Exit strategy

Boris Confirms “Nothing” is Ruled Out in Responding to Indian Variant. How Worried Should We Be?

Boris Johnson confirmed today that “nothing” is ruled out in responding to the Indian variant. Asked if local lockdowns are possible, the Prime Minister told reporters:

There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it. Obviously there’s surge testing, there’s surge tracing. If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out. We have always been clear we would be led by the data. At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21st, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.

Meanwhile, Professor James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4 that local lockdowns will be ineffective at containing the variant and it should be viewed as a national problem.

I think we should view it as a countrywide problem. It will get everywhere. We keep learning this lesson, but we know that this will be the case. When we tried locally having different restrictions in different regions that didn’t really make any difference. So I don’t think thinking about a localised strategy for containment will really work.

An emergency meeting of Government scientific advisory group SAGE was convened this morning to address the rapid spread of the variant. One member reportedly warned that a delay to the June 21st lifting of restrictions is “possible”.

Is the Indian variant really something we should be afraid of? No doubt India is currently experiencing a surge in which the variant plays the dominant role. But that doesn’t mean the variant will pull the same trick everywhere – viruses aren’t as simple as that. There are all kinds of reasons one variant might come to dominate, and it isn’t necessarily accompanied by a surge in infections.

Italy is the European country currently most dominated by the Indian variant, having seen it quickly grow in the past few weeks (Indian variant in green).

Here’s what’s happened to the positive test rate in that time.

Clearly, the growth and dominance of the Indian variant does not necessarily lead to a new epidemic.

Meanwhile, in Spain (which has ended its state of emergency) the variant came and went very quickly.

Boris Tells Commons that Pandemic is Currently at Peak and U.K. Should Expect New Surge in Autumn

Speaking in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the Indian coronavirus variant is of “increasing concern” as outbreaks have been detected across the country. 

He said that despite increasingly encouraging data in the U.K, the threat of the virus remains “real” and new variants “pose a potential lethal danger”.

The end of lockdown is not the end of the pandemic. The World Health Organisation has said the pandemic has reached its global peak and will last throughout this year. The persistent threat of new variants, should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of vaccines, would have the potential to cause greater suffering than we had in January.

He added there is “high likelihood” of a new surge in infections and hospitalisations this autumn when “the weather helps the transmission of respiratory diseases, when pressure on the NHS is at its highest”.

Earlier today, junior minister George Eustice said that local lockdowns and tiers could make a comeback in response to local outbreaks.

What happened to the lifting of restrictions being irreversible? Wasn’t that supposed to be the reason it was happening so cautiously and slowly?

Despite the fast vaccine rollout and the example of states like Florida and Spain that have ended the state of emergency, the noises coming from the U.K. Government increasingly suggest they have no intention of returning the country to a normal footing any time soon. Perhaps a permanent state of emergency, and a posture as saviour, is good for elections?

Why is the World’s Most Vaccinated Nation Locking Down Again?

Seychelles, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean with a population of about 98,000, is locking down again – even though it has fully vaccinated more than 60% of its adult population with two vaccine doses, more than any other country in the world including Israel.

The country has banned the intermingling of households, closed schools, imposed curfews on bars and cancelled sporting activities for two weeks as infections surge.

The country began vaccinations in January using a donation of Chinese vaccines from the United Arab Emirates. According to Bloomberg, by April 12th, “59% of the doses administered were Sinopharm vaccines and the rest were Covishield, a version of AstraZeneca’s shot made under licence in India.”

The Government put the surge down to people being less careful, particularly over Easter. However, setting aside whether population behaviour is a plausible explanation, this doesn’t explain why the vaccines are not preventing transmission or infection.

Boris Warns of Third Wave – as He Finally Gets Round to Looking at Treatments for Covid

Boris told the country yesterday that, despite the vaccines, there is going be “another wave of Covid” at some point this year. Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing, he said:

As we look at what is happening in other countries with cases now at record numbers around the world, we cannot delude ourselves that Covid has gone away. I see nothing in the data now that makes me think we are going to have to deviate in any way from the roadmap, cautious but irreversible, that we have set out. But the majority of scientific opinion in this country is still firmly of the view that there will be another wave of Covid at some stage this year and so we must – as far as possible – learn to live with this disease, as we live with other diseases.

