The new year starts on January 1, but in Spain, with its long and unusual Christmas holidays, it doesn’t really get going until January 7, once the Three Kings have departed. On January 7, 2020, the lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies, swore in Pedro Sánchez as prime minister. That same day, in China, scientists discovered what was causing strange cases of pneumonia in the province of Hubei: a virus similar to the one that caused SARS, a disease that rocked a number of Asian countries in 2003 and disappeared several months later. The script for 2020 changed forever. Back then, no one could have imagined what was soon to arrive: from the biggest pandemic the world has seen in generations, to a vaccine created in record time to eradicate it. It’s been a year of masks, lockdowns, social distancing, PCR tests and curve-flattening. A year when we could no longer hug one another.
January. A far-off threat
On January 7 no one outside specialist circles was paying much attention to the virus. While it would emerge later that China was hiding evidence that it could be transmitted from person to person, at the time it was thought that it could only move from animals to people. The wet market in Wuhan was closed as a likely source of the outbreak, and from then on, it was thought that there would be no further problems. Several days after the genetic code of the virus was sequenced, it was made public so that other countries could prepare PCR tests to identify it. China, on paper, was being swift and transparent, in contrast to its approach to SARS, when its secrecy delayed a solution to the problem for months.
Everything changed on January 20. And from then on events took place at a vertiginous speed. On that day, China admitted that the virus could be passed from human to human. That turned the strategy for dealing with it upside down. The country was still only officially recognizing 300 cases and six deaths, but the potential for the damage it could cause was now being looked at in a different light – in particular within the borders of the Asian giant. Practically no one at that point was considering the possibility of a pandemic. Three days later, China locked down the city of Wuhan. The virus became front-page news in all newspapers, and – apart from a few moments of respite – would stay there until now.
Millions of people were locked in their homes, unable to leave their city. The world looked on incredulous at what was happening. “This would be unthinkable in a democratic country,” analysts said over and over again. While the World Health Organization (WHO) was debating whether or not to declare an international emergency, something it had only done on five occasions in the 20th century, in Spain the news began to spark interest given that 23 Spaniards who lived in Wuhan were trying to return to their home country. On January 24, Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), made his first statement. He was not a completely unknown figure, given that he was the spokesperson during the 2014 ebola crisis in Spain, but practically no one remembered him.
Almost casually, Simón announced that there had been two suspected cases that were being analyzed. But that tests had come back negative and that Spain would be vigilant for the virus. On January 30, the WHO declared an international emergency and on January 31 Spain’s National Microbiology Center in Majadahonda detected the first positive case. It was a German citizen who was on vacation in the Canary Island of La Gomera. That day, Simón uttered a phrase that will likely follow him around for the rest of his life: “Spain will not have, at the most, more than a few cases diagnosed.”
February. The virus spreads across the world
Silently, the virus was already spreading throughout the globe. While there was only a handful of infections outside of China, later it would emerge that the coronavirus was preparing the ground to explode and become a pandemic, something that the WHO did not recognize until March 11.
February was the month that the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was canceled, despite the indignation of local administrations and the surprise of the majority of epidemiologists. It was also the month when the virus ripped through Italy. The epidemic was no longer thousands of kilometers away, but rather just hundreds. But in Spain it still felt very far away. “This couldn’t happen to us,” many citizens thought, backed by a government that was trying to convey a sense of calm and that delayed a number of decisions because the virus was, in theory anyway, under control.
But you can’t detect something if you’re not looking for it. Spain had a very limited capacity to carry out tests, meaning that the definition of a case was still very restricted. It was a fish that was eating its own tail – more tests could not be carried out, without more tests more cases could not be detected, and without more cases there was supposedly no need to take drastic measures.
March. The state of alarm
March began with a steady stream of cases, all of them apparently under control. The turning point came on March 8. The central government had opted not to cancel large events, and sports matches, political rallies and demonstrations continued as if nothing had changed. While the 8-M feminist marches – which were attended by many high-profile politicians from the Socialist Party (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos coalition government – were the focus of much media attention and criticism afterward, they were just one of the events that went ahead that weekend. And, given what we now know about how the virus is transmitted, they were not exactly the most dangerous.
But what changed on that day had little to do with these crowds. On the same afternoon, the CCAES received a report from the Madrid region – in Spain, each of the regional governments is in charge of its own healthcare system. That week, the region reported, the number of positive cases had been rising at a steady rate, and on that very Sunday, 234 had been confirmed in a single day. This information was not made public until the next day, and it was the first thing that prompted the central Health Ministry to suspect that the epidemic was out of control.
