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Chinese scientists obtain genetic sequence of mysterious virus – STAT



Chinese scientists have recovered a previously unknown virus from an infected individual and generated a full genetic sequence of it, a key step in efforts to learn more about the cause of an outbreak of unusual pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, state-run media reported Thursday.

Fragments of the same virus were picked up in testing of 15 patients among the 59 who have been identified as infected with the mysterious pneumonia.

The speed of the findings is impressive; the first case in this outbreak became ill less than a month ago.


“Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks,” the World Health Organization’s representative in China, Dr. Gauden Galea, said in a statement.

But more work is needed to identify what animal species transmitted the virus to people and whether there are other cases elsewhere, Galea said.

The report on CCTV appears to be the first official confirmation from Chinese authorities that they believe a new virus is responsible for this outbreak — specifically a coronavirus, a type of virus in the family that includes SARS and MERS.

When viewed under an electron microscope, it exhibits the crown-like halo that gives coronaviruses their name, said Xu Jianguo, identified by CCTV as the leader of the preliminary assessment of the test results and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

The outbreak is occurring in Wuhan, about 700 miles south of Beijing. Wuhan is a leading center for virology research in China, and infectious diseases experts watching this outbreak have predicted scientists there would quickly find the cause.

“The virology team investigating this outbreak at Wuhan and China CDC are world class and they are making good progress on identifying the causative agent,” Malik Peiris, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told STAT.

Peiris was one of the scientists who first identified the coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, which infected more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in China, Hong Kong, and several other Asian countries as well as in Toronto, Canada.

The first known case in the Wuhan outbreak became noticeably ill on Dec. 12, according to a statement released Sunday by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. The discovery of an outbreak and identification of a new virus in a period of less than one month is exceptional, experts said.

“I am stunned by the timeline and speed of this isolation and characterization, if it’s all true,” said Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The community of scientists who research emerging infectious diseases has been speculating for days that the source of the outbreak was a new coronavirus, a class of viruses that has shown itself adept at making the leap from animals to people. Coronaviruses originate in bats but are able to infect a number of mammals.

Confirmation that scientists have the genetic sequence of the virus will increase pressure on China to release at least part of that sequence, so that health facilities around the world know what to look for as they try to detect possible cases from this outbreak.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday instructed doctors to ask patients with severe respiratory infections whether they have been to Wuhan. Hong Kong and other countries in Southeast Asia are isolating any such cases until they can be tested for influenza, rhinoviruses, and other viruses that cause colds and flu.

This type of very broad net will draw in many people who were in or near Wuhan and who have a respiratory tract infection but who have nothing to do with this outbreak — especially in the middle of flu season. That will eat up resources and the time of doctors, laboratories, and sick people who don’t need to be isolated.

“If the Chinese truly have sequenced the virus and they’ve demonstrated that it’s present in other patients, that’s means there’s a PCR diagnostic test available. And the Chinese need to make that available to the rest of the world immediately,” said Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina.

“And the longer they wait, the more likely the scientific community will go from a positive response to a negative response, in terms of how China is handling this outbreak,” he said.

The CCTV report did not provide details on the type of coronavirus that has been discovered — for instance if it is one of several SARS-like viruses that have been found in bats in China. A number of these SARS-like viruses are able to infect human tissue cells in the laboratory, suggesting they might be able to spill over into people if given the right circumstances.

Xu said more research on the new virus is needed.

There has been limited information about the nature of the illness in people who have been infected. Chinese authorities have said no one has died from this infection; seven, however, were in critical condition as of Sunday. In a statement that same day, the WHO said that the main symptom was fever; some patients had difficulty breathing.

The CCTV report also did not indicate whether scientists investigating the outbreak had identified the source of the virus.

Baris said coronaviruses could jump to people directly from bats, which are eaten in China. But this virus could have used what is known as an intermediate host — an animal species that becomes infected with a bat virus that then transmits it to people.

During the SARS outbreak, it was determined that palm civets, a wild animal eaten as a delicacy in southern China, were transmitting the virus. Chinese authorities ordered a widespread culling of civets to help stop the outbreak.

The Wuhan outbreak has been linked to a large seafood market that also sells live exotic animals for consumption. The market was closed and decontaminated on Jan. 1. But it is important to know if other markets are selling infected animals, Peiris said.

“If it can jump once, then it will jump again,” he said of the virus.

The WHO said Wednesday that Chinese authorities believe the virus “does not transmit readily between people.”

Earlier statements from the Wuhan Municipal Health Authority said there has been no person-to-person spread, but disease experts challenged that claim, saying it is impossible to rule out at this stage in the exploration of a new disease.

“I don’t know how you know that at all,” Frieman said of China’s claim there is no person-to-person transmission. He noted the number of cases reported makes it seem unlikely that animal-to-human transmission is the only way this virus spread.

