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Variants of concern cause more than 40% of new COVID-19 cases in Ontario, experts say – CBC.ca

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Variants of concern are currently responsible for about 42 per cent of new daily cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, the province’s science advisory table said Thursday.

The group, made up of health experts and professionals, launched a new online dashboard focused on the variants of concern (VOCs). It shows that the variants continue to spread. The data is more or less right on track with what was predicted in models released by the table in late February.

Critically, the reproduction value — an estimate of how many people each positive case will go on to infect — for VOCs is about 1.24, the table said. Any value above one suggests that the rate of new cases is growing. 

Meanwhile, for the “old” variants — those that were present before the current VOCs were circulating — the reproduction value is 0.9.

So far in Ontario, labs have definitively linked 956 cases to the variant first found in the United Kingdom; 41 to the variant identified in South Africa and 28 to the variant found in Brazil.

But those figures are a drastic undercount of the real situation. Specific variants can only be confirmed once the samples have undergone whole genomic sequencing, an intensive process that can lead to reporting lags in the data of up to three weeks.

As of yesterday, however, 6,513 test samples had screened positive for the tell-tale mutation that indicates the presence of a VOC. Labs are still trying to pinpoint specific variants in the vast majority of those samples.

Speaking to CBC News on Thursday afternoon, Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the province’s Science Table, said the province is facing a “race against time” between the variants and vaccines.

Ontario will need to tighten restrictions “very soon,” he said.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news here but looking at these numbers, unless a miracle is happening, and typically miracles don’t happen that fast, this will continue,” Juni said.

“There is no way that this growth all of a sudden will stop spontaneously. This will continue, and we need to pull the emergency brake.”

WATCH | Doctor explains problem with virus variants:

Aggressive COVID-19 variants have the upper hand in Ontario, which is why the province needs to vaccinate as quickly as possible, said Dr. Peter Jüni of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. 3:15

Seeing as some variants are thought to be around 40 per cent more transmissible, how the province previously handled things will not be enough to keep things under control, Juni added.

“So what we now need to do is put all our efforts once more into controlling this thing, better than before if possible … and really vaccinate as fast as we can.”

According to new provincial modelling released Thursday afternoon, the reproduction value for the B117 variant needs to be below 0.7.

Its current value is between 0.8 and 0.9, and it has only approached 0.7 once, the modelling documents say.

Provincial health officials say this “highly transmissible” variant will “soon dominate.”

The science table report also says that aggressive vaccination and sticking with stay-at-home orders would “help avoid a third wave and third lockdown.”

The report also notes that public health measures have helped with cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations.

Focusing vaccination on long-term care homes has helped drive down deaths, it says.

3 possibilities for daily infection rates presented

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said vaccinating in long-term care has been a “clear success.” Now, the province is focusing its attention on the larger community. 

“If we use the tools we have to reduce risk as much as we can, as fast as we can, we will end up protecting all Ontarians,” Brown said.

Provincial Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said Thursday that Ontarians have another four to five months “of clear, hard work ahead of us to keep the numbers down.”

Brown provided three scenarios for the next three weeks from the province’s modelling, though he noted there is “a lot of uncertainty” around what will happen in the coming weeks in Ontario.

In the most optimistic scenario, there would be relatively small but continued growth, he said, topping out around 2,000 cases a day. In a medium scenario, cases “increase substantially” up to 6,000 cases a day, he said. A worst case scenario would be even more than that.

“Our behaviour over the next few weeks is critical in determining the quality of our summer,” Brown added.

1,092 new cases as Sudbury set for lockdown

Ontario reported another 1,092 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, while public health units administered a record-high number of vaccine doses.

The 40,610 shots given out yesterday are the most on a single day so far and come as a pilot project to give 194,500 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to some adults through pharmacies and primary care providers begins in earnest this week.

A total of 281,714 people in Ontario have now had both shots of a vaccine, according to the province’s health ministry.

The new cases reported today include 293 in Toronto, 199 in Peel Region, 79 in York Region and 48 in Thunder Bay — the health unit with the highest number of active COVID-19 cases per capita.

An additional 11 cases were also confirmed in Sudbury. This morning, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said the province would implement its so-called “emergency brake” to move Sudbury to the grey-lockdown zone of the restrictions framework starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

 WATCH| Torontonians reflect on the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic:

One year ago, the World Health Organization declared the spread of the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic. In response, Justin Trudeau designated March 11 a national day of observance. Greg Ross spoke with some Torontonians to reflect on the toll of the pandemic. 2:24

In a news release, health officials said the decision was made “due to the concerning trends in public health indicators and in consultation with the local medical officer of health.

“From March 3 to 9, 2021, the region’s case rate increased by 54.1 per cent to 75.9 cases per 100,000 people,” the release said. The health unit is currently in the red “control” tier of the colour-coded system.

Other public health units that saw double-digit increases were:

  • Ottawa: 64
  • Simcoe Muskoka: 43
  • Windsor-Essex: 39
  • Hamilton: 38
  • Waterloo Region: 37
  • Durham Region: 36
  • Halton Region: 33
  • Lambton: 33
  • Middlesex-London: 26
  • Niagara Region: 26
  • Eastern Ontario: 18
  • Chatham-Kent: 10

(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit on a given day, because local units report figures at different times.)

