Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone

Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone
A coronavirus stop sign with view of historic old town in Stockholm warning about epidemic quarantine. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 26 October 2021

Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone

Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone
  • An official said it was difficult to say whether Sweden has an unusually high excess mortality due to the virus
  • Denmark has recorded 2,703 deaths, Norway 895 and Finland nearly 1,150

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Sweden which has stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic, has passed the threshold of 15,000 deaths with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to official figures released Tuesday.
Thomas Linden of the National Board of Health and Welfare, told Swedish public radio that it was difficult to say whether Sweden has an unusually high excess mortality due to the virus.
“Internationally, Sweden has not had a higher mortality rate. But if you compare with the other Nordic countries, we are significantly higher,” Linden told SR.
In comparison, Denmark has recorded 2,703 deaths, Norway 895 and Finland nearly 1,150. Each of those countries has slightly over half as many people as Sweden.
According to the Public Health Agency of Sweden, 15,002 people — 6,793 women and 8,209 men — have died with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
Sweden had opted for keeping large sections of society open. It has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to control infections.


Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR

Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR
Updated 11 sec ago

Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR

Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR
DUBAI: The following is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that has yet to be certified by peer review.
A mix-and-match approach to COVID-19 vaccines is safe and effective, and some combinations even improve upon immune responses, UK researchers found.
They studied 1,079 volunteers whose first shot was either the adenoviral vector vaccine from AstraZeneca or the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech.
Participants were then randomly assigned to receive either the same vaccine or a shot of Moderna’s higher-dose mRNA vaccine or the experimental Novavax vaccine, which uses a different technology than the others.
There were no adverse effects from mixing the vaccines, the research team reported on Monday in The Lancet.
Regardless of which shot people received first, getting the Moderna as the second dose induced a stronger antibody response than a second dose of the original vaccine, lab experiments suggested.
An important second-line response from the immune system — the activation of T-cells — was greatest with the AstraZeneca vaccine followed by the Novavax vaccine, the researchers found. Given that neither of these requires special freezer storage, this finding — and the fact that mixing any of the other tested vaccines is safe — could be “extremely relevant to the 94 percent of people in low-income countries who are yet to receive any doses,” they concluded.
Experimental saliva test nearly matches PCR for accuracy
An experimental saliva test can diagnose SARS-CoV-2 infection in minutes, nearly as accurately as gold-standard PCR tests, researchers believe.
Typical saliva tests are unreliable unless done immediately after an overnight fast, because the concentration of virus particles in saliva drops steeply after eating or drinking. Like other rapid antigen tests, this one, called PASPORT, binds the virus to nanoparticles. But PASPORT adds a second type of nanoparticle that binds to the first set, yielding a stronger signal and making the test more sensitive at finding the virus at any time of day, the researchers reported on Monday in Microchimica Acta.
When tested on non-fasting samples from 139 volunteers — 35 with known COVID-19 infections and 19 with other respiratory infections — and compared to PCR tests of swab samples from the back of the nose and throat, PASPORT was 97 percent accurate at identifying SARS-CoV-2 and 91 percent accurate at ruling it out.
“Although PCR has been the gold standard, it requires trained personnel and laboratory infrastructure,” study leader Dr. Danny Jian Hang Tng of Singapore General Hospital and Duke-NUS Medical School, said in a statement. A reliable, painless, affordable and convenient saliva test “would encourage more to be tested, and more frequent testing.”
The omicron variant of the coronavirus can partially evade protection from two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, preliminary data indicate.
Researchers in South Africa exposed omicron to antibodies in blood samples from 12 people who had each received two doses of the vaccine. The antibodies’ ability to neutralize omicron was 41 times lower than their ability to neutralize a version of the virus that circulated early in the pandemic, Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban and colleagues reported on Tuesday in a paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Among volunteers who also had antibodies from prior coronavirus infection, the researchers saw “relatively high” neutralization of omicron, suggesting that raising antibody levels with booster doses will be helpful, other researchers said. Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham in the UK who was not involved in the study, said in a statement that the group that was vaccinated and previously infected “mimics what we would expect in people who had had two doses of vaccine plus a boost... The data should give us reassurance that the vaccine will still offer protection.” Vaccines also induce second-line defenses, including T cell immunity. “We think that this will be less impacted” by omicron’s mutations, he said. On Wednesday, BioNTech and Pfizer said that while two doses of their vaccine have a low neutralizing effect on omicron, a lab test showed that a third dose boosted protection levels back to about what was seen against the original virus.

