Real-world findings are starting to back expectations for the level of protection provided by several leading coronavirus vaccines, but there’s still a burning question among scientists: Could the shots actually reduce virus transmission as well?
New research out of Israel offers early clues that at least one vaccine — the mRNA-based option from Pfizer-BioNTech, which is also being used here in Canada — may lead to lower viral loads, suggesting it might be harder for someone to spread the virus if they get infected post-vaccination.
In a study released publicly on Monday as an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed preprint, a team of researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and Maccabi Healthcare Services found the viral load was reduced four-fold for infections that occur 12 to 28 days after a first dose of the vaccine.
“These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread,” the researchers wrote.
Virologist Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor in the department of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, said it’s been a waiting game to figure out whether the protection from illness offered by mRNA vaccines might also curb transmission — a key tool for winding down the pandemic.
“So the data from this, I think, is important,” he said. “It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it starts to tell us that there actually might be some added benefit to these vaccines beyond just reducing severe disease.”
Toronto-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, agreed these early findings — which still require peer-review — aren’t a scientific “home run,” but do offer hope in the fight against COVID-19.
“This would point in the direction that people who have been vaccinated, who are still infected, may be less likely to transmit starting at about 12 days after their vaccine,” he said.
‘Significantly reduced’ viral loads
Israel is among the world leaders for COVID-19 vaccination rates, with Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccinating more than 650,000 people by Jan. 25, the paper noted, giving the researchers a large pool of data compared to what exists so far in many other countries.
The team analyzed COVID-19 test results from roughly 2,900 people between the ages of 16 and 89, comparing the cycle threshold values of post-vaccination infections after a first dose with those of positive tests from unvaccinated patients.
So, what are cycle threshold values, and how does that potentially tie to viral loads and virus transmission?
Standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for COVID-19 identify the viral infection by amplifying the virus’s RNA until it hits a level where it can be detected by the test. Multiple rounds of amplification may be required — and the cycle threshold value refers to the number of rounds needed to spot the virus.
“If you can detect the virus with very few cycles, there’s probably a lot of virus there,” Bogoch explained. “If you need to keep looking and looking and looking and looking for it, it might be there — it’s just a lot harder to find evidence of the virus genetic material.”
A higher cycle threshold, then, usually means there’s less virus genetic material present, which usually translates to people being less contagious, he said.
Based on an analysis comparing post-vaccination test results up to Day 11 to the unvaccinated control group, the Israeli researchers found “no significant difference” in the distribution of cycle threshold values for several viral genes.
That changed by 12 days after vaccination, with the team finding a “significant” increase in cycle thresholds up to 28 days later.
The result suggests infections occurring 12 days or longer following just one vaccine dose have “significantly reduced viral loads, potentially affecting viral shedding and contagiousness as well as severity of the disease,” the team concluded.
It’s a finding that appears to mimic the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in its clinical trials, which offered some early protection starting 12 days after the first dose and fully kicks in a week after the second shot, with a reported efficacy of around 95 per cent.
More research needed, experts say
The observational study was not a randomized controlled trial — meaning researchers couldn’t conclude a direct cause-and-effect relationship — and has not yet been published in a scientific journal. The research also has notable limitations, its authors acknowledged.
For one, the group of vaccinated individuals may differ in key ways from the demographically matched control group, such as their general health. The study also didn’t account for variants of the virus that may be associated with different viral loads, the team wrote.
Indeed, those variants are already proving to be roadblocks in the fight against COVID-19, with concerns ranging from higher transmissibility to reduced vaccine efficacy, including concern in South Africa and beyond after a small and yet-to-be-published study suggested the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine offered minimal protection against mild infection from the country’s now-dominant B1351 variant.
With those concerns in mind, experts who spoke with CBC News about the Israeli study stressed that more research is needed to back up the results on a broader scale, and among diverse populations, before being used to fuel policy changes or current approaches to vaccination efforts.
“The data needs to be reviewed by experts and confirmed that it stands up to the quality that we would want to make a conclusion,” said vaccinologist Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax who works with Canadian vaccine developer VIDO-InterVac in Saskatoon.
Even so, Kelvin said the data appeared to be treated with the necessary caution, and offers “promising evidence,” while Kindrachuk remains optimistic as well that the findings could prove a useful starting point.
“While we still have to have people using masks, and while we still have to have people distanced, the vaccines may actually also be able to reduce transmission,” he said.
“So, those trends that we’re hoping to see, in regards to trying to curb community transmission for SARS-CoV-2, may be accelerated with a vaccine — and that will hopefully help us get out of this a little bit sooner.”
Ontario reports largest daily increase of COVID-19 cases in over a month – 680 News
The province says today’s case count is higher than expected due to a data catch-up process related to the provincial CCM system.
Ontario is reporting 1,631 new COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths on Monday.
It is the largest daily increase the province has seen since Feb. 5 when 1,670 cases were reported.
Locally, there are 568 new cases in Toronto, 322 in Peel and 119 in York Region.
The province completed 38,063 tests in the last 24 hour period compared to over 46,000 tests a day ago. Testing numbers are typically down earlier in the week in the days following the weekend.
