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Canada is losing the race between vaccines and variants as 3rd wave worsens

Much of Canada is in the grips of a worsening third wave as COVID-19 vaccinations slowly ramp up, and experts say the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants is throwing gasoline on an already-raging fire.

“We have a lot of virus moving around the country and escalating very, very quickly,” said Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Manitoba and Canada Research Chair of emerging viruses.

“Vaccinations are certainly starting to pick up, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be to get this thing under control.”

More than 15,000 cases of the more transmissible and potentially more deadly variants have been reported across Canada to date, with more than 90 per cent of those being the B117 variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

But the P1 variant first discovered in Brazil is also on the rise in Canada, with cases doubling in the past week to close to 1,000 — mostly in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta. 

And the B1351 variant first found in South Africa is also picking up steam, with over 150 cases identified in Quebec, more than 70 in Ontario and over 50 in B.C as of Tuesday. 

But experts say Canada’s slow vaccine roll out has failed to keep up with the exponential rise in variants in the third wave and the premature loosening of restrictions has led to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths — even in younger Canadians.

WATCH | Variant first found in Brazil newest COVID-19 challenge in B.C.

The P1 COVID-19 variant, first seen in Brazil, is creating a big problem for health officials because of how quickly it spreads. Currently concentrated in the Vancouver area, modelling shows it could spread out of control by late April. 2:06

“People were hoping that we could get to the finish line and get everyone vaccinated without having to deal with another wave and unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case,” said Dr. Leyla Asadi, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. 

“That’s a combination of both our reopening too quickly and now you add in these variants of concern.”

Canada has emerged as one of the only countries in the world with significant outbreaks of three different variants occurring at the same time — turning us into a giant experiment on the world stage.

“There’s no other country that’s kind of dealing with it as we are — we have all of them emerging at once,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

“What happens to all three of them in the mix? Which one takes over? Which one is the fittest of the three?”

Canada has emerged as one of the only countries in the world with significant outbreaks of three different coronavirus variants occurring at the same time and driving a devastating third wave. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Variants could threaten vaccine effectiveness

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says another unanswered question that has huge implications for our ability to control the third wave is whether variants like P1 pose a threat to COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness.

“This virus might be capable of evading the immune response,” she said. “But we do not have an actual vaccine effectiveness estimate that is solidified.”

Tam says she has asked medical officers of health across the country to gather more information on vaccine effectiveness against P1 in particular, while encouraging Canadians to get vaccinated and provinces and territories to keep public health restrictions in place.

Amid that black hole of data, Tam says Canada may be able to fill the international research void due to our surging rates of variant cases — for better or worse.

“We don’t have enough information from other countries, including Brazil, about how well these vaccines work against P1,” she said. “If Canada is seeing the evolution of spread of P1, we might be a country where we will be able to produce some of this data.”

Tam says scientists believe one specific mutation common to all three variants, called E484K, could actually allow the virus to escape the immune response and even make it possible for someone who has previously had COVID-19 to become reinfected.

Scientists believe one specific mutation common to all three variants, called E484K, could actually allow the virus to escape the immune response and even make it possible for someone who has previously had COVID-19 to become reinfected. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“That was the initial event that caused us to be concerned about this P1,” she said. “There was reinfection in a particular person that already had COVID-19 before.” 

Tam said while there have so far only been laboratory studies done on the antibody response to P1 that showed in some cases there was a reduced ability for a vaccinated person’s antibodies to neutralize P1 — the evidence so far is still a “signal of concern.” 

Officials warn against travelling within Canada

Health officials are imploring Canadians to avoid recreational travel within Canada as the third wave rages, but experts say stricter travel restrictions may not be enough now to prevent widespread outbreaks of more contagious coronavirus variants. 

“Variants of concern are posing new challenges in different locations across the country. Now is not the time to travel for recreational purposes,” Tam said Tuesday. “Limit your travel to essential trips only and do your part to stop the spread.”

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said individuals need to take “personal responsibility to the extent that it’s possible.”

“Stay at home as much as possible, don’t have any sort of non-essential travel — especially vacations going from one province to another.”

Alberta is reinstating strict restrictions at a time when variants are surging, with a total of 676 announced Tuesday making up more than 40 per cent of the province’s active COVID-19 cases.

WATCH | Alberta renews restrictions as communities battle P1 variant outbreaks:

Several Alberta communities fighting P1 variant outbreaks are frustrated by a lack of information from health officials as the province announces a return to tougher restrictions to get its COVID-19 situation under control. 2:09

Officials there are also investigating several major P1 outbreaks at large workplaces, at least one of which is tied to a traveller returning to Alberta from out of province.

“Even before the variants have taken hold, we could have been far more responsive. But we weren’t and now we’re in a situation where we have these variants that are far more transmissible,” said Asadi.

“We have to take far more strict measures than previously, at least for a while until we can get the vaccination rates up.”

Manitoba is the only province or territory outside of Atlantic Canada and the North to implement strict regional travel restrictions, requiring a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travellers, and has so far avoided a third wave.

“Manitoba implemented it when they saw the variants and the rest of us just didn’t,” said Asadi. 

“There’s just this reluctance to do anything that seems too drastic, whereas doing the same old things results fundamentally in then having to institute stay at home orders, which themselves are really quite drastic but become necessary once you lose control.”

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says another unanswered question that has huge implications for our ability to control the third wave is whether variants like P1 pose a threat to COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ontario announced sweeping restrictions and a stay at home order on Wednesday due to a surge in cases and overwhelming pressure on the healthcare system, but stopped short of regional travel restrictions to slow the spread of variants.

Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says variants already make up close to 70 per cent of Ontario’s COVID-19 cases.

“It’s incredibly widespread, so I think there’s merit in restricting movement between areas,” she said. “But as a way to control the spread of variants? That ship has likely already sailed.”

Kindrachuk said Manitoba’s travel restrictions have been a key part of their ability to control the spread of variants in the third wave, but a recent spike in cases and variants locally could jeopardize that. 

“Once they get in, they start circulating a little bit under the radar, and then they start to take off,” he said.

“Now what we’re seeing is really it’s raging in basically all the provinces with the exception of the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba, and the Territories. The question is going to be now, how long can it be maintained?”

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CBC | Health News

After a slow start, Canada’s vaccine rollout is now a race against time

Last week, before the crack of dawn, 466,800 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine landed at Toronto Pearson Airport in the belly of a FedEx plane after a journey of 8,500 kilometres, from Madrid via Paris and Indianapolis.

If cargo could fly first class, this cargo would qualify.

