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Scientists let go from National Microbiology Laboratory amid RCMP investigation – CBC.ca

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Two Canadian government scientists escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory amidst an RCMP investigation and internal review have been let go from the Public Health Agency of Canada, CBC News has learned.

“The two scientists are no longer employed by the Public Health Agency of Canada as of Jan. 20, 2021,” Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and PHAC, confirmed in an email late Friday.

“We cannot disclose additional information, nor comment further, for reasons of confidentiality.” 

Sources say members of the lab’s special pathogens unit were called to a meeting on Thursday and told that Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, will not be returning to work. They were not given an explanation.

Cheng, Qiu and her students from China were removed from Canada’s only Level 4 lab in July 2019 over what was described as a possible “policy breach” and administrative matter.

Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on July 5, 2019. After that, the University of Manitoba ended their appointments and reassigned her graduate students. (Governor General’s Innovation Awards)

The Public Health Agency of Canada had asked the RCMP in Manitoba to get involved several months earlier.

A Level 4 virology facility is a lab equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. That makes the Winnipeg lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens requiring the highest level of containment, such as Ebola.

As recently as December, the RCMP said the investigation was ongoing but that there is no threat to public safety.

Sources say the couple have been off work with pay, living in Winnipeg, but PHAC has never confirmed that, citing confidentiality.

Developed Ebola treatment

Qiu is a medical doctor and virologist from Tianjin, China, who came to Canada for graduate studies in 1996. She is still affiliated with the university there and has brought in many students over the years to help with her work.

She helped develop ZMapp, a treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.

She was head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies Section in the Special Pathogens Program at the Winnipeg-based lab.

Her husband is a biologist who has published research papers on HIV infections, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), E. coli infections and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. 

The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is the only Level 4 facility in Canada, equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Last year, documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request found that Qiu was responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology four months before she and her husband were escorted from the NML.

At the time, PHAC said the shipment and Qiu’s eviction from the lab were not connected.

“The administrative investigation is not related to the shipment of virus samples to China,” Morrissette wrote in an email last June.

“In response to a request from the Wuhan Institute of Virology for viral samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses, the Public Health Agency of Canada sent samples for the purpose of scientific research in 2019.”

No connection to COVID-19

The RCMP and PHAC have consistently denied any connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus shipments. There is no evidence linking the shipment to the spread of the coronavirus. Ebola is a filovirus and Henipah is a paramyxovirus — no coronavirus samples were sent.

Qiu also made at least five trips to China in 2017-18, including one to train scientists and technicians at China’s newly certified Level 4 lab, which does research with the most deadly pathogens, according to travel documents obtained by CBC News in October 2019.

Despite RCMP and PHAC denial of connections, there have been conspiracy theories stating otherwise. One medical expert says we need more transparency on the issue.

Canadians have the right to know more, said Amir Attaran, a professor in the faculty of law and School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

“This adds to the appearance that NML staff acted improperly, and perhaps illegally, when they exported Canada’s collection of Ebola virus to a lab in Wuhan, China, totally without any scientific justification that NML cares to offer,” Attaran said.

“It is a deeply suspicious transaction that deserves powerful, but not politicized, parliamentary scrutiny when it comes to an extremely lethal virus.”

The former head of the NML, Matthew Gilmour, left last July to work for the U.K.-based Quadram Institute Bioscience.

His medical adviser, Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, took over until a permanent replacement can be found.

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India's top diplomat touts improved relations with Canada, open to sending more vaccines – CTV News

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OTTAWA —
India’s top diplomat to Canada says relations between the two countries are in a “much better space” and that improvement could open the door to more AstraZeneca vaccines, should Canada request them.

Speaking to CTV News, India’s High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria said that the two countries are on better footing following a February phone call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During the call Trudeau asked India for help boosting Canada’s vaccine supply, and it was a conversation that Bisaria described as “very warm” and “very friendly.”

“We have had some difficult and candid conversations but this is what strategic partners should be doing,” Bisaria said. “We believe there is a much greater understanding in Canada now across the political spectrum on India’s handling of the farm’s protest in which a great deal of disinformation had been spread earlier.”

