The Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 was last year’s unpleasant holiday surprise. More than a year later, a loosely knit group of “disease detectives” across Canada continues to keep watch for key mutations.
Officials with the World Health Organization (WHO) say Omicron is better able to pass from person to person than previous versions of the virus.
And so researchers have shifted their attention to Omicron’s offspring.
“Are we ready to take the hit of another wave of a new variant that might emerge? I don’t think so,” Mike Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, said of China’s latest outbreak at the agency’s last scheduled news conference of the year on Dec. 21.
Researchers look for mutations in the genetic sequence of the virus that might offer a variant a growth advantage over previous versions, cause more severe illness or help it to get around our immune defences.
“Omicron, the latest variant of concern, is the most transmissible variant we have seen so far, including all the subvariants that are in circulation, more than 500 of them. So we will continue to see surges of infection around the world,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19.
It’s critical to continue to monitor known variants, as well as being able to detect new ones, so that strategies can be adjusted if needed, she said.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing
To Canadian variant tracker Fiona Brinkman, mutations in genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 offer important clues to identify trends and detect new clusters of cases or outbreaks.
“These viral sequences tell a little story about what’s happening right now that give us a hint about what the story will be to come,” said Brinkman, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Simon Fraser University.
“You’re taking this data and then trying to be a detective.”
When the virus mutates to something that’s harder for our immune system to recognize, then it’s harder to fight an infection.
“It’s literally like a wolf putting on sheep’s clothing,” Brinkman said.
Brinkman and her team are currently tracking “a whole soup of variants,” in part to predict what might happen so health-care officials can plan staffing amid ongoing shortages, overrun emergency departments and a lack of primary care.
“How big is that impact going to be in January, after the holiday season?” Brinkman asked. “We wouldn’t be surprised if we see a bump in cases.”
On the lookout for major new variant
Elsewhere in the country, Art Poon calls himself a scientist who specializes in tracking viruses — how they evolve and how they spread. His day job focuses on HIV.
Scientists use “molecular bread crumbs” left by the virus to figure out where COVID has moved between countries, he said.
“We would be looking for a rapid increase in the number of infections,” said Poon, an associate professor of virus evolution and bioinformatics at Western University in London, Ont. “Is it spreading faster than we would expect?”
But the decline in testing and sequencing for the virus means we’re “driving blind” in trying to make accurate predictions, said Brinkman.
Poon, Brinkman and dozens of other trackers across Canada meet weekly, virtually, applying their computational and modelling skills to COVID-19. They also share their sequencing findings with international counterparts.
It’s important to realize that there’s “no big new variant” that we’re seeing right now, Brinkman said.
“That doesn’t mean one won’t occur. One of the important components about this work is to really catch those new variants that are really significant as soon as possible.”
The COVID-19 picture in Canada is increasingly unique in the world, given differences in when Omicron hits and how hard, as well as varying degrees of immunity from vaccinations.
“Surveillance within Canada is going to become very important,” Brinkman said. She advocates for surveillance here, because it’s now harder to apply what’s happened elsewhere in order to make predictions for Canada.
National data from the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force suggests more than 70 per cent of people across the country have been infected. While there was a large jump in infections during Omicron waves in 2022, fewer of those aged 60 and older show protection from antibodies following infection.
Beyond COVID-19, Brinkman hopes to apply the tools scientists have developed during the pandemic to study other troublesome infections, like influenza.
“We are definitely going to be seeing new variants,” Brinkman said. “Whether that’s going to be COVID or whether that’s going to be flu is another story.”
As multiple respiratory infections like COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) continue to sicken Canadians and further stretch our health-care system and medical staff, Brinkman shared preventative advice backed by public health data.
“One of the best masks you can wear is a recent vaccine shot,” she said.
Five things to know about health-care talks Tuesday between Trudeau, premiers
OTTAWA — On Tuesday in Ottawa, Canada’s 13 premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will sit around the same table in person for the first time since COVID-19 hoping to find a path toward a new long-term health-care funding deal.
Both sides are optimistic a deal will emerge but there are some big divides to overcome, including how much more money Ottawa is willing to put on the table, and how much accountability the provinces are willing to put up in return.