The vaccine doses, housed in metallic cargo containers, were unloaded before any of the other cargo. As they were carefully lowered off the hydraulic lift and onto a cargo trailer, temperature sensors showed the doses had arrived at their ideal temperature of -20ºC. Ground staff whisked the pallets off the tarmac for customs inspection so that they could be redistributed to the provinces and, eventually, injected into the arms of Canadians.

Minister for Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand was on the runway that morning to oversee the delivery — the latest in a series of deliveries that have been growing in size and frequency in recent days.

“All day long, I’m spending my time trying to move doses from [the third quarter] or from the fall to the spring … and working with suppliers to try to accelerate doses,” said Anand.

“But being here, and seeing the doses come off of the plane, means it is going to happen. Doses are going into arms in the very near term, and that is so meaningful and so important for Canadians.”

Under pressure

Canada’s vaccine rollout got off to a sluggish start. As countries like Israel and the United Kingdom started mass campaigns early in 2021, Canada saw its per capita vaccination rates plunge in international rankings.

Critics at both the federal and provincial levels have blamed the slow pace on Ottawa’s procurement process. Some have pointed to a lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing facilities, or the fact that provinces aren’t able to sign their own contracts with vaccine producers.

Anand knows she’s under enormous pressure to deliver.

“We did come through a rough period in February, and that’s because global supply chains, as a general matter, are just ramping up,” Anand said, referring to manufacturing delays at both Pfizer and Moderna that resulted in smaller-than-anticipated shipments to several countries, including Canada.

“This is the largest vaccination campaign in global history, as well as Canadian history. Having said that, we are ramping up.”

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand (left) and Major General Dany Fortin look on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Canada is expecting 8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of March. Deliveries are set to ramp up sharply after that, fuelled by weekly Pfizer deliveries of at least a million doses. More than 7 million doses are expected to land in April alone.

Anand said she expects 36.5 million doses by the end of June — enough for every person in Canada to receive a single dose.

“The ramp-up is going to be very steep. But again, we’ve got to watch supply chains. This is very early days in this race of making sure that we have everyone inoculated,” she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to stick to a September deadline for getting every eligible and willing Canadian vaccinated. Because of the increasing supply — and updated guidelines that allow public health officials to wait up to four months before delivering a second dose — provinces are now looking to complete their first round of vaccinations before summer.

The ‘big lift’

The appearance of more contagious COVID-19 variants that might cause more severe illness has put increased pressure on governments to vaccinate quickly.

“The provinces and territories are telling us that they are ready, they want more vaccine. And that’s exactly what we as a federal government are aiming to do,” Anand said.

Trudeau has called Canada’s vaccine supply ramp-up “the big lift.” The prime minister told a virtual roundtable of health care workers in February that the country would be going from a trickle of deliveries in the early months of the year to “receiving millions upon millions, even tens of millions of vaccines into the spring. And we’re going to have to make sure we’re getting them out to everyone.”

The challenge is a daunting one. Taking into account the 8 million doses delivered to Canada before the end of March, about 23 million more Canadians are eligible for vaccination this spring.

To deliver first doses to that entire population between April 1 and July 1, health care workers will have to vaccinate an average of 255,000 people per day, seven days a week.

Watch: Ontario launches online booking system as fears of a third wave grow

Ontario’s provincial COVID-19 vaccine booking system launched to mixed reviews, with many saying they got an error message or waited in jammed phone queues. Meanwhile, doctors in the province raised concerns of a third wave of COVID-19 infections. 1:49

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his province has the capacity to administer 150,000 vaccines a day. “We’re making steady progress,” Ford told reporters during an update on the province’s rollout on Sunday. “We just need more vaccines.”

That’s a message the federal government is hearing a lot lately from municipalities. Anthony Di Monte, general manager of emergency operations for the City of Ottawa, said the city has seven clinic-based immunization sites — including re-purposed hockey arenas and community centres — plus two hospital sites and a mobile unit ready to inoculate the city’s population of one million.

He said that once he gets the doses he needs, he’ll be ready to launch on 72 hours’ notice Ottawa’s complete mass vaccination program — which is set to deliver, for a start, 11,000 shots a day through all ten sites.

Anthony Di Monte, general manager of emergency operations for the City of Ottawa, speaks to the CBC’s David Cochrane. (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

“Our objective for all seven of our (clinic-based) sites is to do in the neighborhood of 1,200 to 1,400 vaccinations a day, per site,” said Di Monte. 

“We’ve got some confidence that we could probably crank that up a little bit and get closer to the 2,000 mark per site once we get rolling and we have enough staff.”

With enough doses and enough people, Di Monte said, Ottawa can keep its clinics open around the clock. The city has plans for a drive-through vaccination site in the sprawling parking lot outside the Canadian Tire Centre, home of the Ottawa Senators; it’s also looking at using two convention centres.

‘We ramp up and we never go back’

What Di Monte fears is a disruption in supply that would force him to close a vaccination site.

“You want the machine to start going and flowing and a regular flow,” he said. “I would prefer to see that we ramp up and we never go back. We just keep going and I’ll turn the switch up as much as we have capacity.”

Anand said her department is keeping a close watch on those supply lines.

“We are seeing vaccine nationalism take hold in certain areas of the world, including in Europe and, to an extent, the United States,” she said. “And we’ve got to make sure that Canada’s supply chain is protected.”

The cargo flight Anand met at the airport last week crossed European and American borders, offering a clear example of how “vaccine nationalism” — countries limiting exports to concentrate on vaccinating their citizens first — could tie Canada’s supply lines in knots.

Anand said Canada’s diverse vaccine portfolio — four vaccines from five different suppliers — serves as a hedge against that threat.

“We have to make sure that we’re on top of this file and the delivery schedules,” she said.

“I’m thinking of all the elderly people in Canada who need vaccine, want a vaccine, and Canadians at large. This is what makes this work so important, and this is why we have to see this right through to the end so every single Canadian will have access to a vaccine before the end of summer, if not before.”

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CBC | Health News

The Meghan and Harry interview: A ‘damaging’ view on race as Palace history repeats itself

Hello, royal watchers. This is a special edition of The Royal Fascinator, your dose of royal news and analysis. Reading this online? Sign up here to get this delivered to your inbox.

The revelations just kept coming Sunday night as Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, gave Oprah Winfrey — and a worldwide television audience — their view on why they had to leave the upper echelons of the Royal Family.

The reasons were many, but amid all they had to say, there was one statement that stood out and seems particularly serious for the House of Windsor: Meghan’s declaration that a senior member of the Royal Family had worries about the colour of the skin of their first child before he was born.