The test positivity rate jumps to 3.4 per cent from 3.1 from on Sunday. It is the highest positivity rate reported by the province in nearly two weeks.
The latest provincial numbers confirm 51 additional cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the UK.
There are now 879 cumulative cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, 31 cases of the B 1.351 variant first detected in South Africa and three cases of the P.1 variant first detected in Brazil.
The province reported 1,299 cases and 15 deaths on Sunday.
The rolling seven-day average climbs to 1,155, the highest number in over three weeks. The seven-day average has levelled off in the last three weeks after consistently declining each day since Jan. 11, where it peaked at 3,555.
There have been 309,927 cases in the province since the onset of the pandemic and 7,077 people have died as a result of the virus.
There are now 11,016 active cases in the province, it is the first time that active cases have gone over 11,000 since Feb. 16.
Among active cases, 626 have been hospitalized and 282 are in the ICU.
The Ford government announced Friday that Toronto and Peel Region would be placed into ‘Grey-Lockdown’, heeding requests from the top doctors in both regions.
North Bay Parry Sound District is returning to the ‘Red-Control’ level. The three regions are the last three in the province to return to the colour-coded pandemic response framework.
As of 8:00 p.m. Sunday, 912,486 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered and 273,676 have been fully vaccinated.
Canada is expected to receive more than 900,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses this week, though none of them will be of the newly-approved vaccines from AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says the country will receive nearly 445,000 shots from Pfizer, along with another 465,000 from Moderna.
The country’s top doctor Theresa Tam expressed optimism over the weekend that brighter days were coming, thanks to the recent approvals of the Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines.
“This week has been a very good week for Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination programs,” she wrote.
How the pandemic could create the flexible workplaces parents need – CBC.ca
For Tendai Dongo, the stress and anxiety was just too much at times. A project manager at a digital education company based in Calgary, she has spent much of the pandemic balancing her job with the needs of her young daughters.
With her husband’s insurance job requiring him to be out of the house frequently, the majority of the child-care responsibilities fell to her.
Everything came to a head in December.
“I felt that I had to quit,” said Tendai Dongo, who works at Xpan Interactive Ltd. “I had to choose … a full-time career or my mental health.”
The mother of two girls aged five and eight years old told her employer that working full-time from home while parenting was causing her a lot of stress and anxiety.
“I was just going to throw in the towel. I did not have any other opportunity out there waiting for me,” said Dongo.
But the chaos of watching employees juggle school closures, virtual learning, quarantines and their jobs could lead to more empathetic workplaces. Some companies, including Dongo’s, are thinking creatively about how to build more flexible work arrangements for their employees.
A year into the pandemic, parents are feeling the effects of being tugged in all directions — particularly women.
An online survey of 1,001 working Canadians conducted between Feb. 9 and 15 by ADP Canada and Leger found half of working mothers (50 per cent) reported experiencing high stress levels due to balancing child-care obligations and work, compared to 40 per cent of working fathers.
Data released by Statistics Canada also shows pandemic job losses are disproportionately affecting women. In January, for example, the employment decline for woman was more than double that of men, with 73,000 fewer women working that month compared to 33,500 fewer men.
The numbers also showed the decline in employment was pronounced among mothers whose youngest child was between the ages of six and 12. Their employment rate fell 2.9 percentage points, compared to a drop of 0.9 percentage points for all working adults.
‘It’s really, really impossibly hard’
For Danielle Ellenor, working a full-time job as an account associate for a printing company that offered little flexibility while she was home with her young children was too overwhelming.
“It takes a huge toll on your mental health, on your kid’s mental health,” said Ellenor, an Ottawa mother of two girls aged six and seven. “It’s really, really impossibly hard.”
Her partner has been working from home too, but his management job in software sales has him in virtual meetings most of the day.
In December, knowing that more school closures were coming, Ellenor left the company she had been with for almost 10 years to focus on her kids and transition to a more flexible career in real estate.
“It’s a gamble that I decided to make,” said Ellenor.
There’s concern that many other women may drop out of the workforce permanently.
‘We could lose an entire class of future leaders’
McKinsey & Company conducted an online survey of more than 40,000 workers across Canada and the United States between June and August 2020.
The survey found that one in four women were contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.
“We would lose an entire class of future leaders and in some cases existing leaders, because it spans all the way to the highest levels of organizations,” said Alexis Krivkovich, a senior partner at the global consulting firm.
But amidst the crisis comes opportunity, she said. Some companies are finding creative ways to retain their employees, such as flexible time-off schedules, re-imagining performance management and thinking differently about working hours.
“We need more of that creative thinking now to make sure that the one in four women who are saying, ‘I’m not sure I can make it through this moment’ come out the other side,” Krivkovich said.
Letting employees chart their own paths
Vancouver-based software company Bananatag has embraced flexibility during the pandemic by coming up with a “choose your own adventure” schedule for its 130 employees.
“We are quite flexible on location, preferred work style, preferred hours,” said Agata Zasada, vice-president of people and culture at Bananatag.
With about 50 per cent of their workforce made up of women and many parents on staff, the company wanted to remove a level of uncertainty for all of its employees.