The premiers have been asking for a new deal for more than two years. Trudeau kept punting until the COVID-19 crisis was largely over.
That time has come.
Trudeau has been clear a deal is not going to be finished this week. But here’s a snapshot of how we got to this point, and what they’re going to be talking about.
Money, Money, Money, Money
This year Canada expected to transfer almost $88 billion to the provinces and territories for health, education, social supports and equalization. The Canada Health Transfer, or CHT, is $45.2 billion, or 51 per cent of that.
In their 2022-23 budgets, the provinces collectively forecast to spend $203.7 billion on health care. Ottawa’s transfer accounts for 22 per cent of that. The provinces want that increased to 35 per cent, which would mean $26 billion more this year alone.
“There’s been continual demands for an increase in the CHT although I’ve never seen quite as large a demand for an increase as this one,” said Gregory Marchildon, a professor emeritus at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto.
Trudeau intends to put an offer on the table Tuesday. It will not be an immediate increase of $26 billion, but Ottawa has been silent on where it will land.
While it has existed in its current form only since 2004, some sort of federal health transfer dates from 1957, when Ottawa offered 50-50 funding for health care to provinces that agreed to provide public hospital services based on national standards.
It has evolved and changed at least five times since then, including splitting the federal share between cash and a transfer of tax points — when the federal government cut its income tax rates and the provinces could raise their own in exchange.
In 1995, then-finance minister Paul Martin, desperate to turn around Canada’s debt problems, slashed the health and social transfer by 20 per cent, followed by a 15 per cent cut in 1996. Some provinces have said their health systems have never recovered.
In 2004, a new deal was reached between the premiers and Martin, who by then was prime minister, to see the Canada Health Transfer increased six per cent a year for a decade.
The Conservatives under prime minister Stephen Harper kept that in place, but told the provinces that in 2017-18, the CHT increase would be based on a three-year average of economic growth, but with a minimum increase of at least three per cent.
Trudeau and the Liberals have maintained that.
With economic growth, the annual CHT increase has averaged five per cent since 2017-18.
Over the last 10 years, the CHT has increased 67 per cent, to $45 billion from about $27 billion in 2012-13.
An attempt in 2016 to negotiate a new CHT deal mostly failed, resulting in one-on-one agreements between Ottawa and the provinces and territories to share $11.5 billion over 10 years, beginning in 2017-18, to improve mental-health and home care.
Angling for Accountability
In the split jurisdictional world Canada’s governments live in, provinces are the ones who control health-care delivery. So for the most part, the federal government helps fund it and the provinces get to say how it’s spent.
The Canada Health Act, passed in 1984, sets out the guiding principles for recipients of the Canada Health Transfer, including that health-care systems must be universally accessible. Failing to abide by the principles can, and has, resulted in Ottawa clawing back some transfers.
Trudeau has made clear any increase to federal health transfers must be met with provincial accountability to show results. The federal government has been frustrated at the lack of accountability from provinces over transfers for health care made during COVID-19.
It is adamant that will not be the case with a new funding deal, and is looking at a combination of an annual increase to the CHT and separate deals to target specific problem areas, like health-care worker retention and training, access to family doctors, surgical backlogs, and data collection and sharing.
The 2017 deals on mental-health and home care will be a bit of a model. Those deals saw Ottawa promise $11.5 billion over 10 years for the two areas, but in exchange provinces had to agree to a common set of principles and goals, and to report results.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information was tapped to help collect and publish data. The most recent report in December is still laden with gaps and incomplete data. The reports note it will take time for the reporting to lead to change, and that provinces need to harmonize their data collection in order to better compare statistics across provincial lines.
Marchildon said one of the biggest problems for the federal government in demanding accountability is that measuring health outcomes is difficult, and hard targets are rare.
It’s all about the numbers
Of course, it’s difficult to measure progress if you’re not keeping track.
Data — or the lack of it — is a long-standing weakness of Canada’s federalized system, with 13 separate health-care systems working alongside one another but not necessarily in tandem.
In his first public overture to open negotiations with provinces on health funding in November, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told provincial health ministers the federal government would increase the Canada Health Transfer if provinces agree to work together on a “world-class health data system for Canada.”