In an interview Monday on CBS This Morning, Winfrey said Harry told her neither Queen Elizabeth nor Prince Philip were part of conversations about Archie’s skin colour.

“I think it’s very damaging — the idea that a senior member of the Royal Family had expressed concern about what Archie might look like,” Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian, said in an interview late Sunday night.

Meghan told Winfrey the concern had been relayed to her by Harry, and when questioned further on it, Harry refused to offer more specifics, saying it’s a “conversation I’m never going to share.”

And that, Harris suggests, speaks to the seriousness of the matter.

“It’s very clear that Harry didn’t want to go into details feeling that it would be too damaging for the monarchy.”

WATCH | Royal Family expressed concerns about son’s skin colour, Meghan tells Oprah:

Meghan told Oprah Winfrey that the Royal Family didn’t want her and Prince Harry’s son to be made a prince or receive security partly over concerns over how dark the baby’s skin would be. 0:15

It will take time to digest the impact of all that Harry and Meghan had to say to Winfrey. But some early comments in the British media this morning suggest Harry and Meghan’s account will have a profound impact.

“They have revealed the terrible strains inside the palace. They have drawn a picture of unfeeling individuals lost in an uncaring institution. They have spoken of racism within the Royal Family. This was a devastating interview,” the BBC’s royal correspondent, Jonny Dymond, wrote in an online analysis

“But Harry describing his brother and father as ‘trapped,’ and Meghan revealing that she repeatedly sought help within the palace only to be rebuffed is a body blow to the institution.”

‘A damning allegation’

The Guardian reported that Harry and Meghan telling Winfrey of conversations in the Royal Family about Archie’s skin colour is “a damning allegation that will send shockwaves through the institution and send relations with the palace to a new low.”

Many themes and issues developed over the two-hour broadcast, which sprinkled lighter moments — they’re expecting a girl, they have rescue chickens and Archie, age almost two, has taken to telling people to “drive safe” — with much more serious concerns, including the lack of support they say they received, particularly as Meghan had suicidal thoughts.

WATCH | Meghan had suicidal thoughts during royal life:

The Duchess of Sussex told Oprah Winfrey that she had asked for help from the Royal Family for her mental health, but received none. 0:22

“A theme that emerges again and again, and it’s something that Harry explicitly states in the interview, is the Royal Family being concerned with the opinion of the tabloid press,” said Harris. “This may very well have influenced decisions not to speak out about the way Meghan was being treated and that may have influenced some other decisions as well.”

One of those might be the question of security, something that was of considerable concern to the couple when they learned royal support for it would be withdrawn.

“The Royal Family has frequently in the past received bad press regarding minor members … receiving security,”said Harris.

‘Negative headlines’

“There were a lot of negative headlines regarding Beatrice and Eugenie continuing to receive security and their father’s [Prince Andrew’s] insistence they receive security despite being comparatively minor members of the Royal Family who do not undertake public engagements representing the Queen.”

There was also a sense out of Sunday’s interview that issues that troubled the Royal Family in the past may still be a worry now.

“Even in the 21st century after all of the problems that the Royal Family encountered in the 1990s with the breakdowns in the marriages of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew … there still doesn’t seem to be a consistent means of mentoring new members of the Royal Family,” said Harris.

Meghan said she had to Google the lyrics for God Save the Queen, and was filled in at the last minute about having to curtsy to Elizabeth just before meeting her for the first time.

Queen Elizabeth, Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, pose for a picture at a Buckingham Palace reception following the final Queen’s Young Leaders Awards ceremony in London on June 26, 2018. Both Meghan and Harry spoke warmly of the Queen during the interview Sunday night. (John Stillwell/Reuters)

Throughout the interview, Harry and Meghan repeatedly expressed respect and admiration for the Queen, if not for how the Royal Family as an institution operates.

But there is considerable murkiness around just who may be responsible for some of the more serious issues they raised.

“We know they respect the Queen and have a good personal relationship with the Queen. We know that Meghan had a conflict with Kate but says Kate apologized and Meghan forgave her and she doesn’t think Kate’s a bad person,” said Harris.

Lacking ‘specific details’

“But when it comes to who made racist comments about Archie’s appearance or who was dismissive directly of Meghan’s mental health, [on] that we don’t have specific details.”

High-profile royal interviews such as this — particularly one by Harry’s mother Diana, in 1995 — have a track record of not turning out as the royal interviewees may have intended, and it remains to be seen the lasting impact of this one. 

Harris sees parallels with Diana’s interview, as she “spoke frankly” about a lack of support from the family, and felt that she had been let down by Prince Charles.

Meghan spoke with Winfrey before they were joined by Harry. (Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese/Reuters)

Harry talked of hoping to repair his relationship with his father — “I will always love him but there’s a lot of hurt that happened” — but said he felt really let down, and noted a time when his father wasn’t taking his calls.

Harris expects the interview will prompt further critical scrutiny of Charles, and Harry’s older brother Prince William.

The relationship with William has already been under intense scrutiny, and is clearly still a delicate matter for Harry, who hesitated noticeably before responding as Winfrey pressed him on it. 

“Time heals all things, hopefully,” Harry said.

How Buckingham Palace responds to all this remains to be seen. Generally, the public approach in matters such as this is silence, and a determination to be seen as carrying on with regular duties.

Whether a member of the family might make a more informal comment — say in response to a question from someone at a public event — also remains to be seen. 

WATCH | Meghan says Royal Family failed to protect her and Prince Harry:

The Duchess of Sussex told Oprah Winfrey that things started to worsen with the Royal Family after she and Harry were married. 0:23

But from what did emerge Sunday evening, there is a sense that whatever efforts the House of Windsor has made to put a more modern face on the monarchy, they appear not to have yielded the fruit that might have been hoped.

“There’s been some elements of modernization, but it’s very clear that the institution has difficulty adapting to the needs of individuals who marry into the Royal Family,” said Harris. “It’s clear that Meghan came away from her experiences feeling that she was not supported or mentored in her new role.”

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CBC | World News

Prioritizing people with specific conditions for COVID vaccine slows race for herd immunity: N.S.’s top doctor

Amanda Robinson used to work part time five days a week for an organization that supports adults with disabilities. She went to bingo and bowling on the weekends and attended a Friday night social.

It all disappeared when COVID-19 struck.

Robinson, 36, has Down syndrome and is largely non-verbal. Her mother keeps her close to home these days because she worries about what will happen if her daughter contracts the coronavirus. 

“Amanda going out puts her life at risk every day and she doesn’t even know it,” said Carolin Robinson, outside her family’s home in Halifax. 