The warning came as he announced a task force to find new ways of treating COVID-19 before winter, with the aim of developing a tablet that can be taken at home to provide crucial early treatment. He said:

This means for example that if you test positive for the virus that there might be a tablet you could take at home to stop the virus in its tracks and significantly reduce the chance of infection turning into more serious disease.

The task force is welcome, of course, but the question is why is it only just being set up, when we first knew of this virus in January of 2020? Why wasn’t finding effective treatments a priority from the start? Why did none of the journalists at the press conference ask this question? Treatment should always be the first solution reached for when faced with a disease, as unlike lockdowns and vaccines they provide a way of making sick people better.

While the idea of learning to live with the disease, including through the use of treatments, should be reassuring, what the politicians mean by the phrase in the past year has typically turned out to be quite different to what most of us mean by it. We mean getting back to normal. They mean setting up a new “normal” of vaccine coercion, biometric ID passes, permanent screening programmes, face masks, closed borders, and restrictions on social contact and basic freedoms that loosen and tighten depending on the questionable results of mass testing. No thanks.

So why now? Is the Government only turning to treatments at this point because its fears are growing about variants that can escape the vaccines (for which there is some evidence)? Is this a further sign that the Government and its scientists are losing confidence in the vaccines?

In fact, as Professor Philip Thomas argues, there is unlikely to be a “third wave” now that we have the vaccines to top up our acquired and pre-existing immunity (and I doubt there would be a “third wave” without the vaccines). The remarkably low Covid hospitalisation rate for people who’ve been vaccinated that was reported yesterday adds to that hope. However, there is always going to be a winter flu season, and Covid and its potentially immunity-stretching variants are always going to be around. Who knows what the future will bring? Certainly not SAGE and its discredited modelling teams, whose alarmist predictions have consistently fallen flat. (Even in winter they predicted a much bigger surge and failed to anticipate that it would peak before lockdown.)

The question that has never been answered in this crisis is how safe do we need to be from Covid before we can go back to normal? Actually, it was answered once. In the Government’s original Pandemic Preparedness Strategy we know that a death toll of up to 315,000 within a few months from a pandemic virus was envisaged as being acceptable – still far more than we have seen with the (PCR-inflated) Covid death toll of the past year. That scale of mortality was not deemed to warrant any of the unprecedented measures we have experienced since March 2020 (which in any case were, correctly, judged not to be effective).

But since that sensible, science-based plan was ditched, the key question of when we can return to normal – the old normal, not the new normal – has never been answered. Is it because to do so would mean the politicians and scientists would have to grow a spine and endorse an acceptable level of risk and bring the emergency – and their status in it – to an end?

Is the Government Levelling With Us About the Vaccines?

In an unfortunate piece of timing for the Prime Minister, who on Tuesday told the nation that vaccines aren’t helping cut infections (which is a funny way of encouraging people to get one), on Wednesday a new study appeared from NHS England and the University of Manchester that reassuringly confirmed the vaccines do in fact appear to be highly effective. The Telegraph summarised the findings.

New research from NHS England and the University of Manchester showed the stark difference in cases, admissions and deaths for elderly people who had been vaccinated compared to those who had not.

In a large study involving more than 170,000 people, researchers had scrupulously case-matched participants to make sure the results were not skewed by underlying conditions, sex or geographical location.

The results show that far from having little impact, the rate of Covid-related hospital admissions fell by 75% in vaccinated 80 to 83 year-olds within 35 to 41 days of their first dose of the Pfizer jab. The rate of people getting Covid dropped by 70%, with the number of positive tests falling from 15.3 per 100,000 people to 4.6. …

The figures also suggest the link between infections and admissions has also been broken by the vaccine programme.

While nearly 40% of unvaccinated people who were infected ended up in hospital, only 32% of the vaccinated cohort did.