“It is the foundation for understanding what we’re doing, who’s receiving services, whether we’re making improvements,” said Kim McGrail, a professor with the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health.
McGrail was one of several experts the federal government tasked with reporting on what a “world-class health data system” would look like in Canada.
Gaps in Canada’s data tripped up the national health responses in dozens of different ways during the pandemic, from tracking the number of COVID-19 cases to reporting adverse effects from vaccines.
The same is true of tracking surgical backlogs and other information about how well, or not, the health system is working.
“Data informs every part of the way we think about health,” McGrail said, which includes the health of individual patients.
Canadians who move from one province to another can’t easily access their records because the technology isn’t compatible.
It’s a problem that exists even within provinces, as incompatible technology makes records inaccessible between hospitals and clinics.
“We need those technology systems to be able to talk to one another, to be able to to move data back and forth or to send messages back and forth in some way,” she said.
It’s an expensive problem to fix. Just last week, Nova Scotia government signed a $365-million contract to bring new electronic health-care records to the province, which may or may not be compatible with other provincial systems.
McGrail said investments will pay off if important information about the health of Canadians stops falling through the cracks.
The expert panel delivered a report last year that will likely serve as a road map for improving data sharing in Canada. It includes 31 recommendations, starting with provinces, territories and the federal government agreeing on a shared national vision for health data.
Ontario and Quebec have indicated a willingness to work with Ottawa on data, though other provinces have been less firm about it.
Provincial leaders have been able to agree with Ottawa on the need to reform Canada’s long-term care homes, though exactly how to accomplish that is still up for debate.
Duclos has said helping Canadians “age with dignity” is one of Ottawa’s priorities for a new health-care deal, and long-term care plays a major role in that.
So does home care, and the 2017 bilateral deals already began to advance improvements on that front.
Long-term care is an entirely different story.
The pandemic cast a glaring light on the dismal conditions in care homes across the country, when COVID-19 outbreaks led to thousands of deaths and inhumane living conditions for seniors. The military and the Red Cross were summoned to help.
In the early months of the pandemic, Canada had the worst record for COVID-19-related deaths in long-term care of the world’s wealthy countries.
Meanwhile, residents were isolated from the outside world and workers struggled to provide basic care and ensure dignity.
Experts and advocates say the problems long predate the pandemic, and have gone largely ignored until now.
“Given the devastation that we’ve seen in the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts on our health-care system … we’re seeing this unprecedented moment where finally there’s some hope of collaboration,” said Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician and founder of Doctors for Justice in Long-Term Care, which advocates for an overhaul of Ontario’s long-term care system.
Governments are now scrambling to improve the conditions, as the number of people who need specialized care grows every year and the number of workers willing to provide that care dwindles.
Several provinces have already announced plans to increase the number of hours of care residents receive per day and build new spaces for the growing number of seniors who are living longer with more serious cognitive and physical impairments.
The federal government created a $1 billion “safe long-term care fund” during the pandemic to help pay for immediate infection prevention and control measures to stop the spread of the virus.
The government also set aside $3 billion to help provinces bring homes in line with national standards for the design and operation of long-term care, though specific agreements with provinces haven’t yet been signed to deliver that money.
Those standards were publicly released last week but are unlikely to factor into the health-care talks.
Still, there is plenty of work that needs to be done if provinces have a hope of meeting the standards, especially when it comes to the workforce.
“I think we’re stepping into a crisis,” said Dr. Joseph Wong, the founder of Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, the largest non-profit nursing home in the country.
He said Canada will need upwards of 100,000 new personal support workers to provide care over the next 10 to 15 years in order to provide adequate care to residents.
“It is a time bomb,” he said.
The same could be said of the health system at large.
None of the lofty goals of the federal or provincial politicians will be possible if they don’t find a way to persuade workers to stay in hospitals, clinics and long-term care centres across Canada, said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.
“They don’t have the staff to do the job,” she said.
Staff shortages have been the common theme among some of the most serious issues underlying the public-health crisis in Canada.
Dozens of emergency rooms have been forced to close temporarily or reduce hours because there weren’t enough staff to treat urgent injuries and illnesses. The Canadian Medical Association estimates nearly five million Canadians don’t have a family doctor. And hundreds of thousands of Canadians are sitting on wait-lists for backlogged surgeries and diagnostic tests.
