Tag: coronavirus

SPEAKING UP: If you do not feel for humanity, you have forgotten to be human

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Antún Kojtom Lam (Mexico), Ch’ulel, 2013.

By Vijay Prasad

The coronavirus continues its contagious march across the planet: almost 350,000 known deaths and over 5.4 million people infected. Meanwhile, in the Bay of Bengal, Cyclone Amphan makes its fierce landing, its immense energy tearing a corridor through Bangladesh and India (Odisha and West Bengal). If you do not feel for humanity in this period, you have forgotten to be human.

At the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, we continue with our studies on CoronaShock, which illuminate why the capitalist order has spluttered before this pandemic, while the socialist sections have recovered much faster. In 2005, the former International Monetary Fund economist Kenneth Rogoff wrote, ‘The next great battle between socialism and capitalism will be waged over human health and life expectancy’. Our assessment is that one of the reasons for the advances in the socialist parts of the world, despite their economic poverty, is that they take science seriously. For that reason, in consultation with a range of scientists and engineers, we have produced Red Alert #7 to explain the virus and antidotes to it.

What is the difference between a virus and bacteria?

Virus and bacteria are two major kinds of microbes infecting humans. Bacteria are one of the oldest living organisms and have all of the necessary components to live and reproduce. Only a small number of bacteria cause human disease; many of them are good bacteria. Some are even necessary for our survival.

Viruses are not defined as fully living organisms, as they cannot reproduce by themselves. They are a small bit of genetic material contained in a protein envelope. They are also generally much smaller than bacteria.

Viruses are genetic parasites that need other living cells to reproduce themselves. When they invade the cells of their host, they hijack the cell’s biochemical machinery to make a very large number of copies of themselves. These copies are then released from the cell, sometimes killing it in the process, then infecting other cells and repeating the cycle.

Bacteria are easier to kill, as they have their own distinct chemical processes that drugs can attack, and they reproduce more slowly than viruses. We have a whole host of medicines, from the older sulfa drugs to other antibiotics, that successfully control bacterial infections in our bodies.

What is the novel coronavirus?

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a family of viruses called coronaviruses that usually infect mammals and birds. There are seven coronaviruses that infect humans, four of which have crossed over earlier. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, is one of the coronaviruses; it has spiked projections on its surface, which resemble a crown or corona when studied under a microscope.

The chances of viruses crossing over from other species to human beings increase if these species are in close contact with us. Therefore both, factory farming and live markets of animals and birds provide opportunities for such transfers, which are called zoonotic transfers.

Bats often serve as a major reservoir of these viruses. The crossover from bats to humans can happen directly, or it can happen through other animals acting as intermediate hosts. Cats, monkeys, pangolins, and dogs can also harbor such viruses, and therefore can act as intermediaries between bats and us. Several viruses – such as Ebola, rabies, encephalitis, SARS (now renamed as SARS-CoV-1), Chikungunya, Zika, and Nipah – have jumped from bats to humans in this way.

Apart from bat viruses, some of the other viruses that have caused epidemics in humans come from birds and pigs. The most well-known virus group that is shared by pigs, birds, and us, is made up of the different strains of flu viruses. It was swine flu or bird flu that was responsible for the 1918 Spanish flu, which probably started in Kansas. It also caused the 2009-2010 pandemic that started in North America, infecting approximately 1.6 million people and killing an estimated 284,000. The deadly H5N1 influenza, which is currently seen to be a major threat, is a combination of swine and avian flu. It spreads through birds and then to the human population through domesticated ducks, poultry, or poultry farms.

As viruses do not have the full mechanisms of a living cell, they use those of host cells. Viruses have either DNA or RNA. DNA carries our genetic code, while RNA uses this genetic code to produce the proteins that our body needs. RNA viruses include hepatitis C, Ebola, SARS (both variants), influenza, polio, measles, and HIV, which causes AIDS. The novel coronavirus – or SARS-CoV-2 – is an RNA virus.

Why has this novel coronavirus caused so many deaths?

SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV-1 both had much higher mortality rates than SARS-CoV-2. In SARS, the infection to fatality rate (people dead out of the total infected) was 11 percent, while in MERS, it was approximately 35 percent. In comparison, SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 deaths are in the region of 1 percent – much less than SARS or MERS. However, this is significantly higher than the flu, which has an infection to a fatality rate of less than .1 percent.