There have been at least one or two clusters of cases within families that have raised suspicions of limited person-to-person spread, a source familiar with the outbreak told STAT.

News of the pneumonia cases first emerged on Dec. 30, when the local health authority told hospitals to be on the lookout for cases. The next day Chinese authorities informed the WHO that they were dealing with what looked like an outbreak caused by an unknown virus.

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Surge in demand: Distribution of COVID-19 rapid-test kits cut short in New Brunswick – CTV News Atlantic




Faced with long lineups and heavy demand, health officials in New Brunswick were forced to cut short the distribution of free COVID-19 rapid-test kits at three locations Saturday.

At Magic Mountain on Magnetic Hill in Moncton, cars lined up kilometres down the road.

It was the first time the province provided rapid test kits to the public for take-home use.

Danica Gautreau, a nurse practitioner who has her own practice, said some people arrived as early as 6 a.m. which was two hours before they opened.

“They are going pretty fast. There is a lot of people,” she said.

The sites opened on Saturday were located in Moncton, Grand Falls and Perth-Andover were scheduled to run from 8 a.m. To 5 p.m.

But by noon, the Moncton site had handed out all 4,500 kits. According to the province, pick-up sites had to close early due to the overwhelming demand for tests.

“We didn’t really know how much interest it would be, we didn’t know it would be that many people,” she said.

Many people in line at the Moncton location reported waiting between 30 and 90 minutes to get a kit.

Gautreau said that each person in the vehicle gets one COVID-19 rapid test kit which has 5 tests within it. Those who currently have COVID-19 symptoms or have contracted the virus within the last 90 days were not able to take home a test.

On Friday, New Brunswick’s Health Minister Dorothy Shephard told CTV News that the province is hoping by offering tests to the public will help determine if there are more cases out there.

“It’s really important for public health to know how many active cases there are in the province. At this point, we’ve been able to keep contact tracing going but we want to try and prevent community spread,” she said.

Shephard said as of this week the province has deployed over a million rapid tests.

“I think if individuals are going to pick up the tests, they’re doing that for a reason, to either assure themselves but also to know that they should be isolating if they need to,” said Shephard.

On Monday, rapid testing kits will be handed out at more locations across the province, not limited to circuit breaker zones.

-With files from The Canadian Press. 

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Ontario's enhanced vaccine certificate system not accessible to marginalized people, advocates say –



Advocates say Ontario’s enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate system is not accessible for marginalized groups.

The new system, announced on Friday, assumes people have smartphones, computers, printers, internet access, a data plan and the ability to navigate the provincial website, the advocates told CBC News on Saturday.

According to representatives of three organizations, the Ontario government failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities, including those who are cognitively impaired, have mobility issues or are legally blind, as well as seniors on a fixed income, low-income people and unhoused people.

David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said the government didn’t properly test its enhanced system to ensure it met accessibility requirements. Lepofsky, who is completely blind, is a visiting professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School. The alliance is a disability consumer advocacy group.

“Yet again, unfortunately, the Ford government has shown that accessibility for people with disabilities, during COVID and more generally, is just not a priority for them,” Lepofsky said on Saturday.

Lepofsky said he found the announcement, website and news release all to be confusing because he thought there would an app for individuals that people could load onto their phones that would show their COVID-19 vaccine certificates. However, the app, Verify Ontario, turns out to be for businesses. 

The app for businesses also doesn’t accommodate the need for medical exemptions, he added.

David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, says the Ford government has again ‘shown that accessibility for people with disabilities, during COVID and more generally, is just not a priority for them.’ (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

Then, when Lepofsky began to fill out the fields required on the provincial COVID-19 vaccination portal, he found he had to ask his wife to read the number on the back of his green health card. She had to use a magnifying glass because the colour contrast is not good and the print is smaller on the back than on the front, he said.

Lepofsky said making provincial public health requirements, such as vaccine certificates, accessible is not difficult, but there has to be a commitment to doing so.

“Ultimately, there is a failure to take into account the needs of people who are not smartphone-owning, internet-connected, tech-savvy, sighted, not disabled people,” he said.

“It just creates a two-class society,” he added. “There are people with various disabilities who live independently and want to live independently, and they deserve the same access that people without disabilities are being given.”

Ford announced new enhanced system on Friday

On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontarians who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can start downloading new QR codes this week, which officials say will allow for faster entry into settings that require proof of vaccination.

The enhanced system officially takes effect Oct. 22, but Ontarians can get their new scannable vaccine certificates before then, and businesses can already start using a new app to scan those codes.

