertainty is almost as discomfiting as our fears of the illness. Since the Weekly carried its first small report on the novel coronavirus on 10 January (“Respiratory contagion is not Sars, authorities say”) the world has changed in ways that few could have imagined possible.
Last week the Guardian ran a fascinating series of articles on the 100 days in which Covid-19 went from a small flicker in the world’s consciousness to the defining crisis of a generation. We’re pleased to feature a selection of them in this week’s edition of the Weekly. We begin with Jonathan Freedland’s analysis of how the disaster has unfolded in the UK and around the world — a change so fast we can barely grasp its scale. Our global environment editor Jonathan Watts considers the low-carbon, wildlife-friendly state we find ourselves in — and asks if we can find a way to make it last. Then, Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott looks at the speed in which the global economy was ravaged by the virus, and diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour considers the geopolitical winners and losers from the crisis.
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Our Covid-19 analysis continues with a look at why the virus has been so effective at targeting the poor in the United States — now the world’s worst-hit country.
Then, in the UK, we look back at Boris Johnson’s week in hospital. Will his brush with mortality influence his famously cavalier outlook? We also report on the very un-Britishly efficient building of field hospitals and mortuaries in preparation for the worst weeks of the virus. We’re also looking at the latest science, lessons on immunology and much more throughout the magazine, including a brilliant read by the food writer Bee Wilson about the psychology behind stockpiling food in a crisis.
As you’d expect, Covid-19 is affecting almost everything that’s happening on the planet at the moment. However, we’re keen to make sure there’s more than just the virus in the magazine. This week we have a beautiful feature from the Guardian’s US team by Chris Sweeney about a golden eagle and the mystery surrounding its death. In our culture pages, rock critic Alexis Petridis meets the Strokes ahead of their sixth album and finds a band who have finally come out of their shell (a bit).
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Andrew Male meets the woman who makes eerily affecting collages from plastic detritus washed in from the sea — and, in books, we round up the best new (and old) books for kids stuck indoors. Enjoy, and see you next week. Stay safe.
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UK health minister Matt Hancock revealed which parts of England will be under which tier of restrictions after the nationwide lockdown ends on 2 December. The toughest measures will be applied to the parts of the nation where cases and pressure on the NHS are highest, Hancock told parliament today. Specifically, the government will use five criteria to decide the tier for each area, which will be reviewed every 14 days. These include case rates across all age groups, case rates in people over 60, the rate at which cases are rising or falling, the test positivity rate and the estimated pressure on the NHS in a particular area. “The current epidemiological evidence and clinical advice shows that we must make the tiers tougher than they were before to protect the NHS through the winter months and avert another national lockdown,” Hancock added.
Under the new rules, about 55 million people will remain banned from meeting those from other households indoors — under tier two and tier three rules. Approximately 23 million people will be under the highest level of restrictions — tier three — including the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. This means they will only be allowed to meet people from other households in certain outdoor public spaces, such as parks, with a maximum group size of six. Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are under tier one rules, meaning that people will be allowed to mix with people from other households indoors in groups of no more than six. Gyms and hairdressers will be allowed to open across England.
Other coronavirus news
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an African Union agency, said that mass vaccination against the coronavirus is unlikely to start in countries in Africa until halfway through next year. “We are very concerned as a continent that we will not have access to vaccines in a timely fashion,” said the agency’s director John Nkengasong at a news conference. “It will not be, in my view, up to [the] middle of next year before we truly start to get vaccination into Africa,” he said. The US, Germany and the UK have plans to start rolling out vaccines as early as next month. Nkengasong said there will also be key logistical problems to overcome in many African countries, particularly those with hot climates and challenges with supplying electricity, since most vaccines need to be kept cool.
The covid-19 pandemic could set back gains in gender equality, according to a report by UN Women. With more people around the world staying at home due to lockdowns and other restrictions, the need for household chores has increased, says the report. But analysis of data from 38 countries suggests that, while all people have increased their unpaid workloads, “women are still doing the lion’s share”. The report also found that women are taking on a greater intensity of care-related tasks compared to men. “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year,” UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia told the BBC.
Germany will extend its partial lockdown until at least 20 December and will limit private gatherings to a maximum of five people from up to two different households. German chancellor Angela Merkel said the goal is to push the number of new coronavirus cases in each region of the country below 50 per 100,000 people per week. As of today, only two of the country’s 16 federal states have case rates below this level. “We have to continue to pursue this goal,” Merkel told journalists in Berlin today.