SARS-CoV-2 is dangerous, as it is easily passed from one person to another. It is this ability to transmit easily from one infected person to another that leads to a very large number of infections, and therefore to a very high level of total deaths. SARS-CoV-2 affects people over 65 much more seriously. The higher the age group, the more likely they have other risk factors such as heart disease, diabetics, cancer, asthma, or other chronic diseases. It is this – among other risk groups, such as those that are immune-compromised or have existing respiratory conditions – that is seeing a much higher death rate in the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been compounded in countries with a large presence of nursing homes, where elderly patients with weak immune systems and many chronic diseases live close together, fuelling the spread of the infection. But this does not mean that COVID-19 is dangerous only for the elderly.

SAR-CoV-2 has more effectively adapted itself to its human hosts than SARS-CoV-1 and MERS have. When the current version of the COVID-19 virus mutated, either in us or in a yet unknown intermediate host, it became particularly effective in binding itself to human cells. The spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 binds to the ACE-2 receptors that lie on the surface of a large number of our cells, from the lungs to our liver, kidneys, and intestinal tract.

The initial infection is most likely to occur through airborne particles carried in droplets released by those infected. Therefore, the initial infection takes place in the nose, throat, or upper respiratory tract. If the body can fight the infection there and defeat it, it may exhibit itself only as mild throat irritation, dry cough, or mild fever. Quite often, people who are infected do not even show symptoms; they are asymptomatic. But both those who have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic can infect others.

In most people, COVID-19 is not a serious disease. But in a small proportion of cases, the infection travels to the lungs – the lower respiratory tract – triggering pneumonia. The lungs in such patients show a ground glass effect visible in CT scans. For older people, it can also be accompanied by secondary bacterial infections.

In some cases, COVID-19 becomes particularly dangerous when it causes the immune system to overreact and go berserk. This heightened immune response not only attacks the infected cells but also the healthy cells, creating what is called a cytokine storm and damaging the lungs even further. It is the cytokine storm triggered by the flu of 1918-20 that caused its high mortality. Further, as the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein can bind to other organs in the body by attaching itself to the ACE-2 surface receptor, it also attacks other vital organs and can contribute to multiple organ failures.

What is the possibility of the creation of a vaccine or medicines to stem the pandemic?

Vaccination.

Vaccination became the major route to control infectious diseases caused by viruses. While we did use vaccines against bacterial diseases like the plague, and still use them against other diseases such as typhoid, with the discovery of broad-spectrum antibiotic drugs like sulfa drugs, other antibiotic drugs like penicillin, bacterial infections have become easier to control.

Viral infections are fought largely by the body’s disease-fighting mechanisms. Our antibodies and T cells fight any external invasion, whether by a bacteria or virus. Vaccines trick the body into creating antibodies in our system to fight against infections of specific viruses. The body’s immune system remembers the invaders introduced by the vaccine and knows how to fight the actual infection when it presents itself. For viral diseases, real herd immunity comes from vaccination, which protects a significant part of the population and thereby breaks the transmission chain.

Research institutions and companies are taking different approaches to vaccines. One set of approaches is to use existing technologies – that is, live, inactive, or parts of the viruses to trigger the creation of antibodies. These vaccines are well-known. The other approach is to use the advances in genetic engineering to create new types of vaccines. Both sets of vaccines are entering clinical trials. Most candidate vaccines fail during the clinical trial phase of vaccine development; they may not develop antibodies, the effect may be too small, or they may even trigger negative responses such as an even more serious infections than would have taken place without the vaccine. Vaccine development can take a minimum of 12 to 18 months.

Vaccines are often developed with full patent protection to make profits for private pharmaceutical companies, even though large amounts of public money are invested for their development. Philanthropic capital – which has floated bodies such as GAVI (The Vaccine Alliance) – claims that it supports public good, but has refused to accept that vaccines should be available without any patent protection. China, on the other hand, has said that it will break the chains of patent protection and offer a vaccine as a public good.