This is encouraging, and with antibody levels in the country running at 55% at the end of March, and levels highest in older people, it is not surprising to hear this is having an impact on infections.

However, what I find frustrating about studies like this one is that there are some glaring problems that most people, including the authors, seem content just to gloss over. Look at those graphs above. Isn’t there something obviously wrong with them? Look at the left hand side. The lines don’t start from the same place. The unvaccinated control group starts (on day 4) with much higher incidence, even though that is way before the vaccine is supposed to have any effect (the researchers agree on this point – they keep vaccinated people in the unvaccinated control group until 14 days after the jab).

The researchers say they have checked that the two groups do not have different levels of exposure risk (and include a graph to prove it). But why then at the start do the unvaccinated appear to have twice the rate of positive cases? If we were to normalise both curves to start at the same point, the size of the “vaccine effect” would be considerably reduced. There is also the oddity of the vaccinated group appearing to be starting an upturn in cases after day 40.

A second noteworthy point is that there is a spike in Covid infections in the two weeks following the first jab. So pronounced is it in the hospitalisations graph that for several days the vaccinated are hospitalised at a greater rate than the unvaccinated, even though they start at a lower rate. This post-vaccination infection spike has been observed in almost all of the vaccine studies to date, particularly with the Pfizer vaccine, as Dr Clare Craig has noted in the BMJ. One unanswered question in this study is how this spike may have affected the incidence in the control group if people were being kept in that group until 14 days after being vaccinated – was it elevating it?

This is not the only recent study to have issues like these. Another one (which also shows the vaccines being highly effective) is the large population study in Israel that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of February. This one provides its full data tables so we can see exactly how Covid incidence changed over the study period. Below is the incidence of symptomatic Covid infections per 100,000 people by days since Pfizer vaccination (note that by the last few days of the study very few were left in it owing to most of the people in the control group having been vaccinated, making the data noisy).

Vaccines the Cause of Britain’s Drop In Covid Cases, Not Lockdown, Says KCL Epidemiologist

A King’s College London epidemiologist has said that Britain’s “exemplar vaccine programme” – which has seen almost 40 million first and second doses administered – is behind the drop in Covid cases since January. Professor Tim Spector’s view contrasts with that of the Prime Minister who believes lockdown – not the vaccine – has delivered “this improvement in the pandemic“. The Mail has the story.

Vaccines are behind Britain’s sharp drop in coronavirus cases since January, top experts claimed today – despite Boris Johnson insisting lockdown was the reason for the fall.  

Professor Tim Spector, a King’s College London epidemiologist who runs the UK’s largest Covid symptom tracking study, said the epidemic had “mainly” been squashed by the “exemplar vaccine programme”.

With more than 60% of the population jabbed with at least one dose and up to 10% protected due to prior infection, Professor Spector added Britain was “starting to see herd immunity take effect”.

His comments come after data from his symptom-tracking app showed a 17% drop in daily cases last week, with an estimated 1,600 new symptomatic infections a day across the country – down from 60,000 at the peak in January.

Separate Test and Trace figures showed new cases in England had dipped by 34% last week, with 19,196 positive tests recorded in the seven days to April 7th – compared to 29,178 at the end of March. 

Professor Spector said: “As the UK slowly exits lockdown, I’m encouraged to see Covid cases continue to fall with our rates among the lowest in Europe. 

“In fact, the UK closely mirrors cases in Israel with its exemplar vaccine programme. Based on our data and countries like Israel, I believe the fall in cases since January is mainly thanks to the vaccination programme and less about the strict lockdown the UK has been under since late December. 

“With up to 60% of the population vaccinated and around five to 10% with natural immunity due to infection, we’re starting to see herd immunity take effect. This should prevent future large-scale outbreaks.”

Professor Spector warned it was inevitable cases would pick up again as restrictions are eased over the coming months. But he said any outbreaks would be “smaller” and “manageable” and among groups yet to be vaccinated.

