Warning over new Covid variant ‘Arcturus’ that is causing carnage in India with infections surging 13-fold in the past month
A new Covid strain is wreaking havoc in India, with hospitals now on red alert and compulsory face masks being brought back.
‘Arcturus’, a spin-off of Omicron, is thought to be the most contagious variant yet.
However, top scientists don’t expect it to be more lethal than other types currently circulating, which cause a much milder disease that closely resembles the flu.
Officials believe it is single-handedly driving India’s latest wave, with cases having exploded 13-fold within a month.
The nation’s ministry of health this week ran mock drills to check how prepared its hospitals were for another potential influx of patients.
And some states have brought back face masks in public settings, the first time for more than a year in some areas.
India’s Ministry of Health said there were 40,215 active Covid cases on April 12, up by 3,122 in just one day.
These Covid cases can include those who test positive while unwell at home as well as those in hospital.
Separate figures from the Oxford University-run platform Our World in Data show that new daily cases hit 3,108 on April 4, up from 242 one month earlier.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is currently monitoring XBB.1.16, which was first detected in late January, with officials saying it has some mutations of concern.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid technical lead, said: ‘It’s been in circulation for a few months.
‘We haven’t seen a change in severity in individuals or in populations, but that’s why we have these systems in place.
‘It has one additional mutation in the spike protein which in lab studies shows increased infectivity as well as potential increased pathogenicity.’
Dr Van Kerkhove added that while XBB.1.16 had been detected in other countries most sequences were from India, where it had replaced other variants.
She also said that thus far there had been no reported change in disease severity in XBB.1.16 infections.
But a pre-print study by Japanese scientists from the University of Tokyo suggested Arcturus is 1.2 times more infectious than the closely related Kraken Covid strain.
Uploading their findings to the biology research website bioRxiv, they wrote that this advantage suggests the new variant will ‘spread worldwide in the near future’.
They attributed this to mutations that could make it more difficult for the immune system to tackle and increase its growth rate.
However, they said there is no evidence that Arcturus had any greater ability to evade the protection offered by vaccines or prior infection compared to Kraken.
Kraken was the dominant strain in the UK by the end of February, causing 50.4 per cent of cases, according to ONS data, while Orthrus was behind at 19.7 per cent.
Technically XBB.1.5, the Omicron spin-off was considered the most infectious Covid variant yet and sparked concern after triggering a surge in cases in several countries.
However while it triggered more cases, the new strain did not cause more severe disease than its ancestor Omicron, already considered a ‘milder’ version of Covid.
The Japanese study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The rise in cases triggered by Arcturus has led the Indian state of Haryana, in the north of the country, to reintroduced masks in public places due to the ‘significant upsurge’ in Covid cases.
Veena George, Health Minister of southern state Kerala, on Saturday reintroduced masks for pregnant women, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
On Monday and Tuesday, hospitals across India took part in mock drills to test their preparedness.
Officials have also told states to ramp up testing for the virus.
The drills and return of masks are a grim reminder of how the country was devastated by the Delta wave in 2021 with a total of 4.7million excess deaths according to WHO estimates.
India’s health system was overwhelmed by a surge of cases triggered by that Covid variant, with some hospitals even running out of oxygen.
Like similar new Covid variants, virus trackers online decided to call XBB.1.16 ‘Arcturus’ following a pattern of naming new strains after mythological entities.
Arcturus means ‘Guardian of the Bear’ and is related to the constellation called the Great Bear.
Courtesy of Dailymail.co.uk
Virus panic: First case of ‘flurona’– Covid and flu merge to form horror double infection
A MIXTURE of the flu and coronavirus, dubbed Flurona, has been detected in Israel.
The first case of Flurona was found in a young pregnant woman in Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva. Flurona is a dangerous mixture of coronavirus and influenza. The young woman was unvaccinated and results from the hospital detected the co-presence of both the flu and the Covid 19 pathogens.
Local press in Israel reported the woman was found positive for the two infections during analysis at the hospital in Petach Tikva.
The Israeli Health Ministry is studying the results.
The woman has presented with relatively mild symptoms of the disease.
However, the health ministry in Israel is studying the combination of the two infections to detect if it could cause a more serious illness.
Now experts in Israel have said that several other patients have contracted the two viruses but have not been diagnosed.
Professor Arnon Vizhnitser director of the hospitals’ Gynecology Department said: “Last year, we did not witness flu cases among pregnant or birthing women.
