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Tracking omicron: Canadian scientists race to understand new variant – CBC News

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Canadian scientists are racing to understand more about the threat of the omicron variant — how fast it spreads, whether it causes more or less severe illness, and if it can escape previous immunity to COVID-19 — but it could take weeks before a full picture emerges.

There have been dozens of suspected and confirmed cases of omicron reported throughout Canada in recent days, but several have no known link to international travel and have prompted concerns the variant could already be driving outbreaks here.

Health officials in London, Ont., confirmed omicron is now linked to a cluster of at least 40 COVID-19 cases in the city associated with schools, child care centres and a church, with 171 high-risk close contacts identified. 

And countries such as South Africa, Denmark and England are already reporting widespread community transmission of the variant, with growing evidence that omicron was already spreading in Europe before it was identified by researchers in southern Africa. 

Dozens of suspected and confirmed cases of omicron have been reported throughout Canada in recent days, but several have no known link to international travel and have prompted concerns the variant could already be driving outbreaks here. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Canadian labs better prepared for omicron 

But the capacity to analyze this new variant and quickly share information about it both in Canada and globally has grown dramatically from a year ago, when the alpha and beta variants of concern first emerged.

“The most important thing for Canadians to know is that we have spent more than a year building the capacity for genomic surveillance,” said Catalina Lopez-Correa, executive director of The Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN). 

“But it’s really early days for us to predict the clinical outcomes, the transmissibility, also we don’t know if this variant will be as fast taking over like delta … all this we can only see with time.”

Marc-André Langlois, a molecular virologist at the University of Ottawa who heads the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net), says labs across the country are working tirelessly to conduct experiments on omicron. 

“What’s changed is the fact that we’ve managed to bring our academic laboratory assets together,” Langlois said. “We have epidemiologists, we have modellers, we have immunologists, virologists and they’ve all come together.” 

Guillaume Bourque, director of bioinformatics at the McGill Genome Centre in Montreal, says Canada is also now able to act on the data more quickly.

“Now we have the system in place,” Bourque said. “We want to make it available to public health and to the scientific community as fast as possible, so that people can really start working on trying to understand the variant and then give advice to public health in terms of the best approach to try to contain it.”

Langlois says that the early data coming out of southern Africa on omicron is useful — but limited in scope.

“That snapshot is very, very different to the Canadian landscape. So the information we have now is indicative, but it’s not a true reflection of what’s going to happen when this variant spreads in Canada,” he said. “This is why we need a Canadian network to look at the Canadian situation.”

WATCH | Spike in COVID-19 levels in South Africa as omicron variant spreads:

South Africa sees spike in COVID-19 cases as omicron variant spreads

4 days ago

Duration 2:02

The omicron variant is driving a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases across South Africa. Scientists believe the variant is more transmissible, and may even bypass acquired immunity in some people who have recovered from COVID-19. 2:02

Langlois said the first tests will look at whether antibodies from COVID-19 vaccines will still neutralize the virus compared to other variants, but figuring out how much of an impact omicron could have on vaccine effectiveness at a population level will take time. 

“We’re talking about maybe two, three more weeks to get some neutralizing data from the blood of Canadians,” he said. 

Not enough data to ‘speculate’ on omicron impact yet

But Canadian scientists aren’t just looking on Canadian soil for answers — they’re also poring over hints from around the world about the impact omicron could have here. 

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, says epidemiologic data from documented omicron cases in Canada and globally will be key.

“We’re looking at the number of breakthrough infections that occur, looking at the number of people who’ve been vaccinated, who end up not only with infection with the omicron variant but also in the hospital,” she said. 

“We are reliant on these studies to determine really whether the vaccines will remain effective — including protecting against severe disease caused by omicron.” 

Another way scientists are understanding more about how omicron spreads is by experimenting with the virus in other species using challenge studies, where animal models are vaccinated and then infected with the variant to determine how severe their illness is. 

“We’re looking to see what type of clinical manifestations this variant causes in laboratory animals and if in laboratory animals this particular variant can transmit easily,” said Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and VIDO in Saskatoon.

“Those are key evaluations that need to occur before we can really speculate anything about this variant.” 

People travel at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Friday. New travel testing and restrictions have been put in place due to the omicron variant. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Could omicron overtake delta in Canada?  

Delta remains the dominant variant in Canada, but if early speculation about omicron being more transmissible and causing less severe disease holds true, experts say we could be looking at a very different epidemic picture in Canada in the coming weeks and months. 

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if it does take off because if it’s like delta, the main thing we can do is slow down progression,” said Bourque. 

“We need to learn as much as we can from experiments that we’ll be doing here on those samples, but also from other colleagues from all over the world.” 