Robinson points to research in the U.K. that suggests people with Down syndrome who contract COVID-19 have a significantly increased risk of death. She is among the advocates across the country calling on governments to prioritize vaccinating people with disabilities. 

Amanda Robinson, left, with her mother, Carolin, and her brother, Aaron, in their Halifax home. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Some Canadian provinces are prioritizing people with various disabilities to varying degrees, but Nova Scotia, which currently has 29 active cases of COVID-19, is among those that are not, unless the individuals live in congregate settings such as group homes. 

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, says the province is focusing on vaccinating by age, beginning with people 80 and older, and working down by brackets of five years at a time.  

“We certainly understand lots of different groups thinking about their own risk or the risk within their group, and I understand that perspective,” he said during a recent interview at Nova Scotia’s Department of Health. 

In fact, Strang understands better than most. 

His son, who turns 16 in September, lives with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, including autism, chronic pain and a mutation in the GRIN2A gene that causes a range of neurodevelopmental disorders.  

Speed is key 

But Strang insists age is “by far” the biggest risk factor. He also said it’s important to have a vaccine program that is fast and efficient, and trying to figure out how to prioritize a range of conditions would significantly delay the overall process.  

“It’ll be so much slower,” he said.

Because of his age, Strang’s son is going to be among the last to be vaccinated, he said. “But he’s going to be well protected because we’ve rapidly built herd immunity all around him.”

Nova Scotia has a higher percentage of people living with disabilities than any other province in Canada. 

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, with his son, now 15. Despite the fact his son has severe physical and intellectual disabilities, Strang says he’s confident in the province’s age-based approach to determining the order for vaccinating the public. (Submitted by Dr. Robert Strang )

Krista Carr, the executive vice-president of Inclusion Canada, a national organization that works on behalf of people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, wants all provinces and territories to create a separate vaccination category for people with disabilities and to clearly define who that will include. 

She acknowledges different disabilities might need to be prioritized in different ways. For example, some people may need to be moved up the list because they’ve been more isolated or unable to protect themselves by physically distancing because they rely on support workers, and others need to be prioritized because of their physical health. 

“People with disabilities often have co-occurring health conditions that go along with their disability, so that puts them at higher risk for the virus,” she said. 

She said by not creating a separate category to prioritize their vaccination, “we’re telling people with disabilities they don’t matter, and that’s just the wrong message to send.” 

Some provinces are prioritizing in various phases

British Columbia plans to vaccinate people who are “clinically extremely vulnerable” including “adults with very significant developmental disabilities that increase risk” in Phase 3. 

New Brunswick intends to vaccinate people who have “select complex medical conditions,” including people who live with Down syndrome, in Phase 2.

Ontario has released a specific list of conditions that put people at an “increased risk of serious illness and death regardless of age” and will be included in Phase 2 vaccinations.  

Alberta says it will prioritize people “with underlying health conditions” in its Phase 2, but it has not yet determined the list of conditions that will qualify. 

Strang not ‘rigid’ in thinking

Strang says he is very comfortable with Nova Scotia’s approach but is not “rigid” in his thinking and will make changes if there is a shift in the science, epidemiology or vaccine supply.

Robinson says the idea of building herd immunity doesn’t give her peace of mind. She says the risks are just too high and the statistics too stark. 

“All my life, I’ve been fighting for her,” she said. “I’m her voice, and I wonder when I don’t need to be her voice, that it just happens because it should.”

Robinson said she’s not asking for her daughter to be first, just prioritized, so she can feel safer, sooner. 

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CBC | Health News

Vaccine wars: Nations race to win friends and influence through vaccine distribution

It all seems so long ago now, but as 2019 drew to a close there was a lot of talk about a new “space race.”

In November 2019, a Japanese spacecraft headed back to Earth after a successful landing on a moving asteroid. The following month, President Donald Trump created the new U.S. Space Force with a $ 20 billion (Cdn) budget. Two weeks after that, on January 4, 2020, China made history by landing an unmanned spacecraft on the dark side of the moon. 

But news on that same day about a “mysterious and growing cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan” would soon consign the space race to second billing.

Sputnik flies again

Perhaps the Russians were thinking of the space race analogy when they decided to name their COVID vaccine Sputnik V, in honour of the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957. Russia approached the vaccine race much as the former Soviet Union approached the space race — by forging ahead, cutting corners on safety and gambling on the outcome.

Although Sputnik V was deployed without going through full human trials, it has since turned out to be a triumph of Russian science. This week, The Lancet published the results of a full placebo-controlled study with more than 20,000 participants and found “a consistent strong protective effect across all participant age groups.”

Better yet, the Lancet reported “the lessening of disease severity after one dose is particularly encouraging for current dose-sparing strategies.”

Vindication in Argentina

That means two other countries that also gambled on Sputnik — Argentina and Iran — have something to celebrate after a brutal year. Argentina’s vice-president Cristina Kirchner, whose personal relationship with Vladimir Putin was instrumental in obtaining the vaccine, celebrated the result with a one-word tweet:

Sputnik’s adherents in Argentina may feel vindicated after weathering considerable resistance from the medical community and ridicule on social media, where satirical memes warned of Sputnik side effects such as involuntary Cossack dancing.

Doubts, then relief

Victor Ingrassia is a scientific journalist in Buenos Aires who has covered the country’s pandemic and clinical trials extensively.

“It generated a lot of doubts and uncertainty,” Ingrassia told CBC News. “Sputnik’s approval here in Argentina coincided with the approval of Pfizer and AstraZeneca by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency, the two biggest regulators in the world.

“But those vaccines had presented clinical data, while in Argentina we had a Russian vaccine that hadn’t presented any data in a peer-reviewed international journal. Argentina’s drug regulator ANEMAT had never before approved a drug that hadn’t already passed muster with either the FDA or the EMA. So there was a lot of concern in the Argentine medical establishment.

“Then, overnight, we learned that the Ministry of Health had approved the drug without waiting even for approval from ANEMAT.”

Doses of the Sputnik V vaccine are prepared for loading into a truck at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina, January 16, 2021. (Agustin Marcarian/Reuters)

Ingrassia said public consternation only increased when neighbouring Chile began to receive the Pfizer vaccine, even though more than 4,000 Argentines had taken part in Pfizer’s Stage 3 clinical trials during summer 2020. Many Argentines felt that the government’s choice of Sputnik had more to do with the political ties between their government and the Kremlin than with science.

But since The Lancet gave Sputnik a solid thumbs-up, he said, Argentine doctors’ reticence about the vaccine has mostly evaporated and the government is now planning to re-open schools on February 17, with teachers vaccinated.

Score a win for Russia.

