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Why it may be harder to catch COVID-19 from surfaces than we first thought – CBC.ca

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This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


Disinfecting groceries, wiping down packages, cordoning off playgrounds. 

While those approaches to avoiding COVID-19 infection became commonplace early on in the pandemic, the virus may not transmit as easily on surfaces as was originally thought — and experts say it may be time to shift our focus on how we protect ourselves.

To date, there have been “no specific reports” of COVID-19 directly from contact with contaminated surfaces, even though research consistently shows the virus can survive on them for several hours or days, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

The update was part of a new scientific brief released by the UN agency outlining its stance on how COVID-19 spreads, after an open letter from more than 200 experts to change its messaging on the possibility it transmits through the air.

Despite the lack of concrete evidence on surface transmission, the WHO still maintains  contaminated surfaces – also known as fomites – are a “likely mode of transmission” for COVID-19.

Surfaces ‘not a significant risk’ for COVID-19

But experts from a variety of disciplines aren’t convinced, and some warn the focus on surfaces has been overblown.

Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at the New Jersey Medical School of Rutgers University, said in an article published in The Lancet journal earlier this week that the risk of COVID-19 infection from surfaces is “exaggerated.”

“This is not a significant risk,” he told CBC News. “Not even a measurable risk.”

Goldman said the evidence for infection from surfaces was based on lab experiments that were unrealistic when compared to real life situations and used extremely large amounts of virus to test if it could survive over extended periods of time.

Linsey Marr, an expert in the transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech who has studied the survival of COVID-19 on surfaces, said that while it’s possible people could get infected from surfaces, it’s still unclear if it’s actually happening.

Restaurants with patios, shopping malls and hair salons are among the businesses allowed to reopen as Toronto begins phase two of a stepped return to pre-COVID-19 operations on June 24, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“I think the thinking has changed,” Marr said, adding the perceived risk of transmission from contaminated surfaces is lower than it was earlier in the pandemic when not much was known about the coronavirus.

She said in order to be infected with COVID-19 from a surface, a person would have to transfer it to their fingers where it would need to survive long enough to enter the body by touching the eyes, nose or mouth. 

“We know that virus can survive [on surfaces] and then the question is, can people pick those up and transfer them into their respiratory tract?” Marr said. “You have to have a lot of virus on there to cause infections.”

The average person infected with COVID-19 also isn’t typically shedding large amounts of the virus at any given time, noted infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“Viruses aren’t that environmentally hardy,” he added.

“They’re built to infect humans. They’re built to infect cells. As soon as they leave the human host and enter the environment, they become more and more unstable.”

Watch | Are you safer from COVID-19 indoors or outdoors?

Andrew Chang asks an infectious disease doctor whether it’s safer to be indoors or outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic. 1:02

Eugene Chudnovsky, a professor of physics at the City University of New York whose research has focused on the spread of the virus, said the threat of infection from a surface like a doorknob really depends on the conditions to which it was exposed.

“If there are just a few people touching it in an hour, it’s very unlikely it will contain the infective dose of the virus,” he said.

“But if this is a door that is getting opened every few seconds for a lengthy bit of time and there is a significant number of symptomatic infected people who are touching it during a few hours, it can accumulate a significant amount of the virus.”

Disinfecting surfaces ‘not as necessary as we thought’

One of the reasons the evidence for COVID-19 infection from surfaces is lacking is because it’s difficult to track through contact tracing.

“You can start asking people about conversations they had and places they were, but when you start asking them about surfaces they’ve touched, it gets much, much harder to really pin it down,” said Erin Bromage, an associate biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who researches infectious diseases.

“They’re probably associated with a few percentage of transmissions, probably at the highest, which is a lot lower than what we find say for influenza – but it seems to be not a major driver with this particular pathogen.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada maintains it is “not certain how long COVID-19 survives on surfaces,” and says the risk of infection from things like packages is low. It does, however, still list contaminated surfaces as a common route of infection.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on surface transmission of COVID-19 in May, saying it “may be possible” a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it but it’s not “the main way the virus spreads.”

“There’s just a growing narrative that the degree of transmission through fomites is probably less than what was earlier anticipated,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital.