The seven-day average of new daily cases climbed to 1,252, its highest point in about a month (though it is important to note that, due to a data error, the daily case count on March 8 was artificially inflated by a few hundred infections that should have been reported the previous Saturday).

Meanwhile, labs completed 60,619 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity rate of 2.4 per cent.

Labs confirmed another 35 cases of the virus variant first found in the United Kingdom, bringing the total number so far 956. They also reported 11 and two more cases caused by the variants first identified in Brazil and South Africa.

Public health units also recorded the deaths of 10 more people with the illness, pushing Ontario’s official toll to 7,109.

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U.K. advises limiting AstraZeneca in under-30s amid clot worry

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LONDON —
British authorities recommended Wednesday that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine not be given to adults under 30 where possible because of strengthening evidence that the shot may be linked to rare blood clots.

The recommendation came as regulators both in the United Kingdom and the European Union emphasized that the benefits of receiving the vaccine continue to outweigh the risks for most people — even though the European Medicines Agency said it had found a “possible link” between the shot and the rare clots. British authorities recommended that people under 30 be offered alternatives to AstraZeneca. But the EMA advised no such age restrictions, leaving it up to its member-countries to decide whether to limit its use.

Several countries have already imposed limits on who can receive the vaccine, and any restrictions are closely watched since the vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to store than many others, is critical to global immunization campaigns and is a pillar of the UN-backed program known as COVAX that aims to get vaccines to some of the world’s poorest countries.

“This is a course correction, there’s no question about that,” Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said during a press briefing. “But it is, in a sense, in medicine quite normal for physicians to alter their preferences for how patients are treated over time.”

Van-Tam said the effect on Britain’s vaccination timetable — one of the speediest in the world — should be “zero or negligible,” assuming the National Health Service receives expected deliveries of other vaccines, including those produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

EU and U.K. regulators held simultaneous press conferences Wednesday afternoon to announce the results of investigations into reports of blood clots that sparked concern about the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The EU agency described the clots as “very rare” side effects. Dr Sabine Straus, chair of EMA’s Safety Committee, said the best data is coming from Germany where there is one report of the rare clots for every 100,000 doses given, although she noted far fewer reports in the U.K. Still, that’s less than the clot risk that healthy women face from birth control pills, noted another expert, Dr. Peter Arlett.

The agency said most of the cases reported have occurred in women under 60 within two weeks of vaccination — but based on the currently available evidence, it was not able to identify specific risk factors. Experts reviewed several dozen cases that came mainly from Europe and the U.K., where around 25 million people have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“The reported cases of unusual blood clotting following vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine should be listed as possible side effects of the vaccine,” said Emer Cooke, the agency’s executive director. “The risk of mortality from COVID is much greater than the risk of mortality from these side effects.”

Arlett said there is no information suggesting an increased risk from the other major COVID-19 vaccines.

The EMA’s investigation focused on unusual types of blood clots that are occurring along with low blood platelets. One rare clot type appears in multiple blood vessels and the other in veins that drain blood from the brain.

While the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks, that assessment is “more finely balanced” among younger people who are less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19, the U.K’s Van-Tam said.

“We are not advising a stop to any vaccination for any individual in any age group,” said Wei Shen Lim, who chairs Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. “We are advising a preference for one vaccine over another vaccine for a particular age group, really out of the utmost caution rather than because we have any serious safety concerns.”

In March, more than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, suspended their use of AstraZeneca over the blood clot issue. Most restarted — some with age restrictions — after the EMA said countries should continue using the potentially life-saving vaccine.

Britain, which relies heavily on AstraZeneca, however, continued to use it.

The suspensions were seen as particularly damaging for AstraZeneca because they came after repeated missteps in how the company reported data on the vaccine’s effectiveness and concerns over how well its shot worked in older people. That has led to frequently changing advice in some countries on who can take the vaccine, raising worries that AstraZeneca’s credibility could be permanently damaged, spurring more vaccine hesitancy and prolonging the pandemic.

Dr. Peter English, who formerly chaired the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, said the back-and-forth over the AstraZeneca vaccine globally could have serious consequences.

“We can’t afford not to use this vaccine if we are going to end the pandemic,” he said.

In some countries, authorities have already noted hesitance toward the AstraZeneca shot.

“People come and they are reluctant to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, they ask us if we also use anything else,” said Florentina Nastase, a doctor and co-ordinator at a vaccination centre in Bucharest, Romania. “There were cases in which people (scheduled for the AstraZeneca) didn’t show up, there were cases when people came to the centre and saw that we use only AstraZeneca and refused (to be inoculated).”

Meanwhile, the governor of Italy’s northern Veneto region had said earlier Wednesday that any decision to change the guidance on AstraZeneca would cause major disruptions to immunizations — at a time when Europe is already struggling to ramp them up — and could create more confusion about the shot.