Bad bet in Brazil

Authorities next door in Brazil, meanwhile, have fewer reasons to be thrilled with their bet on CoronaVac, made by China’s Sinovac.

The vaccine, which was promoted by its maker as having 78 per cent efficacy, was found to have only 50.38 per cent efficacy in clinical trials in Brazil, barely meeting the minimum 50 per cent WHO threshold for use. Given that efficacy tends to drop when vaccines are confronted with some of the new COVID variants, CoronaVac may fall under the efficacy threshold in the future.

That’s a headache for Joao Doria, the governor who ordered mandatory vaccination of all 46 million residents of Sao Paulo state with CoronaVac — against the advice of the World Health Organization, which says vaccination should be voluntary.

Politically, it’s good news for his main rival and the man he hopes to replace — President Jair Bolsonaro, who has long questioned the Chinese vaccine and has said mandatory vaccination “should only be for dogs.”

While Bolsonaro and Doria jockey for position ahead of next year’s elections, the geopolitical loser in Brazil’s vaccine infighting is China.

Health workers check the documents of seniors getting vaccinated with China’s CoronaVac during a priority COVID-19 vaccination drive for the elderly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Silvia Izquierdo/The Associated Press)

The trust deficit

China claims 79 per cent efficacy for the vaccine it’s using domestically, made by state-owned Sinopharm. But Sinovac’s performance in the Brazilian clinical trials now calls any Chinese efficacy claims into question, said China-watcher Lynette Ong of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

“I think the biggest issue is the trust deficit,” she said. “When Pfizer or AstraZeneca put out a number, we have no a priori reason to question that number. But when Chinese authorities or Chinese companies give you a number, you need justification to trust that number, because of what happened in the last 12 months.

“I think that is what I see as the major implication of the pandemic — that they have to take the extra step to convince people that they could be trusted.”

Sinovac’s vaccine has been sent to many more countries than has Sputnik. World leaders have received the Sinovac shot, among them Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo. China has set aside $ 2 billion to fund vaccinations in Africa and has made available another $ 1 billion for Latin American governments to buy its vaccines on credit.

But since the Brazilian study poured cold water on China’s vaccine claims, Malaysia and Singapore have put their plans to use CoronaVac on hold while they wait for more testing results.

Media outlets in the Philippines have been suggesting that President Rodrigo Duterte doesn’t want to take the CoronaVac shot himself — and also doesn’t want to admit that he’s saddled his country with 25 million mediocre doses. Duterte has announced that he’s chosen to get his shot in the buttocks, rather than the arm.

“Let’s respect that,” Francisco Duque, the country’s health minister, told reporters recently — adding that Duterte’s choice means he’ll be getting his shot in private.

India the vaccine superpower

“What we see is that the countries that prefer Chinese vaccines are the ones that have supported the Belt-and-Road Initiative, meaning that as a whole, they’re favourable to growing Chinese influence,” said Ong, referring to Beijing’s ambitious global trade infrastructure strategy.

“Quite a number of countries in the regions are quite receptive to Chinese vaccines, as they are to Chinese investment.”

But some Asian countries have preferred to deal with a different giant: India.

India can’t compete with China militarily or economically — but India produces more than half of the world’s vaccine output.

Not only is India producing vast quantities of AstraZeneca’s vaccine under license, it also has its own Covaxin — which, like Sputnik V, was rushed to market under a somewhat dubious process but still seems to work.

And India is giving its vaccine away to neighbouring countries free of charge. It gifted millions of doses in January to Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Mauritius and the Seychelles, among others — a gesture of generosity so far unique in the world.

India began this giveaway within days of starting to vaccinate its own people. India “shared even before meeting [its] own needs,” said Bhutan’s PM Lotay Tshering. 

In this Jan. 29, 2021, file photo, Sri Lankan nursing staff administer COVID-19 vaccines to front line health workers in Colombo, Sri Lanka. India has gifted its neighbours with more than 5 million doses. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

Indian officials have made no secret of the fact that they hope to burnish their nation’s image at China’s expense. Relations between the two countries are at a low point following deadly clashes on the Himalayan border last June.

That might explain why, as January ended, India also sent two million doses to Brazil and plans on shipping more. It’s a gesture calculated to highlight the contrast with CoronaVac — which is not only of doubtful efficacy but is also surprisingly expensive.

Split image

But despite its failures in vaccine diplomacy, China’s Communist Party can console itself with its performance at home. 

“In spite of the early hiccups, Chinese authorities have handled the pandemic way better, domestically, than the Indian authorities,” said Ong. “Domestically, they have been able to manipulate the narrative and turn the image around.

“It’s like there was a war with suffering at the beginning, but then the government has fought very hard and won the war. So I think competence has boosted confidence in the government domestically.”

Outside of China, she said, “it’s been the opposite, especially in countries with a free press that don’t rely very heavily on Chinese aid.” 

Ong said that while China was the only country with a surplus of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s now in competition with other vaccine-producers that have produced better vaccines.

Not over yet

While China flounders and Russia and India gain ground, the West seems curiously absent from the field of vaccine diplomacy.

That’s partly because western vaccines are produced by private corporations, rather than state-affiliated organizations like the Serum Institute of India or Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute.

But countries such as Canada have ordered a vast number of doses — many more than they need for their own citizens. And that suggests that they will soon find themselves in a position to play the bountiful ally with developing countries that are likely to still have billions of unvaccinated citizens when 2022 rolls around.

The great game of pandemic diplomacy is far from over.

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Canadian politicians struggle to come to grips with the global vaccine race

The global scramble to vaccinate the human race against COVID-19 is bigger than Canadian politics. But every Canadian politician no doubt understands the political and human importance of this country seeming to do well in this multinational competition. 

The result this week is anxiety and a rush to assign blame that has failed to produce easy answers to the central question of what, if anything, Canadian officials could be doing to procure more of what’s arguably the most precious commodity on Earth.

But this consternation among Canadian politicians might be obscuring a bigger question for the world: Is this really the best way to go about vaccinating 7.6 billion people against a common threat? 

The latest spasm of concern about Canada’s vaccine supply can be traced to a production facility in Puurs, Belgium, where Pfizer has been manufacturing one of the two approved vaccines for use in Canada. Pfizer has decided to retool that facility so that it can increase production. In the short-term, that means fewer doses will be available.

In response to Pfizer’s change of plans, Ontario Premier Doug Ford quickly declared that, if he were prime minister, he’d be on the phone to Pfizer’s top executive demanding the previously scheduled shipments. “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,” Ford said.