“The vast majority of transmission seems to be through close contact with an infected individual, primarily in an indoor setting.”

He said the change in thinking around the risk of COVID-19 infection from surfaces means that the average person’s groceries are probably much less of a threat than a visit to the grocery store.

“It reinforces hand hygiene, but it also tells us that the need to disinfect every surface that comes into the house is probably not as necessary as we thought it was earlier on in the pandemic,” he said. “It’s not hurting anybody, but it’s just not necessary.”

WATCH | How to handle your groceries during the COVID-19 outbreak:

The coronavirus can live up to several days on some surfaces, but experts say there’s no reason to worry about the groceries you bring home. CBC News shows you how basic hygiene will keep you safe from your groceries. 1:36

Bromage, who wrote a viral blog post in May shared by millions explaining the places people are most at risk of COVID-19 infection, said the risk of transmission from surfaces on things brought into the home is “quite low” in countries like the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s probably something to be aware of,” he said, “but something that we don’t need to focus a lot of anxiety and attention on.”

Chagla said the initial focus on surface contamination also sparked a common practice that could be downright harmful: wearing latex gloves while running errands or shopping.

Discared gloves are pictured at North York General Hospital on May 26, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Going to the grocery store wearing a pair of gloves is probably not the cleanest thing to be doing,” he said.

While health-care workers and food service staff wear gloves for infection control reasons, Chagla stressed they’re used for specific purposes, and short periods of time.

Wearing gloves for extended stretches while touching various objects can lead to cross-contamination the longer you’re wearing them, he said, which winds up being less helpful than just washing or sanitizing your bare hands regularly.

‘Misinterpretation’ of data

For parents of young children who are concerned about the risk of COVID-19 infection from surfaces like playgrounds, which have been off limits in cities like Toronto for months, the lack of evidence is no doubt frustrating.

Marr thinks the guidance on children avoiding playgrounds has been “misguided” throughout the pandemic.

“Playgrounds are probably one of the safer places for kids to congregate, if they have to congregate,” she said. “And the reason why is that sunlight kills off the virus pretty effectively. So if it is on surfaces, I don’t think it’s going to last very long.”

Chagla said at this point in the pandemic, there’s no “good reason” why playgrounds should remain closed, given the combination of sunlight and open-air ventilation making them a relatively low-risk activity.

Marr said the real risk of infection from playgrounds is largely from kids who are in close contact with each other, not from the surfaces they’re interacting with.

Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Wednesday that officials are weighing the evidence on infection in children, but that the risk seems low. 

Caution tape is wrapped around a swing set at a playground in Regina on June 10. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

“From the science, what we know is that certainly young people, children, are less likely to have more severe consequences if they do get infected with the virus,” he said.

“It also appears that in terms of transmission, young children — at least in some of the studies i’ve seen — do not appear to be as efficient or effective in terms of transmitting the virus to others.”

Goldman said misguided policy decisions from governments and businesses pushed him to speak out about the lack of evidence for COVID-19 risk from surfaces.

“The problem is the public policy was driven by this misinterpretation of the data,” he said.

“It’s not that the data were wrong, but they were not the right data. It was not data that applied to the actual situations that are relevant.”

Goldman said these policy decisions can be “counterproductive” because they can “dilute” effective prevention measures like physical distancing and wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s actually harmful to have the wrong interpretation of the data,” he said. 

“I think it’s time to say the emperor has no clothes.”


To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.

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Biden’s vaccine pledge ups pressure on rich countries to give more

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The United States on Thursday raised the pressure on other Group of Seven leaders to share their vaccine hoards to bring an end to the pandemic by pledging to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest countries.

The largest ever vaccine donation by a single country will cost the United States $3.5 billion but Washington expects no quid pro quo or favours for the gift, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

U.S. President Joe Biden‘s move, on the eve of a summit of the world’s richest democracies, is likely to prompt other leaders to stump up more vaccines, though even vast numbers of vaccines would still not be enough to inoculate all of the world’s poor.

G7 leaders want to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 to try to halt the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 3.9 million people and devastated the global economy.