Once a drug works, or a vaccine is developed, duplicating it ­is within the powers of any scientifically developed country. The ‘protection’ against such developments is in international treaties and geopolitics (such as in the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS).

Medicines.

Existing drugs are being repurposed to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Human trials will teach us if these repurposed medicines are effective. Several drug trials are in progress, such as a set of drugs being tested through the ‘Solidarity Trials’, the World Health Organisation.

Armed with faith in science and medical knowledge, over two thousand Cuban doctors in the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Serious Epidemics have traveled across the world to fight the pandemic on the frontlines. The Contingent, formed in 2005, is named after a US soldier who fought in the Cuban Army of Liberation between 1868 and 1878. His internationalist commitment inspires the Cuban medical personnel. The suffocating air of jingoism and racism is not for them; their internationalism and their commitment to science is what confirms our faith in humanity. CODEPINK has called for the Cuban medical workers to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace. We hope that this will be the case.

Source: Indian Cultural Forum, May 29, 2020.
Under Creative Commons Licence.

WHO releases “interim guidance” for stakeholders for the “ethical and appropriate use of digital proximity tracking technologies for COVID-19”

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From SAT News Desk, Melbourne

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released an ‘Interim guidance’ (28 May 2020), ‘Ethical considerations to guide the use of digital proximity tracking technologies for COVID-19 contact tracing’ dealing with tracking technologies used in tracing Apps to identify COVID-19 infected patients in many countries including Australia (COVIDSafe) and India (Aarogya Setu). Like many others in the world, the WHO feels, “… these technologies raise ethical and privacy concerns.” This document is exhaustive and deals with issues of technology, human rights, commercial usage of data, effectiveness, proximity, and the need for the legislation among others.
We reproduce below the whole ‘interim guidance’ as it is under the Creative Commons Licence. CLICK on the following link and access/download the original WHO document:

https://www.who.int/publications-detail/WHO-2019-nCoV-Ethics_Contact_tracing_apps-2020.1

The world agreed to a coronavirus inquiry. Just when and how, though, are still in dispute

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By Adam Kamradt-Scott*

Only once before has the World Health Organisation held its annual World Health Assembly during a pandemic. The last time it happened, in 2009, the influenza pandemic was only in its first weeks – with far fewer deaths than the world has seen this year.

And never before has the meeting of world leaders, health diplomats, and public health experts been held entirely virtually over a condensed two days instead of the normal eight-to-nine-day affair.

As expected, the assembly proved to be a high stakes game of bare-knuckled diplomacy – with a victory (of sorts) for the western countries that had been advocating for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China had pushed back hard against such an inquiry, first proposed by Australia last month, but eventually agreed after other countries signed on.

Even though the resolution was adopted, there are still many unanswered questions about what happens next, specifically, when and how an investigation will actually occur.

Harsh critiques from the US

While country after country praised the WHO for its efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus, US Health Secretary Alex Azar predictably accused the global health body of mishandling the crisis.

In a Trumpian-esque attempt at re-writing history, Azar even went so far as to suggest the WHO failed to alert countries early enough to the COVID-19 threat, despite the fact the organization issued its first warnings on January 4.

China, meanwhile, quickly sensed it had lost the diplomatic battle to prevent an inquiry into the origins of the virus after more than 100 countries supported a draft resolution put forth by Australia and its European and African allies.

President Xi Jinping agreed China would support a WHO-led investigation, but there were two major stipulations – that it happens after the pandemic was over and would focus on more than just looking at China’s actions.

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Chinese President Xi addressing the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Photo: WHO Live

Concerns were also voiced during the gathering about the need for ensuring any COVID-19 vaccine would be made available freely and widely, as opposed to suggested scenarios in which Western countries might gain priority access.

World leaders from UN Secretary-General António Guterres to French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need for any vaccine to be made widely available as a global public good, and health ministers outlined various efforts to support vital research and development into a vaccine.

So what happens now?

China made it clear it will only support an investigation into the origins of the virus after the pandemic has ended. That could be years away, and the longer it takes, the less likely it will be the source will be accurately identified.

China has also insisted the investigation must be led by the WHO. It could be conducted under the auspices of WHO, but if it is led by WHO staff, this is unlikely to sit well with other governments such as Australia and the United States. Both have argued for an independent inquiry.