The health minister, Salvador Illa, made a statement the next day to recommend that citizens did not make unnecessary journeys. And the Madrid region opted to suspend classes in schools and universities. The CCAES did not see the point in this latter measure, given that it would prompt the movement around the country of students and teachers, and would count for little without suspending the rest of the country’s activity.
Preparations began for a decree that would be approved by the Cabinet on March 14, 24 hours after the prime minister made a televised address announcing that a state of alarm was imminent. By that point, the atmosphere in the Spanish capital was already strange. Children weren’t going to school and a lot of companies had already introduced working from home.
On March 14, a state of alarm that would last 98 days began, seeing most of the country’s population confined to their homes for around two months. That night also saw the first round of applause for healthcare workers, a nightly practice that would last for even longer.
But the lockdown was insufficient. The country’s hospitals were already close to being overwhelmed and if more drastic measures were not taken the tragedy would be even greater. That was what prompted Pedro Sánchez, advised by a group of scientists, to hibernate the economy completely, and allow only essential activity to continue. This phase began on March 29, and lasted for 15 days. The last day of that month, Spain saw the highest number of infections reported in this first wave: 9,222, a completely unreal number not just due to the delay in notifications from hospitals but also because around that time it has been estimated that only one in 10 infections were being officially recorded. But it was symbolic: this was the day that the curve was flattened. Two weeks of confinement had done their job, but there was a long road still ahead.
April. Hospitals and senior homes overwhelmed
While new cases had reached their peak and deaths would do so shortly after (950 Covid-related fatalities were reported on April 2), the distress in hospitals and care homes would still continue for weeks. There was a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), staff, beds and respirators. The state of alarm had arrived in time for most of the regions, and they were able to attend to everyone who needed it. But this was not the case in Madrid, Catalonia, the Basque Country and some cities in Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León.
In these locations triage was necessary in order to deal with the sickest patients, and thousands of seniors, in particular in Madrid, were left abandoned to their fate in residences. It was still difficult to conceive the painful toll that the virus would take in senior homes, which were one of the main focal points of the crisis and uncovered structural problems in the system.
Up to mid-November, more than 24,500 died in social services residences (including homes for the disabled) with either confirmed Covid or compatible symptoms. In the first wave, many of these victims did not receive the medical attention they needed, and were unable to say goodbye to their relatives. What’s more, their carers were ever fewer as they also came down with the illness.
This was also the month of one of the symbols of the pandemic: face masks. Until then, international organizations did not consider them to be essential, partly because at that point the virus was unknown and also, to a great extent, demand for the items was having a drastic effect on supply.
Given the possibility that healthcare workers would run out of masks (something that happened), the authorities opted not to recommend their use. But on April 8 the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) admitted that they could be useful to prevent infections. Two days later, Health Minister Illa recommended their use on public transport and in the workplace, a measure that would soon become obligatory in all public places.
But while the situation was extreme in hospitals in the month of April, there were also the first rays of hope on the horizon. The lockdown in Spain was one of the toughest in the Western world and was starting to take its toll. There were widespread calls for, at least, children to be allowed out after six weeks inside, something that was permitted from April 26. Youngsters could go out for an hour a day, accompanied by an adult, and only a kilometer away from their home. The deescalation process had got off to a timid start.
May. The deescalation
The Spanish government managed to secure the support it needed from other parties to prolong the state of alarm on a fortnightly basis, but it was becoming more and more difficult to do so. A team of advisors was working on the deescalation plan, which was being designed to get the country back to some kind of normality – or the new normality, as the prime minister would describe it. It was to be an asymmetrical and progressive plan that each region would implement according to the epidemiological situation and the pressure on local hospitals. Phase 1 of the plan would begin on May 11 apart from for four of the country’s islands: Formentera, El Hierro, La Gomera and La Graciosa. With no cases reported for some days, they turned into a testing ground a week beforehand.
With the deescalation process, conflict between some regional governments and the central administration broke out. Until then there had been differences and some tugs-of-war, in particular involving the Madrid region. But these were pushed aside due to the severity of the situation. When the worst was over, however, these differences became more and more evident.
Despite reports from her own health department that advised against it, the Popular Party premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, flew up a flag that she still carries to this day, touting Madrid as a symbol of “freedom” in the face of the government’s restrictions, which she considered to be excessive. As the coronavirus data continued to improve, more and more regional governments called for the state of alarm to be lifted so that they could regain their powers and manage the situation for themselves.