Coronavirus deaths
New Scientist Default Image
Matthew Rowett
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 1.42 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 60.6 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.
Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist
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Essential information about coronavirus
Everything you need to know about the pandemic
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What to read, watch and listen to about coronavirus
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 of different vaccine candidates and 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 on-going coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.
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.
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
Two people wearing face coverings walk along a shopping arcade in London, UK
People wearing face coverings walk along a shopping arcade in London, UK
Guy Bell/Shutterstock
25 November
Government science advisers warn UK Christmas plan likely to lead to rise in cases
Scientists advising the UK government warned that its plan to relax restrictions during Christmas is likely to result in a rise in coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths. “It is likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths,” Andrew Hayward at University College London, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Graham Medley at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also a member of SAGE, told the Guardian that the relaxation of rules could lead to further lockdown measures being needed in the new year. “I think it is inevitable that if a lot of people do take that risk, even if it is a small risk, then we end up with a lot of people in hospital and potentially having to take measures in January to lock down again,” said Medley.
Under the government’s new guidance, people across the UK will be allowed to gather in three-household groups of unlimited size for a five-day period around Christmas. “All the governments agreed that we should balance the need to protect public health with also allowing people to be with their loved ones,” said cabinet office minister, Michael Gove.
Other coronavirus news
Senior US health adviser Anthony Fauci urged people in the country to avoid gathering for Thanksgiving, in line with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice. “Keep the gatherings, the indoor gatherings, as small as you possibly can. We all know how difficult that is, because this is such a beautiful, traditional holiday. But by making that sacrifice, you are going to prevent people from getting infected,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America programme today. “A sacrifice now could save lives and illness and make the future much brighter as we get through this,” said Fauci. “We’re going to get through this. Vaccines are on the horizon,” he added.
A study that analysed coronavirus genome sequences from 46,723 people with coronavirus around the world found that none of the mutations identified are causing the virus to spread more quickly. The researchers discovered 12,706 positions in the genome with mutations. “Fortunately, we found that none of these mutations are making covid-19 spread more rapidly, but we need to remain vigilant and continue monitoring new mutations, particularly as vaccines get rolled out,” Lucy van Dorp at University College London, one of the lead researchers on the study, said in a statement. The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.
Coronavirus deaths
New Scientist Default Image
Matthew Rowett
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 1.41 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 59.9 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.
A nurse holds a vaccine vial and syringe in front of her face as she prepares Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for inoculation in a trial in Moscow
A nurse prepares Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for inoculation in a trial in Moscow
REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
24 November
Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine candidate is 95 per cent effective, says Russia
The Russian government says preliminary results from trials of its coronavirus vaccine candidate Sputnik V have shown it to be more than 95 per cent effective after two doses. This is an increase from the 92 per cent effectiveness reported for the Sputnik V vaccine earlier this month. The latest results are based on a trial in about 19,000 volunteers. Sputnik V is based on similar viral vector technology to that used in the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine candidate, which early results indicate may be up to 90 per cent effective. But a full comparison between the two vaccines will only be possible when all the data is released, said Ian Jones at the University of Reading, UK, in a statement.
Each dose of the vaccine would cost less than $10, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). “It’s more than twice as cheap as other vaccines that have the same efficacy levels,” the head of RDIF, Kirill Dmitriev, told a briefing.
Other coronavirus news
UK health minister Matt Hancock said it is possible some social distancing measures could remain in place as vaccines are rolled out, until it is determined how effective they are at preventing coronavirus transmission in addition to preventing symptomatic covid-19. Hancock was speaking during a joint session of the UK health and science committees today. He also said the NHS should routinely test people for illnesses such as flu after the coronavirus pandemic, and that he thinks the UK’s culture of “soldiering on” and going to work while ill should end.
The UK government announced it will introduce a new “test and release” system in England on 15 December, which will allow passengers arriving from certain high-risk countries to end their quarantine early if they test negative for the coronavirus after five days of quarantine. Passengers will be required to book their tests with a provider from a government approved list and to pay for their own tests. The new system “will give passengers the confidence to book international trips in the knowledge that they can return home and isolate for a shorter period if they have received a negative test”, the government said in a statement.
