Circe was the sorceress in Greek mythology who drugged Odysseus’ crew to make them forget their homeland, then proceeded to turn the men into swine. When Odysseus set out to rescue his crew, he protected himself with an antidote derived from the snowdrop flower. Myths often have some basis in fact as this same antidote is being studied today as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
The ancient Greeks knew that an extract of the Datura stramonium plant, known today as thorn apple or jimsonweed, has the ability to rob people of their memories and cast them into a hallucinatory state, sometimes accompanied by delusions of being turned into animals. The active ingredient in datura is atropine, which has the effect of blocking the action of an important neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. Neurotransmitters are molecules that transmit information from one nerve cell to another and are responsible for effects ranging from controlling the heartbeat to the retention of memory. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a deficiency of acetylcholine, and progress of the disease can potentially be slowed by drugs that increase the levels of acetylcholine in the brain. One way to do this is by blocking the action of an enzyme known as acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine. As it turns out, the snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, contains a natural acetylcholinesterase inhibitor known as galantamine.
This is what Hermes, the messenger of the gods, advised Odysseus to use to protect himself from Circe’s drug-enhanced sorcery. And this is what peasants in the Balkan countries have used for centuries to treat themselves for various “nerve” problems. In the 1950s, Dimitar Paskov, a Bulgarian chemist became interested in this folklore and alerted the medical community. Eventually, galantamine was isolated and tested in Alzheimer’s patients. The results were not miraculous, but there was a definite slowing of decline, and in some cases, even improvement in cognition. Isolation from snowdrops proved to be difficult and the yield was low. Researchers, however, discovered that the common daffodil provides an excellent source of galantamine, and chemists have also found a way to synthesize the compound in the lab. This, then, allowed galantamine to be extensively tested and paved the way for its appearance as Reminyl in the prescription marketplace. The name was eventually changed to Razadyne, following the deaths of two people who had been mistakenly given a diabetes medication, Amaryl (glimepiride), instead of Reminyl.
A side effect of galantamine is the inducement of lucid dreams which has stimulated interest in the use of galantamine as a recreational drug. Marketers have taken advantage of this and now offer galantamine as “lucid dreams, memory support.” Galantamine is a prescription drug, but it is available without a prescription from online sellers. In the U.S., since it can be extracted from a natural source, galantamine can be sold as a dietary supplement. In either of these cases, you do not know exactly what you are getting. The product may or may not contain the dose stipulated on the label. It is a crapshoot.
When Hermes introduced Odysseus to the snowdrop, he referred to the plant as the “moly,” which just may be where our expression “holy moly” comes from.
Hunting for Pi – the next variant after Omicron – in the toilet – Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance
Disease detectives are on the lookout for the next variant of COVID-19 and since the virus is still in such high circulation worldwide the virus is constantly mutating. This means it could be evolving to better evade vaccines and attack our immune systems. Although Omicron was milder than the variants came before it, scientists have warned the next variant – which will probably be called Pi – could be far more deadly.
“A lot of the lineages we are finding make Omicron look pedestrian.”
Sifting through sewage
As SARS-CoV-2 can be shed in faecal matter for weeks after the respiratory symptoms clear, wastewater is an obvious place to look for new variants.
Tracking circulating pathogens has long been an important way of finding early signals of the presence of a disease in a community – it was critical in the eradication of polio in India, for example. Researchers are also using these techniques to track the spread of monkeypox.
An initiative to look for SARS-CoV-2 in Bangalore, India, has provided early warnings of COVID-19 infection spikes, with the researchers able to identify which variants of SARS-CoV-2 are circulating, and in roughly what proportions.
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For much of this year, virologist Dr Dave O’Connor and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been tracking a heavily mutated version of SARS-CoV-2 that they narrowed down to one particular area of Wisconsin.
Scientists are starting to believe that chronic COVID-19 infections lingering for months in people who may have compromised immune systems are a hotbed of new variants, as the virus has a long time to mutate.
The variant Dr O’Connor’s team is tracking first appeared in sewage collected in January 2022, and though it shares numerous mutations with Omicron, it came from an entirely different part of the SARS-CoV-2 family tree. The team have tracked the lineage to a company of 30 employees and are now trying to determine their next move.
The next Omicron?
Dr Marc Johnson, a virologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, is working with O’Connor to trace wastewater lineages in Wisconsin. With their colleagues, they are hunting so-called ‘cryptic lineages’, which are viral lineages in wastewater that didn’t match anything in global databases of millions of sequences.
These cryptic lineages were significant in that they often had several mutations in the spike protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter our cells – and which our immune system targets. Dr O’Connor told Nature that such lineages could help forecast macro trends in SARS-CoV-2 evolution, which could in turn help the development of variant-proof vaccines and treatments.
For these virologists, a lot is riding on early detection of the next major COVID-19 variant. “A lot of the lineages we are finding make Omicron look pedestrian,” said Dr Johnson.
Canada has now ended its COVID-19 travel restrictions, mask mandates
OTTAWA — As of this morning, travellers to Canada do not need to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 — and wearing a mask on planes and trains is now optional, though it is still recommended.
People entering the country are no longer subject to random mandatory tests for the virus, and those who are unvaccinated will not need to isolate upon arrival.
Anyone who entered Canada in the last two weeks and was subject to quarantine or testing is off the hook as of today.
And inbound travellers do not need to fill out the controversial ArriveCan app anymore, although they can still use it to fill out their customs declarations at certain airports.