Bourque says Canadian scientists can piece together a better picture of omicron in the coming days, which will help  “buy ourselves a few weeks” to make the most educated decision possible going forward on how best to mitigate potential spread.

“What concerns I think a lot of scientists, including myself, is that we’re seeing omicron slowly overtaking delta in southern parts of Africa. So at least over there, it looks like it is more transmissible than delta,” Langlois said. 

“Will that hold true for Canada and the northern hemisphere? We don’t know. But it is likely to be more transmissible.” 

Delta remains the dominant variant in Canada, but if premature speculation about omicron being more transmissible and causing less severe disease holds true, experts say we could be looking at a very different epidemic picture in Canada soon. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘Concerning’ mutations don’t tell whole story

Omicron contains more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, the part of the coronavirus which helps it enter human cells, some of which are associated with resistance to neutralization from antibodies. 

But scientists are urging caution before drawing too much from the limited data on the real world impact of omicron to date.

“Those mutations are concerning, but we had several different variants across this pandemic that had mutations in very concerning sites and they didn’t end up being highly transmissible or more pathogenic,” said Lopez-Correa. 

Kelvin says just because a variant has concerning mutations, does not mean it will necessarily take off — especially in the face of other variants like delta.

“The beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa, had probably the lowest amount of neutralization from either vaccine antibodies or antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19,” she said. 

“But that’s not the variant that we saw that spread around the world.” 

Until we know more from laboratory tests and real world data in highly vaccinated populations, speculation about the impact omicron could have in Canada and around the world should be weighed carefully. 

“Yes, this variant is concerning. Yes it will likely be more resistant to neutralization. But is this variant a monster? Probably not. ​​The vaccines will work against this variant,” said Langlois. 

“To what extent? That’s the question.” 

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Sask. RCMP issue Canada-wide warrant for anti-vaccine dad charged with abducting daughter, 7 – CBC.ca

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Saskatchewan RCMP have charged and issued a Canada-wide arrest warrant for a Carievale, Sask., man accused of abducting his daughter to prevent her getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Michael Gordon Jackson, 52, is charged with one count of abduction in contravention of a custody or parenting order, RCMP said in a news release Friday evening.

It comes after CBC News reported earlier this month that the father fled with his seven-year-old daughter, Sarah, in mid-November to keep her from getting immunized against the coronavirus. Jackson’s ex-wife, Mariecar Jackson, had wanted to get their daughter vaccinated, but Jackson did not. 

The girl had been visiting her father when she was allegedly abducted.

Since an enforceable court order was issued earlier this month, investigators say they have followed up on several tips and reported sightings of the father and daughter — including by reviewing surveillance footage at several businesses. However, no tips have led to locating them.

Sarah, 7, is described as four feet two inches tall and 76 pounds with waist-length brown hair that’s all one length. She has brown/hazel-coloured eyes and was last seen wearing teal-coloured eyeglasses. (Saskatchewan RCMP)

At this point, RCMP say, the criteria for an Amber Alert has not been met, which is why Mounties are continuing to ask the public for help in tracking the pair down.

“Sarah: we want you to know that you are not in any trouble,” Chief Supt. Tyler Bates, the officer in charge of the Saskatchewan RCMP south district, said in a message to the girl contained in the news release.

“Your mom misses you very much, and we have police officers doing what they can so you can see her again soon.”

Sarah is described as four feet two inches tall, 76 pounds, with waist-length brown hair that’s all one length. She has brown/hazel-coloured eyes and last wore teal-coloured eyeglasses.

Jackson’s ex-wife, Mariecar Jackson, says she hasn’t communicated with her daughter since mid-November. (Submitted by Mariecar Jackson)

Michael Jackson is described as weighing about 250 pounds with blue eyes and dark brown hair. He also typically wears glasses, RCMP said.

While Jackson resides in the Carievale area — located in Saskatchewan’s southeast corner — Mounties said he may have connections to the communities of Dilke, Oxbow, Alameda and Regina, along with Lamont, Alta. RCMP said he may also be in Manitoba.

“Locating Michael Gordon Jackson and Sarah is a top priority for Saskatchewan RCMP officers,” Bates said. “Our investigators are diligently following up on all tips and reported sightings. We are committed to locating Michael Gordon Jackson and reuniting Sarah with her mom.”

WATCH | Sask. woman says she’ll never stop looking for her child:

Sask. mom pleads for public’s help finding daughter taken by anti-vaccine dad

9 days ago

Duration 1:55

A Saskatchewan mother is pleading for the public’s help to locate her seven-year-old daughter taken in mid-November by the girl’s father to prevent her from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. 1:55 

RCMP noted that investigators believe Michael Jackson may be getting help in evading police and reminded people that this activity may result in criminal charges. 
 
Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Michael or Sarah Jackson is asked to call the Saskatchewan RCMP at 306-310-7267 or 306-780-5563. Tips can also be anonymously submitted to Crime Stoppers at at 1‐800‐222‐8477 or www.saskcrimestoppers.com.

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China’s Investment into Foreign Media

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Over the last few decades, China’s power and influence have grown remarkably quickly. The largest country in Asia is now one of the world’s biggest superpowers, and its influence has extended across the continent and into new territories as the Chinese government looks to cement its power for the future. According to a recent report released by Reporters Without Borders, China has started investing in foreign media to deter criticism and spread propaganda.

According to the research, “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order”, Beijing is spreading its worldview through several techniques, including increased international broadcasting, huge advertising campaigns, and infiltration of foreign media outlets.

China has recently opened laws across the country to give its people more freedom. However, there are still many restrictions in place, including against online gambling. Despite this, Chinese citizens can get online and place sports bets and wagers at online casinos, using trusted online gambling portals such as Asiabet. Interested players can access a wide range of leading casinos and sportsbooks through the site as well as information regarding the legality of the recommended operators, safety, and strategy before joining up, making it easier for players to understand what they’re getting into.

Why Is Chine Looking to Control Foreign Media?

The Chinese government is spending up to $1.3 billion a year to boost Chinese media’s global reach. Chinese state-run television and radio shows have been able to dramatically expand their foreign reach in recent years because of this financing. China Radio International is now transmitted in 65 languages, while China Global Television Network is distributed across 140 countries.

Considering the current global geopolitical climate, this looks to be a smart move, as it allows China to present itself how it wants to be seen to a global audience. In recent years, China has gained media attention across the West for its influence on North Korea, its expansion into the South China Sea, and its treatment of the minority Uighurs within its own country.

How Is China Influencing Foreign Media?

The Chinese government has recently increased spending on advertisements in Western newspapers and publishing sites to promote Chinese viewpoints. Advertising dollars have enticed media outlets, which has had a particularly large impact considering news media is currently struggling with profitability. China Daily, a mouthpiece for the Chinese regime, has paid American newspapers 19 million dollars in advertising and printing in the last four years alone, according to US Justice Department records.

China is also aiming to influence and control foreign media outlets by purchasing interests in them, according to the research. The report found that, in many cases, Chinese ownership typically leads to self-censorship, and journalists have lost their jobs in the past for publishing negative articles about the country.

For example, Reporters Without Borders claim that a journalist for South Africa’s Independent Online, which has a 20% investment in Chinese investors, had his column stopped in September 2018. This came just hours after a column about China’s mistreatment of ethnic minorities was published.

Reporters Without Borders has also claimed that, in addition to buying shares in media firms, Beijing has impacted foreign media by inviting journalists from developing nations to China for training. According to the report, China invited several Zambian journalists to a specially designed event named the 2018 Zambia Media Think Tank Seminar.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Western Media?

China has long had a lack of press freedom, with the country ranked 177 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index in 2021. It looks like the country is using domestic tactics used to control media narratives and bring them to the wider world, allowing it to control what people say about the country and regime in other countries too. By silencing and pressing foreign journalists and news stories, the Chinese government is damaging the trust that people place in the media.

Some people feel that this report is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. It could be that the influence from the Chinese government is even greater than previously expected. While a lot of foreign governments will often have an impact on media in other countries to control a narrative, this is on a scale never seen before.

Despite this, there are many journalists around the world who refuse to be influenced and still work hard to preserve the integrity of journalism. Reporters Without Borders will continue to document and report on the extent of China’s influence on foreign media.

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Emmy-winning actor Louie Anderson dead at age 68

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Louie Anderson, a three-time Emmy Award winner, comedian and game show host, died on Friday morning after a battle with cancer, his publicist told Deadline. He was 68.

The star of the comedy series “Baskets” died in Las Vegas, where he was admitted into a hospital earlier this week for treatment of diffuse large B cell lymphoma, publicist Glenn Schwartz told the entertainment publication.

Anderson was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy Series, winning one in 2016 for his role as Christine Baskets on the FX series.

He also won two Daytime Emmys for outstanding performer in an animated program for “Life with Louie,” a program that aired on Fox in 1997 and 1998.

The Saint Paul, Minnesota, native was a counselor to troubled children before he got his start in comedy when he won first place in the Midwest Comedy Competition in 1981, according to Deadline.

Anderson was in Eddie Murphy’s 1988 hit movie “Coming to America.” He also hosted “Family Feud” from 1999 to 2002 and starred in several situation comedies over the last two decades.

Anderson wrote several books, including “Good­bye Jumbo … Hello Cruel World,” a self-help book for people struggling with self-esteem issues.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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