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A new antibody treatment with the potential to give people instant immunity after being exposed to Covid-19 and prevent illness is being trialled by British scientists in the UK.
The drug would offer immediate and long-term protection to patients when it would be too late to offer a vaccine, potentially saving thousands of lives.
It could be given as an emergency treatment to hospital inpatients, care home residents and university students to help reduce the spread of the virus.
People who live with someone has caught Covid or been exposed to them could be injected with the drug to stop them becoming infected, even if they have not had a coronavirus vaccine.
British scientists from the University College London Hospitals NHS (UCLH) have already injected ten people with the drug as part of the new trial called Storm Chaser, with an aim to trial the new treatment on 1,125 people globally. The participants received two consecutive doses of the drug.
They hope the treatment would provide protection from Covid-19 for between six months to a year.
The development came as:
- England recorded 32,725 coronavirus cases on Christmas Day, according to the latest figures, as festive bubbles were cancelled for millions.
- The new infections mean there has been a 14 per cent increase in cases in a week, even without the full figures.
- In England, 570 deaths were recorded - bringing the national tally since March to 70,195.
- Nationwide figures weren't released because the devolved nations' tallies aren't counted on the Government dashboard over Christmas.
- Six million more people moved into Tier 4 lockdown after those already under the tightest coronavirus restrictions celebrated a Covid Christmas any way they could.
- Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire will move into Tier 4 - created in response to a variant of Covid-19 discovered in the UK - from Saturday.
- The parts of Essex still in Tier 2 - Waverley in Surrey and Hampshire including Portsmouth and Southampton, but with the exception of the New Forest - will also move into the toughest tier.
- The additional six million going into Tier 4 takes the total number of people under the toughest restrictions to 24 million - 43 per cent of England's population. A further 24.8 million will be in Tier 3.
UCLH injected the ten people - including medical staff and university students - as part of the Storm Chaser trial at its new vaccine research centre after the study entered phase three trials on December 2.
Key groups of the trial include healthcare workers, students who live in shared accommodation and patients who have been recently exposed to anyone with Covid-19, as well as those in long-term care, the military and industry staff such as factory workers.
In the first trial, the antibody, known as AZD7442, has been developed by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has also created a vaccine with Oxford University that is awaiting approval for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Meanwhile, older people and those in long-term care, as well as people with conditions such as cancer and HIV, will be recruited to take part in the Provent trial.
NHS England national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: 'The continuing contribution of the NHS to pioneering global efforts to fight Covid-19 is remarkable.
'These two clinical trials are an important addition to testing new therapeutic approaches, as antibody treatments may offer an alternative to patient groups who cannot benefit from a vaccine, such as immunocompromised patients.'
UCLH virologist Dr Catherine Houlihan, who is leading the Storm Chaser trial, said: 'We know that this antibody combination can neutralise the virus, so we hope to find that giving this treatment via injection can lead to immediate protection against the development of Covid-19 in people who have been exposed - when it would be too late to offer a vaccine.'
Dr Houlihan said the treatment would be an 'exciting addition' to the efforts being tested and developed to fight corovavirus, reports The Guardian.
'If we can prove that this treatment works and prevent people who are exposed to the virus going on to develop Covid-19, it would be an exciting addition to the arsenal of weapons being developed to fight this dreadful virus,' she said.
UCLH infectious diseases consultant Dr Nicky Longley, who is leading the university's portion of Provent, said: 'We want to reassure anyone for whom a vaccine may not work that we can offer an alternative which is just as protective.'
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia and an expert in infectious diseases, said the new treatment in the Storm Chaser trial could save thousands of lives.
'If you are dealing with outbreaks in settings such as care homes, or if you have got patients who are particularly at risk of getting severe Covid, such as the elderly, then this could well save a lot of lives. Providing it's borne out in phase 3 trials, it could play a big role in keeping alive people who would otherwise die. So it should be a big thing,' he said.
'If you had an outbreak in a care home, you might want to use these sorts of cocktails of antibodies to bring the outbreak under control as soon as possible by giving the drug to everybody in the care home – residents and staff – who hasn't been vaccinated.
'Similarly, if you live with your elderly grandmother and you or someone else in the house gets infected, then you could give her this to protect her.'
The potential breakthrough in the instant immunity treatment is welcome news to millions of Brits who are facing Tier 4 restrictions amid rising coronavirus cases.
England has recorded 32,725 cases in the last 24 hours, according to the latest figures, as festive bubbles were cancelled for millions.
Nationwide figures weren't released today as the devolved nations' tallies aren't counted on the Government dashboard over Christmas.
The infections announced today means there has been a 14 per cent increase in cases in a week even without the full figures.
But in England 570 deaths were recorded - bringing the national tally since March up to 70,195.
Last week, Christmas was cancelled for millions of people living in London, the south-east of England and Wales after Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown.
