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New immune-evasive Omicron strains are coming. Is Canada ready?



Canada is heading into a potentially brutal winter as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise, Omicron continues to rapidly mutate and booster uptake remains stagnant — all at a time when flu season is returning and the health-care system is already under intense pressure.

COVID-related hospitalizations are currently higher than any previous fall in the pandemic, nearly double last October and almost four times more than in 2020.

And new Omicron subvariants that have been shown to better evade immunity and potentially drive new COVID waves are gaining ground, with more than 300 Omicron subvariants being tracked by the World Health Organization worldwide.​​

“All of the subvariants of Omicron are showing increased transmissibility and properties of immune escape,” the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said during a news conference Thursday, adding that subvariants XBB and BQ.1.1 have shown “significant immune evasion.”

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“This is of concern for us because we need to ensure that the vaccines which are in use worldwide remain effective at preventing severe disease and death,” she said.

“We don’t see a change in severity [with XBB and BQ.1.1], but it’s very early and we have very limited data to actually assess this.”

Some of these subvariants are already being detected in countries like Singapore, India, Denmark, Australia, Indonesia, the U.S. and Canada — with BQ.1.1, BQ.1, BA.2.75.2 and XBB together making up more than 10 per cent of recent virus samples sequenced globally.

These Omicron subvariants have key mutations on their spike proteins that allow them to more easily evade the first line of defence for our immune system and enter our cells, allowing them to get around immunity from vaccination and prior infection.

“It’s like a whole bunch of horses in the race at the moment and they’ve each gathered these different mutations,” said Sally Otto, a University of British Columbia evolutionary biologist and virus modelling expert at the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network.

“That means it’s playing a different game, it’s evolving in different ways and that is to masquerade from our immune system.”

Canada preparing for ‘worst case scenario’

Whether or not one or more of these Omicron subvariants will drive another wave in Canada or globally remains to be seen, but the speed with which they are being detected in other countries is cause for growing concern among experts tracking the virus.

Eric Arts, a Canada Research Chair in Viral Control and an immunology professor at Western University involved with Ontario’s wastewater surveillance program, said BA.2.75.2 and BQ.1.1 have been detected in Canada but haven’t taken off, while XBB is one to watch.

“XBB doesn’t really care about your existing immune system as much as the other strains and so it’s a pretty significant immune escape,” he said, adding that Singapore is currently in an XBB-driven wave driving hospitalizations up despite very high vaccination rates.

“The stress on the health-care system potentially with XBB from what we’re seeing with Singapore right now is scary.”

Andrew Croxford, an immunologist based in Zurich, said subvariants like BQ.1.1 and XBB are being watched closely because they are “displaying potential to generate waves of infection,” but they are not likely to threaten our protection against severe illness.

“They will encounter an ever-increasing wall of hybrid immunity in most countries, reducing the potential amplitude. I don’t see any ‘back to square one’ variants in the current crop under surveillance,” he said.

“I anticipate protection from severe disease to be largely maintained, with the potential exceptions of the severely immunocompromised and most frail.”

The latest national immunity data from the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) shows that while an estimated 62.5 per cent of the population has had COVID up until the end of August, there are still millions of mostly older Canadians who haven’t.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement to CBC News that approximately four per cent of cases detected in Canada are BQ.1.1, three per cent are BA.2.75.2 and less than one per cent are XBB — but the reporting of virus sequence samples is weeks behind in Canada.

Canada’s chief public health officer said Tuesday she is preparing for the possibility of a variant emerging in Canada that could have “very distinct immune escape,” one that vaccines or treatments don’t work against and can evade protection against severe illness.

“That’s one of the worst case scenarios,” Dr. Theresa Tam said during an appearance before MPs on the Commons health committee. “We haven’t detected one of those yet, but we need to be prepared for the potential.”

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam takes part in a videoconference during a news event on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

‘Sleepwalking on a tightrope’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week urged Canadians to get both their flu shots and COVID-19 boosters as soon as possible, in order to avoid the need for further precautions and alleviate pressure on the health-care system this fall and winter.