A senior Biden administration official described the gesture as a “major step forward that will supercharge the global effort” with the aim of “bringing hope to every corner of the world.” “We really want to underscore that this is fundamentally about a singular objective of saving lives,” the official said, adding that Washington was not seeking favours in exchange for the doses.

Vaccination efforts so far are heavily correlated with wealth: the United States, Europe, Israel and Bahrain are far ahead of other countries. A total of 2.2 billion people have been vaccinated so far out of a world population of nearly 8 billion, based on Johns Hopkins University data.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. with the vaccines, delivering 200 million doses in 2021 and 300 million doses in the first half of 2022.

The shots, which will be produced at Pfizer’s U.S. sites, will be supplied at a not-for-profit price.

“Our partnership with the U.S. government will help bring hundreds of millions of doses of our vaccine to the poorest countries around the world as quickly as possible,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

‘DROP IN THE BUCKET’

Anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam called for more to be done to increase global production of vaccines.

“Surely, these 500 million vaccine doses are welcome as they will help more than 250 million people, but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the need across the world,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead.

“We need a transformation toward more distributed vaccine manufacturing so that qualified producers worldwide can produce billions more low-cost doses on their own terms, without intellectual property constraints,” he said in a statement.

Another issue, especially in some poor countries, is the infrastructure for transporting the vaccines which often have to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Biden has also backed calls for a waiver of some vaccine intellectual property rights but there is no international consensus yet on how to proceed.

The new vaccine donations come on top of 80 million doses Washington has already pledged to donate by the end of June. There is also $2 billion in funding earmarked for the COVAX programme led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the White House said.

GAVI and the WHO welcomed the initiative.

Washington is also taking steps to support local production of COVID-19 vaccines in other countries, including through its Quad initiative with Japan, India and Australia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in St. Ives, England, Andrea Shalal in Washington and Caroline Copley in Berlin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Keith Weir;Editing by Leslie Adler, David Evans, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Giles Elgood and Jane Merriman)

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Vaccines donated by the United States and China

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Both the United States and China have pledged large donations of COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world. Washington has promised 80 million doses, three-quarters of which will be delivered via the international vaccine initiative COVAX, in what has been seen as an effort to counter China’s widening vaccine diplomacy. It began deliveries last week.

China had shipped vaccines to 66 countries in the form of aid, according to state news agency Xinhua. Beijing has not disclosed an overall figure for its donations but Reuters calculations based on publicly available data show at least 16.57 million doses have been delivered. China has also pledged to supply 10 million doses to COVAX.

VACCINES DONATED BY U.S. (plan for the first 25 mln):

Regional partners and priority recipients

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Including Canada, Mexico, 1 mln to S.Korea in June

South Korea, West Bank and

Gaza, Ukraine, Kosovo,

Haiti, Georgia, Egypt,

Jordan, India, Iraq, Yemen,

United Nations

TOTAL 6 mln 1 mln

Allocations through COVAX

South and Central America

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Brazil, Argentina, Colombia,

Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador,

Paraguay, Bolivia,

Guatemala, El Salvador,

Honduras, Panama, Haiti,

Dominican Republic and other

Caribbean Community

(CARICOM) countries

TOTAL 6 mln

Asia

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

India, Nepal, Bangladesh,

Pakistan, Sri Lanka,

Afghanistan, Maldives,

Malaysia, Philippines,

Vietnam, Indonesia,

Thailand, Laos, Papua New

Guinea, Taiwan, and the

Pacific Islands

TOTAL 7 mln

Africa

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

To be selected in

coordination with the

African Union

TOTAL 5 mln

VACCINES DONATED BY CHINA (source – Reuters calculations and official data):

Asia Pacific

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Afghanistan 400,000

Bangladesh Second batch of First batch of 500,000 delivered

600,000 on May 12

Brunei 52,000 in Feb

Cambodia 1.7 mln as of April 28

Kyrgyzstan 150,000 in March

Laos 300,000 in Feb

800,000 in late March

300,000 in late April

Maldives 200,000 in early March

Mongolia 300,000 in late February

Myanmar 500,000 in early May

Nepal 800,000 in late March

1 mln in early June

Pakistan 500,000 in early Feb

250,000 in Feb

500,000 in March

Philippines 600,000 in late Feb

400,000 in late March

Sri Lanka 600,000 at end March

500,000 in late May

Thailand 500,000 in May

500,000 in June

Timor-Leste 100,000 100,000 in early June

TOTAL 11.052 million

Africa

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Angola 200,000 in late March