“Today, we are seeing cases of both coronavirus and the flu that are starting to rear their head.
“We are seeing more and more pregnant women with the flu.
“It is definitely a great challenge dealing with a woman who comes in with a fever at childbirth.
“This is especially when you do not know if it’s coronavirus or the flu, so you refer to them the same.
“Most of the illness is respiratory.”
Mr Vizhnitser added that the patient did not experience any unusually serious symptoms.
He added: “She was diagnosed with the flu and coronavirus as soon as she arrived.
“Both tests came back positive, even after we checked again.
“The disease is the same disease; they’re viral and cause difficulty breathing since both attack the upper respiratory tract.”
Courtesy of express.co.uk
European countries set for partial lockdowns as Covid cases soar
The Netherlands and Austria are days away from imposing new lockdowns in a bid to stop a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Uneven vaccine coverage and a relaxation of preventive measures have brought Europe to a ‘critical point’ in the pandemic, the World Health Organisation said last week.
Restrictions coming into force tomorrow in the Netherlands are the first by a western European country since the summer.
Bars, restaurants and non-essential stores will be ordered to close at 7pm for at least three weeks starting on Saturday, a Dutch broadcasting organisation said citing government sources.
People will be urged to work from home as much as possible, and audiences will be banned from attending sporting events in the coming weeks.
Schools, theatres and cinemas, however, are set to remain open.
The partial lockdown, due to be announced by prime minister Mark Rutte in a televised press conference scheduled for 6pm, would last longer than the 14 days recommended by the government’s outbreak management team.
Brits are still allowed to visit the Netherlands if they are fully vaccinated, even though Dutch authorities currently classify the UK as a ‘very high risk country’.
Fully vaccinated travellers arriving in the Netherlands must show either a negative PCR test result or a a negative antigen test result, according to Government guidance.
The Dutch authorities have not yet indicated that it plans to further restrict foreign travel but this could change.
Latvia was the first country to reimpose lockdown in Europe to combat the fourth wave of Covid-19.
The country announced a month-long lockdown three weeks ago after an unprecedented surge in infections.
President Vladimir Putin declared a holiday period for Russia from October 30 to curb infections, however, it ended on November 7.
New restrictions on the Netherlands would mean a drastic turn in policy for its government, which until last month thought that a relatively high vaccination rate would mean it could further ease measures towards the end of the year.
However, new Covid-19 cases in the country of 17.5 million have increased rapidly after social distancing measures were dropped in September.
According to the latest figures, they hit a record of around 16,300 in 24 hours.
This has led to pressure on hospitals, forcing them to scale back regular care again to treat patients with the virus.
But the Netherlands is not alone in reintroducing stricter controls.
Austria is also considering locking down millions of people not fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in lockdown in a matter of days.
Officials in Upper Austria province, which has the lowest vaccination rate and the highest infection rate, plan to impose restrictions from Monday if given the green light by the federal government.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg pointed out a lockdown for the unvaccinated was ‘probably unavoidable’ and that they faced an ‘uncomfortable’ winter and Christmas.
During a visit to Bregenz in western Austria, he said: ‘I don’t see why two-thirds should lose their freedom because one-third is dithering.
‘For me, it is clear that there should be no lockdown for the vaccinated out of solidarity for the unvaccinated.’
Austrian regional governor Thomas Stelzer also described the situation as ‘dramatic’.
Those who are not vaccinated will have restrictions placed on their daily movements, including bans from restaurants, hotels, hairdressing salons and large public events.
Courtesy of metro.co.uk
COVID: Fourth wave ‘in full force’ in Germany as WHO warns Europe is ‘back at epicentre’
A fourth wave of coronavirus is in “full force”, Germany’s health minister has warned, after a 55% rise in cases over the past month.
Europe is “back at the epicentre” of the pandemic, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) Europe director Dr Hans Kluge, and is the only place in the world where COVID is “still increasing”.
Infection rates across the region have risen by 6% in the past week alone, WHO bosses told a Geneva news conference on Thursday.
This has also resulted in an increase in hospital admissions – which have more than doubled in a week – and virus-related deaths – which have increased by 12%, Dr Kluge added.
German health minister Jens Spahn announced on Friday that booster vaccines will now be given to all adults six months after their second dose as a way of tackling the increase.
“A fourth COVID wave is now with us in full force,” he said.
“We are at the start of a very difficult few weeks.”