WATCH | Ontario premier says Trudeau’s ‘No. 1 job’ is to get vaccines:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to fight to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Canada and he suggests the alternative to the Belgian plant may be Pfizer’s Michigan facility. 0:55

It stands to reason that if getting a plentiful supply of the Pfizer vaccine was as easy as getting up Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s ying-yang with a firecracker, nearly every leader on the planet would be doing so. But Ford got a chance to test his theory — a day later he spoke with the president of Pfizer Canada. If a firecracker was lit during that conversation, it has so far failed to change Pfizer’s plans.

In Ottawa, the consternation has been only slightly less colourful, culminating in an “emergency debate” in the House of Commons on Tuesday. 

The Conservatives argue that an ill-fated partnership between the National Research Council and China’s CanSino Biologics distracted Justin Trudeau’s government from pursuing better options — but Public Services Minister Anita Anand told the Canadian Press in December that Canada was the fourth country in the world to sign a contract with Pfizer and the first to sign with Moderna, the other major supplier of an approved vaccine. 

The New Democrats argue that the federal government should have negotiated for the right to domestically produce the currently approved vaccines — but that presumably depends in large part on the willingness of companies like Moderna and Pfizer to do so. 

A real effort to ensure Canada had domestic capacity to produce a pandemic vaccine likely would have had to have been implemented years ago.

Little control over vaccine supply

Eventually, Tuesday night’s debate landed on questions of transparency. The government says it has a plan for vaccinating Canadians, but the opposition says that plan isn’t detailed enough.

The opposition insists the government should release the details of the contracts it has signed with manufacturers, but the government says those contracts are necessarily confidential. There are suggestions that Europe’s supply of the Pfizer vaccine might be smaller than the interruption to Canada’s supply, but it’s not clear why that might be the case.

The Liberals surely understand the gravity of the vaccine race, but they have never shown much interest in explaining themselves in detail. They insist that their agreements with seven potential manufacturers have put Canada in a decent position and that their medium-term and long-term targets for vaccinating Canadians over the course of this year will not be affected by the current shortfall.

WATCH | EU threatens to slow vaccine exports, increasing concerns about vaccine nationalism:

The European Union is threatening to slow exports of the Pfizer vaccine after Astra-Zeneca announced a delay in production. With vaccines in short supply, global health leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the rise of vaccine nationalism. 2:00

But Pfizer’s decision to retool the plant in Puurs underlines how little control the Liberal government can claim to have over the situation and how little sympathy they’ll receive if things don’t work out the way they said they would.

It was just over a month ago that the federal government was able to answer a previous panic with earlier-than-expected approvals and shipments of the new vaccine. If the Liberals were only too happy to bask in that good news, this interruption feels like the universe’s way of telling them to not get cocky.

Canada vs. other countries

In the meantime, even the definition of success will be up for debate.

On Monday, for instance, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus complained that Canada was not doing as well as the Seychelles, which had delivered at least a first dose to 20.22 per cent of its population through January 25. By comparison, Canada’s rate of vaccination was 2.23 per cent.

But the tiny island nation has a population of 98,000 people (roughly the equivalent of Red Deer, Alta). In absolute terms, the number of people who had received a dose in the Seychelles was 19,889. Canada, meanwhile, had administered doses to 839,949 people.

WATCH | Ottawa offers assurances about COVID-19 vaccine supply:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to reassure Canadians about the COVID-19 vaccine supply after the European Union raised the possibility of imposing export controls on vaccines leaving the EU. Canada’s Pfizer-BioNTech shots are made in Belgium. 1:44

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland countered that Canada was ahead of Germany, France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. But three of those countries — Japan, Australia and New Zealand — haven’t yet begun their vaccination programs. And in two of those countries — Australia and New Zealand — COVID-19 is almost non-existent. 

‘This is pure nonsense’

During the emergency debate on Tuesday night, the NDP’s Don Davies said Canada ranked 16th per capita in doses administered. He meant it as a complaint. But it could just as easily be framed as a compliment — if Canada ends up being the 16th fastest country to vaccinate its population, it will have finished ahead of 174 other countries. Among the 32 OECD countries who have begun vaccinations, Canada ranks 12th in doses administered per capita.

A few countries — the United States, United Kingdom and Israel — seem to be benefiting from their own unique circumstances. The U.S. and U.K., for instance, have access to domestic production of the available vaccines.

In every other country, there might be some version of the Canadian debate playing out; Trudeau said last week that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had commiserated about the similar criticism that they were each facing. 

WATCH | COVID’s one year anniversary in Canada:

One year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19, are we really all in it together? A PSW speaks about the reality of working the front lines in long-term care homes, and an artist questions life after CERB. PLUS, why first-world countries like Canada are being accused of hoarding vaccines. 45:36

But all of this might underline the questions of whether an every-country-for-itself scramble to acquire vaccines from a limited number of private manufacturers is the sensible way to go about vaccinating the human race.

“‘Could Canada have done more?’ The problem for me is that this is not the right question. What we’ve been seeing, for me, is a bit of a catastrophe,” said Marc-Andre Gagnon, a political science professor at Carleton University who focuses on pharmaceutical policy.

“You end up with a handful of companies that are developing their own vaccines, each by themselves, working in silos. So then you have a product with a patent, so monopoly rights on the product. And then you end up with this vaccine nationalism of all countries basically doing a free market negotiation in terms of who can jump the queue in order to get faster access to the vaccines. In terms of priorities of global public health, this is pure nonsense.”

A better approach, Gagnon suggests, would have focused on collaboration, data sharing and making use of all available manufacturing capacity around the world. 

Pfizer’s new deal with Sanofi, a rival producer, might at least be a step in that direction. But any serious rethinking of global vaccination policy might have to wait for the next pandemic.

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What calling down the 2nd U.S. presidential debate means for the race and voters

U.S. President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden were supposed to face off in a second presidential debate Thursday night in Miami. Instead, the two candidates will be attending duelling town hall events hosted by two different networks.

Despite concerns about his health, Trump returned to the campaign trail 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19. Now, with less than three weeks to go until election day, the president is once again holding packed nightly rallies in an effort to mobilize his base. But is it enough to make up for lost time?

And given the debacle of the first presidential debate, will a town hall rather than another face-to-face showdown with Trump work for or against Biden’s campaign?

