There are new clues as to why the Omicron variant may produce milder COVID-19 symptoms, despite being more transmissible.
Several recent studies that looked at the effect of the virus on mice and hamsters have found that the Omicron variant leads to a lower viral load in the lungs and less damage to the tissues compared to previous variants of SARS-CoV-2.
All of these rodent studies are pre-prints, which means they have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal.
One study from Belgian researchers published online on Boxing Day looked at how Omicron infected Syrian hamsters. The researchers found that the hamsters with Omicron had a 99.9 per cent lower viral load in the lungs compared to hamsters infected with older strains of the virus.
Syrian hamsters have been considered an important tool for COVID-19 research, as these animals are known to be highly susceptible to getting seriously ill from the virus.
A similar study looking at Syrian hamsters and led by British researchers was also released on Dec. 26. The researchers compared 11 hamsters infected with the Omicron variant to six infected with previous variants, including Delta.
They found that Omicron-infected hamsters had fewer signs of weight loss, ruffled fur and breathing difficulties — all of which are clinical signs of COVID-19 in Syrian hamsters.
“Further investigation is required to conclusively determine whether Omicron is less pathogenic in Syrian hamsters and whether this is predictive of pathogenicity in humans,” the authors wrote.
A third study that looked at both mice and Syrian hamsters was published by U.S. and Japanese researchers on Dec. 29. Once again, the researchers found that rodents with Omicron had less weight loss and a lower viral load in their respiratory tracts.
The Omicron-infected rodents also had less damage to the lung tissues, suggesting that the variant can’t replicate as well in the lungs.
Another U.K.-led study published on Dec. 30 looked at the effect of Omicron on mice. Much like the studies that looked at hamsters, the researchers found that the mice infected with Omicron lost less weight and had better signs of recovery compared to mice that had the Delta variant and other older strains.
Oral swabs were also taken from all of the mice two, four and six days after infection. The viral loads in the lower and upper respiratory tract were found to be 100-fold lower in the mice with Omicron.
“Our results, and emerging from human observational studies, suggest that the Omicron variant may lead to less severe and/or more rapid recovery from clinical disease reflected in reduced hospitalization,” the authors wrote.
However, the researchers warned that the high transmissibility of the new variant could still inundate hospitals, despite evidence of milder symptoms.
“The higher transmissibility could still place huge burden upon health care systems even if a lower proportion of infected patients are hospitalized,” they wrote.
FINDINGS SIMILAR IN HUMANS, BUT OMICRON STILL A THREAT
All of these studies found that Omicron leads to a lower viral load in the lungs. Dr. Nelson Lee, who is the interim director of the Institute for Pandemics at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says those findings are consistent with what’s been observed in the lungs of human Omicron patients.
“All these experiments show that there is reduced infectivity of the virus to lung cells, basically showing a low virus level. That is also reflected in the clinical manifestation,” Lee, who was not involved in any of the papers, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Monday.
A pre-print Hong Kong study from mid-December also found that while Omicron can multiply 70 times faster in airways, the variant replicates itself 10 times slower within lung tissues.
McGill University infectious disease specialist Dr. Donald Vinh notes that the advantage of animal studies is the fact that researchers can closely examine how the virus affects the lungs and other organs, something that can’t be done with humans until autopsy studies can be conducted.
“You can intentionally infect (the rodents) and then you can actually cut them open and look at their organs, which obviously, we don’t want to do in humans,” Vinh told CTVNews.ca during a phone interview on Monday.
Vinh says the rodent studies show that Omicron “could be non-severe in the right context” However, he believes the results should be taken with a grain a salt, given that these studies don’t focus on humans.
“(There’s) some encouraging data at both the epidemiological and now in the rodent models that suggest Omicron could have the potential to cause disease less severe than Delta, for example. But it’s not the same thing as saying that it’s benign,” he said.
Lee also warned that these results of the rodent studies “cannot be overgeneralized to humans.”
“We should be very cautious when we interpret this data,” he said.