A Microsoft Excel error that resulted in 15,841 cases not being immediately referred to the contact tracing system in England between 25 September and 2 October may have been linked to 125,000 subsequent cases and 1500 deaths, according to modelling by researchers at the University of Warwick, UK.
There were 2466 deaths involving covid-19 in England and Wales in the week up to 13 November, accounting for 20.1 per cent of all deaths that week in England and Wales, according to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics. This is an increase from the previous week, during which 1937 people died from covid-19.
Coronavirus deaths
New Scientist Default Image
Matthew Rowett
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 1.40 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 59.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.
A gloved hand holds a vaccine vial
Vaccine vial
John Cairns/Jenner Institute
23 November
Oxford vaccine researcher says UK is on track to vaccinate high-risk groups in December
People in high-risk groups in the UK may be able to get a coronavirus vaccine by December, with doses for the wider public being made available by next spring, said Adrian Hill at the University of Oxford today. Hill is the head of the institute behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine candidate, which may be up to 90 per cent effective according to preliminary results published today. “I think we are on track for the timeline […] to start getting this vaccine rolled out from December,” said Hill. “Hopefully there will be a vaccine available for all adults, but that’s likely to be springtime rather than in January.” In addition to the UK, governments in the US and Germany are also preparing to start vaccinating some people in December.
The UK has pre-ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine candidate, as well as 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine candidate and 5 million doses of Moderna’s candidate. “The bulk of the vaccine rollout programme will be in January, February, March. And we hope sometime after Easter things will be able to start to get back to normal,” UK health minister Matt Hancock said today. It isn’t yet clear how long any immunity generated by coronavirus vaccines might last.
COVAX — a global coronavirus vaccine allocation coalition with the World Health Organization — has been working to discourage governments from hoarding vaccines and ensure the most vulnerable groups in each country are vaccinated first. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is already part of COVAX, which aims to distribute about 2 billion doses to 92 low- and middle-income countries at a maximum price of $3 per dose. In a statement today, AstraZeneca said it will seek an emergency use listing from the WHO to accelerate access to its vaccine candidate in low-income countries.
Other coronavirus news
UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced more details about England’s planned return to a three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions, after the nationwide lockdown ends on 2 December. Parliament will vote on the plan later this week. Under the new system, more areas will be placed in the higher tiers compared to before the current nationwide lockdown. On Thursday, the government will confirm which regions will fall under which tiers. This will be based on analysis of cases among all age groups, particularly those above 60, as well as the rate at which cases are rising and falling and the current and projected pressure on the NHS in the region, Johnson told parliament today, which is in line with advice from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Johnson also revealed plans for a programme of mass testing, similar to that which took place as part of a pilot in Liverpool, to be rolled out in all tier-three areas in England after the lockdown ends. Johnson said rapid coronavirus tests are already being deployed in the NHS and in care homes, with the goal of allowing every care home resident to have two visitors who can be tested twice a week by the end of the year.
Covid-19 hospitalisations continue to surge in the US, with a new record of 83,870 people hospitalised with the disease in the country on Sunday. There have been reports of crowding in US airports ahead of Thanksgiving this week, despite the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warning against travel for the national holiday. Senior US health adviser Anthony Fauci warned yesterday that spikes in cases would not become evident until weeks after Thanksgiving. He told CBS this could create a “very difficult” situation as winter approaches.
Coronavirus deaths
New Scientist Default Image
Matthew Rowett
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 1.39 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 58.8 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.
Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist
Odds of dying: During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the infection fatality rate — how many infected people die — may have been 1 per cent for high-income countries with older populations.
Hurdles to ending the pandemic: Promising early results from vaccine trials offer hope of defeating covid-19, but vaccines may be less effective in the real world and people’s safety concerns could hamper take-up.
Graffiti showing a person wearing personal protective equipment and holding a syringe in their gloved hand on the wall, with a person walking in front of it.
