It’s been an extraordinary week on the front lines of disease and immunization, with a bombshell announcement providing extraordinary hope at the beginning of the week, followed by sobering announcements every day thereafter, including a few reminders about how difficult it can be to eradicate disease.
In the midst of it all is our little corner of Canada, which has largely been escaping the escalating fusillade that this fall’s wave of COVID-19 has been unleashing in much of the country. We’ll get to that situation in a bit.
But first, let’s look at global developments that are likely to affect us here, too.
It’s hard to come up with a story that blew the U.S. presidential election from the top spot of the world’s media, but it happened on Monday. That’s when drug manufacturer Pfizer announced that it and its partner, the German company BioNTech SE, have a vaccine nearing completion that is more than 90 per cent effective.
Carl Zimmer, a science writer for the New York Times who has covered the competing trials for a COVID-19 vaccine, told the paper’s podcast The Daily that he at first thought the 90 per cent figure might be a typo. “It’s astonishing, because we didn’t even know that this would work at all, period,” he said. With Pfizer hoping to have its first vaccines available in January, “it shatters all records for vaccine development.”
Closer to home, Memorial University professor Rod Russell, who specializes in viral immunology, was excited — but also a little apprehensive — to learn the results.
“Ninety per cent is a huge number. It’s a surprising number. It’s better than anybody was predicting or expecting,” Russell told the St. John’s Morning Show Friday. “With this comes some skepticism.” Russell notes that Pfizer did not release the actual data that informed that efficiency rate, leaving the ground clear for what he called “science by media” in which scientists cannot assess data themselves.
Upon the news Monday, the stock markets went ballistic, buoyed as well by the resolution of the U.S. presidential race last Saturday. Political leaders the world over were optimistic about Pfizer’s, though also cautious. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
WATCH: See how world markets reacted to the Pfizer announcement:
There’s still quite quite a lot to be accomplished, and proven, before Pfizer or other companies can introduce successful and safe vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will also require quite the effort, as it’s introduced in two doses, at least a week apart. As well, it requires what’s called a cold chain — a well-established practice in immunization, in which vaccines are kept at certain temperatures or else get spoiled. The problem? As Bloomberg News put it, “Countries will need to build from scratch the deep-freeze production, storage and transportation networks needed for the vaccine to survive. The massive investment and co-ordination required all but ensures that only rich nations are guaranteed access — and even then perhaps only their urban populations.”
Other vaccines are deep into late-stage clinical trials, which makes it likely that the world will be relying on different vaccines and strategies to beat COVID-19 in 2021.
But we still have to get through 2020, and that brings us back to the horrible, escalating news of the week. Every day came infection numbers that are, well, staggering. Just this month, the U.S. passed a gruesome threshold, with more than 100,000 new infections in a single day.
On Thursday, that number blew past 160,000 — a development that shows that this fall’s ordeal with the virus has been worse than the spring.
WATCH: Learn why scientists are tracking the clinical trial of the new Pfizer vaccine:
In Canada, more than 5,500 cases were reported on Thursday alone — a record. (You can track the country’s experience on this CBC interactive tracker.)
One of the most startling developments involving diseases this week, though, involved not coronavirus but something we thought we had conquered: measles. A report released Thursday showed that the number of deaths of measles hit the highest tally in more than two decades. Some 207,500 people died of measles in 2019, up by half from just five years earlier.
A confounding factor is that measles is preventable through a readily available vaccine. However, immunization rates have lagged.
Hesitancy about measles vaccination is notorious, as it was widely linked to a fraudulent and retracted article in the medical journal Lancet that linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. It’s been more than a decade since the Lancet retracted the article, but old rumours die hard — especially in the current digital environment, where conspiracy theories mutate faster than actual viruses.
On the local front
Meanwhile, it says something about the COVID situation in Newfoundland and Labrador that one of the key points this week had to do with a warning to not sit on Santa’s knee at the mall. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s chief medical officer of health, brought out a familiar tone of caution at the weekly briefing Thursday, and that meant some familiar Christmas traditions need to be parked in the pandemic.
LISTEN: Memorial University virologist Rod Russell speaks to Krissy Holmes on the St. John’s Morning Show:
St John’s Morning Show8:39Possible COVID-19 vaccine
N.L.’s experience this fall has — so far — been altogether different from most provinces in the country. But the fact that we’re all connected in the country, and knowing that the virus can travel from one place to another, means a pragmatic approach and not loosening travel rules for family and friends wanting to come home for Christmas. In other words, a 14-day self-isolation will still be necessary.
“It would be the wrong decision right now for us to open up non-essential travel as … jurisdictions tighten their restrictions in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19,” Fitzgerald said.
That approach may feel Scrooge-like to people who had been hoping for a jolly blowout over the holidays. But remember this: the day that Fitzgerald made those remarks was also the day that Canada set another record of COVID-19 cases.
We may have just over a handful of active cases at the moment, but we’re still very much woven into a global pandemic.