“There’s still a lot of people that develop severe illnesses because of this Omicron infection … The low risk doesn’t mean it will never happen.”
Omicron wave has likely peaked in Canada: Tam – CTV News
The latest COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant may have reached its peak, with the average daily case count decreasing by 28 per cent compared to the previous week, says Canada’s top public health official. But hospitalizations and intensive care admissions, which lag behind infections, are still climbing.
“ICU numbers are still rising steeply,” said Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam on Friday.
“The January timeframe, the peak may occur, but the hospitalizations and the ICU admissions may continue to increase for some time. So that’s in February and I really hope that by the end of the next month, we’ll be in a better position.”
Hospitals are seeing very few cases of Delta or other variants, but the high volume of Omicron cases have resulted in an unprecedented number of new daily hospital admissions that exceeded historical maximums over the past week.
An average of more than 10,000 people with COVID-19 are being treated daily in hospitals while more than 1,100 people are in ICU.
“We still have some difficult weeks ahead and potential for more bumps along the way,” Tam said.
“Omicron can cause serious outcomes. We can not trivialize this virus. Many people, particularly those who are at higher risk, get very severely sick and indeed, many have died, and we need to do what we can to prevent those.”
The sheer volume of cases has also resulted in more reports of severe cases among children, but they are still “very rare in terms of rates,” said Tam, adding that the vast majority of severe illnesses still occur among those over the age of 60.
While there was a degree of underestimation due to changes in testing policies, the seven-day average for daily new cases was close to 27,000 as of Jan. 19, she said.
Tam reiterated the strong protective effects of the vaccine and encouraged the public to get their booster shots and vaccinate eligible children. More than 6.5 million eligible Canadians do not have their first or second dose yet and coverage for eligible children currently stands at 51 per cent with at least one dose, she added.
For administrative purposes, including international travel, entering certain public spaces, or doing certain tasks, Tam explained that the definition for “fully vaccinated” still consists of the primary series, or the first two doses for a two-dose vaccine and one dose of the Janssen vaccine.
“But we all know that it is very important to get the booster dose, particularly in the time of Omicron, so we began to switch terminologies now to the concept of being ‘up-to-date’” on all eligible doses, she said.
“Now is not the right time [to change the definition of fully vaccinated] because not everybody’s had the chance to get that additional dose or getting up to date – not in Canada and certainly not globally.”
With expectations that the virus will be here for a long time to come, Tam also addressed questions around the possibility of a fourth vaccine dose. She acknowledged that there are a number of unknowns, but the priority right now is to prevent serious outcomes, even as health officials look at a longer-term approach to tackling the virus.
“Influenza, for example, that’s now an annual vaccine people have that I’ve had for decades every year,” she said.
“There are very good examples of where vaccines can be given time and again over the course of our lives.”
Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Friday – CBC News
Ireland is to scrap almost all its COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday after a major surge in infections did not lead to a significant increase in the numbers requiring intensive hospital care, a senior minister said.
Ireland had the second-highest incidence rate of COVID-19 in Europe just last week but also one of the continent’s highest uptake of booster vaccines, which has helped keep the number of seriously ill people well below the previous peak.
Following advice from public health officials, the government decided that bars and restaurants will no longer need to close at 8 p.m., a restriction put in place late last year when the Omicron wave struck, or to ask customers for proof of vaccination.
Capacity in indoor and outdoor venues is also set to return to full capacity, paving the way for full crowds for next month’s Six Nations rugby championship.
Some measures, such as the need to wear a mask on public transport and in shops, will remain in place for now.
“I am so pleased to be able to say that as of 6 a.m. tomorrow, the vast majority of restrictions that have been in place for almost two years now, on and off, will be lifted,” Justice Minister Helen McEntee said in a video posted on Instagram following a government meeting.
“I don’t think any of us thought we’d actually be getting to this point as quickly as we are now.”
Prime Minister Micheal Martin was due to make a televised address to announce the measures.
The changes would put Ireland back in line with Northern Ireland, which had less-severe restrictions over Christmas and agreed to scrap vaccine passes on Thursday and reopen nightclubs next week.
