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Two foreign athletes test positive for COVID-19 in run-up to Beijing Winter Olympics

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Merck to supply up to 1 million courses of COVID-19 pill to Canada

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Merck & Co said on Friday it would supply Canada with up to 1 million courses of molnupiravir, its experimental oral antiviral medicine for the treatment of COVID-19.

The government of Canada has secured access to 500,000 courses in 2022, with options for up to 500,000 more, pending Health Canada‘s approval, the company said.

Merck said it had filed the final molnupiravir real-time application seeking approval in Canada last month.

Rival Pfizer Inc said on Wednesday it had started the real-time submission of an application seeking Health Canada‘s approval of its oral COVID-19 antiviral drug candidate.

Canada‘s government earlier this week said it was in advanced talks with Pfizer and Merck regarding a purchase agreement for COVID-19 antiviral drugs as the country prepares to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The country has so far discovered a total of 11 cases of the variant.

Merck said it expects to produce 10 million courses of treatment by the end of 2021, with at least 20 million courses to be produced in 2022.

Merck also entered into a pact with the U.S. Government to supply about 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir, upon Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) or approval from the country’s health regulator.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Amy Caren Daniel)

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WHO chief scientist urges people not to panic over Omicron

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The World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist told the Reuters Next conference on Friday that people should not panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and said it was too early to say if vaccines would need to be reworked.

Soumya Swaminathan told the conference that the fast-spreading variant would have to become more transmissible to out-compete the Delta variant, which accounts for 99% of current transmissions.

“We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.

Swaminathan cited data showing the number of Omicron cases is doubling daily in South Africa, where it was first identified.

Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the new variant out.

Nevertheless, Omicron has been identified in 40 countries, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing.

A corporate Christmas party in the Norwegian capital Oslo resulted in at least 13 infections, making it the biggest outbreak outside of South Africa, officials said.

Much remains unknown about Omicron. Parts of Europe are grappling with a wave of infections of the more familiar Delta variant.

WHO’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan, said there was no evidence that existing vaccines needed to be modified to fight Omicron. He said officials should focus on getting more people inoculated with vaccines currently on the market.

“We need to focus on getting people most at risk vaccinated,” Ryan said at a social media event.

However, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a United Nations briefing in Geneva that vaccine makers should prepare for the likelihood of adjusting their products.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of Germany’s BioNTech, which makes a COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer, told Reuters Next the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly.

Sahin also said current vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.

“I believe in principle at a certain timepoint we will need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgent it needs to be available,” Sahin said.

WORRYING GAPS IN VACCINATION

Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant, while Nebraska became the sixth U.S. state to report its presence.

Zimbabwe said it had identified 50 cases and Canada reported 11.

Almost 264 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus since it was first detected in central China in late 2019 and 5.48 million people have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Cases in Europe, the pandemic’s current epicentre, crossed the 75 million mark on Friday.

Vaccination rates vary from country to country but there are worrying gaps in poorer nations. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and once Asia’s COVID-19 epicentre, has fully inoculated only about 35% of its population.

In the United States, the Biden administration has announced measures to guard against the virus spreading. From Monday, international air travellers arriving in the United States will have to have obtained a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel.

Fewer than 60% of the U.S. population have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations.

Aside from wreaking havoc in the travel industry, the clampdown has pounded financial markets and undermined major economies just as they were beginning to recover from the lockdowns triggered by Delta.

Bank of England policymaker Michael Saunders, who voted for an interest rate hike last month, said on Friday he wanted more information about Omicron before deciding how to vote this month.

Germany said it would bar the unvaccinated from all but essential businesses, and legislation to make vaccination mandatory would be drafted for early next year.

Several countries, including Britain and the United States, were bringing forward plans to offer booster shots, but, like travel bans, they are controversial.

Many scientists say the way to stop the virus spreading is to make sure poorer countries have access to vaccines, not to give blanket booster shots to people in richer countries.