Bank of Canada deputy downplays risks of consumer default wave – BNN
The massive policy response from the Bank of Canada and the federal government successfully prevented the country’s financial system from buckling, though vigilance is still needed, according to a top central banker.
Signs of overwhelming financial strain are few, and the risk of a wave of consumer defaults seems low, Deputy Governor Toni Gravelle said in remarks via video conference to the Autorite des marches financiers. Almost all of the households with expired debt deferrals have resumed repayments, and government measures are helping businesses in many sectors manage cash flows, he said.
“We have long warned that a recession could create broad stress across the financial system,” Gravelle said in a semi-annual update on vulnerabilities in the financial system. “Yet, despite the devastating economic impact of the pandemic, this risk has not — as of yet — materialized.”
The speech paints a reassuring picture of Canadian consumers and companies emerging from the unprecedented shock in decent shape, in spite of elevated debt levels. It also casts the central bank’s own response as largely successful in averting the worst effects of the crisis, though Gravelle said the pandemic remains a source of “considerable financial system risk.”
The deputy governor downplayed signs of overheating in the nation’s housing market, hinting the recent surge in prices reflects fundamental factors such as pent-up demand and a shift in preferences to larger homes. Values have risen fastest, meanwhile, in cities with moderate mortgage levels.
“To this point, we do not see signs that home prices are rising due to speculation, like we saw in the greater Toronto and Vancouver areas a few years ago,” he said. At the same time, he cautioned about the need to be vigilant in certain segments of the market such as condos.
Gravelle added, however, that it’s too soon to declare victory, in particular because many mortgage deferrals only ended in October, meaning the full effects may not be known until the end of the year or early 2021.
He was less sanguine on the prospects for business, which he said may need more financing in the near term to get through a bumpy recovery. That’s why the central bank is ready to support the financial system if needed, even though it has recently pulled out of some programs.
“We expect that an increasing number of businesses will need financing in the coming quarters to get by,” he said. “Staff will be conducting simulations using firm-level data to quantify this, and we plan to publish those results in the next couple of months.”
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The Canadian Press
WASHINGTON — The General Services Administration has ascertained that President-elect Joe Biden is the “apparent winner” of the Nov. 3 election, clearing the way for the start of the transition from President Donald Trump’s administration.An official said Administrator Emily Murphy made the determination after Trump efforts to subvert the vote failed across battleground states, most recently in Michigan, which certified Biden’s victory Monday.The move clears the way for Biden aides to begin co-ordinating with federal agencies on plans for takeover on Jan. 20.THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.Pressure is increasing on President Donald Trump’s administration to authorize a formal transition process for President-elect Joe Biden as an increasing number of Republicans, national security experts and business leaders say it is time for that process to move forward.Retiring Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has repeatedly called for the transition to begin, released a new statement Monday saying that Trump should “put the country first” and help Biden’s administration succeed.“When you are in public life, people remember the last thing you do,” Alexander said.Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio on Monday called for the head of the General Services Administration to release money and staffing needed for the transition. Portman, a senior member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also said Biden should receive high-level briefings on national security and the coronavirus vaccine distribution plan.Alexander and Portman, who have both aligned themselves with Trump, joined a growing number of Republican officials who in recent days have urged Trump to begin the transition immediately. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also urged a smooth transition, saying in a statement Monday that “at some point, the 2020 election must end.”Meanwhile, more than 160 business leaders asked GSA chief Emily Murphy to immediately acknowledge Biden as president-elect and begin the transition to a new administration. “Withholding resources and vital information from an incoming administration puts the public and economic health and security of America at risk,” the business letters said in an open letter to Murphy.Separately, more than 100 Republican former national security officials — including former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte — said in a statement that Trump’s refusal to concede and allow for an orderly transition “constitutes a serious threat” to America’s democratic process. The officials signing the letter worked under four Republican presidents, including Trump.The statement called on “Republican leaders — especially those in Congress — to publicly demand that President Trump cease his anti-democratic assault on the integrity of the presidential election.”The parade of daily statements from Republicans who are gently urging Trump to concede and move on comes as Murphy, whom he appointed, has yet to certify Biden as the winner of the presidential election, stalling the process of officially launching the transition. Trump has publicly refused to accept defeat and has launched a series of losing court battles across the country making baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and seeking to overturn the election results.Murphy missed a deadline on Monday set by House Democrats to brief lawmakers about the delay in beginning the transition, which is usually a routine step between the election and the inauguration. A spokeswoman for the GSA said that a deputy administrator would instead hold two separate briefings for House and Senate committees on Nov. 30.In response, the Democratic chairs of four committees and subcommittees said they could reschedule the meeting for Tuesday, but no later.“We cannot wait yet another week to obtain basic information about your refusal to make the ascertainment determination,” the Democrats said in a letter to Murphy. “Every additional day that is wasted is a day that the safety, health, and well-being of the American people is imperiled as the incoming Biden-Harris administration is blocked from fully preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, our nation’s dire economic crisis, and our national security.”Portman said it was “only prudent” for GSA to begin the transition process immediately.”Donald Trump is our president until Jan. 20, 2021, but in the likely event that Joe Biden becomes our next president, it is in the national interest that the transition is seamless and that America is ready on Day One of a new administration for the challenges we face,” Portman wrote in an op-ed calling for the transition to begin.When Murphy ascertains that Biden won, it will free up money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin placing transition personnel at federal agencies. Trump administration officials also say they will not give Biden the classified presidential daily briefing on intelligence matters until the GSA makes the ascertainment official.Among those signing the letter from business leaders were Jon Gray, president of the Blackstone private equity firm; Robert Bakish, president and CEO of ViacomCBS Inc.; Henry Kravis, the co-chief executive of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., another private equity giant; David Solomon, CEO at Goldman Sachs; and George H. Walker, CEO of the investment firm Neuberger Berman and a second cousin to former President George W. Bush.The renewed calls for an official transition came as Biden is building out his administration with key picks for national security and foreign policy roles. Former Secretary of State John Kerry will lead the incoming administration’s effort to combat climate change, while Alejandro Mayorkas will be nominated as homeland security secretary.Biden also plans to nominate veteran diplomat Antony Blinken as his secretary of state..Matthew Daly And Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press
Toronto and Peel Region enter lockdown for at least 28 days – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News
Premier Doug Ford is standing behind his government’s decision to suspend in-person shopping at all non-essential retailers in Toronto and Peel amid criticism from small business owners who say they are being unfairly singled out.