“If they do like Germany, and allow Astra Zeneca only to people over 65, that would be absurd. Before it was only for people under 55. Put yourself in the place of citizens, it is hard to understand anything,” Luca Zaia told reporters.

The latest suspension of AstraZeneca came in Spain’s Castilla y Leon region, where health chief Veronica Casado said Wednesday that “the principle of prudence” drove her to put a temporary hold on the vaccine that she still backed as being both effective and necessary.

French health authorities had said they, too, were awaiting EMA’s conclusions, as were some officials in Asia.

On Wednesday, South Korea said it would temporarily suspend the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in people 60 and younger. In that age group, the country is only currently vaccinating health workers and people in long-term care settings.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said it would also pause a vaccine rollout to school nurses and teachers that was to begin on Thursday, while awaiting the outcome of the EMA’s review.

But some experts urged perspective. Prof Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of Britain’s vaccination committee, said that the program has saved at least 6,000 lives in the first three months and will help pave the way back to normal life.

“What is clear it that for the vast majority of people the benefits of the Oxford AZ vaccine far outweigh any extremely small risk,” he said. “And the Oxford AZ vaccine will continue to save many from suffering the devastating effects that can result from a COVID infection.”

Source: – CTV News

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Facebook downplays ‘old’ breach exposing info on 533 million users

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Facebook is downplaying the significance of a data breach that saw the personal information of 533 million of its users accessed online, saying the information is old and the vulnerability that was exploited was closed almost two years ago.

Over the weekend, Business Insider reported that personal information of Facebook users in 106 countries was found on a low-level hacking forum, free of charge. Cybercrime intelligence firm Hudson Rock calculated that almost 3.5 million Canadians were included.

Information included names, phone numbers, locations, birth dates, email addresses and other identifying details. No financial or payment information was accessed, Facebook said.

In a statement on its website Tuesday the social media giant said the information was gathered via a vulnerability the company fixed almost two years ago, and disputed that it was a hack.

Data scraped, not hacked: Facebook

“It is important to understand that malicious actors obtained this data not through hacking our systems but by scraping it from our platform prior to September 2019,” said product management director Mike Clark.

Scraping refers to the act of gathering information that is already out there but somewhat hidden on public databases.

The company said whoever collected and assembled the data did so by abusing the contact importing service, which allows users to find other people in their network on Facebook.

Facebook said whoever did it seems to have uploaded a large set of phone numbers to see which ones matched Facebook users.

David Masson, director of enterprise security at cybersecurity firm Darktrace, says the information has likely been out there and spread widely for a while, before being outed recently.

“It’s been on the Web for quite a while, probably for sale to people,” he said. “But now somebody’s just offered it up for free.”

Building a profile

Greg Wolfond, CEO of data security firm SecureKey, said that in a vacuum, much of the information taken can seem innocuous and harmless, but when taken together can be very dangerous.

“What the hackers do is they try and get little bits of data about you in this case something like your phone number,” he told CBC News in an interview. They can then combine that with other bits of information — an address, a full name — and start building a profile.

What’s most dangerous is once they have gathered enough to attempt to gain access to a cellphone account. With the right combination of information, a telecom company may allow someone walking in to port the account number to a new phone.

 

Cybersecurity expert David Masson with Darktrace says Facebook users shouldn’t assume the company’s size and scope make them better at fending off attacks. (Darktrace)

 

“They take over your phone, and within minutes of taking over your phone, they’re trying to get into your bank account, to get into your Facebook account, your Google account, whatever you use that phone as your recovery for,” he said.

Typically, consumers are urged to fight data theft by doing things like changing passwords frequently, and making the complex. But those things are of little use when companies claim the right to reams of data about their users, and promise to keep it safe.

“Empowering individuals to share their data and putting a responsibility on parties that have the data to keep it secure,
is super important,” he said.

Not Facebook’s first user-info incident

Although the company is downplayed in the incident, it is far from the company’s first misstep with user info.

In 2018, the social media giant disabled a feature that allowed users to search for one another via phone number following revelations that the political firm Cambridge Analytica had accessed information on up to 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent.

In December 2019, a Ukrainian security researcher reported finding a database with the names, phone numbers and unique user IDs of more than 267 million Facebook users — nearly all U.S.-based — on the open internet.

Spark15:32Digital security expert shares tips on how to protect your data while working remotely 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are spending more of our time at home online than ever before – and according to Citizen Lab’s John Scott-Railton, this makes us vulnerable to privacy and security threats. 15:32

Facebook says it will “continue aggressively go after malicious actors who misuse our tools,” and touted its dedicated team focused on this work” but  Masson says users shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that the company’s size and scope somehow make them better equipped to keep user data safe.

“It doesn’t matter how big or sophisticated you are, they can be attacked,” he said.

Like many breaches, this one was only discovered long after the fact, and that’s because the technology company’s use isn’t keeping up with the ones the hackers are using.

“There are better technologies that actually work on what happens once the bad guys get inside your network rather than when they’re banging on the door outside. So people [have] got to realize this will happen again.

Source: – CBC.ca

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