Aide to British PM Dominic Cummings says he doesn’t regret COVID-19 lockdown trip

Dominic Cummings, senior aide to Boris Johnson, makes a statement inside 10 Downing Street, London, Monday. (AP)
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Updated 25 May 2020

Aide to British PM Dominic Cummings says he doesn’t regret COVID-19 lockdown trip

  • Cummings has faced calls to quit
  • The furor has overshadowed and muddled the government’s public health messaging

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s closest aide refused to resign on Monday, saying he had done nothing wrong by driving 250 miles from London to access childcare when Britons were being told to stay at home to fight COVID-19.
Dominic Cummings has faced calls to quit from lawmakers, Church of England bishops, police officers and scientists over his trip to County Durham, northern England, which they said had damaged citizens’ trust in public health messaging.
But he plays a vital role for Johnson, and the prime minister’s own judgment has been called into question for defending him and keeping him in his job, leaving many Britons thinking the rules did not apply to the people in charge.
“I did what I thought was the right thing to do,” Cummings said in response to reporters’ questions after reading a statement defending his decision to travel 400 km to Durham with his wife, who was ill at the time, and his four-year-old son.
“I think ... I behaved reasonably,” he said.
Johnson had come out fighting for Cummings at a news conference on Sunday, but his intervention backfired after he failed to provide any detailed justification for his adviser’s actions.
With a growing number of lawmakers from his own Conservative Party openly defying him by calling on Cummings to quit, Johnson asked his trusted aide — who normally stays behind the scenes — to explain himself in public on Monday.
The stakes are high for Cummings, Johnson and the nation. The furor has overshadowed and muddled the government’s public health messaging as the country gradually starts to ease the lockdown.
With a death toll of around 43,000, Britain is the worst-hit country in Europe and the government had already been under pressure over its handling of the pandemic.
EYE TEST?
In an extraordinary scene in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street, the official prime ministerial residence and office, Cummings, 48, sat at a desk on the grass for an hour, subjecting himself to detailed questions.
The choice of venue underscored Cummings’ power at the heart of government and his importance to Johnson, whom he helped to secure Britain’s exit from the European Union in a 2016 referendum, and later helped to win power.
He said he undertook the trip soon after learning that Johnson had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Cummings’ wife was already ill and he feared if he too fell ill neither parent would be strong enough to care for their son.
He said he decided they should go and stay in an isolated cottage on his father’s farm so that his 17-year-old niece could look after his son if necessary. Cummings did fall ill while they were there, as did his son who briefly went to hospital.
Asked whether he tried to find a childcare option in London before leaving, he said he did not think it would have been reasonable to ask friends to expose themselves to the virus.
Cummings answered questions about whether he had stopped for petrol or for his son to go to the toilet during the long drive.
Whether or not Cummings’ sometimes convoluted explanations win over critics may take time to become clear.
Quizzed about a drive he took with his wife and son from the family farm to a local beauty spot, Barnard Castle, he said his eyesight had been affected by his illness and they wanted to check he would be able to undertake the journey back to London.


UK, US COVID-19 vaccines show signs of immunity in patients

Updated 15 July 2020

UK, US COVID-19 vaccines show signs of immunity in patients

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci: ‘No matter how you slice this, this is good news’

LONDON: Two of the world’s most promising studies to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 have said subjects in their trials have shown early signs of immunity. 

The trials, run by teams at Oxford University in the UK and pharmaceutical company Moderna in the US, have both received significant government funding in their bids to develop their vaccines before the end of the year.

The Oxford vaccine, being manufactured by AstraZeneca, based in Cambridge, England, has already had millions of doses mass-produced in the event of the trials proving a success. The team behind it says it is “80 percent confident” of it being available by September. 

It works by injecting altered COVID-19 genetic material, attached to a similar but benign virus called an adenovirus, which causes common colds, into the body, in a process known as recombinant viral vector vaccination. 

The aim is to facilitate an immune system response by mimicking COVID-19 itself, and training antibodies to attack the spike proteins on the virus’s exterior that it uses to attach itself to human cells.

When faced with COVID-19, in theory the immune system should then act in the same fashion.

The Oxford vaccine is currently in its second, expanded trial stage, featuring 8,000 people in the UK and up to 6,000 people in Brazil and South Africa.

Though no official results have been formally published, subjects exposed to the vaccine in its early phase were found to have developed antibodies and a certain type of white blood cell, called T-cells, which help fight infection

“An important point to keep in mind is that there are two dimensions to the immune response: Antibodies and T-cells,” a source at Oxford told ITV News in the UK.

“Everybody is focused on antibodies, but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the T-cells response is important in the defense against coronavirus.”

Prof. Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford team leader, earlier this month said the vaccine could provide protection for several years at a time.

She told UK MPs on the House of Commons’ science and technology select committee: “Vaccines have a different way of engaging with the immune system, and we follow people in our studies using the same type of technology to make the vaccines for several years, and we still see strong immune responses.”

She added: “It’s something we have to test and follow over time — we can’t know until we actually have the data, but we’re optimistic based on earlier studies that we’ll see a good duration of immunity, for several years at least, and probably better than naturally acquired immunity.”

Moderna, meanwhile, reported that all 45 volunteers in its early phase had developed immune responses after receiving its vaccine, though with more than half its subjects experiencing mild or moderate side effects including headaches, fatigue and muscle pain.

Its vaccine, called mRNA-1273, uses ribonucleic acid to program human cells to make proteins similar to the spike proteins of COVID-19 cells, training the body’s immune system to identify and attack them.

Its initial studies found that higher doses of mRNA-1273 in the human system corresponded with higher levels of immunity in subjects, by injecting people with doses of 25, 100 or 250 micrograms of the vaccine in two instalments over 28 days.

Moderna will begin a second trial of 30,000 people later this month. The US government has so far pledged nearly half a billion dollars in funding for the Moderna vaccine.

The director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said: “No matter how you slice this, this is good news.”

Vaccines, though, are not the only potential route in the quest to find a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trials have already begun for an antibody treatment, manufactured by AstraZeneca, that would see patients given a three-minute infusion of COVID-19 antibodies that could provide protection for up to six months.

This would be a potential solution if the vaccine proves less effective in some people (especially the elderly), for those who suffer adverse reactions, or for people taking immunosuppressant drugs or undergoing chemotherapy.

Sir Mene Pangalos, head AstraZeneca’s research into respiratory diseases, said: “There’s a population who are elderly that (may not) get a particularly good immune response to the vaccine.

“In those instances you might want to prophylactically treat those patients with an antibody to give them additional protection.”