Toronto and Peel officially entered the lockdown stage of Ontario’s framework for COVID-19 restrictions at 12:01 a.m., on Monday. As a result personal care services, like barbers and salons, have been forced to close and restaurants can only do takeout and delivery.
Retail stores are also limited to curbside pickup only with some exceptions for grocers, hardware stores, corner stores and discount and big box retailers selling groceries.
Speaking with reporters during his regular briefing on Monday, Ford said that he knows it is “not fair” that some big box retailers like Walmart can continue to operate while smaller businesses have to shut down but he said it would have been a “logistical nightmare” to require large retailers to cordon off non-essential goods, as is the case under a similar order in Manitoba.
“I know this is not fair and that’s why we put the additional $300 million into supporting small businesses and took care of their property taxes, their energy costs,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can as a province but the quicker we can get through this, the quicker we can get this vaccine out there, then we can get people back and open up,
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is calling on the Progressive Conservative government to allow three customers at a time into small retail stores.
Ford, however, told reporters that he is not considering any changes to the lockdown rules at this point, much to the dismay of some retailers.
“How does it make sense to shut down the small flower store but allow people to line up at Walmart to buy a bouquet of flowers? To shut down the small independent bookseller but allow them to go to Costco, line up and buy books there? How does that help prevent COVID? Never mind how fair it is,” Dan Kelly, who is the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told CP24 earlier on Monday. “These rules make no sense at all.”
Kelly said that the CFIB had already forecast that 160,000 small business in Canada would close following the first wave of the pandemic and that the situation has gotten even more critical since then.
He said that something needs to be done to help shuttered retailers in Toronto and Peel and soon or more will be “toast.”
“We think we have seen a hollowing out of the retail sector but we have seen nothing compared to what will happen if they miss out on Christmas,” he warned.
Tory urges people to stay home
The province announced the added restrictions for Toronto and Peel on Friday as new cases of COVID-19 continued to surge in both jurisdictions.
In anticipation of the rules going into effect, several malls extended their hours over the weekend and there were reports of long lineups at stores.
Speaking with CP24, on Monday morning Toronto Mayor John Tory said that the strict new rules are an important, even if there is not a lot of data pointing to widespread transmission in settings like retail stores, for example.
“We don’t really know in every single case exactly where people picked up this virus, we just know it is spreading and was spreading in a fashion last week and the week before and the week before that that was clearly unacceptable in terms of the trend line we were on,” he said. “Look it is a sad day today just to see this kind of thing having to happen but again the choice was to not do these kind of things and have a much longer, much broader, much worse kind of lockdown happen latter when we had completely lost control of this thing as you have seen elsewhere in the world.”
While the lockdown will shutter a number of businesses across Toronto and Peel, schools and childcare centres will remain open as will services deemed essential like dentist offices and physiotherapists.
Several industries that were mostly brought to a halt in the spring, like film and television production and construction, are also exempt.
“I am a little bit concerned that this shutdown doesn’t focus on the largest area of spread. In Brampton our largest source of transmission is industrial settings. Our largest two sectors are transportation logistics and food processing and neither of those sectors are shut down because they are considered essential,” Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown told CP24 on Monday. “So this isn’t truly a lockdown for Brampton. Small businesses have been shut down but with the largest portion of our workforce being essential workers nothing has really changed.”
In addition to the new rules in Toronto and Peel, Durham Region and Waterloo have also been moved into the red category alongside York Region as of today. The rules for that category limit restaurants, gyms and food courts to 10 indoor patrons at a time.
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