Ireland’s hospitality sector, which has been particularly hard hit by one of Europe’s toughest lockdown regimes, welcomed the decision.
Nightclubs opened their doors for the first time in 19 months in October only to be shut again six weeks later.
While the economy recovered rapidly last year, around a third of employers have chosen to defer tax payments and the wages of one in 12 workers are still being supported by a state subsidy scheme set to end in April.
-From Reuters, last update at 12:50 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
With lab-based testing capacity deeply strained and increasingly restricted, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will report figures that separate the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also test positive for COVID-19.
For more information on what is happening in your community — including details on outbreaks, testing capacity and local restrictions — click through to the regional coverage below.
You can also read more from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which provides a detailed look at every region — including seven-day average test positivity rates — in its daily epidemiological updates.
In British Columbia, health officials on Friday said they are shifting their approach to managing the spread of the novel coronavirus. At a midday press conference, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said health officials in the province must change their way of thinking in light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
“Right now, with the level of transmission in our community, we have to assume we have been in contact with someone with COVID-19,” Henry said.
“We cannot eliminate all risk, and I think that’s something we need to understand and accept as this virus has changed and has become part of what we will be living with for years to come. But we can use all the layers of protection to keep our settings safe.”
Henry said contact tracing is no longer an effective way of managing COVID-19’s spread. She encouraged people to check themselves every day for symptoms and stay home as necessary. She urged anyone who has not been vaccinated to do so immediately.
In Central Canada, the provincial COVID-19 dashboard in Ontario on Friday showed 4,114 hospitalizations — up by 53 from a day earlier — and 590 people in intensive care units. The province also reported a total of 64 additional deaths and 7,165 additional lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The update comes after Premier Doug Ford announced plans on Thursday to begin a gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions over a period of months, with the first step to begin at the end of January.
Quebec cannot begin loosening COVID-19 restrictions because the situation in the province’s hospitals remains too fragile, Premier François Legault said Thursday.
“The situation will continue to be difficult for the next few weeks. I understand that we are all tired, but lives are at stake,” Legault said. “We are currently at the limit in our hospitals.”
The province on Friday reported 3,351 hospitalizations, down 60 from a day earlier. Quebec’s daily COVID-19 situation report showed 265 people in intensive care. The province also reported an additional 59 deaths and 5,995 new lab-confirmed cases.
In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday that the province has likely still not seen the peak of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“But our ability to manage the situation is improving, thanks to the dedication of multiple teams,” he said, noting that the province is seeing some positive signs, including a return of some health workers from isolation and a reduction in contacts.
The province, which is currently under tight COVID-19 restrictions, recently put out an urgent call for volunteers and workers to help with the pandemic response. The province saw a “huge” response, Higgs said, and work is underway to match offers to help to areas where assistance is needed.
New Brunswick health officials on Thursday said total hospitalizations had increased to 124, including 12 people in intensive care units. The province also reported an additional three deaths and 488 additional lab-confirmed cases.
Newfoundland and Labrador students will be back in classrooms next week, officials said Thursday at a COVID-19 briefing. Students will have to take two rapid tests before returning to school. One of the tests is to occur 72 hours before they return and the other on Tuesday morning, before classes begin.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, who reported two additional deaths and a total of 20 COVID-19 hospitalizations, said Thursday that at this time, “the benefits of being in school for children outweigh the risks of COVID-19.” The province also reported an additional 360 lab-confirmed cases.
In New Brunswick, officials reported two new deaths and 124 hospitalizations on Friday. Twelve of those patients are in intensive care units.
In Nova Scotia, health officials reported three additional deaths on Thursday. In an update posted online, the province said there were 85 people in hospital who were admitted because of COVID-19 and receiving specialized care, including 12 people in ICU. The province also reported an additional 696 lab-confirmed cases.
In Prince Edward Island, health officials on Thursday said in a statement there were 10 people in hospital being treated for COVID-19, including two in intensive care. Three other people were in hospital who were positive for COVID-19.