Federal ministers announced the end of the COVID-19 public health restrictions earlier this week, saying the latest wave of the disease has largely passed and travel-related cases aren’t having a major impact.
But Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos warned restrictions could be brought back again if they are needed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.
The Canadian Press
What do I need to know about this year's flu shot? – CBC.ca
Experts say it’s almost time to roll up your sleeve for the annual flu shot.
But this year, some pharmacists say people have questions about the influenza vaccine rollout, which will coincide with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines that target Omicron strains — also known as bivalent vaccines.
Ashley Davidson, a pharmacist and associate owner of Shoppers Drug Mart in St. Albert, Alta., has fielded a lot of questions.
“So many people are asking about flu shots and I think a lot of that conversation comes around how do they time their vaccines and what does that look like?” she told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s podcast The Dose.
Here’s what experts have to say about this year’s flu vaccines.
What do we know about the upcoming flu season?
The number of flu cases this year could look a little different than what we’ve seen over the last few years.
“What has changed in the last two years is we had historical lows throughout the pandemic and we’ve now been in the time of uncertainty about when is it going to come back, what is it going to look like,” said Dr. Robyn Harrison, vice-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) and infectious disease specialist, on Wednesday during a webinar on seasonal influenza.
An example of what could come is Australia’s recent flu season, which happens before Canada’s because it is in the southern hemisphere.
The country recently had its worst season in years, with data from Australia’s Department of Health and Aged Care showing influenza infections were higher than the five-year average and infections notably spiked, then dropped, earlier than usual.
Canadians also haven’t had much exposure to flu over the last couple of years because of mask mandates and other public health measures introduced during the pandemic, Davidson said.
“One thing that stands out to me this year is that we won’t have masks in schools. So that is going to increase the potential exposure for flu virus for children as well,” she said.
According to experts, influenza is a serious illness. Up until 2019, it is estimated that there are on average 12,000 hospital stays in Canada due to influenza every year, and about 3,500 deaths each year are caused by the flu, Harrison said.
Influenza is very contagious and spreads by respiratory droplets which cause an infection. Symptoms can vary but commonly include fever, sore throat, runny nose, cough, fatigue and muscle aches.
Who is eligible for a flu shot?
Experts say it’s important to get a flu shot each year as vaccine-induced immunity does wane over time.
There are three types of influenza vaccines approved in Canada, according to NACI:
- Inactivated influenza vaccine
- Recombinant influenza vaccines
- Live attenuated influenza vaccine
Anyone six months of age or older who does not have a known negative reaction to the vaccine should get a flu shot every year.
“The reason why children under six months of age are not included in that is because we know that they don’t mount a good immune response to influenza vaccines,” said Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease and medical microbiology specialist, during Wednesday’s webinar. He is also the chair of the NACI influenza working group.
He said the suggested flu shot schedule for children nine and older and adults is one dose of the influenza vaccine at the beginning of flu season.
For kids aged six months to eight years who have yet to receive a flu shot, NACI recommends two doses given at least four weeks apart.
Who shouldn’t get a flu shot?
Papenburg said NACI recommendations for those who shouldn’t get any of the flu shots include:
- People who have had an anaphylactic reaction to any of the vaccine’s components, except for eggs.
- People who have developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within six weeks of a previous flu vaccine (unless another cause has been found).
- Infants under six months of age.
NACI’s recommendations on who shouldn’t get the live attenuated influenza vaccine can be found here.
When should I get a flu shot?
Davidson recommends that people get the influenza vaccine as soon as it’s available.
Canada’s flu season typically lasts from mid-October to April or early May, Davidson said.
“I will often remind patients that although you can get your flu shot right away, it does take about two weeks to develop an immune response to that vaccination,” she said.
“It is important to get your shot as soon as you can to ensure that you have coverage through the flu season.”
Can I get a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time?
For most people, the short answer is yes.
For people age five and older, all seasonal influenza vaccines, including the live-attenuated influenza vaccine, may be given at the same time or before or after other vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, according to the most recent recommendations from NACI.
“It is important that you’re protected from both viruses throughout the winter,” said Davidson.
Daybreak Kamloops7:15Flu season expected to be more intense this year
However, kids aged six months to five years shouldn’t receive a COVID-19 vaccine and an influenza shot at the same time, according to NACI, which instead recommends those in this age group wait 14 days between COVID-19 shots and other vaccines.
It’s a precautionary approach “to prevent erroneous attribution of adverse events following immunization to one particular vaccine or the other,” reads the committee’s advice.
How effective are flu vaccines this year?
Experts say influenza vaccines have been proven to help prevent influenza, transmission, complications and hospitalizations.
The effectiveness of flu vaccines can vary year-to-year because it all depends on the strains circulating, Davidson and Harrison said.
For the 2004-2005 flu season to 2019-20, Harrison said the effectiveness of influenza vaccines in Canada has varied between around 40 to 70 per cent.
Every year, World Health Organization (WHO) experts make recommendations on which strains of the influenza virus should be targeted by the vaccines.
This year, WHO recommended three influenza strains — one influenza A (H1N1); one influenza A (H3N2) and one influenza B — for inclusion in the trivalent flu shot.
Although the flu vaccine’s effectiveness can vary, both Harrison and Davidson agree that it does offer protection.
“The effectiveness of the vaccine may not be 100 per cent and may not persist beyond a year, but has impact and that’s why it’s recommended,” Harrison said.
Written and produced by Stephanie Dubois
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