Health unions and professional associations want a national strategy to keep doctors, nurses and personal support workers in their jobs as well as train new staff to bolster their ranks.
Silas said after years of burnout and moral distress over not being able to care for their patients properly, nurses in particular have said, “I’ve had enough.”
Nurses in Ontario have also balked at a law limiting pay increases to one per cent a year.
Data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that because of new graduates, the supply of nurses is still growing. However, many have chosen not to take full-time positions, and existing staff are increasingly eyeing early retirement, Silas said.
The heavier demands of the job since the pandemic, combined with fewer and fewer people to do the work, has created what even the federal health minister calls a crisis.
“We need to stop the bleed,” Silas said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.
Mia Rabson and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
Governments seek buyer as Quebec COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Medicago set to close
Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said Friday the province has had preliminary talks with potential buyers in the pharmaceutical sector to keep Medicago’s expertise and skilled workforce in Quebec. He said both the Quebec and federal governments would be willing to put in money to secure a deal.
“We can’t operate it ourselves; the government will not be the main shareholder,” Fitzgibbon said. “But if there is a pharmaceutical company that considers it’s worth continuing, we’re ready to help.”
Mitsubishi Chemical said Thursday it would stop marketing the Medicago-produced Covifenz vaccine, which is plant-based and was approved by Health Canada one year ago for adults aged 18 to 64.
The Japanese chemical company said it had been preparing to commercially produce the Covifenz vaccine but decided against doing so because of the “significant changes” in the COVID-19 vaccine environment. The company said it would dissolve Medicago because it is no longer “viable” to continue marketing its products.
“In light of significant changes to the COVID-19 vaccine landscape since the approval of Covifenz, and after a comprehensive review of the current global demand and market environment for COVID-19 vaccines and Medicago’s challenges in transitioning to commercial-scale production, the (company) has determined that it will not pursue the commercialization of Covifenz,” Mitsubishi Chemical said in a statement.
Following the announcement, Medicago issued a statement thanking its employees. “The Medicago team has pushed scientific boundaries and we know that they will continue to make incredible contributions to innovation and biopharmaceutical’s sector.”
Canada invested $173 million in Medicago in 2020 to support development of the Covifenz vaccine and help Medicago expand its production facility in Quebec City.
On Thursday, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters the federal government is in “solution mode.”
“Our first order of business is really to try to find a partner who can help us preserve the jobs, preserve the technology and the intellectual property,” Champagne said.
The minister acknowledged that mRNA vaccine technology for COVID-19 became dominant as it “seemed to be most effective.”
But Medicago’s plant-based vaccine was still “promising,” Champagne said.
“Everyone agreed that the plant-based vaccine could very well help in a future pandemic,” Champagne said.
Speaking to reporters on Montreal’s South Shore Friday, Fitzgibbon said the company informed the province at the end of December it intended to pull the plug on Medicago.
In May 2015, Quebec and Ottawa announced loans of $60 million and $8 million, respectively, for the construction of a complex in the Quebec City region to house Medicago’s activities.
“The challenge is not (getting the loan repaid), it’s how we can save the jobs, save this company,” Fitzgibbon said.
While Canada authorized Medicago’s vaccine in February 2022, it was rejected for emergency use by the World Health Organization in March because tobacco company Philip Morris was a minority shareholder in the company, contravening a policy adopted in 2005 by the United Nations agency.
Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand said on Twitter he was saddened by the closure of the company.
“My thoughts are with the families who learned some very sad news,” Marchand said Thursday evening. “We have to roll up our sleeves to keep all this expertise in the field of health innovation in Quebec City.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
Bird flu keeps spreading beyond birds. Scientists worry it signals a growing threat to humans, too
As a deadly form of avian influenza continues ravaging bird populations around much of the world, scientists are tracking infections among other animals — including various types of mammals more closely related to humans.
Throughout the last year, Canadian and U.S. officials detected highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu in a range of species, from bears to foxes. In January, France’s national reference laboratory announced that a cat suffered severe neurological symptoms from an infection in late 2022, with the virus showing genetic characteristics of adaptation to mammals.
