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What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

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Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Hong Kong expands travel curbs, Australia reports 5 cases

Hong Kong expanded a ban on entry for non-residents from several countries as global health authorities raced to curb a potential outbreak of the Omicron virus, while Australia’s cabinet will review containment steps on Tuesday after five tested positive.

Omicron – first reported in southern Africa and which the World Health Organization (WHO) said carries a “very high” risk of infection surges – has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from a two-year pandemic. In Australia, the five travellers with Omicron are all vaccinated and in quarantine, health officials said, adding they are asymptomatic or display very mild symptoms.

Vaccine makers start work on Omicron-tailored shots

BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are working on vaccines that specifically target Omicron in case their existing shots are not effective against the new coronavirus variant, the companies said on Monday.

A top South African infectious disease expert said Omicron appears to be more transmissible than previous variants, including to people with immunity from vaccination or prior infection.

China’s Xi pledges another 1 bln vaccine doses for Africa

China will deliver another 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa and encourage Chinese companies to invest no less than $10 billion in the continent over the next three years, President Xi Jinping said on Monday.

China’s imports from Africa, one of its key sources of crude oil and minerals, will reach $300 billion in the next three years, Xi said, adding that the two sides would cooperate in areas such as health, digital innovation, trade promotion and green development.

Coronavirus reinfections rarely severe

Reinfections with the virus that causes COVID-19 are rarely severe, new findings suggest. Researchers in Qatar compared 1,304 individuals with a second SARS-CoV-2 infection against 6,520 people infected with the virus for the first time. Reinfected patients were 90% less likely to be hospitalised compared to patients infected for the first time, and no one in the study with a second infection required intensive care or died from COVID-19, said Dr. Laith Jamal Abu-Raddad of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar in Doha.

“Nearly all reinfections were mild, perhaps because of immune memory that prevented deterioration of the infection to more severe outcomes,” he said. It is not clear how long immune protection against severe reinfection would last, the researchers noted. If it does last for a long time, they speculate, it might mean that as the coronavirus becomes endemic, infections could become “more benign.”

Experimental smartwatch COVID-19 detection improving

Smartwatch alerting systems for early detection of COVID-19 infection are coming closer to reality, researchers reported on Monday in Nature Medicine. They tested their new system, developed with open-source software, in 2,155 wearers of Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin watches or other devices. Ultimately, 84 of the volunteers were diagnosed with coronavirus infections – including 14 of 18 people without symptoms.

Overall, the researchers’ algorithms generated alerts in 67 (80%) of the infected individuals, on average three days before symptoms began. “This is the first time, to our knowledge, that asymptomatic detection has been shown for COVID-19,” they said. Presently, the system mainly depends on measurements of wearers’ resting heart rate, said study leader Michael Snyder of Stanford University School of Medicine in California. When watches can report other health data such as heart rate variability, respiration rate, skin temperature, and oxygen levels, it will become easier to distinguish the COVID-19 cases from other non-COVID-19 events, researchers said.

 

(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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Pakistan says trial of Chinese traditional medicine for COVID-19 successful

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Pakistani health authorities on Monday announced the completion of a successful clinical trial of Chinese traditional herbal medicine for treating COVID-19, as the South Asian nation enters a fifth wave of the pandemic driven by the Omicron variant.

The Chinese medicine, Jinhua Qinggan Granules (JHQG) manufactured by Juxiechang (Beijing) pharmaceutical Co Ltd, is already being used in treatment of COVID-19 patients in China.

“Since it was tried on patients with different variants of COVID-19, we expect it to be effective on Omicron as on other variants,” Professor Iqbal Chaudhry, director of the International Center for Chemical and Biological Science (ICCBS) where trials were conducted, told reporters.

The trials were conducted on 300 patients who were treated at home, and would work on mild to moderate COVID-19 cases, Dr Raza Shah, principal investigator in the trials, told reporters, adding that the efficacy rate was around 82.67%.

The trials were approved by the Drug Regulatory Authority Pakistan.

Pakistan reported 4,340 COVID-19 cases on Monday, the highest recorded in a 24-hour period in three months. Karachi, the country’s largest city, recorded a positivity rate – the percentage of tests coming back positive – of 39.39% at the weekend, the highest so far.

“In the last seven days, COVID cases in Pakistan have increased by 170% while deaths have also increased by 62%,” the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC), which is overseeing the pandemic response, said in a tweet on Monday.

 

(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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How (and why) to 'green' your Mediterranean diet – The Globe and Mail

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An 18-month trial published Jan. 10 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated the effect of a ‘green’ Mediterranean diet) on age-related brain atrophy.Hayden Bird/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A Mediterranean diet has been tied to better cognitive function, a lower rate of cognitive decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

This eating pattern, plentiful in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and olive oil, has also been associated with lower rates of age-related brain atrophy, brain damage which can lead to cognitive impairment and dementia.

So far, though, there’s sparse data from randomized controlled trials on whether following a Mediterranean diet can preserve brain volume.

Until now.

