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World on alert for potential spread of new SARS-like virus found in China – Science Magazine



On New Year’s Day, Wuhan health authorities closed a live animal market linked to the mysterious outbreak.


Had the nightmare returned? That’s the question many were asking in the first 10 days of this year, after a new form of pneumonia emerged in Wuhan, a megacity in central China. The outbreak revived memories of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the disease that emerged in China in 2002 and sickened 8098 people in 37 countries before it was quashed in the summer of 2003. Like SARS, the Wuhan pneumonia cases were linked to a market selling myriad species of live animals, and they appear to be caused by a new member of the coronavirus family closely related to the SARS virus. And once again, China appeared to be less than forthcoming with information.

Today, global health experts are breathing a little easier. As Science went to press, only one of 42 people known to be infected had died: a 61-year-old man already suffering from abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease. (SARS had a 9.6% mortality rate.) No evidence suggests the virus easily passes between humans, which can turn a local problem into a global crisis. And Chinese researchers have now shared the sequence of six genomes of the as-yet-unnamed virus with the world.


 Scientists in other countries have used the data. The World Health Organization (WHO) plans to soon publish a diagnostic test for the new virus that was developed by Christian Drosten, a virologist at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, and other researchers based on the sequences released by China. It detects fragments from three different genes in the novel coronavirus that are also present in the SARS virus. “We wanted to use SARS as a basis because every public health laboratory has SARS RNA as a positive control so they can get started immediately,” says Drosten, noting that SARS itself has not been detected in humans in 15 years. Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is already trying to synthesize live virus from the data so that he can study it in animals and help develop a simple-to-use antibody test.

Still, many questions remain. Researchers have not identified the animal species at the marketplace that harbored the virus. When it emerged and the true number of people infected remain a mystery. Meanwhile, a case in Thailand, reported on 13 January—in a tourist who flew from Wuhan to Bangkok—led WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to consult experts on outbreak responses. The patient had not visited the Wuhan market at the center of the outbreak but had been to other animal markets, WHO reported on 14 January.

The first known patient developed symptoms—which can include difficulty breathing and fever—on 8 December 2019. Officials closed the seafood market on New Year’s Day, and no new patients have been identified in Wuhan since 3 January. The virus was not found in 763 close contacts of those infected, or in health care workers, who often fall ill during outbreaks of viruses that can transmit between humans. “It is a limited outbreak,” says Xu Jianguo, who runs an infectious disease laboratory at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and heads an evaluation committee that’s advising the Chinese government. “If no new patients appear in the next week, it might be over.”

WHO said in a 12 January statement that it was “reassured of the quality of the ongoing investigations and the response measures implemented in Wuhan, and the commitment to share information regularly.”

But others criticized the way early information came out. News that researchers had discovered a novel coronavirus came in an 8 January story in The Wall Street Journal; Xu confirmed the finding on a state-run TV station several hours later. “It’s not a good situation when The Wall Street Journal [reports] a SARS-like coronavirus before the Chinese government announces it,” Baric says. On 10 January, Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who heads the London-based Wellcome Trust, tweeted his worry about rumors that the Chinese government did not share “critical public health information” because Chinese researchers wanted to ensure publication of their findings in high-profile journals first.

Less than 12 hours later, however, evolutionary biologist Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney published an “initial” sequence of the new coronavirus on, on behalf of a consortium led by Zhang Yong-Zhen of Fudan University in Shanghai. The next day, three groups working under China’s National Health Commission posted another five sequences of the virus, gathered from different patients, on GISAID, a database primarily used for sharing data on influenza viruses.

The six sequences differ little from each other, which evolutionary biologist Andrew Rambaut of the University of Edinburgh says is “consistent with a point source”—meaning they likely came from the same batch of infected animals at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which also sells birds, snakes, and rabbit meat. (No coronaviruses have ever been found in fish.) But the fact that cases surfaced over the course of 1 month suggests the source was more than one group of animals at one location, Farrar says: “It makes me worry that whatever the exposure was to, it went on for quite a long time.” Virologist Guan Yi of Hong Kong University agrees that the Wuhan outbreak was caused by multiple jumps from animal to human hosts “separately and independently.”