In hospitals around England 401 patients died of coronavirus on Christmas Day. The grim figure, which is for Covid-related hospital deaths recorded in the last 24 hours, compares to 317 a week ago.
None of the deaths were under 40 years old and all but 14 had underlying health conditions, according to the latest data.
There were another 33 deaths where coronavirus was mentioned on the person's death certificate. It means the total number of confirmed deaths reported in hospitals now stands at 48,150 people.
The 32,725 coronavirus cases announced today in England are up by 14 per cent on the 28,507 confirmed last Friday.
Northern Ireland did not update its death figures yesterday. They will not be resumed until December 28. There will be no data for Wales on December 25 or January 1.
Similarly in Scotland, death figures will not be updated today through to December 28. There will also be no figures between January 1 and January 4.
Yesterday, more than 1,000 new cases of coronavirus were recorded in Scotland as measures were eased for Christmas.
A total of 1,165 new cases were reported by the Scottish Government in the past 24 hours, new figures have shown.
The number is 4.3 per cent of all tests undertaken during that period, down from 5.3% the day before.
In total, 118,035 cases have been reported in Scotland since the beginning of the pandemic.
During the holiday period, the COVID-19 Dashboard, which publishes data on coronavirus cases and deaths, is only uploading tallies for England on a daily basis.
The latest figure comes as a new strain of coronavirus grips south-east England. The strain is thought to be better at spreading, but is not yet thought to be more deadly.
One in every 85 people in England are now infected with coronavirus, half of them have caught the new super-infectious strain and cases in London have trebled in two weeks.
But Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows the epidemic is being driven by southern regions, where the variant has become the dominant strain, with cases still falling of flattening in the North and Midlands, where it is yet to become widespread.
Officials fear, however, it is only a matter of time before the mutant variant – which is up to 56 per cent more infectious than regular Covid and was first detected in Kent in September – becomes prevalent everywhere.
It became the country's dominant strain by the beginning of November, research shows.
About two-thirds of people testing positive in London, the East and the South East, are thought to have the new variant, the ONS said. Nationally, the strain is thought to make up 50 per cent of infections.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands different of mutations among samples of the virus causing Covid-19.
But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the surprise announcement on December 19 that a new 'Tier 4' was to be introduced from midnight, effectively cancelling Christmas for a third of the country due to fears about the Kent strain.
It shuttered non-essential retail, gyms, cinemas, hairdressers and bowling alleys - while people are restricted to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
It meant thousands of Britons had to cancel their Christmas Day plans, because meeting in a bubble was no longer allowed.
In a further blow for Brits hoping for some sort of normality in the future, Matt Hancock announced on Wednesday a second mutated variant of coronavirus has already been found in London and North West England after being brought to the UK from South Africa.
Ministers fear this variant, known as 501Y.V2, is even more infectious than the one found in Kent that has been behind a recent explosion of coronavirus infections in the East, South East and London.
Mr Hancock revealed two cases of the South African variant have been detected so far in England in contacts of people who had travelled back from the country in recent weeks.
The cases had no link between them, with one in London and the other in the North West of England, MailOnline understands, and the links to South Africa were discovered on Tuesday.
Mr Hancock said the discovery of the variant in the UK was 'highly concerning' and revealed 'immediate restrictions' were being imposed on travel to and from South Africa.
Those who have arrived from the country in the last fortnight are being urged to quarantine for two weeks.
He made the announcement as he plunged millions more people in the South East of England into Tier Four, with the measures kicking in at midnight on Christmas Day.
West Sussex and the parts of East Sussex, Essex, Surrey and Hampshire not already in the top tier will enter Tier 4 from a minute past midnight on Boxing Day, with the exception of the New Forest. They will be joined by Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Swindon, the Isle of Wight, the New Forest and Northamptonshire will go from Tier 2 to Tier 3, as will Cheshire and Warrington. And Cornwall and Herefordshire will enter Tier 2, meaning no parts of England will be in the lowest Tier 1.
As Britain's crisis worsens, SAGE experts revealed the coronavirus R rate in Britain has risen to between 1.1 and 1.3 due to the Kent variant of coronavirus.
The strain is spreading fastest in London and the East of England, where the R could be as high as a shocking 1.5, and it is at least one or higher in every region of England except the North East and North West.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson refused to rule out a third national lockdown after a Sage model warned that Britain needs to increase their vaccination rates to avoid deaths from the mutated Kent coronavirus.
He warned people that it will 'continue to be difficult' because of the new strain of Covid-19.
During a press conference, Mr Johnson said: 'We believe that we're going to have to get through this tough period now with, as I have said many times, very tough restrictions, with tough tiering.
'As much as I regret that, I do think it is necessary for us to grip this virus now to stop it running out of control in January.
'We need to buy ourselves time to get the vaccine into as many arms of the elderly and vulnerable as we can.'
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