COVID-19 llama treatment shows positive signs

COVID-19 llama treatment shows positive signs
Fifi was vaccinated with a non-infectious piece of viral protein. Researchers then recovered and isolated the strongest nanobodies in a sample of the llama’s blood. (@UniofReading)
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Updated 22 September 2021

COVID-19 llama treatment shows positive signs

COVID-19 llama treatment shows positive signs
  • Spray uses “nanobodies” produced by llamas, camels when they get an infection
  • Immunologist: “It’s very promising” and “exciting”

LONDON: A treatment derived from a llama has shown great promise in the fight against COVID-19. 

The product is a treatment made of “nanobodies,” which are simpler versions of antibodies, produced by llamas and camels when they get an infection.

Scientists have said it could be transformed into a simple nasal spray to treat early COVID-19 infection.

Prof. James Naismith described nanobodies as “fantastically exciting,” saying COVID-19-infected rodents treated with the spray had totally recovered within six days.

Public Health England has said it is looking at the “most effective SARS-CoV-2 neutralising agents” it has ever tested, and it could be used in human tests soon. 

The virus-specific nanobodies can attach to viruses and bacteria that invade the human body. It acts as a form of warning, allowing the rest of the body’s immune system to prepare to destroy the nascent infection. 

These nanobodies found by the UK researchers in llamas were shown to bind particularly tightly. “That’s where we had some help from Fifi the llama,” said Naismith.

Fifi was vaccinated with a tiny, non-infectious piece of the viral protein. The researchers then recovered and isolated the strongest nanobodies in a sample of the llama’s blood. 

From the sample of the potent nanobodies, the researchers were able to grow large quantities of its best molecules.

Prof. Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist from the University of Manchester, said the new development is “exciting but still quite early.”

She added: “We need more data on efficacy and safety before we move to human trials. However it’s very promising nonetheless, and the fact it may be cheaper and easier to administer is a plus.

“COVID-19 will be, unfortunately, with us for a while yet, so more treatments will be needed.”

Naismith said: “Not all of the world is being vaccinated at the same speed. And there remains a risk of new variants capable of bypassing vaccine immunity emerging.”


Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
Updated 6 sec ago

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
GENEVA: World Health Organization member states agreed Wednesday to start work on building a new international accord setting out how to handle the next global pandemic.
Countries adopted a resolution at a special meeting in Geneva, launching the process that should result in a new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response coming into force in 2024.

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
Updated 13 min 57 sec ago

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
  • A number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri

BEIJING: China on Wednesday urged its citizens to leave three provinces in eastern Congo as violence intensifies in the mineral-rich region.
A posting from the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa on the WeChat online messaging said a number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri, where several anti-government rebel groups have a presence.
It said Chinese residing in the three provinces should provide their personal details by Dec. 10 and make plans to leave for safer parts of Congo. Those in the districts of Bunia, Djugu, Beni, Rutshuru, Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga should leave immediately, it said, adding that any who do not do so “will have to bear the consequences themselves.”
“We ask that all Chinese citizens and Chinese-invested businesses in Congo please pay close attention to local conditions, increase their safety awareness and emergency preparedness, and avoid unnecessary outside travel,” the embassy said.
No details of the incidents were given, although the embassy last month reported five Chinese citizens were abducted from a mining operation in South Kivu, which borders Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
It warned a the time that the security situation in the area was “extremely complex and grim” and that there was little possibility of sending help in the event of an attack or kidnapping.
No details were given about those kidnapped, who they worked for or who was suspected of taking them.
Several armed groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR, the Mai-Mai and the M23 regularly vie for control of eastern Congo’s natural resources.
Despite the danger, Chinese businesses have moved into Congo and other unstable African states in a quest for cobalt and other rare minerals and resources. Chinese workers have also been subject to kidnappings and attacks in Pakistan and other countries with active insurgencies.
Security was a key topic at a meeting Monday in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on Monday, between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Congolese counterpart Christophe Lutundula, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
China’s government and ruling Communist Party “attach great importance to the safety and security of Chinese enterprises and Chinese nationals overseas and the Chinese side has been extremely concerned with the recent serious crimes of kidnappings and killings of its citizens in the DRC,” Wang said, using the acronym for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wang urged Congo to secure the release of those kidnapped and create a “safe, secure and stable environment for bilateral cooperation.”
Xinhua quoted Lutundula as saying Congo would take “forceful measures” to investigate the crimes, free the hostages, punish the culprits severely and safeguard national security and restore stability to the country’s east.
Earlier this week, Uganda said it launched joint air and artillery strikes with Congolese forces against camps of the extremist Allied Democratic Forces rebel group in eastern Congo.
The ADF was established in the early 1990s in Uganda and later driven out by the Ugandan military into eastern Congo, where many rebel groups are able to operate because the central government has limited control there.
At least four civilians were killed less than two weeks ago in Uganda’s capital when suicide bombers detonated their explosives at two locations.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were carried out by Ugandans. Ugandan authorities blamed the ADF, which has been allied with the Daesh group since 2019.


Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
Updated 01 December 2021

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
  • Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people
  • The reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant

CANBERRA: Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
Fiji shut its border to all foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a desperate bid to stop its limited medical facilities being overrun.
With about 90 percent of all Fijian adults now fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island reopened its border to tourists from a small number of countries — much to the relief of tourism operators.
“To see the Fiji Airways plane full up and for us to welcome those tourists today was so amazing. It was a great, great feeling and I’m glad to have been there personally,” James Sowane, director of the Fiji tourism company, Tewaka, said.
Tourists arriving will have to stay three nights in an approved resort and undergo rapid testing. They can move around designated areas, including bars and restaurants within the hotels, while they can embark on some day trips and activities.
Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people.
Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy and the border closure saw an estimated 10 percent of the population unemployed.
Still the reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the return of tourists, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and tested for infection.
“Today, we are proud and most importantly prepared to welcome the first tourists to fly to Fiji in almost two years. Our message to every fully vaccinated, COVID-tested traveler who arrives to our shores is simple: Welcome Home,” Bainimarama said in a post on Facebook.


Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
Updated 01 December 2021

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
  • Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions

DOHA: The Taliban renewed its call for the United States to release billions of dollars in frozen funds after two days of talks in Doha as aid-dependent Afghanistan grapples with an economic crisis.
The Afghans also called for an end to blacklists and sanctions in meetings led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.
It was the second round of talks between the two sides in Qatar since the US ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and the hard-line Islamists rapidly returned to power.
“The two delegations discussed political, economic, human, health, education and security issues as well as providing necessary banking and cash facilities,” tweeted Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi.
“The Afghan delegation assured the US side of security and urged that Afghanistan’s frozen money should be released unconditionally, blacklists and sanctions must end and human issues be separated from political ones.”
Washington seized nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also suspended activities in Afghanistan, withholding aid as well as $340 million in new reserves issued by the IMF in August.
The Afghan economy has effectively collapsed, with civil servants unpaid for months and the treasury unable to pay for imports. The United Nations has warned that around 22 million people, more than half the population, will face an “acute” food shortage in the winter months.
Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions. The US side stood firm on the measures and said it was taking steps to get support to ordinary Afghans.
“The United States remains committed to ensuring that US sanctions do not limit the ability of Afghan civilians to receive humanitarian support from the US government and international community while denying assets to sanctioned entities and individuals,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“The Department of the Treasury has issued general licenses to support the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support basic human needs.”
The US also urged the Taliban to provide access to education for women and girls across the country and “expressed deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses.”
It reminded the Taliban of its commitment not to allow terrorist organizations to operate on its soil and to guarantee safe passage for US citizens from Afghanistan.
The Americans also called for the release of US citizen Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in February last year.
The Taliban called the talks “positive” and said Muttaqi also met with the Japanese and German ambassadors to Afghanistan in Doha.
bur/th/kir


Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect for at least a month

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Japan has expanded its travel ban on foreigners coming into the country, preventing entry to those with resident status from 10 southern African nations.

Two Japanese airlines ANA and JAL also said they were suspending new reservations for international flights to Japan until the end of December and NHK public television said the government was seeking a halt to all such reservations.

Japan took some of the strictest steps globally on Monday by closing its borders to non-Japanese for about a month in light of the emergence of omicron. A day later, Japan’s first omicron case – in a Namibian diplomat – was discovered.

Japanese media also reported on Wednesday that a second case of the omicron virus had been confirmed in a traveller. NHK said it was a foreign man and FNN television said it was a traveller from Peru.

The border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. It applies to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Nigeria also joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”

Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

It has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”

Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.

“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.

The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.

Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.

England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.