“If we are able to get a high enough level of vaccination, we reduce the danger of having to take other health measures to make sure that we’re all safe and not overloading our hospitals,” Trudeau said at an announcement in Kanata, Ont., on Monday.

But Canadians are lagging on boosters, with just 18 per cent of the population opting for a shot in the past six months and just over 50 per cent getting any booster at all — even with updated bivalent vaccines available that target Omicron and the dominant BA.4 and BA.5 strains.

“We’re sleepwalking on a tightrope these days,” said Dr. David Naylor, who led the federal inquiry into Canada’s national response to the 2003 SARS epidemic and now co-chairs the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force.

“There were high hopes that the availability of the new bivalent boosters would strongly motivate those who have not had a third shot. That hasn’t materialized, and it’s cause for concern — especially if Omicron were ever to mutate towards greater immune evasiveness and increased virulence.”

Naylor said if a variant that carries significant risk of severe outcomes takes off and begins to overload our precarious health-care systems, the failure to impose selective mask mandates would be a major dereliction of public health and political leadership.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said last week that he would recommend the return of mask mandates if the province’s health care system becomes too strained — just as Ontario reported the single highest weekly death count since early May.

“We don’t have enough people taking up the vaccine, most people don’t want to wear masks anymore — the circumstances exist that are ripe for an overrun of our health-care system,” said Arts, at the University of Western.

“I don’t know what the magic answer is except for mandates and people don’t want mandates so I think we’re in for a long winter.”

People cross the street in front of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto on April 27. Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said last week that he would recommend the return of mask mandates if the province’s health care system becomes too strained. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Vaccines best protection against future surge

But despite a recent lack of urgency from the public to get vaccinated and mixed messaging from public health officials to encourage increased uptake, the time to prepare for COVID and flu season is now — and vaccines are still our best line of defence.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends most Canadian adults should be waiting up to six months or so before getting another shot, or around three months in situations where the risk of serious illness is higher.

“No matter how many doses you’ve had previously, as long as it’s been at least three months from your last dose and at least a month or so from a known infection, you should be getting your bivalent booster now,” B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told CBC News in a phone interview.

“Getting a booster dose now is really, really important for these next few months.”

Dr. Allison McGeer, a medical microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, said the lack of booster uptake in Canada has been “worrying” so far, which she attributes to confusion over messaging around waiting three or six months.

“Enough people aren’t going to hit their six months until the end of November and December, when we might be into the wave already in a significant way. Now would be a really good time for us to get past the six month rule,” she said.

“You know having recently had a COVID vaccine reduces your risk of illness, long COVID, serious illness and death. Why would you want to wait?”

Henry, who also chairs the Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health, said she’s worried Canada’s health-care system could be under more pressure in the coming months — not only because of COVID hospitalizations, but also flu and health-care workers getting sick.

“That’s why it’s so important for all of us to use all of our tools like being away from others if we’re sick ourselves and getting the vaccines,” she said. “That’s our number one thing we can do.”

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COVID-19 benefits helped economy rebound, but post-payment verification lacking: AG



Canada’s auditor general says COVID-19 benefits were delivered quickly and helped mitigate economic suffering, however, the federal government hasn’t done enough to recover overpayments.

In a new report looking into the federal government’s delivery of pandemic benefits, Karen Hogan said the programs provided relief to workers and employers affected by the pandemic and helped the economy rebound.

At the same time, the auditor general says the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada have not followed up by verifying payments.

Hogan estimates $4.6 billion was paid to people who were not eligible, while another $27.4 billion in payments to individuals and businesses should be further investigated.

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“I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” Hogan said in a news release.

The audit found that efforts to recover overpayments have been limited, with the Canada Revenue Agency collecting $2.3 billion through voluntary repayments.

Pre-payment controls were also lacking, though the report said the federal government made some changes to those controls for individual benefits.

However, the CRA made few changes to improve prepayment controls for businesses to mitigate risks of overpayment.

Hogan also flagged that there was a lack of sufficient data to assess the effectiveness of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.

Although the subsidy did go to businesses in industries hardest hit by the pandemic, the report said the effect of the subsidy on business resilience is unclear because the agency collected limited data from businesses.