New research from Israel has shown that eating a Mediterranean diet slowed the age-related loss of brain tissue. What’s more, a new take on the diet, a “green” Mediterranean diet, had even greater brain-health benefits.

The latest study

The 18-month DIRECT PLUS trial, published Jan. 10 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, investigated the effect of a high-polyphenol Mediterranean diet (a “green” Mediterranean diet) on age-related brain atrophy.

Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds found in a wide range of plant foods. DIRECT PLUS stands for Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial – Polyphenols Unprocessed.

The researchers assigned 284 adults with abdominal obesity, average age 51, to one of three diet groups: 1) healthy diet guidelines, 2) a Mediterranean diet or, 3) a higher-polyphenol green Mediterranean diet.

Both Mediterranean diets were calorie-restricted and included 28 g of walnuts (e.g., 14 walnut halves), nuts high in polyphenols.

To boost polyphenols, the green Mediterranean diet included four to five cups of green tea daily and a green shake containing Mankai, a branded strain of an aquatic plant called duckweed (or water lentils). Those in the green Mediterranean diet group also further reduced their intake of processed and red meat.

All participants received free gym memberships and a program of aerobic and resistance exercise.

Participants underwent brain MRI (magnetic-resonance-imaging) scans before and after the trial. Specific areas of the brain were measured as indicators of brain atrophy and predictors of future dementia risk.

Over 18 months, participants in both Mediterranean diet groups had a significantly lower decline in brain atrophy compared to the healthy diet guideline group. The greatest decline in brain tissue loss, however, was observed among those consuming the green Mediterranean diet, especially in people over age 50.

The green Mediterranean diet components – green tea, Mankai and walnuts – were each associated with reduced brain atrophy, as was eating less red and processed meat.

Participants in both Mediterranean diet groups also had improvements in insulin sensitivity, which was also tied to less brain volume loss.

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Limitations, strengths

The study didn’t show a significant effect of either Mediterranean diet on cognition, perhaps because the study wasn’t long enough and/or it involved relatively young and healthy people.

All diet groups participated in physical exercise, which may have contributed to the slowdown of brain atrophy.

The strengths of this study include participants high adherence to their diets and that, to date, it’s the longest and largest brain MRI study investigating the effect diet on brain atrophy.

How polyphenols protect the brain

The beneficial effect of the Mediterranean diet on brain aging is thought to be due, at least in part, to its abundance of polyphenols, phytochemicals which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Polyphenols can cross the blood-brain barrier and have been shown to reduce nerve cell inflammation and stimulate an increase in brain cells.

Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in fish, vegetables and olive oil is also thought to protect the brain from a buildup of proteins that form plaques and destroy brain cells.

‘Greening’ your Mediterranean diet

Following a Mediterranean eating pattern means including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, pulses, nuts and olive oil in your daily diet.

Limit red meat to three meals a week. The green Mediterranean diet limits meat even further, getting more protein from beans, lentils and nuts. Flavour meals with polyphenol-rich herbs and spices.

Build on these staples by adding more polyphenol-rich foods to your daily diet, including 28 g of walnuts. Drink three or four cups of green tea each day (white and oolong tea also have polyphenols).

Drinking a Mankai green shake may be more challenging, though, at least for Canadians. In the U.S., frozen cubes of Mankai duckweed are sold online through Amazon and WW (Weight Watchers). Mankai duckweed powder is also available online.

Add other polyphenol-rich foods to your diet, too, such as berries, apples, kale, broccoli, spinach, cocoa, tofu, edamame, flaxseed and pecans.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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Moderna CEO says data for Omicron-specific shot likely available in March

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Moderna Inc’s vaccine candidate against the Omicron coronavirus variant will enter clinical development in the next few weeks and the company expects to be able to share data with regulators around March, CEO Stephane Bancel said on Monday.

“The vaccine is being finished … it should be in the clinic in coming weeks. We are hoping in the March timeframe to be able to have data to share with regulators to figure out next steps,” Bancel said at the World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos Agenda conference.

Moderna is also developing a single vaccine that combines a booster dose against COVID-19 with its experimental flu shot. (https://reut.rs/3FAeyya)

Bancel said the best case scenario was the combined COVID/flu vaccine would be available by the fall of 2023, at least in some countries.

“Our goal is to be able to have a single annual booster so that we don’t have compliance issues where people don’t want to get two to three shots a winter.”

Many countries are already offering a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to their citizens, especially to older individuals and those who are immunocompromised, while Israel has started offering its citizens a fourth dose.

Earlier in January, Moderna’s CEO said people may need a fourth shot in the fall of 2022 as the efficacy of boosters against COVID-19 was likely to decline over the next few months.

However, booster programs have met with skepticism from some disease experts over whether, and how widely, additional doses should become available, including the European Union’s drug regulator, which has expressed doubts about the need for a fourth booster dose.

Speaking at the same event, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said there was no evidence that repeat booster doses would overwhelm the immune system.

“Giving boosters at different times, there is really no evidence that’s going to hinder (immune response).”

Fauci said the goal should be to have a booster that induces a response against multiple potential variants.

 

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Mark Potter)

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