Premier Doug Ford said on Friday that Ontarians who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can start downloading new QR codes this week. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

On Friday, residents whose birthdays fall between January and April were able to download the enhanced vaccination certificate through the province’s COVID-19 website. On Saturday, those born between May and August could download it, while on Sunday, those born between September and December will have their chance.

Seniors face obstacles to download certificates, group says

Elizabeth Macnab, executive director of the Ontario Society of Senior Citizens Organizations, said the government should have consulted with seniors advocacy groups and the provincial Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility before launching the enhanced vaccine certificate system. 

Macnab noted that at least 20 per cent of Ontario’s population is over 65, but the people who designed the software are likely in their 40, 30s or 20s. “There’s a really deep divide in the understanding of technology and the intuitiveness as well, how to use it, how to access it and so on,” Macnab said.

“When you are an older person, it becomes an affordability issue in terms of technology,” Macnab said. “It becomes the basic necessities. The high cost of gas. I can’t drive to the grocery store, can’t socialize, let alone buy the technology too.”

Mobility and cognitive impairment also pose challenges. “If you’re a person with a mobility issue, you’re in a walker and you’re wandering around. Your hands are full. You’ve got to pull all of this stuff out. It’s a lot easier for somebody without the challenges of mobility level and cognitive impairment.” 

Angie Peters, president and CEO of the Yonge Street Mission, says the process is complicated for unhoused young people or young people without stable housing because their contact information can change constantly. (CBC)

Angie Peters, president and CEO of the Yonge Street Mission, said unhoused young people or young people without stable housing do not always have income, leaving them without access to technology. The process is complicated because their contact information can change constantly.

“There are periods of time where they don’t have a phone, so if they had it loaded on a device, and they no longer have that device, now they don’t have it and they have to get it again,” Peters said.

Province says it knows access to technology is issue

Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for the Ontario Health Ministry, said in an email on Saturday that the government has worked to make the process accessible for all Ontarians.

“We understand that not everyone has access to technology, which is why we have worked to make vaccine certificates as accessible as possible,” Hilkene said.

Those who are unable to download the certificate themselves can contact the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre to have it mailed or emailed to them. The centre can be reached at 1-833-943-3900 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

She said people who do not have an Ontario health card can contact their public health unit to have their identity verified and get a COVID ID, which is a unique number assigned by a public health unit for the purpose of obtaining a copy of a vaccine certificate.

The province says people can print a copy of their enhanced vaccine certificate by visiting a local library, going to a ServiceOntario location, or asking a trusted friend or organization.

Enhanced certificates are not mandatory and Ontarians can continue using their current vaccine receipt if they wish.

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Melbourne to ease world’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns as vaccinations rise



Melbourne, which has spent more time under COVID-19 lockdowns than any other city in the world, is set to lift its stay-at-home orders this week, officials said on Sunday.

By Friday, when some curbs will be lifted, the Australian city of 5 million people will have been under six lockdowns totalling 262 days, or nearly nine months, since March 2020.

Australian and other media say this is the longest in the world, exceeding a 234-day lockdown in Buenos Aires

While coronavirus cases keep rising in Victoria state, of which Melbourne is the capital, the state’s double-vaccination rate is set to reach 70% this week, allowing for the ease in restrictions.

“Today is a great day,” said Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews in announcing the lockdown. “Today is a day when Victorians can be proud of what they have achieved.”

When hospitality venues and some businesses reopen, their capacity will remain heavily restricted. More easing, including the reopening of many retailers, will come once 80% of eligible Victorians are fully vaccinated – estimated by Nov. 5 at the latest.

On Sunday, Victoria recorded 1,838 new coronavirus cases and seven deaths. Neighbouring New South Wales, which emerged last week from a 100-day lockdown, reported 301 cases and 10 deaths. Eighty percent of the state’s people have been fully vaccinated.

Australia, once a champion of a COVID-zero strategy of managing the pandemic, has been moving towards living with the virus through extensive vaccinations, as the Delta variant has proven too transmissible to suppress.

The new strategy makes lockdowns highly unlikely once 80% of the population is fully vaccinated. As of the weekend, around 68% of eligible Australians have been fully inoculated.

 Australia’s health officials said on Sunday that quarantine-free travel from New Zealand’s South Island, where there is no outbreak, will resume on Wednesday. The government is also in discussions with Singapore about reopening travel between the two countries for the fully vaccinated.

Despite the rise in cases in recent months, Australia’s coronavirus numbers are low compared to many other developed countries, with just over 143,000 cases and 1,530 deaths.

Neighbouring New Zealand, which is also learning to live with COVID-19 by accelerating inoculations, reported 51 new cases on Sunday, 47 of them in the largest city Auckland, which has been in a lockdown since mid-August.

On Saturday, New Zealand vaccinated more than 2.5% of its people as part of a government-led mass vaccination drive.


(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard)

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