Whatever species spread the virus at the market may have picked it up from some natural reservoir. Many coronaviruses occur naturally in bats, and the new virus is closest to four bat viruses that have surface proteins capable of infecting human cells. Still, Rambaut cautions there may well be another natural host. “It’s quite similar to a bat virus in parts of its genome, but not so much in other parts,” he says.

Farrar notes that most confirmed cases to date were mild, which means that even before health officials recognized the outbreak, the virus may have infected many other people who never sought medical care. That makes it premature to conclude the pathogen doesn’t spread from human to human, he says. Nurses and doctors, too, may have been infected without anyone noticing, he adds: “With a coronavirus, I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t some limited human-to-human transmission.” So far, cases have been confirmed by detecting nucleic acid from the virus, which disappears after patients recover. Now that the virus has been isolated, researchers can also develop antibody tests that pick up signs of past infection.

Limited as the outbreak appears to date, Farrar and others still worry that travel of hundreds of millions of people for the Lunar New Year celebration on 25 January could spread the virus from Wuhan, a major transportation hub, to other cities. “With people, food and animals move,” says Farrar, who suspects that this outbreak “is not going away anytime soon.”

With reporting by Kai Kupferschmidt.

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Common, inexpensive diabetes drug could cut long COVID risk, study finds –



A well-known, inexpensive diabetes drug appears to cut the risk of developing long COVID, hopeful-but-early new research suggests.

The study, published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, found outpatient treatment with the drug metformin — a common treatment for Type 2 diabetes — reduced long COVID incidence among infected patients by 41 per cent.

Roughly six per cent of those taking metformin went on to develop the condition, compared to close to 11 per cent of those in the placebo group. Participants on metformin were also less likely to be hospitalized roughly a month after infection by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.


“Metformin has clinical benefits when used as outpatient treatment for COVID-19 and is globally available, low-cost and safe,” wrote the research team. 

Lead author Dr. Carolyn Bramante, a physician-scientist with the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told CBC News that the effect was even larger when metformin was given quickly �— in less than four days — during someone’s infection. She said metformin may be helping patients fight off the virus, or reducing inflammation, though more research is needed to figure out why the drug appears to work.

“Our data don’t suggest anything about whether metformin would treat long COVID in someone who already has it,” she said, “so that’s an important area of research where trials should be done.”

Two other drugs, ivermectin and fluvoxamine, were also studied, but neither made a difference on the incidence of long COVID.

A new study found metformin — a common treatment for Type 2 diabetes — reduced long COVID incidence among infected patients by 41 per cent. (Francis Dean/Corbis/Getty )

‘Potentially landmark’ findings

The research involved randomized, quadruple-blind trials on roughly 1,400 people at six sites in the U.S., through multiple waves of the pandemic, and looked at both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals — though only those with first-time infections.

Outside medical experts say it’s one of the more robust studies yet on a potential preventative aimed at long COVID.

“I think it’s a significant start to having a better understanding of the role of metformin in reducing the risk of long COVID,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto. “There’s been hints of data over the last couple of years … this furthers that discussion.”

If confirmed, the findings are “profound and potentially landmark on two distinct counts,” wrote Dr. Jeremy Faust, from Harvard Medical School, in an accompanying commentary in the Lancet.

The paper offers the “first high-quality evidence” showing incidence of long COVID can be reduced through a medical intervention, he wrote, and offers an important medical contribution regarding the very existence of the condition, since “a treatment can only be effective if there is something to treat.”

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In a statement, Dr. Frances Williams, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, cautioned there would need to be extensive use of metformin to realize the study’s seemingly impressive outcomes.

“In total, 564 people were exposed to the drug metformin to prevent 23 hypothetical cases. This means 24 people would need to take metformin to prevent one case of [long COVID].”

Fatigue, ‘brain fog’

Marked by a variety of lingering symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath and feelings of ‘brain fog’, and formally known as post COVID-19 condition, long COVID is thought to be less common by this point in the pandemic, largely thanks to widespread protection from vaccinations.