For months, farmers in India have been living in tents on the outskirts of Delhi, protesting new laws passed in September by the Modi government to deregulate wholesale trading. The farmers say the new laws will devastate their livelihoods and allow big companies to drive down prices. The government, however, insist the reforms are long overdue and will modernize the agriculture industry by giving farmers greater freedom over who they can sell their products to and for what price.

In December, Trudeau said he was “concerned” about the treatment of farmers and that Canada would always support the right of farmers to protest peacefully. His statement prompted a sharp rebuke from India’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, which called out Canada’s “interference,” threatened that continued actions by Canada would have a “seriously damaging impact on ties” and even summoned Canada’s High Commissioner to India.

The High Commissioner’s comments come a day after 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine from India’s Serum Institute – the largest drug manufacturer in the world – arrived in Toronto. In total, India is scheduled to deliver two million doses to Canada by the end of May.

The Prime Minister’s Office would not discuss exactly what the prime minister said during his February phone call with Modi, or whether he softened his stance with India in order to help secure doses of that country’s locally-made AstraZeneca vaccine. Instead, the PMO referred to a public readout provided after the bilateral call which only mentions “recent protests, and the importance of resolving issues through dialogue” as topics of discussions.

Asked about the status of Canada-India relations today and why India provided Canada with AstraZeneca vaccines, Bisaria suggested the deal was an attempt to start smoothing over relations that have been strained at times over the last few years, including as a result of Trudeau’s troubled 2018 India trip.

“India has the capacity and the ability to provide more vaccines,” Bisaria said. “Certainly the vaccine diplomacy, as you called it, and vaccine sharing is a part of India’s approach.”

While no discussions are currently ongoing with Canada for more doses, India’s vaccine diplomacy has led to tens of millions of doses being shipped to countries from Cambodia to Afghanistan and Nepal. Experts say that like China, India is using the vaccines as a diplomatic tool to find favour or even thaw frosty relationships with other countries.

“India is proud of its position as the pharmacy of the world and now as a major vaccine maker in the world,” Bisaria said, adding the country is “very aware of its and conscious of its global responsibility of being part of the global vaccine solutions.”

CTV News has reached out to Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau’s office for comment.

The Prime Minister’s Office refused to provide an official statement.

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Ontario announcing plans to 'rapidly accelerate' its vaccine rollout – CBC.ca

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Ontario expects to give all adults 60 and older a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by early June, officials said Friday, as they detailed who will qualify for a shot during Phase 2 of the province’s immunization campaign.

That’s at least a month sooner than originally planned. Ontario’s rollout strategy was recently revised amid a wave of vaccine-related news, including the approvals of a third and fourth vaccine for use in Canada and the option to space out shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by up to four months.

Notably, however, the updated rollout plan presented by officials was put together before some significant announcements today. This morning, Health Canada gave a green light to the one-shot Johnson&Johnson vaccine, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada should expect up to 1.5 million more doses of the Pfizer vaccine in March than expected.

At a news conference, provincial officials said those developments could speed-up implementation of the rollout, especially during Phase 2, which is set to run between now and the end of July.

Officials said they expect to begin immunizing Canadians with some underlying health conditions, caregivers in congregate settings and adults in some COVID-19 hotspots by the start of April.

A list of eligible health conditions and COVID-19 hotspots can be found in the province’s slideshow embedded at the bottom of this story.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford said the province is “making incredible progress” in its vaccination plan.

“The light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter, so let’s keep working together to beat this,” Ford said.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who is running the province’s vaccination plan, called this a “seismic shift,” adding that officials are “gaining confidence” about a steady flow of vaccines, and those numbers growing each week.

Another category of residents, defined as those who cannot work from home, could start getting first doses at the beginning of June. That includes educators and school staff, first responders and workers in sectors like manufacturing and food processing.

Choices about vaccines?

Members of the vaccine task force said they expect 133 mass vaccination clinics to begin operating in 26 of 34 health units by the end of March.

About 80 per cent of all vaccine doses administered during phases two and three will be done through these clinics, officials said.

They stressed, though, that what vaccine someone receives will depend on where they live and how they choose to get it.

Because each of the four vaccines approved in Canada have different characteristics, some people will be limited in terms of choice.

