UK COVID-19 Update: 'Pingdemic' Plan and Antibody Vaccine Response Study

Peter Russell

July 23, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

'Pingdemic' Measures

The Government introduced emergency measures to protect food supplies in the wake of concerns that the supply workforce was being diminished following 'pings' from the NHS COVID app.

George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, told Sky News on Friday that ministers had "identified close to 500 key sites, that includes around 170 supermarket depots, and then another couple of hundred key manufacturers like our bread manufacturers, dairy companies, and so on".

Daily testing instead of self-isolation would be rolled out to those identified as critical to the food supply chain, the Government said.

The move came amid widely reported concerns that of a staffing shortage because of a so-called 'pingdemic' where people were being told to self-isolate after contact with others infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The intervention followed NHS figures showing that 618,903 alerts were sent to users of the COVID app in the week to July 14, a period before England’s restrictions were lifted.

Newspaper coverage concentrated on empty supermarket shelves and the fear that self-isolation requests would lead to shortages of some goods. There was also media criticism that retail staff were not included in the exemption rule.

Sajid Javid England' Health and Social Care secretary, said: "As we manage this virus and do everything we can to break chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help to minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk."

Antibody Response

The interval between vaccine doses for mRNA vaccine was lengthened in the UK to accelerate population coverage with a single dose, and new research has found that this may have resulted in a stronger response to the second dose.

The preprint from the PITCH study suggested that after a priming first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, there was a marked decline in neutralising antibody responses over a 10-week period, but that T-cell responses were well-maintained. As a single dose of vaccine is known to offer significant protection, this suggests that T cells may be an important part of the mechanism.

Comparing short with longer dosing intervals, it found that following the second dose, the longer interval resulted in twice as high neutralising antibodies against all variants of the virus, including the Delta variant, compared with the shorter dosing interval.

However, antibody and T-cell responses varied between infection-naïve and previously infected individuals.

The investigation, led by the Universities of Oxford and Liverpool, was based on studying 503 healthcare workers in England.

Prof Susanna Dunachie from the University of Oxford said: "Our study aimed to shine a light on the different type of immune cells involved to help us better understand the potential mechanisms of protection, particularly against new variants of concern.

"It is clear from our findings that to maximise your individual protection, it is very important to get two doses of the COVID vaccine when offered."

Experts said the findings supported the decision to extend the interval between vaccine doses from 3 to 12 weeks.

Commenting on the preliminary findings to the Science Media Centre, Dr Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control, said: "While vaccinologists will not be surprised by the findings of this study, it is vital, particularly with a new virus and novel vaccination methods, to confirm that the vaccines are working as we would hope – and they are."

Student Self-isolation

New research cast doubt on whether school children, students, and staff should self-isolate when they had been in contact with people infected with SARS-CoV-2.

A study by the University of Oxford found that daily testing, rather than isolating whole groups, could be as effective in controlling transmission in secondary schools.

The investigation, which is a preprint and not yet peer-reviewed,  involved 201 secondary schools and further education colleges
in England, with over 200,000 students and 20,000 staff participating.

Tim Peto, professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who led the study, said: "Our findings indicate that there is no significant difference in COVID-19 transmission between schools where bubbles were sent into home isolation versus those where daily contact testing was implemented instead. Infection rates in the close contacts were low in general, and there was little difference between those who went to school following a negative lateral flow test and those who were isolating at home."

Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, described the findings as "a major breakthrough" and commented that "daily contact testing can keep young people in classrooms instead of making them isolate at home".

Pregnant Women Vaccine Call

More pregnant women should get a COVID vaccine, health chiefs said.

It came as Public Health England data showed that 51,724 pregnant women in England had received at least one dose of vaccine. Of those, 20,648 had received a second dose.

However, Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said there was concern that increasing rates of infection will adversely impact pregnant women. "Of the pregnant women in hospital with COVID-19 last week, 95% were unvaccinated," he said.

In April, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advised that pregnant women should be offered the COVID-19 vaccine at the same time as the rest of the population, based on their age and clinical risk group. Most have been offered either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines because more safety data was available for both.

Medical Student Deferral Offer

Students applying to study medicine at the University of Exeter have been offered financial incentives – including free accommodation and a £10,000 cash bursary – to defer their course for a year.

A record number of students had applied to study medicine at the university, the BBC reported.

Prof Mark Goodwin, deputy vice-chancellor at Exeter, said: "We’ve seen a significant upturn in the number of outstanding applicants prioritising the University of Exeter as their first choice for medicine this year.  All medicine student numbers are set by the Government to ensure that we can accommodate everyone in a way that provides a high-quality education and stimulating student experience, as well as safe and secure NHS placements.

"To maximise the choices available to our students, we are offering a range of options, including financial incentives, deferral, or studying a post-graduate programme, prior to students commencing their medical studies next year."

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