Despite Germany having vaccinated 67% of its population, it is still experiencing a dramatic surge.
On Friday, health officials reported the highest number of daily infections for a second day in a row (37,120), which far exceeded its previous winter peak of 33,777 from 18 December 2020.
Several countries in central and eastern Europe, including Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are also seeing two-week average case rates of over 1 in 1,000.
But many of these infections are happening in unvaccinated people, experts have said.
Slovakia, for example, reported a new record number of daily cases – 6,805 – on Friday and has one of the lowest vaccine rates in the EU.
Its health ministry confirmed that 69% of the new infections were in unvaccinated people.
Professor Andrew Preston, of the University of Bath’s biology and biochemistry department, said Europe’s surge could be down to both poor vaccination rates and a lack of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Some eastern European countries have very low vaccination rates and there you are seeing most of the cases in the unvaccinated,” he told Sky News.
“But in Germany yesterday they had a record number of cases and that probably reflects a pattern of what happens when you unlock with high levels of virus circulating.”
Dr Michael Ryan, of WHO’s health emergency programme, called on European governments to “close the gap” in their vaccine rollouts in response to the spike.
“There may be plenty of vaccine available, but uptake of vaccine has not been equal”, he said on Thursday.
WHO director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed the importance of maintaining some restrictions to reduce cases in Europe.
“Vaccines alone will not end the pandemic,” he said. “Vaccines do not replace the need for public health measures [which] remain important in every country.”
Dr Ryan added that “exhaustion” in “health workers, communities and government” is “leading to complacency”, “gaps in testing, clinical management and vaccination”.
“It is through those gaps” that transmission occurs, he said.
Although some European countries have reintroduced social distancing and face masks in public spaces in recent weeks, Professor Preston says this is only a temporary solution.
“The question is how do we move forward in a world where, even in countries with high vaccination rates, you still see high levels of virus transmission?
“In eastern European countries, reimposing restrictions might help buy time to increase low vaccination rates.
“And in places where there is significant pressure on health services, alleviating that with short term measures seems sensible.
“But because vaccines are not absolute in stopping people becoming infected, we need to decide what level of COVID-induced damage we are prepared to tolerate in order to return to ‘normal’.”
Courtesy of Sky News
WHO warns of many more Covid deaths in Europe
An increase in Covid-19 transmission rates across Europe over the last two weeks, combined with low levels of vaccination in some countries, is “deeply worrying”, the World Health Organization has said.
The WHO said it feared another 236,000 Covid-19 deaths in Europe by 1 December.
“Last week, there was an 11% increase in the number of deaths in the region – one reliable projection is expecting 236,000 deaths in Europe, by December 1,” WHO Europe director Hans Kluge told reporters.
He added that “the stagnation in vaccine uptake in our region is of serious concern”.
Europe has registered around 1.3 million Covid deaths to date.
Of the WHO Europe’s 53 member states, 33 have registered an incidence rate greater than 10% in the past two weeks, Dr Kluge said.
He attributed the higher transmission to the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, an “exaggerated easing” of restrictions and measures, and a surge in summer travel.
As of 26 August, Ireland’s 14-day incidence rate was 530.7 per 100,000.
While around half of people in Europe are fully vaccinated, vaccination uptake in the region has slowed, Dr Kluge also noted.
“In the past six weeks, it has fallen by 14%, influenced by a lack of access to vaccines in some countries and a lack of vaccine acceptance in others.”
Only 6% of people in lower and lower-middle income countries in Europe are fully vaccinated, and some countries have only managed to vaccinate one in 10 health professionals.
“The stagnation in vaccine uptake in our region is of serious concern,” Dr Kluge said, urging countries to “increase production, share doses, and improve access”.
He said that a third-dose booster shot of the Covid-19 vaccination is a way to keep the most vulnerable safe and “not a luxury”.
The WHO said earlier this month data did not indicate a need for booster shots, while topping up already fully vaccinated people would further widen a vaccine-availability gap between rich and lower-income countries.
“A third dose of vaccine is not a luxury booster (that is) taken away from someone who is still waiting for a first jab. It’s basically a way to keep the most vulnerable safe,” Dr Kluge said.
“We have to be a little bit careful with the booster shot, because there is not yet enough evidence,” he said.
“But more and more studies show that a third dose keeps vulnerable people safe, and this is done by more and more countries in our region,” he said.
Dr Kluge urged European countries with excess vaccines to share them with other countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Africa.