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again
Updated 08 December 2021

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again
  • Johnson said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tighter restrictions Wednesday to stem the spread of the omicron variant, urging people in England to again work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes for entrance into nightclubs and large events.
Johnson said it was time to impose stricter measures to prevent a spike of hospitalizations and deaths as the new coronavirus variant spreads rapidly in the community.
“It has become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant and is spreading rapidly all around the world,” he said in a press conference. “Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of omicron could currently be between two and three days.”
Johnson said 568 cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed so far across the UK, and “the true number is certain to be much higher.”
He said while there wasn’t yet comprehensive data on how dangerous omicron is, rising hospitalization rates in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, suggested it has the potential to cause harm.
Scientists at the UK Health Security Agency said they expected the omicron variant to become the dominant strain in Britain in the next two to four weeks. The agency said so far most cases were located in London and southeast England.
The tighter restrictions will buy the government time to put booster jabs into more arms. Officials have set the target of offering booster shots to all adults by the end of January.
Johnson said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible. Starting on Friday, the legal requirement to wear a face mask will be widened to most indoor public places in England, including cinemas. Next week, having a COVID-19 pass showing a person has had both vaccine doses will be mandatory to enter nightclubs and places with large crowds.
Live music venues and nightclubs, which have long resisted vaccine passports, called the news devastating for an industry that’s just finding its feet again after prolonged periods of closure and restrictions. The blow is particularly hard ahead of the crucial Christmas and New Year period, they said.
The British government reported another 51,342 confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with 161 more people dying. Overall Britain has seen over 146,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-worst death toll in Europe after Russia.
The announcement came as Johnson and his government faced increasing pressure to explain reports that Downing Street staff enjoyed a Christmas party that breached the country’s coronavirus rules last winter, when cases of the delta variant soared and people were banned from holding most social gatherings. Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was “furious” about the situation.
The revelations have angered many in Britain, with critics saying they heavily undermine the authority of Johnson’s Conservative government in imposing virus restrictions.


French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school

French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school
Updated 08 December 2021

French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school

French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school
  • He allegedly told student Muslims in Catholic schools are a problem and suggested he change his religion
  • 20% of students at Joseph-Wresinski d’Angers Catholic School are Muslim

LONDON: A teacher at a school in France has been suspended from his job and is being investigated by police following accusations made by a Muslim student of bigotry relating to his religion.

A student at the Joseph-Wresinski d’Angers Catholic School in the city of Angers lodged a formal complaint with local police, claiming that a teacher said Muslim students are a problem and suggested he “change his religion” during a discussion about French history, the Daily Mail reported. Police have launched an investigation into the student’s complaint, a local prosecutor said.

The teacher, who has not yet been named, lodged a complaint a day after the student, alleging “physical and verbal violence.”

According to the student, the incident began when the teacher digressed during a discussion about Catholic schools of the past.

He allegedly said: “Catholic schools should have continued to only accept Catholic students.” A student pointed at a Muslim classmate and responded: “But Catholic schools aren’t just reserved for Catholics.”

According to the Muslim student’s testimony, the teacher then said “that’s the problem,” adding: “Well, he could always change his religion.”

The student was said to be angry at the teacher’s response and stormed out of the room while shouting “racist.” For this the teacher lodged his complaint, saying the student pushed past him and yelled.

The teacher admitted to “inviting Muslims to join us and become Catholic,” but said the remark was intended as humor but “did not go down well with the class.”

Anthony Bélangé, director of the school, said 20 percent of his students are Muslim, and normally everyone at the school lives together “very peacefully.”

He added: “Conflicts between staff and students can happen, but the complaints have taken this to a new level.

