Singapore probes unusual surge in COVID-19 cases after record

Singapore probes unusual surge in COVID-19 cases after record
Singapore authorities reinstated curbs limiting social interactions and dining out to two people, so as to slow infections. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 October 2021

Singapore probes unusual surge in COVID-19 cases after record

Singapore probes unusual surge in COVID-19 cases after record
  • Last week, Singapore extended some social curbs for about a month, to rein in the spread of COVID-19

SINGAPORE: Singapore is looking into an “unusual surge” of 5,324 new infections of COVID-19, the city-state’s health ministry said, its highest such figure since the beginning of the pandemic, as beds in intensive care units fill up.
Ten new deaths on Wednesday carried the toll to 349, after 3,277 infections the previous day, while the ICU utilization rate is nearing 80 percent, despite a population that is 84 percent fully vaccinated, with 14 percent receiving booster doses.
“The infection numbers are unusually high today, mostly due to many COVID-positive cases detected by the testing laboratories within a few hours in the afternoon,” the health ministry said in a statement.
“The Ministry of Health is looking into this unusual surge in cases within a relatively short window, and closely monitoring the trends for the next few days,” it added in Wednesday’s statement.
While nearly 98.7 percent of the past month’s 90,203 cases had no symptoms, or only mild ones, about 0.2 percent of those had died, and 0.1 percent each were being monitored closely in intensive care units (ICU) or were critically ill and intubated there.
About 72 ICU beds were vacant by Wednesday, at an overall ICU use rate of 79.8 percent, with 142 coronavirus sufferers accounting for about half of occupied beds.
The ministry said it was adding more ICU beds. The Asian city-state, which has set aside 200 ICU beds to be used by COVID-19 patients, can add 100 more at short notice.
Last week, it extended some social curbs for about a month, to rein in the spread of COVID-19 and ease pressure on health care facilities.
Authorities reinstated curbs limiting social interactions and dining out to two people, so as to slow infections.


Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant
Updated 09 December 2021

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

FRANKFURT: Three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine appear effective against the omicron variant, a lab test indicated — encouraging news, even as Denmark and Britain announced new restrictions to stem surging caseloads.
In preliminary results published on Wednesday, the US and German companies behind one of the world’s foremost shots to combat Covid-19 said a booster generated around the same level of potent antibodies against omicron as is seen after a second dose with the initial strain.
But they warned that “the omicron variant is probably not sufficiently neutralized after two doses.”
The announcement, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was called reassuring by experts, and came as the first independent data from labs around the world emerged, indicating the new mutations are better at evading immunity from infections and vaccines than those before them.
“We still need to be very measured and take a wait and see approach, but I think what we do have is at least encouraging,” virologist Angela Rasmussen of Canada’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization told AFP.
Blood samples from around 20 people who had received two doses of the current vaccine showed on average a 25-fold reduction in neutralising antibodies compared to the early strain of the virus, the companies said.
But they added that another part of the immune response — from T cells — were probably still effective against the new variant, meaning that people with two doses “may still be protected against severe forms of the disease.”
The vaccine-makers are developing an omicron-specific version of the jab, which they hope will be ready by March, but say the decision whether to mass produce it would depend on the variant’s spread.
In Europe, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced she would extend Christmas school holidays, curtail nightlife and urge citizens to work from home as the country fights off a sharp rise in infections.
“The plan is not to have a long closure,” she said, while acknowledging a return to home offices would also be unwelcome for many.
Her British counterpart Boris Johnson likewise brought back guidance to work from home and vaccine passports for venues such as nightclubs and stadiums. The new measures apply to England, and were already in place in Scotland and Wales.
“We must be humble in the face of this virus,” he said, adding that it was “the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England.”
Johnson announced the stringent measures while facing public anger over video footage of his aides joking about an alleged illicit Christmas party at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile summed up what scientists have learned about omicron since it was first reported in South Africa in late November.
It evades prior immunity well, and it’s possible it may cause milder disease, he said.
But even if it’s confirmed to be less severe, the variant’s heightened transmissibility — thought to be greater even than the currently dominant Delta strain — mean it could sicken many people.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s news came after other preliminary results from a small study in South Africa suggested there was up to a 40-fold drop in the ability of the antibodies from the same vaccine to neutralize omicron, compared to an early strain.
Willem Hanekom, executive director of the Africa Health Research Institute, which carried out the study, said it was important to be “extraordinarily careful” interpreting the results because they only reflect a laboratory setting, while real-world data was the true test.
Antibody reductions were also seen in studies by German and Swedish researchers, but they varied in magnitude.
omicron counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells, and a high degree of immune evasion was widely anticipated.
But the fact that a booster appears to restore high protection was welcomed by many experts, and provides “strong support for the campaign to give three doses of vaccine,” said Charles Bangham, an immunologist at Imperial College London.
While the positive initial assessments of omicron have helped lift the mood, especially among global markets as fears of another economic downturn subsided, the variant’s emergence has highlighted that the fight against the pandemic is far from over.
Covid-19 has officially killed more than 5.2 million people around the world since it was first declared in late 2019, although the true toll is likely to be several times higher.
 


Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal
Updated 09 December 2021

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal
  • 1MDB scandal brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government in 2018
  • Investigators allege at least $4.5bn was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Court of Appeal upheld on Wednesday former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 12-year jail sentence for his role in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund.

Najib was sentenced by a high court in July 2020 and fined $50 million on charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power relating to illegally receiving RM42 million ($10 million) from SRC International, a former subsidiary of the now-defunct 1MDB.

Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib has pleaded not guilty and consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying he had been misled by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho. The scandal brought down Najib’s government in 2018.

As the Court of Appeal upheld the 2020 verdict, lead judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil said the case was a “national embarrassment.”

“This is not something that can be said to have been done in the national interest,” he said while reading the decision. “There is no national interest here, just national embarrassment.”

The court had agreed to the defense’s request to stay the jail term pending a final appeal. Until then, Najib will remain out on bail.

The former prime minister and his legal counsel, Mohammed Shafee Abdullah, attended the court proceedings via a video call, as they had reportedly been in touch with contacts who tested positive for COVID-19.

In an online press conference afterward, Najib said he was “very disappointed” with the judgment.

“I would like to reiterate and say I didn’t know, nor did I ask or …direct anyone for RM42 million to my account,” he said.

Lead prosecutor V. Sithambaram told reporters that a decision in Najib’s final appeal will be made by the federal court, the country’s top court, within the next six to nine months, but the appeal court’s verdict showed the conviction “according to law and facts.”

The 68-year-old politician remains a key figure in the ruling United Malays National Organization party, which has led coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.

Toppled in 2018 over the 1MDB scandal, the party returned to power in August.

While the Court of Appeal verdict may not dent Najib’s popularity, it deals a blow to his possible comeback to the country’s top office in the next general election scheduled to take place by 2023.

“In terms of popularity, I don’t think there will be any effect, as the supporters will support Najib regardless of his conviction,” Dr. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News.

“However, if his conviction is not reversed by the time of the next general election, he might not be able to run. If he cannot run, he cannot become prime minister again.” Dozens of Najib’s supporters turned up at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya as the verdict was announced.

One of them, Amaruddin, 67, who goes by one name, said he had traveled 200 km from Terengganu to stand in solidarity with Najib, whom he believes has fallen prey to political persecution.

“Najib is innocent and has been charged because he was vilified by the previous government,” Amaruddin said. “He will get out of this unscathed.”


Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm
Updated 09 December 2021

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm
  • Born without a right arm, Momina Aamir became the youngest person in the world to receive a prosthetic limb

KARACHI: Three-year-old Momina Aamir’s father was overwhelmed with emotion in August when his daughter, who was born without a right arm, asked her father if she could borrow his hand so she could prostrate properly while performing the Muslim ritual of prayer.