The province, which has now seen a total of three recorded COVID-19 related deaths, also reported an additional 249 cases.
In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba health officials on Friday reported 827 new cases and said a total of 664 hospitals, with 50 people are in intensive care units. The province also reported seven additional deaths.
Saskatchewan on Thursday reported 215 hospitalizations, with 23 people in intensive care units. According to the province’s COVID-19 dashboard, there were no additional deaths and 1,158 additional lab-confirmed cases.
Six of Saskatchewan’s largest unions representing 113,000 front-line workers are demanding more safety measures to blunt the rise of hospitalizations.
In Alberta, health officials on Thursday said there were 1,131 people in hospital with COVID-19 — the highest level the province has seen during the pandemic — with 108 in intensive care units. The province also reported eight additional deaths and 3,527 additional lab-confirmed cases.
To prepare for a swell of hospitalizations, the government said it is building additional bed capacity, maximizing the workforce with nursing students and opening COVID-19 community clinics.
Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the number of patients receiving care for COVID-19 has increased by about 40 per cent over the last week. Admissions to intensive care have jumped by about 18 per cent.
There are also more health-care staff having to isolate than in previous waves, she said. About five per cent of AHS staff are off sick at any given time and between 18 and 20 per cent of shifts are being missed daily due to challenges related to the pandemic.
“It has been a long two years, but now is not the time to let your guard down,” said Yiu.
Across the North, Nunavut on Friday reported 20 new additional lab-confirmed cases, with no additional deaths. Health officials in the Northwest Territories and Yukon had not yet provided updated information for the day.
-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 3:20 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of Friday afternoon, more than 344.7 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.5 million.
In Europe, health ministers in the European Union will try to find a common line on Friday over a potential fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccines, amid a surge in cases sparked by the Omicron variant.
Meanwhile, daily new coronavirus infections in Russia reached an all-time high Friday and authorities blamed the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova on Friday noted “intensive spread of the Omicron variant” and said the authorities “expect it to become the dominating” variant driving the outbreak. The state coronavirus task force Golikova heads reported 49,513 new infections on Friday.
Record numbers of new cases were reported respectively in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. In light of the surge, health officials in St. Petersburg on Friday limited elective outpatient care.
Golikova on Friday urged Russians who received their vaccinations or recovered from the virus more than six months ago to “head to a vaccination point again in order to protect yourself from the virus” with a booster.
Also Friday, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered cabinet members to hold meetings online and have their staff work remotely “where possible.”
Just about half of Russia’s 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, despite the fact that Russia was among the first in the world to approve and roll out a COVID-19 vaccine. In Russia, everyone who received their primary vaccination more than six months ago has been eligible for a booster shot since July.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Bangladesh closed all schools and colleges for two weeks to counter an “alarming” rise in infections, just four months after ending a lengthy year school closure imposed due to coronavirus.
Japan acted to contain a record surge in cases with a return to curbs that have, however, shown diminishing results, while a laggard vaccine booster program leaves many people vulnerable to breakthrough infections.
Nepal’s capital shut schools, ordered citizens to carry vaccination cards in public, banned religious festivals and instructed hotel guests to be tested every three days as it battles its biggest COVID-19 outbreak.
The chief government administrator of Kathmandu issued a notice on Friday saying all people must carry their vaccination cards when they are in public areas or stores.
Nepal, however, has only fully vaccinated just over 40 per cent of its population, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker. The notice did not say how unvaccinated people will be able to do tasks such as shop for groceries.
The government says it has enough vaccines in stock, but a new wave of COVID-19 cases propelled by the Omicron variant has created long lines at vaccination centres, with many people unable to receive shots.
In Africa, the World Bank has approved a loan of $750 million US to South Africa linked to COVID-19, aiming to help protect the poor and support economic recovery from the pandemic. South Africa’s health ministry on Thursday reported 3,962 additional cases of COVID-19 and 139 additional deaths, though officials noted a data cleanup was contributing to the increased death figures.
