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Omicron’s Molecular Structure Could Help Explain Its Global Takeover

February 3, 2022

(Nature) – After it was first detected in South Africa last November, Omicron spread around the globe faster than any previous variant of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, readily infecting even those who had been vaccinated or previously had COVID-19. To learn how it was able to do this, scientists have turned to techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy, to visualize Omicron’s molecular structure at near-atomic resolution. By comparing the variant’s structure with that of the original version of SARS-CoV-2, they have begun to shed light on which features of the highly mutated virus have enabled it to evade the body’s immune defences, while also maintaining its ability to attack a person’s cells. And they’ve begun to unpick why Omicron seems to cause milder disease than previous variants. (Read More)

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Study Identifies Virulent HIV Variant Unrecognized for Years

February 3, 2022

(Associated Press) – Scientists have found a previously unrecognized variant of HIV that’s more virulent than usual and has quietly circulated in the Netherlands for the past few decades. Thursday’s report isn’t cause for alarm: HIV medicines worked just as well in people with the mutated virus as everyone else and its spread has been declining since about 2010. It was discovered as part of efforts to better understand how the HIV continues to evolve. (Read More)

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Strained US Hospitals Seek Foreign Nurses Amid Visa Windfall

February 3, 2022

(Associated Press) – With American hospitals facing a dire shortage of nurses amid a slogging pandemic, many are looking abroad for health care workers. And it could be just in time. There’s an unusually high number of green cards available this year for foreign professionals, including nurses, who want to move to the United States — twice as many as just a few years ago. That’s because U.S. consulates shut down during the coronavirus pandemic weren’t issuing visas to relatives of American citizens, and, by law, these unused slots now get transferred to eligible workers. (Read More)

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Some Havana Syndrome Cases Likely Caused by Electromagnetic Waves, Panel Finds

February 3, 2022

(Wall Street Journal) – Some incidents of the debilitating medical condition known as Havana Syndrome are most likely caused by directed energy or acoustic devices and can’t be explained by other factors, a panel of U.S. intelligence analysts and outside experts reported on Wednesday. The signs and symptoms of suspected Havana Syndrome are “genuine and compelling,” the executive summary of the panel’s report states. (Read More)

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Feds’ Contract with Pfizer for Paxlovid Has Some Surprises

February 3, 2022

(NPR) – The United States is spending about $530 for each 5-day course of Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill, Paxlovid. But the contract for the first 10 million doses would allow the government to get a lower price if one of a handful of other wealthy countries gets a better deal on the drug. It’s part of a purchase agreement that seems to be more favorable to the federal government overall compared to the COVID-19 vaccine contracts, says Robin Feldman, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, who focuses on the pharmaceutical industry and drug policy. (Read More)

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Johns Hopkins Study Says COVID-19 Lockdowns Had ‘Little to No Effect’ on Mortality Rates

February 3, 2022

(AllSides) – COVID-19 lockdowns in the U.S. and Europe “should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument,” according to researchers led by the head of Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics. The group’s 62-page study found that lockdowns “reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average,” while also “reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy.” Researchers conducted a statistical analysis combining the results of multiple scientific studies on COVID-19 and public health lockdowns. The study was co-authored by Scandinavian economic advisers Jonas Herby and Lars Jonung, along with Steve H. Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University. Some researchers suggested early in the pandemic that lockdowns were among the best ways to curb the pandemic and reduce COVID-19 mortality; other scientists opposed lockdowns from the beginning and argued that they’d do more harm than good. (Read More)

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A Small Island Nation Has Cooked Up Not 1, Not 2 But 5 COVID Vaccines. It’s Cuba!