The auditor general has made a set of recommendations to the government to improve the collection of overpayments and to fix data gaps relating to businesses.

Government organizations reviewed in the audit say they have accepted the recommendations, though only partially accepted a recommendation related to recuperating overpayments.

The federal government said it would prioritize which to pursue by weighing the resources necessary with the amount owed.

“It would not be cost effective nor in keeping with international and industry best practices to pursue 100 per cent of all potentially ineligible claims,” the response said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

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Liberals pledge $15 million to remove Ukraine mines on anniversary of Ottawa Treaty



Liberals pledge $15 million to remove Ukraine mines on anniversary of Ottawa Treaty

The Trudeau government is pledging to spend $15 million to remove mines in Ukraine.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says the funding is meant to make the country safer after Russia has laid hundreds of the indiscriminate weapons.

Human Rights Watch says Ukrainian forces have also been laying anti-tank mines across the country.

Joly made the announcement on Monday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty, which bans landmines in most countries.

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Ottawa has so far provided Canadian-made bomb suits to help protect Ukrainian deminers and has plans to help fund remote-control systems to clear large areas such as farmlands.

Last month, Canada unveiled funding to remove both landmines and cluster bombs from parts of Southeast Asia that remain inaccessible decades after conflicts like the Vietnam War.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

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B.C.’s Julia Levy is Canada’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar



British Columbia’s newest Rhodes Scholar will pursue a master’s degree in computational chemistry, but she says it’s also an “incredible opportunity” as a trans woman to give back to her community.

University of Victoria graduate Julia Levy said she was “blown away” when she learned she was among 11 Canadians selected for this year’s Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious such awards.

Levy, 24, will head to Oxford University in England next October for the fully funded scholarship, a prize she said carries a special meaning because she is the country’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar.

“I feel I am very, very proud being the first trans woman in Canada (to become a Rhodes Scholar),” said Levy, who made the transition from he to she three years ago.

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While the transition was a tough journey, Levy said she is aware of the many advantages she’s had.

“I think it’s really interesting to note that I am privileged in literally every other way, like my parents being supportive of my transition. I have always had financial stability and I grew up in a good part of Vancouver … maybe that’s the advantages that you need to equal out the trans part of it,” said Levy.

Levy, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a chemistry major and a minor in visual arts, described the scholarship as an “incredible opportunity and a gift,” equipping her with more knowledge and power to give back to the trans community.

“I feel my experiences of being trans and the ways that I have had to navigate the world being trans … has given me a lot of empathy for people in crisis and people who have difficulties in their lives,” said Levy.

“I know what it is to be at the bottom in some ways and my interest in harm reduction and trans care really all comes from that place of knowing what it’s like and wanting to reach out and help out where that’s possible.”

Levy is also a scientist, artist, activist, programmer, friend and daughter, she said.

“There are many parts of me that are equally important to who I am.”

University of Victoria chemistry professor Jeremy Wulff supervised Levy and said she was “destined for greatness,” bringing insights to projects that led to their success.

“I’m always excited when my students are recognized with awards and fellowships, but the Rhodes award is at a whole other level,” he said. “Julia is in excellent company amongst this group, and it’s absolutely where she belongs.”

Levy said magic can happen when you mix computation with chemistry.

In her second year at the University of Victoria, she found some classmates were struggling to picture molecules in their heads while doing peer teaching.

To help them visualize complex molecules, Levy created an augmented-reality app.

The app is a QR code in the workbook and allows the learner to see the molecule on their phone in three dimensions.

“You can work it with your phone and spin it around and zoom in and out,” said Levy.

She also worked as a technician with the university’s Vancouver Island Drug-Checking Project, a drop-in service where people can bring street drugs in for chemical analysis.

Levy said the experience used her chemistry skills in a “practical and socially active way” to help more people.

“It’s an excellent example of the social use of chemistry,” said Levy.

Levy, who was travelling in Germany during the interview, said she looks forward to being surrounded by the Rhodes community and “being challenged and pushed to new heights.”

“I hope I bring what makes me unique to Oxford, and that I am able to find a group of people, both personally and professionally, that celebrate that uniqueness,” said Levy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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