CBC’s The National assembled a panel of U.S. political commentators, hosted by Adrienne Arsenault, to talk about the state of the race, who Trump and Biden need to be reaching out to, and issues around voter turnout:

  • Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, editor-at-large of The American Conservative, a columnist for The Spectator, and says he will be voting for Trump on Nov. 3. During the panel discussion, he said he believes Trump’s speedy recovery from COVID-19 may benefit him in the race. But McCarthy added that the best news for the president’s campaign right now is coming out of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Danielle Moodie is the host of the political podcast Woke AF Daily and co-host of the podcast Democracy-ish, and is hoping for a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris win. Moodie said Trump getting COVID-19 didn’t change his attitude toward the virus, and that means Democrats need to continue to show how dangerous having him in the White House is for the country and the world.
  • Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. A centrist, Mounk is hoping for a Biden win. Mounk said the high early voting turnout suggests a similar trend on election day. But he added that the voting demographics are changing from those in 2016: Trump has gained some ground among younger voters and voters of colour, and Biden is attracting a lot of support among older voters. Mounk said if Biden wins in 2020, it will be because he will have won back people who voted for Trump four years ago.

WATCH | The U.S. election panel’s evaluation of the sole vice-presidential debate:

With less than three weeks to go until election day, The National’s U.S. political panel looks at what cancelling the second presidential debate means for the race, whether President Donald Trump getting COVID-19 changed anything and what voter groups both candidates are trying to reach. 7:52

More from The National’s U.S. election panel:

Vice-presidential debate dissected

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Democratic candidate Sen. Kamala Harris went toe-to-toe Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the sole vice-presidential debate of the 2020 U.S. election. All eyes were on the pair after the chaotic performance of President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden in their first presidential debate on Sept. 29. USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page moderated a much more measured debate, although at times the candidates did not directly address her questions. Pence and Harris debated topics ranging from the handling of the pandemic and relations with China, to racial justice and policies around job creation and climate change.

WATCH | The National’s panel of U.S. political experts analyzes the vice-presidential debate:

A panel of U.S. politics experts breaks down what happened during the vice-presidential debate between Vice-President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris and the impact it could have on November’s election. 9:56

First presidential debate

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden squared off Sept. 29 in their first election debate from Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. The 90-minute exchange, punctuated by a regular stream of outbursts and interruptions, covered topics ranging from the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, to law enforcement and climate change, to the political records of both candidates. The debate also touched on more recent events, including the Supreme Court nomination to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the leak of Trump’s tax information.

WATCH | The National’s panel of U.S. political experts analyzes the first presidential debate and its likely impact on the U.S. election:

A panel of U.S. politics experts breaks down what happened during the first presidential debate between U.S. President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden and the impact it could have on November’s election. 10:16

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Noose found in Black driver Bubba Wallace’s garage at Alabama NASCAR race

A noose was found in the garage stall of Black driver Bubba Wallace at the NASCAR race in Alabama on Sunday, less than two weeks after he successfully pushed the auto racing series to ban the Confederate flag at its tracks and facilities.

NASCAR announced the discovery late Sunday and said it had launched an immediate investigation. It said it will do everything possible to find who was responsible and “eliminate them from the sport.”

“We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act,” the series said in a statement. “As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.”

On Twitter, Wallace said the “the despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and ow persistent we must be in the fight against racism.”

“As my mother told me today, `They are just trying to scare you,”‘ he wrote. ” This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.

WATCH | Bubba Wallace displays #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme:

Bubba Wallace, the only African American in the NASCAR Cup Series, competes at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway with Black Lives Matter paint scheme on his vehicle.  1:08

The noose was discovered on the same day NASCAR’s fledgling flag ban faced its biggest challenge. The ban took effect before last week’s race near Miami, but there were only about 1,000 military members admitted into that race. At Talladega, in the heart of the South, as many as 5,000 fans were allowed in, even though rain postponed the race until Monday.

There weren’t any immediate reports of how many, if any, flags were confiscated or taken down at the track. There were informal protests Saturday and Sunday alike, with cars and pickup trucks driving along nearby roads flying the flag and parading past the entrance to the superspeedway. A small plane flew overhead pulling a banner with the flag and the words “Defund NASCAR.”

NASCAR did not acknowledged the plane or its banner, though executive Steve O’Donnell tweeted a picture of black and white hands shaking: “You won’t see a photo of a jackass flying a flag over the track here…but you will see this…Hope EVERYONE enjoys the race today.” Rapper Ice Cube even tweeted about the plane saying, “(Expletive) him NASCAR, you got new fans in this household.”

Wallace, a 26-year-old Alabama native who drives the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, said he has found support among fellow drivers for his stance on the flag. He noted that after the noose announcement.

WATCH | NASCAR holds moment of silence in solidarity with racial injustice:

NASCAR’s only African American Cup Series driver, Bubba Wallace, and several crew members wore ‘I Can’t Breathe – Black Lives Matter’ t-shirts prior to the start of the race. 0:51

“Over the last several weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the support from people across the NASCAR industry including other drivers and tea members in the garage,” he said. “Together, our sport has made a commitment to driving real chance and championing a community that is accepting and welcoming of everyone.

“Nothing is more important and we will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate.”

Wallace’s 2013 victory in a Truck Series race was only the second in a NASCAR national series by an Black driver (Wendell Scott, 1963) and helped push him into the Cup Series, where he drives for Hall of Famer Richard Petty and is forced to scramble for sponsorship dollars.

NASCAR has spent years trying to distance itself from the Confederate flag, long a part of its moonshine-running roots from the its founding more than 70 years ago. Five years ago, former chairman Brian France tried to ban flying the flags at tracks, a proposal that was not enforced and was largely ignored.

LeBron James shows support

This year was different and it was Wallace who led the charge. Over the past month as the nation has been roiled by social unrest largely tied to the death of George Floyd, Wallace wore a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” at one race and had a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme at another.

Wallace, whose father is white, was not always outspoken about racism; even after Floyd was killed last month while in police custody in Minneapolis, he was not the first driver to speak out for racial equality. He has said he began to find his public voice on racism after watching video in May of Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting in Georgia. He said he now recognizes he must not let his platform as a prominent driver go to waste.

NBA star LeBron James tweeted his support to Wallace, calling the noose “sickening!”

” Know you don’t stand alone! I’m right here with you as well as every other athlete,” James wrote. “I just want to continue to say how proud I am of you for continuing to take a stand for change here in America and sports!”

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Bubba Wallace appears to faint after emotional race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace appeared to faint after getting out of his car following the conclusion of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, then appeared to begin to faint again during a live televised interview.

The events concluded a long, humid and emotional day in Atlanta, which began with Wallace wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt before the race and saw all 40 cars stop during the warm-up laps as NASCAR president Steve Phelps delivered a message over their headsets pledging to address racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Wallace is the only black driver currently in the Cup Series, and also took part in a video in which numerous NASCAR drivers calling for social justice. Fox played the video before Sunday’s race, as well.