But the condition can still be debilitating for some, including millions of people around the world — including many in Canada — who became infected with earlier SARS-CoV-2 variants before the arrival of vaccines. 

While physicians are hopeful the new research may fuel additional study and potentially help bring down long COVID rates even further, there were some key limitations.

For one thing, it only focused on adults between age 30 and 85 who were overweight or had obesity — so the drug’s impact on individuals of other body weights isn’t yet known.

“It’s not entirely clear how generalizable this will be,” Bogoch said.

In his comment for the Lancet, Faust also noted that since the participants were given a diabetes drug, there may be reduced symptoms linked to undiagnosed diabetes among the patients. “Furthermore, the mechanism of action by which metformin might reduce the incidence of long COVID remains unclear,” he wrote.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta, noted the study didn’t follow long COVID patients using any “standardized criteria.”

But, she said in an email to CBC News, “it still is really positive and encouraging that a treatment in early COVID could reduce risk of prolonged symptoms: additional studies in other patient groups and with more specific long COVID symptom followup will be really helpful.”

Bogoch stressed that, while the drug shows potential, it wouldn’t “solve all of our issues with long COVID.” However, it could become an important tool given its decades-old safety profile, he said. 

“If this is something that, indeed, pans out, and if metformin truly has some properties that reduce the risk of developing long COVID, that’s wonderful because it’s a cheap, widely available [drug].”

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Hair loss can be difficult, cancer patients say — and some want better access to options –



White Coat Black Art26:30Hair Loss Part I: The trouble with wigs

Cairo Gregory doesn’t think about her hair too often — anymore.


For much of her life, she says she didn’t have the “greatest” relationship with her hair. Gregory, a 16-year-old student in Toronto, had at one point straightened her hair so much, it ended up damaged. So she cut it short — “I hated it,” she said.

But eventually, as she learned to style her hair, she grew to love it. So last year, when her hair started falling out in her second week of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, she says she found the loss difficult. Like many of those going through chemotherapy, she made the decision to completely shave her head as she started shedding.

“I think that was probably the most upsetting part for me,” she told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman.

“When it fell out, it was like my entire Instagram [timeline] was just hair videos, like new hairstyles because I’d gotten really into that at that point. So it really sucked when it was like something that actually really, really became important to me at that period of time.”

When she began losing her hair during chemotherapy, Gregory enlisted a friend to help shave it off. (Submitted by Cairo Gregory)

Despite advances in cancer treatment, little has changed with respect to its effects on hair. Chemotherapy attacks fast-growing cells in the body — including hair. For many patients, that means losing their locks during treatment.

That can have an impact on a person’s self-confidence and how they feel about themselves during treatment. But alternatives, like wigs and cold-capping procedures that can protect a patient’s hair, are out of reach for many patients due to price and availability.

For Gregory, the problem was compounded by a lack of hospital resources and alternative hair options for people of colour, she said.

“There isn’t a pamphlet that they hand out for people with curly hair to go find wigs. There should be one,” she said.

Wigs can be pricey, but free alternatives exist

Losing hair during cancer treatment can be a shocking experience. Some patients say losing hair can make the psychological burden of chemotherapy feel heavier, given they don’t look like themselves.

“Obviously nobody wants to feel sick, but I didn’t want to look sick,” said Tammy Wegener, who was treated for breast cancer in 2022. “I wanted to feel that I had some peace of mind, that my kids had some peace of mind going through all this.”

That’s something Mona Rozdale says she hears often.

“At the end of the day, everybody wants to feel like themselves, and when you strip something that you’re so used to having, you don’t know life without it,” she said.

Rozdale is responsible for the Canadian Cancer Society’s wig and breast prosthetics bank lending program, which is free.

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She says wigs can be a helpful solution to those facing hair loss. But they can also be pricey. On average, a good quality wig made from human hair can cost around $2,500, according to Rozdale. But cheaper synthetic wigs are starting to look more realistic.

When Gregory couldn’t find a wig that fit her style — or budget of around $500 — at a hospital boutique, she opted to have her mother’s hairdresser make her one at a discount.