Hope of a future coronavirus vaccine, in Paris, France
JEANNE ACCORSINI/SIPA/Shutterstock
20 November
NHS England’s draft plan aims for widespread vaccination of adults by start of April
A draft of NHS England’s plan for the roll-out of a coronavirus vaccine aims for widespread vaccination of all willing adults in England by early April, if sufficient doses and other crucial supplies are available. Under NHS England’s draft covid-19 vaccine deployment programme, which was outlined in a leaked document dated 13 November seen by HSJ, most doses of the potential vaccine would be administered between early January and mid-March, at a rate of between 4 and 5 million each week. The vaccinations would take place at thousands of “community mass vaccination sites” arranged by local GPs, with additional “large scale mass vaccination centres” in stadiums and conference centres. Priority will be given to healthcare workers and care home residents who would start to be vaccinated in early December, followed by people aged 80 and above, those in their seventies and those in their late sixties. Adults under 50 could start getting vaccines late January, with the majority vaccinated in March. The draft plan relies on more than 7 million doses of a vaccine being available in December. The document does not mention which vaccine will be used, and it is not known how many doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be available by then. The document also includes very little detail about how the NHS will surmount the significant logistical problems with delivering vaccines that require strict temperature-controlled supply chains.
US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German company BioNTech said they applied to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today for emergency use authorisation for their coronavirus vaccine candidate in the US. This week, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was found to be 95 per cent effective in phase III clinical trials. The UK government has pre-ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccines, and recently secured an initial agreement with US pharmaceutical company Moderna for 5 million doses of their vaccine candidate, which preliminary results indicate is almost 95 per cent effective.
Other coronavirus news
Coronavirus infections in England may be levelling off, according to the latest results of a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics. Estimated daily new infections in England decreased slightly to 38,900 new cases per day during the week ending 14 November, compared to 47,700 during the previous week. “These numbers would be the first where we might hope to see the national lockdown beginning to impact,” said James Naismith at the University of Oxford in a statement. “We know that social restrictions are the most effective way to bring down the number of new infections.”
The World Health Organization has advised that Ebola treatment remdesivir should not be used in people hospitalised with covid-19. The FDA approved remdesivir for use in people over 12 who are hospitalised with covid-19 last month. “The trials reported to date have shown no impact of remdesivir on survival,” said Martin Landray at the University of Oxford in a statement. “This is a drug that has to be given by intravenous infusion for 5 to 10 days and costs around £2000 per course. So remdesivir is not cheap, it is not convenient, and it has no impact on the mortality among the people at highest risk.”
Personal protective equipment ordered by the UK government may have come from factories using North Korean slave labour, the Guardian reported.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people in the US not to travel for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
Coronavirus deaths
New Scientist Default Image
Matthew Rowett
The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 1.36 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 57.1 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.
Pedestrians pass festive lights on Oxford Street in London, UK
Pedestrians pass festive lights on Oxford Street in London, UK
Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
19 November
‘Substantial risks’ with socialising over Christmas, warns UK science adviser
People mixing from different households during the Christmas period poses “substantial risks”, particularly for older people who are more vulnerable to severe covid-19, a scientist advising the UK government has warned. Socialising during the holidays is likely to result in increased contact between younger generations “with high incidence of infection”, and older people, said Andrew Hayward at University College London, who is a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. “My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas,” Hayward told BBC Radio 4. “We know respiratory infections peak in January so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.” England entered a four-week nationwide lockdown on 8 November, which is due to end on 2 December. Next week, the UK government is expected to set out proposals for easing restrictions in December.
The city of Hull currently has the highest infection rate in England at 751 per 100,000 people, compared to 274 per 100,000 across England as a whole. Local MPs have asked the UK government for help, including support from the military to carry out mass testing in the city. Last week, the military was deployed to help the NHS with mass testing in Liverpool. The government said its coronavirus task force would discuss response measures with leaders in Hull.
Other coronavirus news
Preliminary results suggest an arthritis drug may improve outcomes in severe covid-19. The findings, which have not yet been published or peer-reviewed, indicate that critically ill covid-19 patients treated with Roche’s anti-inflammation drug Actemra are more likely to survive after being admitted to hospital for covid-19. The drug, also called tocilizumab, is one of several being evaluated as part of the REMAP-CAP trial, led in the UK by researchers at Imperial College London and the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre. Other studies have shown mixed results on the effectiveness of tocilizumab in covid-19 patients, said Athimalaipet Ramanan at the University of Bristol in a statement.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine candidate is safe and induces an immune response in people in their 60s and 70s, according to results from a phase II trial published in the Lancet. The results are based on a study in 560 volunteers. The findings are significant, because the risk of severe covid-19 increases with age. Data from on-going phase III trials will reveal whether the vaccine candidate can prevent people from becoming ill with covid-19.

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