AstraZeneca will be administered mostly through pharmacies and primary care clinics, for example, because it can be stored safely in a regular fridge.

Ontario anticipates 194,500 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to arrive the week of March 8. They will be used to give first doses to adults aged 60-64.

Stay-at-home orders lifted

Meanwhile, stay-at-home orders in Toronto, Peel and North Bay Parry Sound are being lifted, the province announced Friday, with those regions transitioning back into Ontario’s previous COVID-19 framework effective Monday, March 8.

North Bay Parry Sound will be returning to the framework at the red-control level, the province said in a news release, while Toronto and Peel will enter at the Grey-Lockdown level.

“Our government is taking a safe and cautious approach to returning to the framework and due to our progress, all regions of the province will soon be out of the provincewide shutdown,” Minister of Health Christine Elliott said in a statement. 

“Despite this positive step forward, a return to the Framework is not a return to normal. As we continue vaccinating more Ontarians, it remains critical for everyone to continue to follow public health measures and stay home as much as possible to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities.”

You can read the province’s breakdown of each tier of the framework here.

Several recent developments forced members of the vaccine task force to revise Ontario’s immunization strategy. 

AstraZeneca’s vaccine was approved for use by Health Canada late last week, while this morning, the agency gave a green light for use of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The federal government has ordered 10 million doses of the vaccine — the fourth to be approved in Canada — with an option for 28 million more.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) subsequently recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine only be used for people under the age of 65. As more real-time evidence on the efficacy of the vaccine has become available, however, pressure has mounted for NACI to change course.

Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones suggested this week that, at least for now, Ontario will use the AstraZeneca vaccine for adults between 60 and 64.

Both France and Germany had originally implemented similar guidance for the vaccine, but have since reversed those decisions, citing evidence from countries such as the United Kingdom and Israel, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is already being administered to adults 65 and over.

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a site in Toronto earlier this year. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

And earlier this week, NACI said that provinces can safely extend the time between shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines up to four months. 

The move followed an announcement by health officials in British Columbia, who said just days earlier they would implement a 16-week interval to ensure that more people got a first dose of vaccine earlier.

Both vaccines have been shown to be more than 90 per cent effective at preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19 after a single dose.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Ontario Ministry of Health said it welcomed the new recommendations from NACI. 

“This will allow Ontario to rapidly accelerate its vaccine rollout and get as many vaccines into arms as quickly as possible, and in doing so, provide more protection to more people,” a ministry spokesperson said in an email.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott has said repeatedly that an updated rollout plan would be released by the government imminently.

According to the ministry, health units administered 35,886 doses of vaccines yesterday, a third straight record high day in the province. A total of 269,063 people in Ontario have now been given both shots of a vaccine.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said on Thursday that he remains concerned about the presence of “variants of concern.”

“These are not insignificant numbers,” he told reporters. “We want to be cautious at this time.” 

Most new cases in a week

Meanwhile, public health units reported another 1,250 cases of COVID-19 this morning, the most on a single day in a week.

The new cases include 337 in Toronto, 167 in Peel Region and 129 in York Region.

They come as Ontario’s lab network completed 64,748 test samples for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity rate of 2.3 per cent. 

Labs also confirmed 155 more cases linked to the virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, bringing the total thus far to 799.

On Wednesday, 1,002 test samples province-wide were screened for the tell-tale spike gene that suggests the presence of a variant of concern. The spike was detected in 308, or nearly 31 per cent, of those samples. Those samples are then sent for whole genomic sequencing to determine the specific variant of concern.

The seven-day average of daily cases stands at 1,063.

The Ministry of Education also reported another 96 school-related cases: 82 students, 13 staff members and one person who was not identified. Twenty-nine schools are currently closed due to the illness. That’s about 0.6 per cent of Ontario’s 4,828 publicly funded schools.

Public health units recorded the deaths of 22 more people with the illness, pushing Ontario’s official toll to 7,046.

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Coronavirus: Johnson & Johnson's one-shot COVID-19 vaccine gets Health Canada approval – CTV News

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OTTAWA —
The first one-shot COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson has been authorized by Health Canada, making it the fourth vaccine that can be administered to Canadians.