February 3, 2022

(NPR) – Three of the vaccines, Soberana 1, Soberana 2 and Soberna Plus, were developed at the Finlay Institute in Havana. The other two, Abdala and Mambisa, came out of Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Soberana 2, Soberana Plus and Abdala are authorized by the Cuban authorities for use and export while the other two (one of which is a nasal spray) are still in clinical trials. None of them have yet been authorized by the World Health Organization or any other major international regulator. (Read More)

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Experts Question Unusual Authorization Plan for Covid Vaccine for Kids Under 5

February 2, 2022

(STAT News) – The Food and Drug Administration’s willingness to consider authorizing a Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for children under the age of 5 — without evidence yet that it would be protective — is raising concerns among some vaccine experts who fear the plan could backfire and undermine vaccine uptake in this group. Pfizer and BioNTech confirmed Tuesday that they had been asked by the FDA to submit an application for the use of a two-dose vaccine in children 6 months to 4 years old. Data on a third shot would be submitted to regulators once they became available in the spring — ostensibly clearing the way for the agency to authorize a three-shot regimen for the youngest children who can get vaccinated. (Read More)

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Hospitals Can’t Accept This as ‘Normal’

February 2, 2022

(The Atlantic) – At the height of the recent Omicron surge, Advocate Trinity Hospital, in Chicago, was inundated with patients who spent more than 40 hours in the waiting room, holding tight for a bed in the emergency room, which was itself heaving with people who were waiting for a spot in the intensive-care unit, which was also full. Someone admitted at night might have seen two sunrises before they saw a bed. The hospital received more COVID-19 patients than at any previous point during the pandemic. These patients waited, as did people with other conditions. “We had patients waiting with bacterial infections, surgical problems, you name it … people who were sick to a degree that we’d never keep them waiting in normal conditions,” Michael Anderson, the emergency department’s medical director, told me. That the hospital could be so besieged two years into the pandemic “is something I never thought in my wildest dreams would occur,” Matt Fox, a respiratory therapist, told me. (Read More)

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Scientists Deliberately Gave People COVID–Here’s What They Learnt

February 2, 2022

(Nature) – Healthy, young people who were intentionally exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus developed mild symptoms — if any at all — finds a first-of-its-kind COVID-19 human challenge study. Such trials present a unique opportunity to study viral infections in detail from start to finish, but are controversial because of the risks they pose to participants. The UK study of 34 individuals, aged 18–30, shows that such trials can be done safely, say scientists, and lays the groundwork for more in-depth studies of vaccines, antivirals and immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection. The results were posted1 on 2 February to the Research Square preprint server and have not been peer-reviewed. (Read More)

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‘Take Back Life’: More Nations Ease Coronavirus Restrictions

February 2, 2022

(Associated Press) – Late-night partying at clubs. Elbow-to-elbow seating in movie theaters. Going without masks in public, especially in Europe and North America: Step by step, many countries are easing their COVID-19 restrictions amid hopes the omicron wave may have passed its peak. The early moves to relax precautions, based on declining or flattening case counts in recent days, represent what could be another turning point in a nearly two-year pandemic that has been full of them. The extraordinarily contagious omicron has fueled more cases worldwide over the past 10 weeks — 90 million — than were seen during all of 2020, the outbreak’s first full year.  But the World Health Organization this week said some countries can now consider carefully relaxing the rules if they have high immunity rates, their health care systems are strong and the epidemiological trends are going in the right direction. (Read More)

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Doctors: Cancer Patients Cured a Decade After Gene Therapy

February 2, 2022

(Associated Press) – In 2010, doctors treated Doug Olson’s leukemia with an experimental gene therapy that transformed some of his blood cells into cancer killers. More than a decade later, there’s no sign of cancer in his body. The treatment cured Olson and a second patient, according to the University of Pennsylvania doctors, who said it was the first time the therapy had been studied for so long. “I’m doing great right now. I’m still very active. I was running half marathons until 2018,” said Olson, 75, who lives in Pleasanton, California. “This is a cure. And they don’t use the word lightly.” His doctors describe the two cases in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. They say the two examples show the treatment, called CAR-T cell therapy, can attack cancer immediately, then stay inside the body for years and evolve there to keep the disease at bay. Such so-called “living drugs” are now used by thousands around the world to treat certain blood cancers. (Read More)

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Pandemic Pushed Deaths Rates to Historic Highs