After that moment, Aamir Abbas said he was more determined than ever to find a solution, which turned out to be a blue multigrip bionic arm customized to the exact wishes of Momina, a huge fan of Princess Elsa in the Walt Disney animated film, “Frozen.”

“I had just finished praying when Momina came to me and said: ‘Baba, give me your hand so I may pray like you as well’,” Abbas told Arab News. “It is hard for me to put my feelings in words. I had never felt or made her feel that she was missing something. But this pushed me to think hard and look for solutions.”

According to the World Health Organization, about 30 million people around the world require prosthetic limbs, but fewer than 20 percent have them and these tend to be costly and heavy, with limited to no movement. According to Karachi’s Aga Khan University Hospital, one in every 20 children in Pakistan is born with some kind of a hand deformity.

But with the help of the Karachi-based startup BIONIKS, which provides orthotics and prosthetics services, Abbas has been able to make his daughter’s dream come true.

Earlier this year, the firm achieved a world record when they fitted four-year-old Muhammad Sideeq with a multigrip bionic arm. The story was covered by Arab News, and Abbas said that the media coverage was instrumental in connecting the family to BIONIKS.

“That story gave me hope and made me visit BIONIKS,” said Saadia Aamir, Momina’s mother.

After receiving her new arm last week, Momina, at three years and four months of age, is the youngest recipient to have an advanced prosthetic limb.

Among treatment options for children born with hand or arm deformities — based on the nature and severity of the problem — are limb manipulation and stretching, tendon transfer, attaching a splint to stretch the finger to its original position or repairing the constrictions in muscles, ligaments and skin.

In some cases, skin grafts can be used to address the deformity. Surgery is also sometimes performed to cure the condition.

Unfortunately, not all children are able to get the right treatment in Pakistan due to a lack of expertise as well as the high cost of procedures.

And even though Momina is among a handful of fortunate children, it was not easy to design the required limb for her due to her age and congenital situation, as the design is fitted with sensors that enable users to move the prosthetic limbs by thinking about making the movements.

“It was far more difficult to integrate all the things in her case since she never had a hand,” Ovais Hussain Qureshi, co-founder of BIONIKS, told Arab News. “She had not experienced those senses in her mind that allow us to use our right hand.”

For example, he said, when Momina was first asked to close the fingers of her right hand, she would move the entire artificial arm.

But the girl was intelligent and the team did not find it difficult to communicate with her and quickly teach her how to use the limb.

“She is very friendly and talkative,” Qureshi said with a smile. “She used to freely roam around in our office, visit the research and development room, sit with our designers and talk to them: ‘I don’t like this or that part. Can you make the shade of blue a little light? How about adding diamonds or crystals to the arm?’“

“It will not be wrong to say,” Qureshi said, “that she got a truly customized arm. In fact, she almost made it herself!”

Momina’s mother said that her daughter decided she wanted a blue arm because of Princess Elsa in “Frozen.”

“The day she got her arm, we left our home late at night and she slept in the car,” she said. “While I was removing her arm, she woke up and asked me not to. When she went into deep sleep, I took it off and was surprised to see her restlessness in the morning. She looked impatiently for the arm but was happy when I brought it back.”

Momina’s mother said that her daughter was so deeply attached to her “magical” arm that she was upset when it was taken back to the firm for minor changes and adjustments.

Her parents said that most people wanted their children to get skin-colored prosthetic limbs, but they decided to let their daughter have the arm she truly wanted.

“She is happy with the color,” her mother said. “Sometimes she even makes fun of our ordinary arms and says she has a more beautiful one! We want her to grow with it.”

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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 09 December 2021

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
  • A mix-and-match approach to COVID-19 vaccines is safe and effective, and some combinations even improve upon immune responses, UK researchers found
  • There were no adverse effects from mixing the vaccines, the research team reported on Monday

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.