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Are we on the brink of a third wave of COVID? | Coronavirus pandemic



Here in the UK, we are waiting patiently for the government to lift all COVID-19 restrictions on June 21, as it has promised to do. UK businesses are urging the government to stick to its promise.

The thought of ongoing restrictions is difficult for all of us – every doctor knows the harms that lockdowns bring to their patients. People are clearly feeling increasingly angry about the prospect of a lingering lockdown; there have been large protests against lockdowns in many countries, with fringe groups continuing to claim the virus itself does not exist. When healthcare professionals see these protests and false claims, though, it rubs salt into very recent wounds. We have been working tirelessly and risking our own lives caring for our patients with the virus. Each protest feels like a slap in the face for all the work we have done so far.

So, despite the fact that the numbers of hospitalisations from COVID are at a low in the UK and our vaccine programme has been a runaway success, scientists and doctors would prefer that the government wait another month to lift restrictions until more people have received both doses of the vaccine, which has been shown to offer a good level of protection against the delta variant.

The cause for their concern is a rise in the number of new cases of the B1.617.2 – or the variant first identified in India, now being called the “delta variant”, which can increase the risk of hospitalisation by 2.7 times, according to Public Health England. The UK government has already come under fire for not acting quickly enough to restrict flights from India and it is dithering about what to do next.

As a doctor, it is painful to watch. The one thing we should have learned since this pandemic began is that any delay in responding to this virus results in more deaths and longer and harder lockdowns.

Over-reacting, earlier, saves time and lives in the long term; we only need to look at New Zealand for the evidence. Under-reacting, and taking too long to make a decision, risks another serious outbreak of the virus.

Evidence that we are on the verge of a third wave, not just in the UK but globally, is mounting. Since March, large parts of Europe have been racing to vaccinate their populations against rising numbers of infections, mainly thought to be due to the variant first discovered in the UK, B1.117, now known as the “alpha variant”.

Hampered by delays to the delivery of vaccines, Germany and Italy have seen cases surge and lockdown rules extended. These countries are now worried about rising numbers of cases of the delta variant in the UK, with Germany banning all but essential travel to and from the UK as of May 23 as it brands the UK an “area of variant concern”.

This comes after 189 people were quarantined in an apartment block in the German town of Velbert on May 18 after one of its residents tested positive for the delta variant. People were unable to leave the building until all residents had been tested and contact tracing was complete.

Aside from Germany and the UK, the delta strain has been detected in other European nations including Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Spain – albeit at low levels.

Elsewhere, Nepal continues to struggle against a rising wave of infections, with hospitals finding it difficult to meet the demand from increasing numbers of patients. Nepal’s prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, has made an urgent plea for vaccines to his UK counterpart Boris Johnson. Speaking to the BBC, he said the UK should acknowledge the sacrifices of Nepal’s Gurkha soldiers who served the UK and make Nepal a priority for UK COVID aid.

There have also been reports of a new variant being discovered in Nepal, although the World Health Organisation (WHO) tweeted: “WHO is not aware of any new variant of SARS-CoV-2 being detected in Nepal.” If there is a new variant, it is likely to be a mutated version of the delta variant.

Scientists are still studying this potential variant, but it is thought to harbour the K417N mutation which could make it more evasive to the immune response triggered by the vaccines. If that is the case, it could be potentially problematic as it has been identified in Vietnam, Japan, the UK and Portugal as well as other countries.

South Africa is already taking action to prevent a third wave. President Cyril Ramaphosa has imposed tighter restrictions across four of the country’s nine provinces. With almost 1.65 million cases and 56,363 fatalities, South Africa is officially the worst-affected country on the continent.

Ramaphosa has repeatedly criticised richer countries for hoarding vaccines by buying them up too quickly, leaving the African continent with less than 2 percent of its population vaccinated so far. South Africa is also calling for an end to patent rights on the coronavirus vaccines so it can manufacture its own supplies and administer them.

It is a worrying time for many people involved in the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in preventing the spread of new variants and racing to get as many people fully vaccinated as possible.

But while countries continue to look inwards and protect only their own populations, this virus is likely to find fertile breeding grounds in countries that are unable to vaccinate their people at the same rates, resulting in further variants arising. We need to break the chain between infections and hospital admissions, and the only way to do this is to vaccinate the world’s population. If people are protected against serious disease by vaccines then we can suppress and then live alongside the virus with regular booster shots for future variants. If countries continue to be nationalistic about vaccines, a third wave is looking more and more likely.

We live in a world where people can move relatively easily from continent to continent, so while vaccinating your own country might buy time, we need to vaccinate globally to solve this pandemic.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Progress report: Did COVID originate in a Wuhan lab?

The theory – until now widely dismissed as a conspiracy theory – that the coronavirus was man-made in a laboratory in Wuhan has recently started to circulate again.