The Prime Minister has been underplaying the impact of the vaccine for some weeks. As well as pinning the fall in Covid cases on lockdown rather than on the vaccine rollout, he recently said that vaccinated people must not meet indoors because jabs “are not giving 100% protection” – this despite the fact that the risk of catching a symptomatic Covid infection for two people who have been vaccinated is about one in 400,000. His confidence in lockdowns has, however, stood firm, despite an increasing number of studies showing they’re ineffective.

The report by the Mail is worth reading in full.

Boris Johnson Says Lockdown Not Vaccines Responsible for Drop in Covid Cases and Deaths

Has Boris lost his faith in the vaccines? That’s certainly the impression you’d get from what he has said this morning. Speaking in 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said:

The numbers are down of infections and hospitalisations and deaths. But it is very, very important for everybody to understand that the reduction in these numbers in hospitalisations and in deaths and infections has not been achieved by the vaccination programme. People don’t, I think, appreciate that it’s the lockdown that has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement in the pandemic and in the figures that we’re seeing. And so, yes of course the vaccination programme has helped, but the bulk of the work in reducing the disease has been done by the lockdown. So, as we unlock, the result will inevitably be that we will see more infection, sadly we will see more hospitalisation and deaths, and people have just got to understand that.

Notice that he didn’t say it’s a matter of waiting for the vaccines to take effect. It now appears that, regardless of vaccinations operating at full power, the Prime Minister thinks “inevitably” we will see more infection, hospitalisation and death.

The PM added that “at the moment” he couldn’t see “any reason” to change his roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions.

At Lockdown Sceptics, of course, we can give him several reasons for getting a move on. Florida, Texas, Georgia, South Dakota, South Carolina and Mississippi for starters. These states all currently have no restrictions at all, whether because they never had them (South Dakota), because they removed them after the first wave in the spring (Georgia and South Carolina) or in the autumn (Florida), or because they lifted them in the last few weeks (Mississippi and Texas). If lockdown is what brings infections down, what has brought them down in these states?

The claim that lockdowns “control” the coronavirus has no basis in the data or in the evidence-based (as opposed to model-based) scientific literature. No evidence-based study has found a statistically significant relationship between the severity or timing of interventions and Covid cases or death counts. It is “fake news”, to use the current parlance, and scientists and politicians need to stop repeating it as though doing so can make it true.

Looking just at the UK, it’s clear from the data that new daily infections peaked and began to fall before the lockdowns on all three occasions. Chris Whitty even admitted as much to MPs in July in relation to the first lockdown.

According to ONS data, new infections in the winter surge in England peaked in the week ending December 26th, nearly two weeks before the January lockdown and right in the middle of Christmas mingling that was predicted to cause a spike.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is England-ONS-new-infections.png

If lockdowns control the coronavirus then how can this be explained?

On one level it should be welcome that Boris is candidly admitting that the vaccines will not prevent all infections, hospitalisations and deaths. But then no one ever thought they would. The aim was just to make endemic Covid no worse than the usual pathogens we face, which many people believed requires effective vaccines. Now we have vaccines, there is no excuse not to lift restrictions, particularly seeing that places which have remained fully open even without vaccines have not seen catastrophic consequences, and often fared better than places with strict lockdowns.

COVID-19 outbreaks have consistently shown themselves to be self-limiting, regardless of what measures are or are not imposed. In some places the outbreaks are more severe, in some places less so. As with other similar seasonal respiratory pathogens this will be due to a combination of seasonality, the development of population immunity (including from vaccines, where available), the effectiveness of treatments, population density, and numerous other factors that might affect a population’s susceptibility to a particular pathogen. But on no occasion have the models attributing the differences to lockdowns been validated by empirical data.

As the Government appears to be preparing to pivot away from its vaccines-will-save-us narrative, the big danger is that what we get instead is not a freedom that accepts governments cannot prevent all evils, but a future of indefinite restrictions, periodically tightened and loosened, as the myth persists that only such measures are holding back the flood. If we are no longer to see the vaccines as our saviour, it is imperative that the Government shift to a zero restrictions approach, not a zero Covid one, and set us free without further delay.

The Government Has Bought into a Dangerous Myth of “100% Protection”

UK scientists are continuing to highlight Chile as a warning of what can happen even with widespread vaccination. The new angle is to draw attention to the poor efficacy of the Chinese vaccines. The Mail has the story.

Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline the figures from Chile suggest the Chinese vaccines “will not be enough to stop the virus circulating”.

Despite fully vaccinating a quarter of its population and getting a single dose to 40%, Chile has seen its infection rate double since mid-February, rising from 177 daily cases per million to 372. More than 80% of the country has been forced to retreat back into lockdown, which was used by No 10’s scientists as proof the UK is not out of the woods. 

However, the South American nation is primarily using the CoronaVac vaccine, made by Chinese pharma giant Sinovac, which a University of Chile study found was only 3% effective after the first dose, rising to 56.5% two weeks after the second. Another study in Brazil found efficacy could be as low as 50%, which just meets the World Health Organization’s threshold for an acceptable vaccine.  

For comparison, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have efficacy rates of 95% and 94%, respectively, while AstraZeneca’s is about 79%. Trials of tens of thousands of patients given the US and British jabs found they stopped up to 100% of hospitalisations and deaths, compared to CoronaVac’s 84%. 

Even China appeared to acknowledge the shortcomings of its vaccines at the weekend, when Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted “protection rates of existing vaccines are not high. It’s now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunisation process.”

However, since then the Chinese Government has put out an interview with Fu where he claims his comments were “a complete misunderstanding”. He said: “The protection rates of all vaccines in the world are sometimes high, and sometimes low. How to improve their efficacy is a question that needs to be considered by scientists around the world.”

Chilean Science Minister Andres Couve also came to the defence of the Sinovac vaccine. On Sunday he revealed that the health ministry will shortly publish a real world study on the efficacy of the CoronaVac vaccine, saying it was important to focus on the data and the effectiveness in reducing serious illness. Likewise, Heriberto Garcia, head of Chile’s Public Health Institute, said people should ignore headlines. “The University of Chile study and the study the Health Ministry will release say the same thing: the number of people who fall ill and are hospitalised has decreased,” he told local newspaper La Tercera. “We are going down the right path.”

A number of UK scientists criticised the Chinese vaccines, according to the Mail.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a public health expert at the University of Bristol, told MailOnline the crisis in Chile “was not a great tribute to the Chinese vaccines”.

He added: “They haven’t been approved by any of the major medical regulators and there is very limited research evidence, they certainly don’t appear to have a high level of effectiveness in the real world. And in the absence of data it’s very difficult to know [how effective they really are]. The only benefit of them is the fact they’re cheap.”

On whether countries rolling out Chinese vaccines should fear a resurgence of the virus, he said: “I think they would have a right to be worried.”

But he admitted that a vaccine that’s partially effective is better than none at all. 

He told MailOnline: “That 50% mark is the line in the sand that’s drawn by the WHO, which is great. But I think it’s beginning to dawn on people these [Chinese] vaccines aren’t going to solve the problem completely.”

Professor Scally said the UK was “in a different place” because it has highly effective vaccines in its arsenal, adding: “As long as we take it easy [coming out of lockdown] we should be fine.”

However, other scientists see Chile as a warning about the limited effectiveness of vaccines more generally. Chris Whitty told a Downing Street press conference last week: “We want to do things in a steady way because the assumption that just because you vaccinate lots of people, then the problem goes away, I think Chile is quite a good corrective to that.”

Sir David King, a former UK Chief Scientific Adviser, told Sky News yesterday:

From the point of view of the population itself, we’re all dying to get out of lockdown. From the point of view of the epidemic, I think it’s all a little bit more worrying. Chile is a country where the rate of vaccination amongst the population was third highest in the world – they were ahead of us in terms of the number of people who have had the vaccine – and they’re suddenly now into a third wave. They now have 7,600 cases a day and the total number of people in Chile now who have Covid is over a million. So what has happened in Chile is very, very surprising – a high percentage of people have been vaccinated, but here’s a variant of the disease coming through the country.