In the Middle East, Israel will ditch mandatory quarantine for children exposed to COVID-19 carriers, the government said on Thursday, citing a need to relieve parents and schools as case numbers spiral due to the fast-spreading but low-morbidity Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that as of Jan. 27, children will instead be required to take twice-weekly home antigen tests for the virus and, if they prove positive or feel unwell, absent themselves from school until they recover. The home kits will be supplied free of charge, he said.
In the Americas, President Joe Biden will urge U.S. mayors to use more of their state and local COVID-19 aid funds to expand their workforces, a White House official said, an effort partly aimed at easing economic bottlenecks and inflation.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 12:45 p.m. ET
Canada rushes to crush more canola despite crop crunch
Soaring demand for Canadian canola oil used in food and fuel has resulted in plans for a massive increase in capacity to process canola seeds, including this week’s announcement https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/federated-co-op-agt-build-c360-mln-canadian-canola-crush-plant-2022-01-17 of a C$360 million ($289 million) crush plant project.
But while buyers are lining up, some analysts wonder if there is enough of the crop to go around and doubt all the projects will proceed.
Canola hit record high prices last year due to strong vegetable oil demand and a severe Canadian drought that shrunk crops in the world’s top producing country. Palm and soybeans are also in tight supply https://www.reuters.com/article/vegoils-world-output-insight-idTRNIKBN2G1019, helping drive up food inflation.
Federated Co-operative Limited (FCL) and partner AGT Food and Ingredients said on Monday they would build a Saskatchewan plant to crush 1.1 million tonnes of canola annually to supply oil for FCL’s renewable diesel facility.
Richardson International, Ceres Global Ag Corp, Cargill Inc and Viterra Inc announced similar plans last year, drawn by demand for canola oil in foods like margarine and salad dressing, or for production of low-emitting fuels.
Combined, the plans would increase Canada’s canola crush capacity by 6.8 million tonnes, or 62%.
That is a tall order to fill for Canadian farmers, whose canola production peaked in 2017, said Marlene Boersch, managing partner of Mercantile Consulting Venture. She is skeptical that all of the crush plants will materialize.
“We do have a (crop) production problem. I don’t think we’ll see these substantial investments for years to come.”
Output concerns go beyond last year’s drought. Canola acreage also hit a peak in 2017 and yields were flat from 2017-2020 before the drought.
Patrick Bergermann, FCL’s associate vice-president of energy roadmap, expects its plant to purchase some canola that would otherwise go for export, which usually accounts for about half the annual crop.
FCL’s plant, which may open in 2025, pending Ottawa finalizing its clean fuel regulation, will add value both from generating oil for fuel and from meal for use as a potential food protein source, he said.
“There’s still ample opportunity for the industry to add crush capacity,” he said.
For crushers to attract more canola seed away from export channels, they would have to bid aggressively for it, which would reduce margins, said Ken Ball, a commodity futures advisor with PI Financial. He expects project delays or cancellations.
Saskatchewan farmer Bernie McClean says the new crush plants will reduce farmers’ vulnerability to trade restrictions on Canadian exports, such as from China. Farmers may boost plantings if they can successfully grow canola in hotter, drier areas, he said.
McClean, who sows 40-50% of his fields with canola, does not intend to plant more in the future, however. Sowing canola too often on the same fields can spread crop disease.
“If we get too carried away, Mother Nature has a way of coming around to bite us in the butt,” McClean said.
The Canola Council of Canada industry group sees production rising to 26 million tonnes by 2025, a 33% increase from pre-drought output, based on higher yields per acre.
Canola Council Chief Executive Jim Everson expects productivity to increase as companies develop more robust seeds using gene-editing technology, but he could not identify any specific, promising seed products in development.
Demand, however, continues to rise, enticing the crushers.
A proposed rule is expected early this year from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approving canola for use in making renewable diesel or greener jet fuel, Everson said.
North American biofuels could consume some 6.5 million tonnes of canola annually by 2030, nearly four times the current volume, he said.
($1 = 1.2458 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Marguerita Choy)
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