Teachers and school staff should be among the groups prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations so that schools in Europe and Central Asia can stay open, the WHO and Unicef said.
Measures to ensure that schools can stay open throughout the pandemic “include offering teachers and other school staff the Covid-19 vaccine as part of target population groups in national vaccination plans,” the UN agencies wrote in a statement.
The recommendation, already made by a group of WHO experts in November 2020 before the vaccination roll-out, should be done “while ensuring vaccination of vulnerable populations,” the statement said.
As schools reopen after the summer holidays, the agencies said it was “vital that classroom-based learning continue uninterrupted,” despite the spread of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.
“This is of paramount importance for children’s education, mental health and social skills, for schools to help equip our children to be happy and productive members of society,” Dr Kluge said in the statement.
“The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history,” he added.
The agencies urged countries to vaccinate children over the age of 12 who have underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe Covid-19 disease.
It also recalled the importance of measures to improve the school environment during the pandemic, including better ventilation, smaller class sizes, social distancing and regular Covid testing for children and staff.
According to the WHO’s recommendations published in early July, testing of children in risk groups who display Covid-19 symptoms should be a priority.
Courtesy of rte.ie
China outbreak spreads as WHO sounds alarm on Delta Coronavirus Variant
China is racing to contain its worst coronavirus outbreak in months, as health officials blamed the highly infectious Delta variant for a surge in infections spanning 14 provinces.
China reported 328 symptomatic infections in July, almost equal to the total number of local cases from February to June.
“The main strain circulating at present is the Delta variant … which poses an even greater challenge to virus prevention and control work,” said Mi Feng, spokesman for the National Health Commission (NHC).
The outbreak is geographically the largest to hit China in several months, challenging the country’s early success in snuffing out the pandemic within its borders after Covid-19 seeped out of Wuhan.
But that record has been thrown into jeopardy after the fast-spreading Delta variant broke out at Nanjing airport in eastern Jiangsu province earlier this month.
More than 260 infections nationwide have been linked to the cluster in Nanjing, where nine cabin cleaners at an international airport tested positive on 20 July.
Hundreds of thousands have already been locked down in Jiangsu province, while Nanjing has tested all 9.2 million residents twice.
The contagiousness of the Delta variant combined with the peak tourist season and high passenger circulation at the airport has led to the rapid spread of this outbreak, NHC official He Qinghua told reporters.
Fresh cases reported today in two more regions – Fujian province and the sprawling megacity of Chongqing – included one patient who visited the tourist city of Xi’an, Shaanxi province, and an international cargo crew member who recently travelled from abroad, authorities said.
Officials in one Chongqing district ordered emergency mass testing late yesterday for people who had visited venues linked to confirmed cases.
After one asymptomatic case was discovered in Zhengzhou, the epicentre of recent deadly floods in central Henan province, city officials ordered mass testing of all 10 million residents.
The head of the city health commission was also sacked.
The tourist city of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province locked down all 1.5 million residents and shut all tourist attractions yesterday, according to an official notice.
Health officials said the virus was likely brought there via the Nanjing cluster, according to preliminary investigations.
Officials are now scrambling to track people nationwide who recently travelled from Nanjing or Zhangjiajie, and have urged tourists not to travel to areas where cases have been found.
After reports that some people sickened in the latest cluster were vaccinated, health officials said this was “normal” and stressed the importance of vaccination alongside strict measures.
“The Covid vaccine’s protection against the Delta variant may have somewhat declined, but the current vaccine still has a good preventative and protective effect against the Delta variant,” said Feng Zijian, virologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 1.6 billion vaccine doses have so far been administered nationwide as of yesterday, the NHC said. It does not provide figures on how many people have been fully vaccinated.
Health officials have said they are aiming for 80% of the population to be fully vaccinated by year-end.
Worldwide, coronavirus infections are once again on the upswing, with the World Health Organization announcing an 80% average increase over the past four weeks in five of the health agency’s six regions, a jump largely fuelled by the Delta variant.
First detected in India, it has now reached 132 countries and territories.
“Delta is a warning: it’s a warning that the virus is evolving but it is also a call to action that we need to move now before more dangerous variants emerge,” the WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan told a press conference.
He stressed that the “game plan” still works, namely physical distancing, wearing masks, hand hygiene and vaccination.
But both high and low-income countries are struggling to gain the upper hand against Delta, with the vastly unequal sprint for shots leaving plenty of room for variants to wreak havoc and further evolve.