Scalp cooling is resource-intensive

Some people being treated for cancer have kept their natural hair with a process known as scalp cooling or cold capping.

Patients wear an intensely cold helmet before, during and after chemotherapy that constricts blood vessels in the scalp. It involves chilled caps that are swapped out regularly, or a machine that pumps cold liquid through an attached cap. In doing so, chemotherapy is less likely to reach and damage hair follicles, potentially reducing hair loss.

Woman in a chair, wrapped in a knitted blanket, wears a helmet like cap at a hospital.
Tammy Wegener decided to try scalp cooling during her treatment for breast cancer, for both herself and her family. (Submitted by Tammy Wegener)

With limited data on its efficacy and a high price tag, however, cold capping is not widely available across Canada.

“The greatest limitation is chair time. It is a resource-rich type of use of the machine,” said Dr. Shannon Salvador, gynecologic oncologist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and an associate professor at McGill University.

“When you have a patient who has to come for chemo every single week, that’s a great deal of time for them and a lot of time in the hospital to be able to come and use the machine.” 

But Salvador, who has studied the effectiveness of scalp cooling, says there is evidence it does work for some patients.

In a 2021 study she co-authored, published in the journal Gynecologic Oncology Reports, over half of patients who were on a smaller weekly dose of a chemotherapy drug retained about 50 per cent of their hair when using a cold cap. The cold cap treatment didn’t work for those on a larger dose. 

Cold caps limited at Canadian hospitals

Cold capping is not available to people with certain types of cancer, such as blood cancers, and those being treated with certain types of chemotherapy.

White Coat, Black Art reached out to several cancer centres in Canada, and found scalp cooling offered at just a handful of hospitals, often at the patient’s expense.

Wegener, 49, was able to access the treatment for free at Saint John Regional Hospital after a scalp cooling machine was donated by a nurse at the institution. 

LISTEN | Why advocates want scalp cooling available at more hospitals:

26:30Hair Loss Part II: Cold Capping

Salvador says she expects hospitals will still rely on donations and external support for scalp cooling technology, rather than funding them directly.

“We need to acknowledge that, in Canada, we are in a socialized health-care system where we need to place the money where it’s going to do the most benefit,” she said. 

“Unfortunately that does mean turning away things that are of great emotional benefit to patients, but may not play a great deal in their actual clinical care.”

Woman poses for a selfie
Wegener says she was able to keep most of her hair thanks to the cold cap, noticing only some thinning. (Submitted by Tammy Wegener)

Cold capping was a success for Wegener, who says during her chemotherapy treatment she noticed only some thinning of her hair and eyebrows. Based on her own experience, she hopes to see it in more places.

“Not that it’s for everybody and not everybody sees the results I saw with mine,” Wegener said. “But I think it still should be an option for everyone.”

Growing back

Gregory, the Toronto student who is still anxious about her cancer potentially returning, has become more comfortable with — and without — her wig. 

She went to class bald for the first three months of the school year, in part because she also lost hair on and around her face, making the wig look unnatural. But she has since confidently worn wigs to school, and now has enough of her natural hair to add in braids.

“That took a year. It’s almost been a year since my hair started going back,” she said.

“I think by next summer I could probably wear a ponytail wig and then hopefully, like maybe a few summers after that, I won’t wear wigs anymore at all.”

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Addictions counselling services expanded for Vancouver Islanders



People struggling with mental health and substance abuse can access up to 12 free counselling sessions per year in a new Island Health program.

Leah Hollins, Island Health Board Chair, says “This represents a significant expansion and investment in community-based counselling services to improve access to these services on Vancouver Island.”

Virtual Island-wide services will be available through Cognito Health, and Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centre. Services are also available in Port Hardy through North Island Crisis and Counselling Services and in Nanaimo through EHN Outpatient Services and Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Society.

The publicly-funded, community-based counselling is intended for people with moderate challenges. The new partnership with Island health will meet the counselling needs of at least 1,500 people per year.


Access to the counselling services is via referral or self-referral through Island Health Mental Health and Substance Use locations.


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