Investigations into what went wrong during health crises have occurred before.

In 2009, three independent probes were conducted after the WHO was accused of being unduly influenced by an advisory committee into declaring H1N1 “swine flu” a pandemic. And a series of investigations was also launched after the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, during which the WHO was criticized for being too slow to declare an emergency.

In each instance, the members of the investigation teams were appointed by WHO after being recommended by governments and were made up of prominent, independent public health experts and former WHO staff. Notably, these inquiries were also launched before the crises had abated.

These previous investigations focused exclusively on the WHO’s role in responding to the crises and the functioning of the International Health Regulations – a framework that was significantly revised in 2005 to guide government and WHO behavior during disease outbreaks.

China has insisted, however, the COVID-19 investigation be “comprehensive”, which has been interpreted to mean it must look not only at China’s actions but also how other governments responded to the WHO’s warnings.

This is unlikely to be well received by a number of governments, such as the US, which traditionally view such matters as internal and sovereign.

Ultimately though, an investigation will require China’s cooperation, so it’s likely to hold some sway over how, when, and who conducts the probe.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thus faces a difficult task ahead in trying to reconcile the geopolitical tensions between the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States.

Immediate next steps

While the details of an investigation are being finalized, the focus must return to containing COVID-19.

To date, countries have understandably prioritized halting the spread of the coronavirus within their borders to save the lives of their citizens. But as Guterres said at the WHA, the virus will continue to pose a threat to every country unless the international community stands together.

For that to occur, more attention has to be given to supporting low-income countries to contain the virus.

And resources need to be mobilized and deployed. Now.

Research on a vaccine, diagnostics, and treatments must also continue. Realizing the call to ensure the vaccine is freely available to everyone will be critical to ending the pandemic.

While scientific research is underway, governments must also increase their manufacturing capacity and address the legal issues around indemnity and liability, which unhelpfully delayed deployment of the H1N1 influenza pandemic vaccine throughout 2009 and 2010.

For this to occur, we have to heal, or at least put aside, the harmful politics that have prevented effective multilateral cooperation to date. It will be a challenge, but one we must overcome.

*Adam Kamradt-Scott receives funding from the Australian Research Council to investigate military assistance during health emergencies, and from the Canadian Institute for Health Research on the travel and trade restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is a director of the Global Health Security Network, and co-convenor of the Global Health Security conferences.

Source: The Conversation, Under Creative Commons Licence.May 20, 2020.

Could your genes be behind different symptoms & severity of Coronavirus?

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By Austin Nguyen, Abhinav Nellor & Nellore Thompson*

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

When some people become infected with the coronavirus, they only develop mild or undetectable cases of COVID-19. Others suffer severe symptoms, fighting to breathe on a ventilator for weeks, if they survive at all.

Despite a concerted global scientific effort, doctors still lack a clear picture of why this is.

Could genetic differences explain the differences we see in symptoms and severity of COVID-19?

To test this, we used computer models to analyze known genetic variation within the human immune system. The results of our modeling suggest that there are in fact differences in people’s DNA that could influence their ability to respond to a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

What we did

When a virus infects human cells, the body reacts by turning on what are essentially anti-virus alarm systems. These alarms identify viral invaders and tell the immune system to send cytotoxic T cells – a type of white blood cell – to destroy the infected cells and hopefully slow the infection.

But not all alarm systems are created equal. People have different versions of the same genes – called alleles – and some of these alleles are more sensitive to certain viruses or pathogens than others.

To test whether different alleles of this alarm system could explain some of the range in immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, we first retrieved a list of all the proteins that make up the coronavirus from an online database.

We then took that list and used existing computer algorithms to predict how well different versions of the anti-viral alarm system detected these coronavirus proteins.

Why it matters

The part of the alarm system that we tested is called the human leukocyte antigen system, or HLA. Each person has multiple alleles of the genes that make up their HLA type. Each allele codes for a different HLA protein. These proteins are the sensors of the alarm system and find intruders by binding to various peptides – chains of amino acids that make up parts of the coronavirus – that are foreign to the body.

Once an HLA protein binds to a virus or piece of a virus, it transports the intruder to the cell surface. This “marks” the cell as infected and from there the immune system will kill the cell.