 

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Andy Sullivan, Stephen Coates and Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool)

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Arra: Too soon to be sounding alarm about Omicron – Toronto Star

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GREY-BRUCE – Dr. Ian Arra, Grey-Bruce medical officer of health (MOH), said in an interview Tuesday, Nov. 30, that it’s too soon to be getting excited about the new Omicron variant that’s been hitting the headlines.

“We don’t have much information about it,” Arra said, noting that while the variant appears to have the potential for increased transmission and “vaccine escape,” it will take a couple of weeks to understand more about it. He added that even if the variant does prove to be more easily transmitted than other forms of the virus, and current vaccines are less effective in prevention, “we have a robust set of tools” to use against it.

The virus was fought quite effectively before vaccines were available, the MOH said. Measures such as mask-wearing and distancing worked before vaccines, and they work now.

“There is no benefit in getting excited,” he said, noting that just as a spike in the number of cases for two or three days cannot be viewed as a trend, neither can the presence of a new variant of the virus be seen as reason for alarm. “It is concerning but not a cause for panic,” he said.

While there have been some days recently where the number of new cases of COVID-19 was up, Arra said that Monday and Tuesday of this week saw only three new cases in the previous 24 hours. He does not consider it a trend unless a week goes by with increased numbers. He explained that because the number of people in Grey-Bruce is so low compared to other areas, even a small increase in numbers is important. “But is it significant?” he asked.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Arra said. “In Grey-Bruce, the numbers are as good as it gets for the fourth wave. There are no outbreaks in long-term care, in daycare, in workplaces.”

He added, “It is a privilege to work in an area where there is such a strong commitment… to reduce the risk for all of us.

“My advice is for people to be vigilant,” Arra said, especially during the holidays.

A person who is unvaccinated should invest 10 to 15 minutes a day for a few days to get informed (from valid sources, such as the public health unit’s website) about the vaccine and COVID-19, and make the decision on vaccination accordingly, for the protection of the person’s family and community.

During the holidays, anyone who is unvaccinated and visiting others would be advised to mask and distance.

Arra said the people of Grey-Bruce have “invested considerable effort” in taking precautions against COVID-19, and were able to enjoy Halloween “with no impact.” He expressed the sincere hope that the people of Grey-Bruce will be able to safely enjoy Christmas and the holidays.

Outbreak at school

The Grey Bruce Health Unit is working with Bluewater District School Board to address an outbreak of COVID-19 at Holland Chatsworth Central School.

There have been several instances of COVID in schools this fall. However, this is the first one to be considered an outbreak, meaning there is evidence of transmission within the school environment. Two confirmed cases have been identified.

Any involved bus routes are considered low-risk. Anyone at risk has been contacted and four cohorts identified as contacts are presently excluded from the school.

The MOH said that there are presently seven people at the school who have tested positive for COVID-19, but transmission in most cases has proved to have taken place outside the school, for example, between family members at home. The outbreak involves only the two cases.

The health unit states that this outbreak highlights the need for everyone who’s eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.

That now includes children who turn five years old this year, and older. The health unit will be hosting vaccination clinics at arenas, community centres and schools (during non-school hours) on a regular basis. Some clinics are designed for children aged five to 11. These can be found on the health unit’s vaccine schedule. Appointments are needed for children in this age group; these cannot be booked through the health unit.

For children aged five to 11, COVID-19 vaccines should be booked through the provincial vaccination portal or by calling 1-833-943-3900. The COVID-19 vaccine should be given at least 14 days before or after other vaccines. Second doses must be booked separately at least eight weeks after the first dose. People aged 12 and over do not need an appointment. In addition, primary care providers and pharmacies may be offering COVID-19 vaccines for children and youth.

On Saturday, Nov. 27, eight new cases were reported. That was down to three new cases on Nov. 28. There are 47 active cases and 390 active high-risk contacts. Two people are hospitalized with COVID in Grey-Bruce.

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