As Lockdown Sceptics noted last week, Chile is not a good a comparison for the UK, firstly because it appears to be using a less effective vaccine, and partly because it is in the southern hemisphere and so is currently in the middle of autumn. It is the equivalent of mid-October there, so some increase in respiratory disease should be expected as the winter flu season gets underway. The country is also some way behind the UK in terms of Covid deaths per million, which puts the comparison into some perspective.

Cheap, Safe Treatment Cuts Serious COVID-19 by 90%, Oxford Study Shows

A study from Oxford University has confirmed the remarkable effectiveness of common asthma treatment Budesonide for treating COVID-19.

First published as a pre-print in February and now as a peer-reviewed paper in the Lancet, the STOIC phase 2 randomised study found that inhaled Budesonide given to patients with COVID-19 within seven days of symptom onset reduced the relative risk of requiring urgent care or hospitalisation by 90%. It also resulted in a quicker recovery time for those who experienced fever and other symptoms and fewer persistent symptoms after 28 days, suggesting it could help to reduce the incidence of ‘long Covid’ in those given it as an early treatment.

Budesonide is a corticosteroid used in the long-term management of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The study, which is supported by the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) and AstraZeneca, involved 146 people, half of whom took 800 micrograms of the medication twice a day while half were on usual care. It was confirmed to be safe (unsurprising for an established medicine), with only five (7%) participants reporting self-limiting adverse events.

Professor Mona Bafadhel of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine, who led the trial, said: “I am heartened that a relatively safe, widely available and well studied medicine such as an inhaled steroid could have an impact on the pressures we are experiencing during the pandemic.”

The trial came into being because clinicians noted early on in the pandemic that patients with chronic respiratory disease, who are often prescribed inhaled steroids, were significantly under-represented among those admitted to hospital with COVID-19, despite the condition being a likely risk factor.

Budesonide is unusual because, unlike Vitamin D, Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, it has not (yet) been (unfairly) rubbished in the mainstream press and medical literature. For those other potential treatments you can see the studies for yourself here and read a fair overview here.

If a highly effective early outpatient treatment for COVID-19 becomes available then that may change everything in terms of vaccine programmes and exit strategies. The COVID-19 vaccines are currently authorised not under ordinary marketing licences but under temporary emergency approval. This approval is conditional on there being a current medical emergency. In the EU emergency approval can only be for an “unmet medical need”, and the approval is reviewed annually. In the US there must be no “adequate, approved, and available alternatives”. In the UK a disease must be a “serious risk or potentially serious risk to human health”, though there is no requirement to review the temporary approval.

An efficacy in reducing serious disease by 90% would rival the reported efficacy of the vaccines. The trial did not include many in high risk groups such as the elderly or those with underlying conditions, but vaccine effectiveness is also reduced in these groups.

As proven effective treatments like Budesonide come online, will the Government’s case for draconian interventions and coerced vaccinations, even on its own twisted terms, fall away?

Fact Check: “Rishi Sunak Was the Main Person Responsible for Covid’s Second Wave”

The Times has published the latest instalment in Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s new book Failures of State, an exercise, it seems, in recording the Official Narrative.

In the excerpt the authors lay the blame for the second wave at the feet of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, quoting a SAGE source that he was “the main person who was responsible for the second wave”. The editors picked this incendiary quote as the title of the piece.

Calvert and Arbuthnott write:

The Government had been warned about the consequences of a second wave but, by the end of July, the scientists on SAGE were reporting that they had no confidence that R was not now above the one threshold. The Government’s limited room for manoeuvre was acknowledged by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, at a hastily arranged press conference. “We have probably reached near the limits, or the limits, of what we can do in terms of opening up society,” he said.

The following Monday, August 3rd, was going to be the start of Eat Out to Help Out, come what may. According to a Conservative MP source, both Matt Hancock and Michael Gove were concerned about pressing ahead, but “the voices that were prevailing in government, for whatever reason, were those that were pushing a case that was based purely on economic recovery at all costs as fast as possible”.

By mid-August, positive tests had risen to more than a thousand a day. The Commons all-party coronavirus group wrote directly to the Prime Minister. “It is already clear that to minimise the risk of a second wave occurring . . . an urgent change in government approach is required,” said the letter.