In general, the more peptides of a virus that a person’s HLAs can detect, the stronger the immune response. Think of it as a more sensitive sensor of the alarm system.

The results of our modeling predict that some HLA types bind to a large number of the SARS-CoV-2 peptides while others bind to very few. That is to say, some sensors may be better tailored to SARS-CoV-2 than others. If true, the specific HLA alleles a person has would likely be a factor in how effective their immune response is to COVID-19.

Because our study only used a computer model to make these predictions, we decided to test the results using clinical information from the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.

We found similarities in how effective alleles were at identifying SARS and SARS-CoV-2. If an HLA allele appeared to be bad at recognizing SARS-CoV-2, it was also bad at recognizing SARS. Our analysis predicted that one allele, called B46:01, is particularly bad with regards to both SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV. Sure enough, previous studies showed that people with this allele tended to have more severe SARS infections and higher viral loads than people with other versions of the HLA gene.

What’s next?

Based on our study, we think the variation in HLA genes is part of the explanation for the huge differences in infection severity in many COVID-19 patients. These differences in the HLA genes are probably not the only genetic factor that affects the severity of COVID-19, but they may be a significant piece of the puzzle. It is important to further study how HLA types can clinically affect COVID-19 severity and to test these predictions using real cases. Understanding how variation in HLA types may affect the clinical course of COVID-19 could help identify individuals at higher risk from the disease.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate the relationship between viral proteins across a wide range of HLA alleles. Currently, we know very little about the relationship between many other viruses and HLA type. In theory, we could repeat this analysis to better understand the genetic risks of many viruses that currently or could potentially infect humans.

* Austin Nguyen, Ph.D. Candidate in Computational Biology and Biomedical Engineering, Oregon Health & Science University, Abhinav Nellore, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering & Surgery, Oregon Health & Science University & Reid Thompson, Assistant Professor of Radiation Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source- The Conversation,5 May 2020 (Under Creative Commons Licence.

Ros Spence: Victoria looks after multicultural communities during pandemic

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With so many Victorians facing hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re working hard
to support multicultural communities with the unique challenges they face, says Victorian
Multicultural Minister Ros Spence

By Ros Spence, Multicultural Minister, Victoria

MELBOURNE, 8 May 2020: As I take up the role of Minister for Multicultural Affairs, it is not lost on me how challenging this health pandemic has been for our multicultural and multi-faith communities.
Access to health advice in your language, ensuring your community stays connected and looking
after those most affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been my focus.

That’s why the Victorian Government has just announced an $11.3 million package to ensure that all
our multicultural communities are looked after.

The package strengthens our partnership with the many wonderful community organizations who
provide vital services, such as delivering food to families, refugees and asylum seekers who are
struggling at the moment.

A large part of the funding will improve the digital infrastructure of community organizations,
ensuring that you can stay connected to your community while you stay at home.

A new $65,000 leadership program will also support young men and women to support their
communities through the pandemic and into the recovery phase.

Many of you will have come to Victoria as students many years ago – and you’ve contributed so much
to our state. That’s why we’ve also announced a $1,100 support payment for International Students
in Victoria. It’s important we support these young men and women during this stressful time.

So far, we have translated health materials in 48 languages on the Department of Health and Human
Services website. This is important. Whether it be for a parent or someone new to our state, sharing
health advice in the right language helps us all stay safe. Now, a further $1 million means we can
ensure even more Victorians are getting the information they need.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank all Victorians for responding to the Government’s
message about staying home. It has saved lives.

We value our multiculturalism – and we have a proud history of standing with these communities
who contribute so much to our state.

It’s been incredibly disappointing to see a minority lash out at Asian Victorians in recent weeks and
we condemn these incidents. Racism is never acceptable. Not now. Not ever.

We are working with the Victorian Multicultural Commission and the Victorian Equal Opportunity
and the Human Rights Commission to make it easier for Victorians to report this horrible behavior to
authorities.

Victoria can learn a lot from our multicultural and multifaith communities about how we can look
after each other – and I know that already so many of you are leading our state in this space.
For this, I thank each and every one of you. We will get through this – and we will get through it
together.