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What makes boosters more effective than the first two Covid jabs?

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Covid-19, we should know by now, is a moving target. In autumn the rollout of boosters to older age groups was contentious. Now they’re the single biggest focus. So why do boosters help so significantly compared with first and second jabs, and are we on a conveyor belt towards needing an ever-increasing number of top-ups?

Even before Omicron, it was clear boosters would be required to maintain the levels of protection against infection, although protection against severe illness appeared to be holding up well.

Vaccines prompt the body to make neutralising antibodies that intercept Covid before the virus infects our cells, but circulating antibodies can wane over time.

Omicron has made the need for boosters more urgent. Mutations in the virus mean its spike protein now looks quite different from that of the original Wuhan strain that all current vaccines were designed to target

Data from Israel, one of the first countries to vaccinate its population, showed a drop-off in protection against infection after only three months. It revealed that were people about 15 times more likely to be infected six months after their second dose compared with a few weeks after it.

Even if most people remain protected against serious illness, this waning immunity presents a significant public health issue when a proportion of adults remain unvaccinated or have immune conditions that leave them vulnerable.





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Omicron has made the need for boosters more urgent. Mutations in the virus mean its spike protein now looks quite different from that of the original Wuhan strain that all current vaccines were designed to target. That in turn means antibodies from previous infection and vaccination will be less efficient at intercepting Omicron. Because they stick to the virus less vigorously, a higher quantity of antibodies is also required to compensate for them being less well matched.

Studies show that a booster dose increases the levels of antibodies significantly above the level seen after two doses, which some hope means waning immunity will occur more slowly after a third dose, though insufficient time has passed to determine if this is the case.

Early studies also suggest that the quality of antibodies is higher following a booster. The immune system continues to refine exactly which antibodies are selected and amplified based on subsequent encounters with the virus or vaccine, and studies suggest there is a broader, more potent immune response following a third dose.

The next generation of vaccines, scientists hope, will not only be a good match to circulating strains but provide far broader immune protection so that they are effective against mutations

There is also reason for some optimism that vaccines may hold up better against severe disease than against infection. The immune system has a second line of defence in T cells, which attack cells already infected. These tend to stick around longer and they recognise parts of the virus that are more highly conserved, meaning Omicron’s mutations are less likely to throw them off the scent. So if antibodies are not good enough to stave off infection, T-cells can swoop in to bring the disease under control before it makes a person seriously unwell.

Laboratory data looks encouraging, but real-world outcomes are being followed closely in South Africa and elsewhere to answer this question, which remains one of the biggest uncertainties about how this wave will play out.

For now, vaccine makers are working on variant jabs that could be ready to deploy as soon as March, but tweaking current vaccines will leave the same vulnerabilities should Omicron in the future be overshadowed by another even more fast-spreading variant.

The next generation of vaccines, scientists hope, will not only be a good match to circulating strains but provide far broader immune protection so that they are effective against mutations. One possibility is a vaccine specifically designed to trigger a T-cell response to the viral replication machinery as opposed to the spike protein, which scientists have suggested could result in immunity lasting years rather than months. – Guardian

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External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister

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Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.

The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.

“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.

Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.

“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”

She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.

Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.

Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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