Meanwhile in Australia, where only about 14% of the population is jabbed, the third-largest city of Brisbane and other parts of Queensland state are to enter a snap Covid-19 lockdown today as a cluster of the Delta variant bubbled into six new cases.
“The only way to beat the Delta strain is to move quickly, to be fast and to be strong,” Queensland’s Deputy Premier Steven Miles said while informing millions they will be under three days of strict stay-at-home orders.
The race for vaccines to triumph over variants appeared to suffer a blow as the US Centers for Disease Control released an analysis that found fully immunised people with so-called breakthrough infections of the Delta variant can spread the disease as easily as unvaccinated people.
While the jabs remain effective against severe disease and death, the US government agency said in a leaked internal CDC document “the war has changed” as a result of Delta.
An analysis of a superspreading event in the northeastern state of Massachusetts found three-quarters of the people sickened were vaccinated, according to a report the CDC published yesterday.
The outbreak related to 4 July festivities, with the latest number of people infected swelling to 900, according to local reports. The findings were used to justify a return to masks for vaccinated people in high-risk areas.
“As a vaccinated person, if you have one of these breakthrough infections, you may have mild symptoms, you may have no symptoms, but based on what we’re seeing here you could be contagious to other people,” Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases physician and professor at New York University, told AFP.
According to the leaked CDC document, a review of findings from other countries showed that while the original SARS-CoV-2 was as contagious as the common cold, each person with Delta infects on average eight others, making it as transmissible as chickenpox but still less than measles.
Reports from Canada, Scotland and Singapore suggest Delta infections may also be more severe, resulting in more hospitalisations.
Courtesy of rt.ie
COVID-19: Strict national lockdown imposed on France as Emmanuel Macron warns ‘the numbers are charging away from us
France will widen strict lockdown restrictions – which have already been in place in several areas including Paris – to the whole country to combat a third wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe.
In a televised address to the nation, President Emmanuel Macron said the measures will come into effect on Saturday and be in place for at least a month.
He warned the country would “lose control if we do not move now”, introducing restrictions including closing non-essential shops, and shutting schools for three weeks after Easter.
He said timetables will be adapted to allow for one week of online lessons, followed by a two-week holiday.
There will be a month-long domestic travel ban, and a nationwide 7pm-6am curfew will remain in place.
Mr Macron said “the numbers are charging away from us” and France is now faced with “a race against the clock”.
The extended measures mark a departure from the government’s policy in recent months, which has focused on regional restrictions.
School closures in particular had been seen as a very last resort, with the president appearing reluctant to bring in the measure and saying children’s education was “non-negotiable”.
His announcement comes after doctors warned that hospitals are on the brink of being overwhelmed by the number of sick people needing treatment.
Daily new infections hit 59,038 on Wednesday, up from around 20,000 in February.
And on Tuesday, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care breached 5,000, exceeding the peak hit during a six-week long lockdown in the autumn.
Mr Macron revealed worrying new data had been seen in recent days, including figures showing 44% of patients in French ICUs are now under the age of 65.
Sky’s Europe correspondent Adam Parsons said of the president’s address: “This really was a classic bit of Emmanuel Macron rhetoric. It was a speech laced with care, with politics and also with a little grain of self-aggrandisement.”
He said that the measures announced are “pretty much the pillars of the lockdown of last year”.
Mr Macron had been holding off another national lockdown since the start of the year, hoping to steer France out of the pandemic while giving the economy a chance to recover from a deep slump.
However, in recent weeks, options have narrowed as the highly contagious and virulent coronavirus variant first detected in Britain has swept across France and much of Europe.
Ten days ago, the government shut non-essential stores and limited people’s movements in Paris and other regions ravaged by the virus.
The president defended his choice not to introduce stricter measures earlier, saying he believes the government “acted rightly” to trust the public.
But he did admit to having “made mistakes” in his handling of the pandemic which he had “learned” from.
“At every stage of this epidemic, we could tell ourselves that we could have done better, that we made mistakes. All of this is true,” he said.
“But I do know one thing: we held on, we learned, and we got better every time.”
Following the news, Labour’s shadow home secretary said it is now “even more urgent” stricter border controls are imposed on France.
“It’s reckless and unacceptable for only 1% of international arrivals to quarantine in a hotel,” said Nick Thomas-Symonds.
Courtesy of Sky News