The Wall Street Journal reported on May 23 that three researchers in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough to warrant hospital treatment in November 2019, before the outbreak in Wuhan officially began. The Wuhan Institute leads studies into coronaviruses as well as other pathogens, and the researchers allegedly showed symptoms that may have been consistent with COVID-19. The question as to whether the symptoms were COVID remains unanswered.

Four days after this report appeared, however, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in the US released a press statement saying: “The US Intelligence Community does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially but has coalesced around two likely scenarios: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident.”

The ONDI said it is divided over which one of these cases is more likely, and it will continue to examine all available evidence. President Joe Biden ordered his intelligence committees to investigate the possibility of a laboratory leak, something China has firmly rejected.

Does it matter where the virus sprang from? Well, yes, it does. It is vital that we understand the origins of this virus so we can prevent similar pandemics from occurring in the future.

An investigation team sent in January this year by the WHO to examine the possible causes of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the virus had escaped from a nearby laboratory. The US has asked the WHO for more data and transparency as it moves into Phase Two of its COVID origins study.

The widely accepted theory about the origins of the coronavirus is that it was zoonotic, meaning it jumped from animals to humans; the most likely animal coming into contact with a human being either a bat or a pangolin. The theory that it was man-made in a laboratory in China has always been dismissed by many scientists as a conspiracy theory but, since President Biden’s announcement, it has now gathered mainstream interest. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a Canadian press conference on May 27 that he supports Biden’s efforts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.

In a paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed but is due to be published in the scientific journal, Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery, two scientists have concluded that “SARS-Coronavirus-2 has no credible natural ancestor” and that it is “beyond reasonable doubt” that the virus was created through “laboratory manipulation”.

Two of the paper’s authors, British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen, told the Daily Mail in the UK that the virus has “unique fingerprints” that could only have been manipulated in a laboratory and could not have occurred naturally.

They say they believe that, in a bid to study viral effects in humans, Chinese scientists modified naturally occurring coronaviruses and made them more infectious by inserting chains of amino acids into the spike protein of the virus. This process of altering a virus’s makeup so it becomes more transmissible and studying its effects on human cells in a lab is known as Gain of Function – and is banned in many countries.

The two authors also claimed that after the pandemic began, Chinese scientists took samples of the COVID-19 virus and “retro-engineered” it, making it appear as if it had evolved naturally. This may sound fantastical, but it is, in fact, entirely possible to do.

China has always denied that the virus was man-made.

Whatever the origins, it is clear we need further investigation, Chinese cooperation and full transparency so the international scientific community can fully scrutinise the data in an effort to reduce the risk of further pandemics originating in the same way.

In the doctor’s surgery: Patients returning to my clinic

It has been a busy week at the surgery. Patients are facing long delays to routine surgical procedures such as hip or knee replacements, as well as other more minor hospital treatments for their ailments and are returning to their family doctor to help manage symptoms while they wait. During the pandemic, I had many vulnerable groups of patients who were shielding due to underlying health conditions and an increased risk of them becoming seriously ill should they contract COVID-19. This meant they could not visit my surgery and I could not go to them because of the risk of me unwittingly taking the virus into their homes. Most of our consultations were, therefore, conducted remotely over the phone or through video calls.

But these people have now had both doses of their vaccine and no longer have to shield. This week, I saw one such patient at the surgery, an elderly man who I have been looking after for many years.

I hadn’t realised how much I had missed seeing my patients face to face – it was a real pleasure to have him back in my consulting room. As well as talking about his illnesses, we talked about a shared passion of ours; gardening.

He told me his tomatoes were coming along nicely and that his onions were doing well; I told him about the hedgehogs that have been frequenting my garden.

It might sound like an odd conversation for a doctor and patient to have, but these moments are what make the relationship between a family doctor and their patients special. My elderly patient had been alone for the best part of a year and human contact had been sorely missed. And, if I am being honest, I missed this part of my job too. The COVID pandemic has made these little conversations harder to have as we have been so focused on managing acutely unwell patients, but as things open back up, I am looking forward to catching up with my patients on all the small things too!

And now, some good news: Cancer patients respond well to vaccines

A study published this week shows that cancer patients are having a good immune response to the COVID-19 vaccines. People living with cancer have had a tough pandemic. As well as enduring delays to treatments, they have had to isolate or even shield due to being at increased risk of severe illness if they catch the virus. Because these people are on treatments that can dampen their immune systems – putting them at risk of serious illness from even minor infections – having an effective vaccine response may help alleviate their fears about going to hospital and feeling safe.

The Israeli study compared blood tests of patients undergoing cancer treatment for solid tumours with healthy adults 12 days after they had their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The study showed that 90 percent of the cancer patients had adequate coronavirus antibodies, compared with 100 percent of the control group. This good news was caveated with findings showing the overall concentration of antibodies to coronavirus was lower in those receiving treatment for cancer compared with those without cancer. This is most likely due to the chemotherapy or immunotherapy they were receiving as part of their cancer treatment which can affect their immune response.