Algeria 200,000 200,000 in Feb

Botswana 200,000 in April

Cameroon 200,000 in April

Congo 100,000 100,000 in March

Egypt 600,000 in March

Ethiopia 300,000 in late March

Equatorial Guinea 100,000 in Feb

Guinea 200,000 in early March

Mozambique 200,000 in late Feb

Namibia 100,000 by early April

Niger 400,000 in late March

Sierra Leone 240,000 by late May

Togo 200,000 in April

Uganda 300,000

Zimbabwe 200,000 in Feb

200,000 in March

100,000 in May

TOTAL 3.74 million

South America

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Bolivia 100,000 in late Feb

100,000 in late March

Venezuela 500,000 in early March

TOTAL 700,000

Europe & Middle East

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Belarus 100,000 in Feb

300,000 in May

Georgia 100,000 at end April

Iran 250,000 at end February

Iraq 50,000 in early March

Montenegro 30,000 in early March

North Macedonia 100,000 in May

Syria 150,000 in late April

TOTAL 1.08 million

 

(Reporting by Roxanne Liu and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Cooper Inveen in Dakar; Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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Coronavirus Worldwide right now

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

Australia’s Melbourne to exit lockdown

Australia’s second largest city Melbourne will exit a hard lockdown as planned on Thursday night, Victoria state authorities said, although some restrictions on travel and gatherings would likely remain for another week.

After two weeks in a strict lockdown that forced people to remain at home except for essential business, Melbourne’s five million residents will get more freedom to step outside from 11:59 p.m. local time (1359 GMT) on Thursday.

However, people must stay within 25 km (15 miles) of their homes, officials said, in an effort to stop transmission during an upcoming long weekend. There will also be a total ban on house gatherings and masks will be mandatory indoors.

Deliveries of Thai-made AstraZeneca vaccines delayed

Malaysia and Taiwan are expecting deliveries of AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in Thailand to be delayed, officials said, the latest countries to report a holdup with orders from the Thai plant.

The delay comes amid concerns over AstraZeneca’s distribution plans in Southeast Asia, which depends on 200 million doses made by Siam Bioscience, a company owned by Thailand’s king that is making vaccines for the first time.

Any questions about Siam Bioscience meeting production targets are sensitive because King Maha Vajiralongkorn is its sole owner. Insulting Thailand’s monarchy is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Indonesia aims to speed up vaccinations

President Joko Widodo said on Wednesday he hoped Indonesia’s vaccination rollout will hit one million shots a day by July, as authorities opened up inoculations to anyone aged over 18 in Jakarta to contain increased transmission in the capital.

Health officials in the world’s fourth most populous country, which aims to vaccinate 181.5 million people by next year, are trying to speed up the rollout after facing some supply issues.

The president said he wanted vaccinations to hit a targeted 700,000 doses a day this month and then rise again.

Singapore finds Delta most prevalent among variants

Singapore has found the Delta variant of the coronavirus to be the most prevalent among local cases of variants of concern (VOCs), according to health ministry data, highlighting its level of infectiousness.

There were 449 local cases with VOCs as of May 31, of which 428 were the Delta variant first detected in India and nine of the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.

Singapore reported its 34th death due to COVID-19, taking its toll from the pandemic beyond the 33 casualties recorded during the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak.

U.S. forming expert groups on lifting travel restrictions

The Biden administration is forming expert working groups with Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom to determine how best to safely restart travel after 15 months of pandemic restrictions, a White House official said on Tuesday.

Another U.S. official said the administration will not move quickly to lift orders that bar people from much of the world from entering the United States because of the time it will take for the groups to do their work.

The groups will be led by the White House COVID Response Team and the National Security Council and include the Centers for Disease Control and other U.S. agencies.

 

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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