As the Covid-19 vaccination drive gets started in Spain, the pandemic is not letting up. The Health Ministry on Tuesday reported 14,000 new confirmed infections and added 320 fatalities to the overall death toll. The fall in the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants on Monday was short lived, and the data point is now at 255, once again above the 250-mark that is considered to be extreme risk by the Health Ministry. The pressure on Spanish hospitals, meanwhile, remains high, with 12,000 Covid-19 patients currently receiving treatment, 2,000 of them in intensive care units (ICUs).
Infections are on the rise in all regions, apart from Andalusia and Cantabria, where the incidence has fallen slightly. Six regions have a 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants above 250, although the worst situation is in the Balearics, which has doubled that limit. The islands currently have a rate of 522, which has prompted the authorities there to ramp up the social restrictions ahead of the New Year. Stores and restaurants will have to close at 6pm – apart from those selling essential products – on the island of Mallorca, which has a cumulative number of 607 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over a two-week period.
Cantabria, which has a cumulative number of 157 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, has also ramped up its coronavirus restrictions, limiting social meetings to six people on New Year’s Eve and January 1, while a curfew will be in place at 12.30am. Other regions, meanwhile, have opted to maintain their current restrictions despite the rise in cases and pressure on hospitals. Catalonia, for example, which has seen the proportion of Covid patients rise 14% in 10 days, opted on Monday to maintain its current measures saying that they “are already very drastic.”
The latest figures clearly show, however, a growth in the circulation of the virus across Spain and as such a rise in infections. In the Valencia region, for example, new contagions have shot up with the second highest numbers of infections and deaths ever seen, at 3,590 and 60, respectively. The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants in this region is currently at 364, only behind the Balearics and Extremadura (422).
The increase in infections, which can be linked to the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions at the start of December, is having an effect in Spain’s hospitals, which, with already high occupation levels, are holding their breath ahead of the threat of a possible third wave after the Christmas holidays.
According to the latest report, 10% of hospital beds (12,032 in total) are occupied by Covid-19 patients. Of these, 2,005 are in the ICU, 21% of the total. There are regions, however, which are suffering more than others, such as the Balearic Islands, which is now near to 30% occupation with Covid-19 patients, and Madrid, which is hovering around 25% occupation. A third of ICU beds in Catalonia are also being used to treat people infected with the coronavirus.
As has been seen during the pandemic so far, a rise in infections followed by a spike in hospitalizations has a domino effect on the number of fatalities. There were 320 Covid-related deaths added to the overall total on Tuesday, with more than 500 reported over the last seven days. Since the start of the pandemic, the Spanish Health Ministry has recorded 50,500 official victims, although the real total is likely to be much higher due to the high numbers of victims who passed away before being tested during the first wave.
First image of omicron coronavirus variant shows many more mutations in area that interacts with human cells
independent– Researchers have revealed the first image of omicron, the new coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa and Botswana, which shows that it has more mutations than the currently predominant Delta variant.
The 3D image of omicron, produced and published by the Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome, reveals that the variant has many mutations concentrated in the spike (S) protein — the part of the novel coronavirus that enables it to enter human cells.
“We can clearly see that the omicron variant presents many more mutations than the delta variant, concentrated above all in one area of the protein that interacts with human cells,” the researchers said in a statement on Sunday. “This does not automatically mean that these variations are more dangerous, simply that the virus has further adapted to the human species by generating another variant.”
The scientists called for further studies to unravel if the adaptation seen in the variant is “neutral, less dangerous, or more dangerous”.
Scientists have found about 50 mutations in omicron, 30 of which are on the S protein, and half of those in the receptor-binding domain – the part that binds to the ACE2 receptor on human cells through which the virus enters tissues.
The red dots in the image, researchers said, indicate areas with “very high variability,” while the orange ones are those with “high variability”, and the yellow ones with “medium variability.” Green dots are parts of the S protein showing low difference between the two variants, while the gray area shows portions that do not vary.
“Case numbers tripled in 3 days in South Africa to 2,828, but this is perhaps partly because of intensive monitoring, although it is possible that the transmission rate is double that of delta (R=2) and the doubling time is about 4.8 days,” Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine, Imperial College London, said in a statement on Saturday.
“South Africa is going into summer and rates of delta are very low, so hard to say if omicron competes over delta,” Dr Openshaw added.
On Friday, the World Health Organisation noted that there could be an increased risk of reinfection with the new B.1.1529 coronavirus variant, named omicron, compared to other variants of concern.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the WHO noted in a statement on Friday. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.”