Most concerning, multiple researchers said, was a large, recent outbreak on a Spanish mink farm.
Last October, farm workers began noticing a spike in deaths among the animals, with sick minks experiencing an array of dire symptoms like loss of appetite, excessive saliva, bloody snouts, tremors, and a lack of muscle control.
The culprit wound up being H5N1, marking the first known instance of this kind of avian influenza infection among farmed minks in Europe, notes a study published in Eurosurveillance this month.
“Our findings also indicate that an onward transmission of the virus to other minks may have taken place in the affected farm,” the researchers wrote.
Eventually, the entire population of minks was either killed or culled — more than 50,000 animals in total.
That’s a major shift, after only sporadic cases among humans and other mammals over the last decade, according to Michelle Wille, a researcher at the University of Sydney who focuses on the dynamics of wild bird viruses.
“This outbreak signals the very real potential for the emergence of mammal-to-mammal transmission,” she said in email correspondence with CBC News.
It’s only one farm, and notably, none of the workers — who all wore face shields, masks, and disposable overalls — got infected.
But the concern now, said Toronto-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, is if this virus mutates in a way that allows it to become increasingly transmissible between mammals, including humans, “it could have deadly consequences.”
“This is an infection that has epidemic and pandemic potential,” he said. “I don’t know if people recognize how big a deal this is.”
H5N1 has high mortality rate
Among birds, the mortality rate of this strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza can be close to 100 per cent, causing devastation to both wild bird populations and poultry farms.
It’s also often deadly for other mammals, humans included.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has documented 240 cases of H5N1 avian influenza within four Western Pacific countries — including China, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam — over the last two decades. More than half of the infected individuals died.
Global WHO figures show more than 870 human cases were reported from 2003 to 2022, along with at least 450 deaths — a fatality rate of more than 50 per cent.
Bogoch said the reported death toll may be an overestimate, since not all infections may be detected, though it’s clear people can “get very, very sick from these infections.”
Most human infections also appeared to involve people having direct contact with infected birds. Real-world mink-to-mink transmission now firmly suggests H5N1 is now “poised to emerge in mammals,” Wille said — and while the outbreak in Spain may be the first reported instance of mammalian spread, it may not be the last.
“A virus which has evolved on a mink farm and subsequently infects farm workers exposed to infected animals is a highly plausible route for the emergence of a virus capable of human-to-human transmission to emerge,” she warned.
Louise Moncla, an assistant professor of pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania school of veterinary medicine, explained that having an “intermediary host” is a common mechanism through which viruses adapt to new host species.
“And so what’s concerning about this is that this is exactly the kind of scenario you would expect to see that could lead to this type of adaptation, that could allow these viruses to replicate better in other mammals — like us.”
Surveillance, vaccines both needed
What’s more reassuring is the ongoing development of influenza vaccines, giving humanity a head start on the well-known threat posed by bird flu.
Wille noted the earlier spread of H7N9, another avian influenza strain which caused hundreds of human cases in the early 2010s, prompted similar concern that the virus would acquire the mutations needed for ongoing human-to-human transmission.
“However, a very aggressive and successful poultry vaccination campaign ultimately stopped all human cases,” she added.
But while several H5N1 avian influenza vaccines have been produced, including one manufactured in Canada, there’s no option approved for public use in this country.
To ward off the potential threat this strain poses to human health, Bogoch said ongoing surveillance and vaccine production needs to remain top-of-mind for both policy makers and vaccine manufacturers.
Dr. Jan Hajek, an infectious diseases physician at Vancouver General Hospital, also questioned whether it’s time to wind down global mink farming, given the spread of various viruses, from avian influenza to SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19.
“We’re closely related to minks and ferrets, in terms of influenza risks … if it’s propagating to minks, and killing minks, it’s worrisome to us,” he said.
In 2021, B.C. officials announced an end to mink farming across the province, saying the farms can be reservoirs for viruses and represent an ongoing danger to public health. All mink farm operations must be shut down, with all of the pelts sold, by April 2025.
However, other provinces — and plenty of countries — do intend to keep their mink farms operating.
“Is it responsible to have these kinds of farming conditions where these types of events can occur?” questioned Moncla. “If we’re going to keep having these types of farms, what can we do to make this safer?”
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