The duration for which the antibodies last in people receiving treatment for cancer remains undetermined, but there may be a call in the future for booster vaccines to ensure this vulnerable group remain adequately protected.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Reader’s question: Can sleep boost my immune system?

Since the pandemic began, many people have looked for natural ways to help maintain a healthy immune system. Getting a regular, good night’s sleep is actually beneficial to the immune system. Sleeping for seven to nine hours each night gives the body a chance to rest and recover.  When we sleep, our bodies produce more T-cells, which are immune cells that play a critical role in fighting off infections. We also produce proteins called cytokines while we sleep; these target areas of infections and inflammation, aiding the healing process. Combined with a balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables and regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep is a natural way to boost your immune system.

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New Zealand’s Hubbard selected as first transgender Olympian | LGBTQ News




Laurel Hubbard, 43, will compete in the super-heavyweight women’s event in Tokyo.

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to test the ideal of fair competition in sport.

New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said 43-year-old Hubbard – who was assigned male at birth but transitioned to female in 2013 – had met all the qualification criteria for transgender athletes.

“We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play,” Smith said in a statement.

Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The 43-year-old had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard, an intensely private person who rarely speaks to the media, said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) on Monday.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete at Olympics since 2015, when the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of people who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.

Advocates for transgender inclusion argue the process of transition decreases that advantage considerably and that physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.

Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.

“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.

Weightlifting has been at the centre of the debate about the fairness of transgender athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove divisive.

Her gold medal wins at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers, triggered outrage in the host nation.

Samoa’s weightlifting boss said Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it could cost the small Pacific nation a medal.

Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month allowing Hubbard to compete at Tokyo was unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.

Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected the move.

Hubbard was forced to withdraw after injuring herself during competition, and thought her career was over.

“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” Hubbard said on Monday, thanking New Zealanders.

“But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”

Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand President Richie Patterson said Hubbard had worked hard to come back from the potentially career-ending injury.

“Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform,” he said.

Hubbard is currently ranked 16th in the world in the super heavyweight category.

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Apple Daily could shut ‘in days’ after Hong Kong asset freeze | Freedom of the Press News




Company adviser says action under security law means it cannot access some $50 million in funds to pay staff and vendors.

Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities used the national security law imposed by China to freeze the company’s assets as it arrested the paper’s editor and four other directors, an adviser to jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday.

Mark Simon, speaking by phone from the United States, said the company was no longer able to access its funds and would be holding a board meeting on Monday to discuss how to move forward.

“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month,” Simon told the news agency. “It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”

His comments signal closure is imminent even after Apple Daily said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left the newspaper with cash for “a few weeks” for normal operations.”

The news comes two days after editor Ryan Law, 47, and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail after being charged under the security law with collusion with foreign forces.

Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law arrives back at the detention centre after he was remanded in custody on Saturday [Lam Yik/Reuters]

Three other senior executives were also arrested last Thursday when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices in a case that has drawn condemnation from Western nations, human rights groups and the chief United Nations spokesperson for human rights.

The three have been released on bail.

Simon told Reuters it had become impossible to conduct banking operations.

“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favour. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected,” he said.

Speaking earlier to US news channel CNN, Simon said the company had about $50 million available, but was unable to access the funds.

The publisher has come under increasing pressure since its owner Jimmy Lai was arrested under the national security law last August, which marked the first time the company’s headquarters was raided. Lai, 73, is now jailed and facing trial under the national security law. In May, the authorities also froze some assets belonging to the longtime critic of Beijing has also had some of his assets frozen.

Three companies related to Apple Daily are also being prosecuted for collusion with a foreign country and authorities have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.

China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last June saying it was necessary to restore “stability” to a territory that had been rocked by mass protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.

The broadly-worded law criminalises acts such as subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment, but critics have said it is being used to suppress legitimate political debate with dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists among the more than 100 arrested since it was brought into force.

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Birmingham Classic: Ons Jabeur beats Daria Kasatkina to win first title




Tunisian second seed Ons Jabeur defeated Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in straight sets to win her first singles title at the Birmingham Classic.

World number 24 Jabeur triumphed 7-5 6-4 against the fourth seed to become the first Arab woman to win a WTA title.

In Berlin, Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova stunned Swiss fifth seed Belinda Bencic to win her first title.

The 22-year-old world number 106 battled back from a set down to win 1-6 6-1 6-3 in her first final.

Victories for Jabeur and Samsonova mean there have now been 10 first-time singles winners on the women’s Tour this year.

Jabeur broke Kasatkina’s serve three times to prevail in the first set, before successive breaks at the start of the second put the 26-year-old in control at 4-0.

Two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist Kasatkina recovered to 4-3, but Jabeur held on to win a singles final at the third attempt.

It was a breakthrough week for Samsonova in Germany, during which she also defeated seventh seed Victoria Azarenka of Belaurus in the semi-final.

World number 12 Bencic won the first five games as she dominated the opening set, but Samsonova matched that feat in the second before completing her comeback with breaks in the first and ninth games in the deciding set.

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