Health Canada is now the first major regulator to have approved four different COVID-19 vaccines for use, said chief medical adviser at Health Canada Dr. Supriya Sharma during a briefing announcing the approval.

The authorization follows “an independent and thorough scientific review for safety, efficacy, and quality,” Sharma said.

Canada can now use the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in its ongoing mass vaccination campaign, largely viewed as a key pillar in overcoming the nearly year-long pandemic.

Canada’s federal health agency has been assessing the viral vector Johnson & Johnson shot since Nov. 30, and like the AstraZeneca vaccine given the green light last Friday, it will be logistically easier to administer as it can be shipped at temperatures between two- to eight-degrees Celsius and stored in those refrigerated conditions for at least three months.

Vials of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be kept for three hours at room temperature once the seal has been punctured, while it can stay stable if unopened for up to 12 hours.

“This is a game changer,” physician Dr. Lisa Salamon said in an interview on CTV News Channel. “Family doctors can give it to their patients; it can be given in pharmacies, public health units.”

Overall, in clinical trials involving approximately 43,000 participants, the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was shown to be 66 per cent effective in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19, two weeks after vaccination.

As with other vaccines, Sharma said common side effects include pain and tenderness at the injection site, headache, muscle pain, fever, and chills. The majority of adverse reactions reported during the clinical trials were mild to moderate in severity, and resolved within a few days.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been approved for use in adults 18 years of age and older, and with nearly 20 per cent of the participants in clinical trials being 65 years of age and older, no difference in safety or efficacy was seen compared to the younger age groups.

Health Canada has also approved a clinical trial for the vaccine in children ages 12 to 17 that’s yet to recruit patients, while trials are underway with the other vaccines but do not have Canadian sites.

There is an also on ongoing study considering a second shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which federal health officials say they’ll keep an eye on.

Sharma said that the Johnson & Johnson shot has shown to provide “acceptable levels” of protection against the B.1.351 variant first discovered in South Africa and against the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil.

Seeking to clarify concerns around whether certain approved vaccines are superior given their higher efficacy rates, Sharma said that any of the Health Canada authorized shots will “greatly” reduce the change of contracting COVID-19.

“The efficacy rate does not mean that following vaccination with a vaccine with 66 per cent efficacy, that you will have a 34 per cent chance of contracting COVID-19,” Sharma said.

“It’s not just about getting COVID-19, what’s really important is whether any of the vaccines will prevent you from being hospitalized, or dying of COVID-19,” she said, noting that all the vaccines approved so far are effective at preventing severe illness or death.

WHEN WILL IT ARRIVE?

The federal government has secured access to up to 38 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with a deal in place for at least 10 million doses and the option to purchase 28 million more.

During a briefing on Canada’s vaccine rollout on Thursday, director general for vaccines at Public Services and Procurement Canada Joelle Paquette told reporters that the 10 million doses are expected by the end of September.

It’s unclear how quickly the initial delivery of these doses could arrive in Canada, but with the addition of this vaccine to Canada’s COVID-19 inoculations arsenal it’s likely this country’s overall immunization timeline can be accelerated.

MORE DATA COMING

Regulatory approval deeming the Johnson & Johnson shot safe and effective for use in Canada comes on the heels of the United States approving the vaccine candidate from pharmaceutical company Jannsen last weekend, while other medical regulators such as the European Medicines Agency, continue their examination of the vaccine.

The vaccine was authorized with terms and conditions, including requiring the manufacturer to continue provide information to Health Canada on the safety, efficacy and quality of the vaccine.

With the authorization, Health Canada released a series of documents that detail the consumer information, the regulatory decision summary, as well as more data about the adverse events reported.

The agency says additional detailed information will be published in the coming weeks.

Typically, the vaccine submission review process can usually take up to a year, but because of an emergency order, Health Canada has been able to expedite the authorization process and has been able to assess rolling information as it comes in, rather than having to wait until the end of its work to begin reviewing the findings.

There is still a fifth vaccine still under review by Health Canada, the Novavax vaccine. Health officials said Friday there is “a fair amount” of information outstanding and Health Canada’s decision to authorize or not could be months away.

More coming.

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