While the number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, the WHO says further studies are underway to understand if the surge in cases is because of omicron or other factors.
The WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution also highlighted that it is still unclear whether infection with omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants.
“While preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with omicron,” the experts noted in a statement on Sunday.
They urged all countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating variants of the novel coronavirus, and submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
The WHO and several health experts across the world have called for increasing global vaccine equity to ensure that new variants of concern do not emerge.
“It is very likely that current vaccines will protect against severe disease with omicron as they do for all the previously identified virus variants. But this does highlight the need to remain vigilant – the pandemic is not over,” Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said.
Spanish researchers pave way for fair play in global Covid testing and research
thelocal– The World Health Organisation described the accord as the first transparent, global, non-exclusive licence for a Covid-19 health tool, that should help towards correcting the “devastating global inequity” in access.
The deal brings the Spanish National Research Council CSIC together with the global Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) and the WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) knowledge-sharing platform.
“The aim of the licence is to facilitate the rapid manufacture and commercialisation of CSIC’s Covid-19 serological test worldwide,” the WHO said.
The test effectively detects anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies developed in response to either a Covid-19 infection or a vaccine.
CSIC, one of Europe’s main public research institutions, will provide the MPP or prospective licencees with know-how and training.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the licence, which will be royalty-free for low and middle-income countries, as “the kind of open and transparent licence we need to move the needle on access during and after the pandemic”.
He added: “I urge developers of Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostics to follow this example and turn the tide… on the devastating
global inequity this pandemic has spotlighted.”
C-TAP was founded in May 2020 as a platform for developers of Covid-19 tools to share knowledge and intellectual property.
Set up during the scramble for Covid vaccines and treatments, the health technology repository was first suggested by Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado.
The information pool was intended as a voluntary global bank for IP and open-sourced data as part of a common front against the new coronavirus.
However, as it turned out, rival pharmaceutical companies have largely kept their findings to themselves rather than sharing them as global public goods.
Tuesday’s deal “shows that solidarity and equitable access can be achieved”, said Alvarado.
CSIC president Rosa Menéndez said she hoped the move would serve as an example for other research organisations.
‘Preposterous’ tests hoarding
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said the test could quantify three different types of antibodies — and crucially, differentiate vaccinated people from those with natural Covid infection.
“This feature will become very important for measuring the number of Covid-19 cases in countries and the impact of control measures,” it said.
In welcoming CSIC’s move, MSF diagnostics adviser Stijn Deborggraeve said it was “preposterous” in a global pandemic that tests were being monopolised by “a handful of privileged people and countries”.
The Geneva-based MPP is a UN-backed international organisation that works to facilitate the development of medicines for low- and middle-income nations.
The antibody test licensing accord is the third Covid-related deal that the global pool has struck in a month.
Last week, the MPP reached an agreement with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to make its prospective antiviral Covid-19 pill available more cheaply in 95 low- and middle-income countries via sub-licensing to generic drug manufacturers.
The MPP signed a similar deal last month with Pfizer’s US rival Merck for its prospective oral antiviral medicine molnupiravir.
Covid: Europe region faces 700,000 more deaths by March – WHO
bbc– A further 700,000 people could die of Covid by March in Europe and parts of Asia, the World Health Organization has warned.
The death toll already exceeds 1.5 million in the 53 countries of what the WHO terms as its Europe region.
The WHO warned of “high or extreme stress” in intensive care units in 49 of the nations by March 2022.
Europe is facing a surge in cases, prompting Austria to return to lockdown and others to consider fresh measures.
A number of countries – including France, Germany and Greece – could also soon make booster jabs a requirement for their citizens to be considered fully vaccinated.
But several countries have seen fierce protests against new measures. The Netherlands saw several nights of rioting over a partial lockdown.
In its assessment, the WHO warned Covid was the top cause of death in its Europe region.
“Cumulative reported deaths are projected to reach over 2.2 million by spring next year, based on current trends,” the WHO said on Tuesday.
Confirmed Covid-related deaths recently doubled to almost 4,200 a day, it added.
In Russia alone, the daily death toll has been recently topping 1,200.
A high number of unvaccinated people and the prevalence of the Delta variant in some countries were key factors behind high transmission rates in the Europe region, the WHO said.
The WHO Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, urged those who were still unvaccinated to get the jab.
“All of us have the opportunity and responsibility to help avert unnecessary tragedy and loss of life, and limit further disruption to society and businesses over this winter season,” he said.
As well as European nations, the WHO also considers Israel and ex-Soviet states like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as making up the region.
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