June. The end of the state of alarm
While the deescalation was designed to end at the beginning of July, the lack of support and pressure from opposition parties and regions prompted the government to bring it to an end on June 22. That was the end of the state of alarm and a chance for the regions to take a step toward the new normality. Some restrictions remained in place, but there was a general relaxation when Spain registered eight cases per 100,000 inhabitants over thee previous 14 days, the lowest figure seen since the start of the crisis and one that has not been seen since then – by a long, long way.
July. The start of the second wave
As the measures were relaxed, so the cases began to rise. The second wave started to take shape, very slowly. At this point, as at the start of the pandemic, there was a trickle of cases being detected. The seed was planted among seasonal workers in Aragón, which became the first region that had to reverse the deescalation process, and then it was the turn of Catalonia. From that point all of the regions started to react to the rise in cases with tightened measures.
August. Nightlife is canceled
It seemed impossible to believe, but the situation began to get out of control once more. Without enough capacity for tracking and tracing, Spain was leading a second wave that was yet to arrive in other European countries. The focus was on youngsters and nightlife, prompting the Health Ministry and the regions to approve a raft of measures that included the closure of nightlife – something that remains in force today and is unlikely to be modified for several months yet.
September. Madrid, the epicenter of controversy
Madrid was both the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe and of controversy in Spain. With cases rising non-stop, regional premier Isabel Ayuso was unwilling to take drastic measures and so the central government opted to intervene. At a meeting between the Health Ministry and regional chiefs, a majority voted to impose more restrictive measures on mobility in areas where there were more than 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over a 14-day period, where the positivity rate of tests was in excess of 10%, and where the rate of intensive care unit (ICU) beds by Covid patients was above 35%. With these criteria, 10 municipalities in the region, including the capital, were forced to establish perimetral lockdowns among other limitations.
October. Measures, counter-measures and a new state of alarm
The curve was rising or falling depending on the region. Spain’s territories were approving ever-more-restrictive measures in order to slow the second wave, but as the month progressed the trend rose in nearly all of the country. The Health Ministry created a risk map, on which the majority of regions were soon in what was considered a level of extreme risk.
The central government was preparing the ground for a new state of alarm, and more and more regions were calling for the measure, which was finally approved on October 25. To avoid having to seek parliamentary support for it on a regular basis, as was the case in the first wave, this time it was put in place for six months. The effect was to give the regions the powers to limit mobility without risk of the move being challenged in the courts, as had already happened previously. It also permitted for a nighttime curfew, and limits on the number of people who could meet in social settings.
November. The vaccine arrives
In the fight against the second wave, which was seeing the number of infections and fatalities rise, there was some light at the end of the tunnel On November 16, Moderna announced that its coronavirus vaccine was 95% effective. Two days later, Pfizer did the same. And a week after that, Oxford-AstraZeneca confirmed its vaccine worked, albeit with a lower rate of success. It would be a question of weeks before regulatory bodies would give the green light to the vaccination program, which would start to take the world out of the nightmare that began in January.
December. A different Christmas and the first vaccinations
The process to approve the vaccines went quicker than anyone had imagined. In the first half of December, the immunizations began in some countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. But with the solution already underway, there were still some problems to be solved. The second wave was still threatening most of Europe, including Spain, and the critical Christmas holidays were approaching. These would provide the virus with its preferred ecosystem: social meetings, dinners in enclosed spaces and high mobility. To avoid a winter as complicated as the previous spring, governments got to work to come up with plans that would allow families to see one another, but with the biggest limits possible on such encounters.
Spain approved a general framework that could be modified by each region. Mobility was permitted to see family members and allegados, a term that caused considerable confusion. The curfew would be pushed back on the major dates of the holiday season and the number of people permitted to meet would be raised. But the virus continued to spread and many regions backtracked on the relaxation of measures. The consensus among experts was that after these dates the number of cases would rise. But few went as far as to predict by how much, in particular in the light of the discovery of a new, more infections strain of the virus in the United Kingdom.
The virus has spent the year surprising us. Everyone’s hopes are now on 2021, but there is still a way to go yet for the pandemic, and the next chapters are far from written.
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.
Australia3 years ago
Button and Diane Powellpark the school bus after three decades
Australia3 years ago
Button and Diane Powellpark the school bus after three decades
Tech1 year ago
Search engine startup asks users to be the customer, not the product
Europe12 months ago
Covid: Flights shut down as EU discusses UK virus threat
Europe10 months ago
Post-Brexit trade: Is red tape chaos just ‘teething trouble’ as the UK government argues?
Health12 months ago
Spain ‘to register’ those who refuse to have Covid-19 vaccine
Australia11 months ago
Covid: Brisbane to enter three-day lockdown over single infection
Arts3 years ago
How a chain-link mosque at the Vancouver Biennale became a community hub