“This is quite an emotionally charged situation and I’ve asked the students in the class to write a factual testimony of the events, which will be sent to the investigation team.”

France is home to around 5 million Muslims, the largest such population of any EU member state.


HRW slams anti-immigration bill as ‘perhaps the most draconian in UK history’

HRW slams anti-immigration bill as ‘perhaps the most draconian in UK history’
Updated 08 December 2021

HRW slams anti-immigration bill as ‘perhaps the most draconian in UK history’

HRW slams anti-immigration bill as ‘perhaps the most draconian in UK history’
  • It ‘seeks to dismantle core tenets of the international refugee regime, one which the UK helped establish’

LONDON: A bill being debated by British MPs would cause “more suffering” and “less protection” for asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch warned on Wednesday.

“Perhaps the most draconian immigration bill in the United Kingdom’s history is moving swiftly through parliament, currently in its final days of scrutiny in the Commons,” HRW said in a statement.

The Nationality and Borders Bill would see London introduce new measures that would crack down on a range of methods that asylum seekers use to enter the UK, including by introducing offshore processing for asylum seekers and introducing pushbacks at sea.

The bill “seeks to dismantle core tenets of the international refugee regime, one which the UK helped establish,” HRW said.

“It would see vulnerable Afghans and other asylum seekers being criminalized and imprisoned for up to four years; pushed back at sea; sent abroad for offshore asylum processing, and afforded lesser rights as refugees simply for exercising their basic right to seek asylum in the UK.”

The recent exodus of NATO allies from Afghanistan, HRW said, is an example of how these new rules are not fit for purpose.

“Less than two weeks ago, at least 27 people died after their boat capsized crossing the English Channel. Among those rescued and brought safely to British shores was an Afghan soldier who had served alongside British forces in Afghanistan and his family,” the rights group added.

“Under the proposed law, refugees like this Afghan soldier would face the prospect of being pushed back at sea or taken to an offshore detention site … Many Afghans are at imminent risk and don’t have the luxury of waiting to see if they’ll get a place under the UK’s resettlement scheme, forcing them to hastily flee by boat or on foot.

“Under this bill, they would face pushbacks and, if lucky enough to arrive, criminalization, and discriminatory treatment in the asylum system.”


UK’s Afghan evacuation email hotline still broken, says whistleblower

UK’s Afghan evacuation email hotline still broken, says whistleblower
Updated 08 December 2021

UK’s Afghan evacuation email hotline still broken, says whistleblower

UK’s Afghan evacuation email hotline still broken, says whistleblower
  • More than 5,000 emails from desperate Afghans sat in inbox at any given time
  • Inquiry into Britain’s handling of evacuation continues

LONDON: An error in the UK Foreign Office’s IT systems which prevented staff from opening emails sent by desperate Afghans hoping for evacuation has still not been fixed, a whistleblower has revealed.

During the emergency evacuation of British citizens and their Afghan allies, officials from different parts of the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office were restricted from opening some emails because they were using separate computer systems.

In damning testimony former civil servant Raphael Marshall said officials trying to assist were “visibly appalled by our chaotic system.”

Marshall said there were usually more than 5,000 unread messages in the inbox at any given moment, with desperate subject lines such as: “Please save my children.”

It has emerged that the issue — related to the merger of the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office — has not yet been resolved.

An employee working in the FCDO told the Daily Mail: “To this day, the FCDO and DFID IT systems are not synchronized. In some instances we cannot send emails or messages to our ex-DFID counterparts and have to do it instead using our personal phones.

“We run two different softwares, on which the majority of our work is done. They are not compatible with each other. On email, it is common for our messages not to go through because of security limitations.”

They warned that if a “major crisis” happened, the office would be hampered by the same issue.

A parliamentary inquiry into the UK’s chaotic evacuation efforts during the fall of Kabul is continuing.

The British government said it had evacuated 18,000 people from Afghanistan — 15,000 during the initial wave of airlifts, and a further 3,000 since the Taliban consolidated full control of Afghanistan’s capital.