“We haven’t lost anyone through the pandemic due to not being able to be flexible enough,” said Zasada.
Post-pandemic Bananatag will continue to let employees choose their own schedules. The company also plans to become even more flexible by entertaining the idea of job sharing and becoming more project-based.
Carly Holm, founder and CEO of Holm & Company, a human resources company, is hopeful that some good will come out of this challenging year.
“We’ve proven that we can be flexible and still be successful and be productive and that nine-to-five is irrelevant,” said Holm. “It is completely arbitrary and doesn’t work for a lot of people.”
Holm’s firm offers HR services for small to medium-sized businesses. She says results of her client’s employee engagement surveys show that employees are happier when given flexibility, and that companies offering it are performing better.
“The companies that encourage that and have kind of that flexible, remote work, they’re going to be the ones that are going to retain the people, retain women,” said Holm.
COVID … has catapulted institutional mindsets around flexible work into the future– Jennifer Hargreaves, founder of Tellent
When Dongo, the project manager in Calgary, told her boss she couldn’t mentally handle being a full-time employee and a mother right now, her workplace took action.
Instead of letting her quit, Xpan Interactive came up with a solution that she says is working well.
The company dropped her workload from eight clients to one and reduced her to part-time flexible hours. She now works when she wants and when she can.
Dongo’s salary has also been reduced. She admits she and her husband have had to start dipping into their savings, but she appreciates that her company came up with a solution that allows her to stay in the workforce.
“I still have that sense of purpose that I am still continuing in my career,” said Dongo.
Creating your own flexibility
Since 2016, Jennifer Hargreaves has been an advocate for more flexibility and has successfully placed women in flexible higher paying jobs through her virtual networking platform.
“One of the benefits … of COVID is that it has catapulted institutional mindsets around flexible work into the future,” said Hargreaves, founder of Tellent, a network that provides women with access to flexible job opportunities.
Among her 10,000 members, she says the need for flexible work has skyrocketed.
The first step in finding that flexible job, according to Hargreaves, starts with your current employer. She encourages women to approach their companies, as Dongo did, to see if they can draw up new arrangements.
“There’s no better time like right now to negotiate what you want because everything’s up in the air,” Hargreaves said. “Employers are starting from scratch and they’re trying to figure out what this looks like as well.”
New COVID-19 cases in Ontario spike above 1600 as stay-at-home order lifts in Toronto, Peel Region – CTV Toronto
COVID-19 infections in Ontario have spiked to levels unseen since early February but the province says Monday’s case count is higher than expected due to a “data catch-up process” related to its case and contact management system.
The province said it recorded 1,631 new COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours. The last time Ontario saw case numbers that high was on Feb. 5 when 1,670 infections were logged.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said in an email that they weren’t aware of the data issue prior to the release of Monday’s report.
“Apologies for not raising this sooner,” the spokesperson said. “As you know, we try to get this info to you in advance of posting the numbers but weren’t aware of the issue until just now.”
This brings Ontario’s lab-confirmed COVID-19 case total to 309,927, including 291,834 recoveries and 7,077 deaths.
Health officials said that 10 of those deaths were recorded in the previous day.
As well, with only 38,063 tests processed in the last 24-hour period, Ontario’s COVID-19 positivity rate stands at 3.4 per cent, the province said.
Monday’s report shows that Ontario’s seven-day average for number of COVID-19 cases reported is 1,155. A week ago today, that number was 1,098.
Where are the new COVID-19 cases?
Most of the new cases reported Monday were found in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region.
According to the province, Toronto logged 570 new infections, while Peel and York regions recorded 322 and 119 cases, respectively.
As of today, Toronto and Peel Region have returned to the province’s colour-coded reopening framework and are currently operating in the grey-lockdown level.
This means that non-essential businesses like retail stores can once again open their doors, with strict capacity limits in place.
Gyms, personal care services and indoor and outdoor restaurant dining remain off limits within the grey zone.
York Region entered the framework on Feb. 22 and is currently operating in the red-control zone, which is one step down from the grey-lockdown level.
There are currently 626 patients in hospital with COVID-19, though that number is typically lower on Mondays due to a delay in reporting. Of those patients, 282 are in an intensive care unit and 184 are breathing on a ventilator.
Number of COVID-19 variant infections climbs
The province says that since yesterday, 68 more infections of a COVID-19 variant of concern have been confirmed in Ontario.
Of those, 51 are of the strain known as B.1.1.7 (UK variant), pushing the total number for that variant to 879.
Another eight cases of B.1.351 (South African variant) were also confirmed, which brings the case count for that variant to 39.
Nine more infections of P.1 (Brazilian variant) were added bringing the total for that variant to 17.
Update on COVID-19 vaccinations
Since vaccinations began in December, the province says it has administered nearly 1,000,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine across Ontario.
Of the 912,486 total doses administered, 273,676 people have received both their first and second doses and are considered to be fully vaccinated against the virus.
At least 21,882 shots went into arms in the last 24 hours, the province said.
The numbers used in this story are found in the Ontario Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any city or region may differ slightly from what is reported by the province, because local units report figures at different times.
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