February 2, 2022

(Medscape) – The COVID-19 pandemic is now associated with the highest number of excess deaths worldwide since the 1918 flu pandemic, sometimes known as the “Spanish flu.” Excess mortality is a way of quantifying the impact of a pandemic, based on overall mortality from nonpandemic periods. Mortality data over long periods of time are not available for many countries, but Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain have accumulated death count data for an uninterrupted period of more than 100 years. (Read More)

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Pfizer Asks FDA to Authorize COVID Vaccine for Kids Under 5

February 2, 2022

(Axios) – Pfizer and BioNTech on Tuesday asked the Food and Drugs Administration to authorize its COVID-19 vaccine for children 6 months to 5 years old. The big picture: Hospitalizations of younger children have reached their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.  (Read More)

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Patients Go Without Covid-19 Treatments Amid Drug Shortage

February 2, 2022

(Wall Street Journal) – Doctors and patients are trying to figure out how to obtain Covid-19 treatments under a patchwork system set up by states that are directing the distribution of limited supplies. A shortage of antiviral pills and effective antibody drugs—and difficulties obtaining them—are frustrating efforts to keep Covid-19 patients out of overwhelmed hospitals. States say they are getting a fraction of what they need to meet demand for treatments that can prevent the disease from progressing to the point of hospitalization. That is a concern for some hospitals that are dealing with staffing shortages and a daily crush of sick patients, even as the wave of cases driven by the Omicron wave recedes elsewhere.  (Read More)

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Where a Thousand Digital Eyes Keep Watch Over the Elderly

February 2, 2022

(New York Times) – Itami is one of several localities that have turned to electronic tracking as Japan, the world’s grayest nation, confronts an epidemic of dementia. The programs offer the promise of protecting those in cognitive decline while helping them retain some independence, but they have also evoked fears of Orwellian overreach. Japan’s surveillance efforts presage the conundrums facing countries across the globe as their populations rapidly age: how to manage the huge expense of care for people living ever-longer lives, as well as the social costs to families and other loved ones. (Read More)

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NYC Offering Free COVID-19 Antiviral Pills to Residents

February 2, 2022

(Medscape) – New York City is now sending free COVID-19 antiviral pills to residents who have tested positive, show mild to moderate symptoms, and have a doctor’s prescription, Mayor Eric Adams said Sunday. Residents can receive same-day deliveries of the Pfizer product Paxlovid or the Merck product molnupiravir while supplies last, Adams said at a news conference at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, according to ABC News. (Read More)

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U.S. Covid-19 Hospitalizations Extend Their Fall While Deaths Keep Rising

February 1, 2022

(Wall Street Journal) – The number of hospital patients with Covid-19 continues to fall in the U.S., adding to signs that the Omicron wave of the pandemic is ebbing, even though deaths from the virus are on the rise. The seven-day average of hospital patients with a confirmed or suspected coronavirus infection fell to 140,450 on Monday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That marks the 11th consecutive daily drop. (Read More)

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How a Decades-Old Database Became a Hugely Profitable Dossier on the Health of 270 Million Americans

February 1, 2022

(STAT News) – To most Americans, the name MarketScan means nothing. But most Americans mean everything to MarketScan. As a repository of sensitive patient information, the company’s databases churn silently behind the scenes of their medical care, scooping up their most guarded secrets: the diseases they have, the drugs they’re taking, the places their bodies are broken that they haven’t told anyone but their doctor. The family of databases that make up MarketScan now include the records of a stunning 270 million Americans, or 82% of the population. (Read More)

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Danes Halt Virus Restrictions; Rest of Europe a Patchwork

February 1, 2022

(ABC News) – Denmark took the European Union lead Tuesday by scrapping most pandemic restrictions as the Scandinavian country no longer considers COVID-19 “a socially critical disease.” European nations elsewhere had a patchwork of different approaches, with some relaxing virus measures while others tightened them. Officials say the reason for the Danish move is that while the omicron variant is surging in the country, it’s not placing a heavy burden on the health system and Denmark has a high vaccination rate. (Read More)

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