During the speech, pit crew members stood on the wall in front of their pit boxes and a black NASCAR official could be seen kneeling on one knee — a gesture seen throughout the world by people protesting over Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last month and one used by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 to protest police mistreatment of black people.

WATCH | NASCAR holds a moment of silence:

NASCAR’s only African American Cup Series driver, Bubba Wallace, and several crew members wore ‘I Can’t Breathe – Black Lives Matter’ t-shirts prior to the start of the race. 0:51

After the Fox TV crew interviewed race winner Kevin Harvick, the broadcast showed video of Wallace appearing to get lightheaded while talking to members of his crew following the race before collapsing in their arms. Fox then interviewed Wallace on live air as the driver sat on the wall along pit road.

“I don’t even know. Long race I guess,” Wallace said when asked by pit road interviewer Jamie Little what happened after the race. “I stood up too fast. Well I guess I was told I was going to do media, and sat down and got up too fast, and I got dizzy, got lightheaded.

“I feel fine now. Quick scare for everybody.”

WATCH | Wallace appears to faint during tv interview:

NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace appeared to faint following the conclusion of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 0:45

He then began explaining how his race went — he finished 21st and one lap down — but then appeared to again get lightheaded, bowing his head down and closing his eyes.

As a member of his crew grabbed him, a voice could be heard saying, “where’s medical?”

“He is not OK,” Little said before cameras cut away.

Fox later showed Wallace sitting on the wall, alert and surrounded by crew members, with Fox NASCAR announcer Mike Joy saying, “Bubba Wallace is OK, being tended to by medical personnel.”

Wallace, 26, is in his fourth season on the Cup circuit, and his third driving full time for Richard Petty Motorsports. He has yet to win in 86 career Cup starts but has two top fives and six top 10s. He finished in 10th place last weekend at Bristol, his second top 10 of the season.

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Joe Biden clinches Democratic presidential nomination, setting up race with Trump

Joe Biden formally clinched the Democratic presidential nomination Friday, setting him up for a bruising challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump that will play out against the unprecedented backdrop of a pandemic, economic collapse and civil unrest.

The former vice-president has effectively been his party’s leader since his last challenger in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders, ended his campaign in April. But Biden pulled together the 1,991 delegates needed to become the nominee after seven states and the District of Columbia held presidential primaries Tuesday.

Biden reached the threshold three days after the primaries because several states, overwhelmed by huge increases in mail ballots, took days to tabulate results.Teams of analysts at The Associated Press then parsed the votes into individual congressional districts. Democrats award most delegates to the party’s national convention based on results in individual congressional districts.

Biden now has 1,993 delegates, with contests still to come in eight states and three U.S. territories.

The moment was met with little of the traditional fanfare as the nation confronts overlapping crises. While Biden has started to venture out more this week, the coronavirus pandemic has largely confined him to his Wilmington, Del., home for much of the past three months.

Biden speaks to members of the clergy and community leaders at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The country faces the worst rate of unemployment since the Great Depression. And civil unrest that harkens back to the 1960s has erupted in dozens of cities following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died when a white Minneapolis, Minn., police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.

It’s a confluence of events that no U.S. leader has faced in modern times, made all the more complicated by a president who has at times antagonized the protesters and is eager to take the fight to Biden.

Biden spent 36 years in the Senate before becoming Barack Obama’s vice-president. This is 77-year-old Biden’s third bid for the presidency and his success in capturing the Democratic nomination was driven by strong support from black voters.

He finished an embarrassing fourth place in the overwhelmingly white Iowa caucuses that kicked off the nomination process in February. Biden fared little better in New Hampshire, where his standing was so low that he left the state before polls closed on election night to instead rally black voters in South Carolina.

His rebound began in the more diverse caucuses in Nevada but solidified in South Carolina, where Biden stomped Sanders, his nearest rival, by nearly 29 points. He followed that with a dominant showing three days later during the Super Tuesday contests, taking nine of the 13 states.

Black support

Biden’s strong showing in states such as North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Texas reinforced his status as the preferred Democratic candidate of black American voters — but the relationship has not been without its strained moments.

After a tense exchange with an influential black radio host, Biden took sharp criticism for suggesting that African American voters still deciding between him and Trump “ain’t black.”

That comment, and protests that have spread nationwide, have increased pressure on Biden to pick an African American running mate. He has already committed to picking a woman as a vice-presidential candidate.

WATCH | Biden apologizes for comment on black voters:

Joe Biden is apologizing for saying voters “ain’t black” if they are considering voting for Trump. Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright says while he would phrase it differently, he understood what Biden was trying to say. 6:43

Black voters are unlikely to back Trump over Biden by a wide margin.

A recent Fox News poll shows just 14 per cent of African Americans who are registered to vote have a favourable opinion of the president compared with 75 per cent who favourably view Biden.

But Biden must ensure that black voters are motivated to show up to the polls in November, especially in critical swing states that narrowly went for Trump in 2016.

Embrace of party’s left flank

At one point, the Democratic primary included dozens of candidates of different races, genders and generations and an openly gay man. The contest was dominated by debate over unapologetically progressive ideas, including fully government-funded health care under “Medicare for All” and a sweeping proposal to combat climate change known as the “Green New Deal.”

Biden prevailed by mostly offering more moderate approaches that he argued would make him more electable against Trump.

Democratic presidential candidates are seen at a debate in November 2019 in Atlanta. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

He refused to budge on his rejection of universal health care and some of the Green New Deal’s most ambitious provisions to combat climate change.

Since clinching the nomination, however, Biden has worked to build his appeal among progressives, forming joint task forces with Sanders’ campaign to find common ground on key issues like health care, the economy and the environment.

Biden has also embraced a plan to forgive millions of Americans’ student debt, meaning that he clinches the nomination as easily the most liberal standard bearer the Democratic Party has ever had.

Biden and wife Jill arrive to lay a wreath at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veterans Memorial Park on May 25 in New Castle, Del. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Biden’s embrace of his party’s left flank could help him consolidate a Democratic base that remained deeply divided after the 2016 primary and ultimately hurt Hillary Clinton in her defeat to Trump.

But it could also undermine Biden’s attempts to rebuild the Obama coalition, which is often loosely defined as minorities and young people, as well as educated Americans and some working-class voters.

The former vice-president has sought, since announcing his candidacy, to cast the election as a battle “for the soul of the nation,” and promised to restore order and dignity to the White House while rehabilitating the U.S. image on the world stage.

Such an approach, though, necessarily focuses on being more of an alternative to Trump than offering radically new political ideas. And that further underscores Biden’s difficult task of trying to unite his party’s base while appealing to voters from far beyond it.

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